29 June 2010

Industrial poetry

It may be Tuesday as I write this, but tonight there's no underground trip. There's a talk organised by the Trevithick society, on Fowey Consols. Tonight I'll find out what's so special about them. Richard Trevithick, by the way, was a 18th/19th century mining engineer, and (one of) the father(s) of steam transport, and the society named after him strives for the preservation of Cornish industrial heritage. 

No mud and helmets tonight, so I figured this would be a good moment to sneak in a picture of some mining poetry. I once walked past ome remnants of a large mine, and one of the relics was given a voice through a poem spraypainted on it. The poem didn't make it to the blog at the time, but today may be a good day to make up for that.  Enjoy!

28 June 2010

Caving the Welsh way

Tourists marvelled at the life-size dinosaurs, families posed for a picture in front of the rumbling mammoth, small children enjoyed ice cream in the burning sun. Three nutters in wetsuits and caving overalls and helmets manoeuvred through this scene. Is there something wrong with this picture? No, not at all, as long as it describes Dan-yr-Ogof.

Dan-yr-Ogof is the name of a cave in South Wales that was discovered in 1912. Its beauty was recognised, and already in 1939, after destructively creating an easier entrance, it opened as a show cave. Nowadays the tourist is also treated to a restaurant, a gift shop, a dinosaur park, an Iron Age village, and whatnot. But the cave remains the focal point. It’s an extensive specimen, and one can walk in fairly deep into the concrete-floored, lit tunnels. And at some point there is a side tunnel that is fenced off, and equipped with a danger sign. And that was where we were headed.

Who were we? Our own PCG’s Ali, who is a certified leader for this cave, and the only two head cases he had found willing and available to join, which were some James I had never met before, and me. Originally, Lionel would join us, but unfortunately he had changed his mind. On a Friday after work I had picked up both gentlemen and driven us through the burning heat to the headquarters of the South Wales Caving Club, where we had recovered from the trip with a beer, and the hospitality of the present SWCC members. The next morning we enjoyed a proper English breakfast in the sun, drove to the site, kitted up (which included wetsuits: a first timer for me!), and embarked on that quite strange walk amidst the flip-flopped tourists. And we had failed to get the paperwork in order beforehand, so we had to do the walk twice.

Our accomodation for the weekend: SWCC HQ

How Brits and assimilated foreigners start the Saturday

We were glad to enter the cool, shady cave, and walked to where tourists cannot venture. All authorised we climbed the fence, and walked on, over unlit concrete. Soon we found another railing we ignored, and stepped into a pond. Here caver’s territory began.

We scurried through the chambers and passages, and after a while we reached the point where one could say modern caver’s territory began; a passage known as “the long crawl”, that had first been conquered in 1964. This was a long crawl for a woman, and a big leap for Dan-yr-Ogof exploration. So far, about 18 km of cave has been explored, but there still is so much more to be discovered and surveyed.

I had heard this was a half hour crawl, which is quite a lot. I was therefore surprised to fairly soon reach the drop at the end of it. Perhaps the crawl had taken longer in earlier days; the narrow tunnel was almost devoid of sediment, and that may not always have been the case. Anyway; we came out at a fixed ladder. Next to the ladder water came down; this was quite welcome, as even crawling for less than half an hour can inspire thirst. And this cave would provide plenty of drinking water. From this spring we would take a route known as “the round trip”.

We came more for caving than for photography, so what we saw there will mainly keep for ourselves. But we saw ceilings adorned with countless many, very long straws, and natural tunnels so regular one expected the tube to roll past anytime, and lakes with actively crystallising edges, and much more. And I’d never caved with James before, but he was a pleasure; technically strong, appreciative, and cheerful.

At one point Ali pointed out a tunnel that was not included in the round trip, but could be used as bonus; we decided to add this, and that was a wise decision. Soon the passage became a traverse; a narrow, but very high and deep tunnel, that wedges out in both vertical directions. Walking on the bottom is therefore an impossibility; one must walk somewhere halfway up. If it’s an easy traverse there is a ledge on both sides, and you can just walk, be it with a wide-legged gait; if it’s a more difficult one, you have to wedge yourself in at an arbitrary level and just shove yourself through. This was an easy one, but I’m not very comfortable with these features; I’m afraid my shoe will slip and I’ll fall down, into an undoubtedly nasty-injury-inflicting position lower down.

I moved very slowly, but I got there, and was rewarded with some nice chambers and shafts (and avens! A shaft seen from below seems to be an aven). On the way back I was waiting for the uncomfortable stretch to come, and was surprised to instead find the end of the traverse; that is how steep a learning curve can be! And I was lucky with the company; both Ali and James are something along the line of outdoor activity teachers, so they talk scared clumsy people through outdoorish challenges nine to five, and they had no difficulty doing the same with me.

We pushed on. More crawling, more beauty, more impressively gaping holes and rock polished to slides. And then we came to what was known as “the camel’s humps”. Ali pointed out skinny people could go through, but the fun way was over. I of course intended to find out if I was skinny enough, but Ali disapproved. So I informed the men of the fact I was shitting my pants, and climbed up. It was a horrible traverse! No ridges, nothing, just smooth rock. And the first bit was so narrow one could not fall deep, but soon after that changed. Scary! I moaned and complained and cursed myself and Ali’s evident wish to see me dead, but I did it. On the way down Ali had to do a lot of talking, and some more cavers on the same route had to exercise some patience, but I came down without any damage.

Onwards! The road would reward us with more beauty, and even some swimming pool fun. Part of the tunnels is too deep to walk through, and all must swim. To make that easier there’s buoyancy aids and inflated tyres lying on both ends of the water, so we had a second (or later) youth, getting ourselves into a tube and happily bobbing to the other side. And without further cold sweat incidents we came back to the fixed ladder, and back we went, through the long crawl. James asked Ali if that really is the only known way to enter the rest of the cave system; no, there is another way, aptly called “the longer crawl”. We stuck with the long one, and were soon back at the shallower ponds near the show cave.

James and Ali enjoying the start of the swim
The hut we stayed in had issues with the water supply, and showers had not been possible, so I made sure I swam around as much as possible before emerging from the last pond. The only bath I might get that day! And you get very sweaty in such a cave. So dripping and very clean I walked back to the exit. A good trip!

We had a well-deserved cup of tea with lemon cake and shortbread (I was adapting to English ways) in the sun, and told the SWCC-ers of our exploits. And then changed back into our caving gear. There was another trip on the agenda! A SWCC-er saw we would go underground again, and asked if we were perhaps mad. I confirmed that. “Good”, he said.

We simply walked into the quarry next to SWCC HQ, where there was an entrance to Ogof-Fynnon-Ddu; another famous cave around there. This one had the very anthropogenic look the quarriable limestone provided; it had very convenient cleavage in perpendicular directions, which made it look like buildings. Ali took us to some point, and then gave me the survey; he proposed some trip and wanted me to navigate it. And so we did! Map reading underground had the extra challenge not all is in one plane, and it is impossible to see how things vertically relate to each other. But it worked out well. Then Ali wanted us to find the way back to the entrance, which had to be done by memory, as the survey there was way too confusing. This worked out slightly less well. We had not been paying particular attention in the beginning. Furthermore, we did not at all recognise the bits near the entrance; it had taken a while to adjust to the dark after the blazing sunshine outside, and we had had stumbled through the first passages almost blind.

Helictites in Ogof-Fynnon-Ddu

We came out anyway, having seen some bonus bits of the cave. And now we were hungry! It already was half past eight, so that was to be expected. So we hurried back to the hut, had tea, had a shower (they worked again!), cooked chilli, and then watched a slide show of one of the local cavers. This guy, Jules, had ventured on an amazing adventure skiing for a day to a cave entrance, dragging in enormous amounts of cave diving equipment, and thus helping push further the survey of this cave. Someone else did the actual diving, but the dragging all the kit there, camping in the Canadian winter with several of the expedition members suffering from a violent stomach bug, while the cave was in a national park where one is not allowed to leave one’s bodily waste behind, crawling the kit to the water, and at the end dragging everything back was an epic feat. And after another beer and some more chatting with the locals it was bedtime again.

The hut as it lies decoratively in the Welsh scenery

The next day was going to be a short one, I had decided. I wanted to be home fairly early, and it’s quite a drive. But there was some room for improvisation, and we settled for a short walk along surface features Ali wanted to photograph. So after some car maintenance (one of my tyres was deflating so rapidly I preferred the spare tyre to it) and yet another industrial-sized fried breakfast we set out into the heat. Wales is very beautiful, and the views were great, and Ali even got some desired pictures of cave entrances hidden by concrete, and anonymous holes in the ground leading nowhere. Then we had, of course, another cup of tea, and left.

The drive back was hot and sweaty, but at 17.15 I could unpack my bags, and look back on a well spent weekend. I escaped the Saturday heat underground, I visited two renowned caves, practiced my traversing, had overcome some fear, and had my first underground swim (a sump doesn’t count). Furthermore I had felt very welcome at the SWCC, been thoroughly English, flirted with the self-possessed wiener Dog scurrying around, and found out I master the art of Ladylike Caving. Normally you come out of such a cave all black and blue, but this time I had equipped myself with knee pads, elbow pads, and shin guards, and I had come out unscathed! This time I would not be looking like a victim of domestic violence, but like the responsible scientist I evidently am. Let’s try to keep it up!

25 June 2010

Can't shock the posh

In these times of a world cup it may get somewhat snowed under, but in better times one of the first clichés that would come up when the Brits are mentioned would be the stiff upper lip. Exchange empty pleasantries and polite phrases in received pronunciation, and never let any anger, frustration, or desire get past that renowned barrier. And I have met Brits who indeed still adhere to that mindset. Additionally and reciprocally, the Dutch still having the reputation among the Brits of being bluntly direct means that there is something left of that culture.

Many months ago there was a job to be given away, and several men gave a presentation in order to convince us they should get it. Roland chaired this event. When one candidate left the room, and we had the opportunity to evaluate the impression he'd made, one of the Brits immediately sketched this man's merits in a very concise sentence. I was not the only one to be surprised; Roland responded somewhat taken aback that he was used to it being hím that made such remarks.

Later I expressed my surprise to our student. She was not very amazed; she pointed out the Brit in question had been upper class, and the posh seem to be too arrogant to care about what anybody else thinks of what they say. I would not call this gentleman arrogant, but when she said this I did recognise in hindsight that there is something posh about him, and that it would indeed make sense that that makes a difference. I had a bit of a "third rock from the sun" experience; being a foreigner I can only read class society with difficulty.

Later I had another encounter with my upper class colleague. A whole bunch of geographers had gathered for lunch, and we just innocently chatted away. However, for some reason or other the discussion ventured onto exchanging bodily fluids, and before I knew it the man in question hurled what could be called an inappropriate comment in my direction, and me being me I did not think, but immediately topped it. The guy did not budge, but I saw the faces of the middle class Brits on our table display signs of panic, and I thought one day I might well get fired for my big mouth. It did make me realise, too, that perhaps the Dutch should restrict themselves to liaising with the posh for their own safety...

This new insight into society came in handy soon enough; it helps making sense of the cavers too. And being a scientist, I always like more data. Anyway. Once I was on the phone with Dave, discussing writing a report for the PCG website. And he commented on what he called my "broken English"; if I send PCG emails around I sometimes can't resist using some grandiloquence, which is quite unlike what Dave would write. I highly indignantly objected to his choice of words commenting on that. Later he told me his daughter had been within earshot, and she had given him lots of crap for his politically incorrect remark. Politically incorrect! If they'd been posh they hadn't cared. I'm getting the hang of this!

The Mendip weekend provided another illustration: the hut we stayed in had a drying room for kit, and at one point several of us wanted to collect our stuff from there at the same time, and thus I ended up with two men in a small, hot and steamy room. The boarding school alumnus of the two assessed the situation, and remarked that this was probably the closest to sex we'd get. The other guy pulled a face like that of the non-posh Brits at the lunch table mentioned above, and got the hell out of there. Middle class! And another prejudice was immediately confirmed; this time I did not give some snappy answer, but pondered how one would parametrize sex, and if this situation indeed would qualify as the closest to it. And if not, then what would. Nerdiness defies class and nationality...

24 June 2010

Prelude to exploration

If you take the word of Rob, our PhD student, for it, cavers are very suspect folk. Me being a caver I can hardly be expected to be objective, but I think on average we’re fairly kind people. The southwest being littered with mines and caves, it’s also littered with caving and mining clubs. And clubs in general tend to suffer from sibling rivalry. But in this case, it’s more sibling than rivalry; many people are a member of several clubs at the same time (with yours truly as a good example), and it’s not unusual for clubs to have joint outings.

Last Tuesday witnessed such an occasion; members from a befriended organisation had been scouting out a mine, and come across an as yet impassable shaft. But what is impassable today may not be that tomorrow; some addition of a makeshift bridge, for instance, could easily solve that. And that was the plan. A logistic difficulty in this was that the mine adit was far away from the road, and at such distances, scaffolding poles can get very heavy if there’s not enough hands to carry them. So they called upon their subterranean connections, which would be us. And we showed up in large numbers!

Part of the crew

We gathered, loaded the scaffolding pipes and their paraphernalia onto our shoulders, and set off. Walking speed varies significantly among the individual cavers, which normally means Lionel legging it at the head, and the Daves trailing at the tail. This day was no exception. When Lionel, Rick (from the Tamar mining club) and me finally came to the adit, everybody else had vanished from sight. Rick didn't hesitate and vanished into the narrow entrance with his scaffolding pole.

I had dressed to the carrying of scaffolding poles, and not to the mine, but it would have to do; no way these men were going to have all the fun without me! So I crawled in behind them. Before I knew it I was standing in mud halfway up my thighs, with Lionel in front of me muttering that hís digs were much cleaner than what we were faced with here.


Lionel in knee-deep goo

We came to the actual site, and the men theorized a bit on how to set about things, even though that was not scheduled for today. We left the materials and went back. By then the rest had arrived too, and while we had a look around the rest of the poles were brought to where they were needed. Time now to head back and grab a pint!

In the pub plans were made for regrouping to build the actual bridge. I'm invited! So only a week from now we can do this trip again, but then going further, to where nobody may have ventured for 100 years...

23 June 2010

From lab to office

I thought at some point I would blog that I have no samples to process. And that moment might still come, but not anywhere soon. Last Wednesday I counted the last of the Isle of Wight samples, which meant I had no more to count. None! What a feeling. But before I got round to mentioning that here I received the next batch of samples… from Scotland, this time.

Having received these does not immediately alter things though. This week is dedicated to data compilation. Early July I’ll present our Icelandic results at the INQUA meeting in Sussex. So for the time being I have exchanged my daily ogling of forams in the lab for hours on end for a continuous office existence. It’s a nice change! Making a presentation always gives you new insights. Much more muscle work for the brain! Less, though, for the body; the lab is on the 8th floor, while my office is at ground level…

Interestingly, we have decided that I will present the Icelandic work while Tasha presents the Isle of Wight. Logically; we in Plymouth are in charge of the Iceland field site, while Durham wields authority over the site on the Isle of Wight. Furthermore, Tasha didn’t come with us to Iceland. But by sheer coincidence, the Icelandic research relies heavily on diatoms, while on the Isle of Wight it’s the forams that are most important. And I’m the foram specialist, while she is the diatom specialist… we’ll learn a thing or two about each other’s research field!

Diatoms. Source: Creative Commons

22 June 2010

Cool, calm & collected Cornishmen

Humans are only human, and if you think they’re not, you’re in for a surprise. There was a mad and wild caving trip planned with the Cornish Nutters, but a few days ahead I received notice that they had changed the plan. Instead of the enormous and dangerous mine system they initially planned we would do two smaller mines; one before and one after lunch.

As usual I drove up with Dave, and we were so early I had time for a pint of coffee (no exaggeration!) at the meeting point. And then we went; to the spectacular cliffy coast of northern Cornwall, which was basking in the sun. So we got into our kit and walked down the cliff to some anchor point we knew would be there in the rock face.

We found them, rigged it, and already lost the first man. Some Cornish men actually are afraid of some things! There was a guy I’d not met before who turned out to be afraid of heights, and he buggered off back to the cars. Mike was the first to go down the rope. It took a while! Soon we found out why; we saw his sweaty face appear again. He said the rope wasn’t long enough... so we re-rigged it, and off he went again, followed by Simon. By that time Mark woke up, and realised they had gone the wrong way. It wasn’t down at the beach; the entrance to the mine was not much more than 10m below us! He shouted to the men at the beach while Darryll, who also knew the way, went where we should have gone.

While we assembled at the adit we saw Mike and Simon happily scurrying over the impressive rocks on the other side of the beach, and finally just walking up from sea level, which rendered them epically sweaty. But now we could go in!

I was in the lead with Daz, and he seemed to know the way. We headed for the sea cave we knew was connected to the mine tunnels. Soon, however, we didn’t hear the rest, and Daz found a dead end. Not this way, then; time to go back. I scurried back through the squeeze, and moved on, finding Trish on my way, who had said the others had gone somewhere else. By then it started to be conspicuous I didn’t hear Daz behind me. I went back, wondering what he was up to. I found out he had gotten stuck in that first squeeze on the way back; his belt had gotten hooked behind an edge. By the time I got back to him he had managed to get out of that predicament, though. Good to be reminded that lean and experienced cavers can also get stuck...

We found Mark back at the entrance of the tunnel that lead to the sea cave. Impressive! But there was nothing more to see here (except for a shaft used as a garbage dump; not very pretty) so we went back to where we had started, and then the other way. Daz showed me a shaft he had had to get some guy with spinal injuries out of years earlier... that must have been one huge challenge.

Some nesting chicks near the sea cave (above); I tried not to disturb them with bright light

Going into another tunnel we found daylight. It ended at the cliff face! So we sat there for a while, looking at the surf battering the cliffs, waiting for the others. When we heard them we made place for them; not enough room for all of us. Going back to the squeezy entrance Darryll was set to work again; Mike was audaciously trying to get through with his bag on his back, which was a moderately good idea. Some confusing scene followed where Daz managed to somehow get the bag off him in mid-squeeze, which gave rise to some interesting configurations. But it all worked out, and Dave made it through too. So we could scout out the remaining tunnels. The next one ended in a collapsed bit that looked like it would not be a good idea to try to dig it out. The other way the floor fell away; Darryll didn’t care and jumped, and so did Mike, but I am a bit weary of jumping, so I just doodled and moaned until Mike talked me down. We thus ended up in a pretty lode, but that also ended in an unnegotiable collapse, and we went back. We’d seen it all, so we went back to the entrance and got out. Lunchtime!

Darryll trying to get Mike through a squeeze

We got back into our SRT kit and ascended the rope, keeping an eye on those below us. When I got back to the cars I found Dan the vertigo-man, and Mike and Daz in their civilian outfits. What’s that; no second mine? It was 3.30 already, and they figured that second mine could be done some other day. Dave agreed with that, so I changed too, and enjoyed my sandwiches in the sun. When all were up it was agreed that we would not do the second mine, but drive to the mine we initially would have done, to have a look, and then each go our separate ways.

Me coming back up the cliff

Feeling a bit strangely dressed in my tanktop, shorts, very muddy boots and helmet I walked to the adit. It seems that normally, there is an enormous draft through the adit, which is so loud your ears ring. Today it was quiet. We had a look at the vertical shaft through which the draft travels, and through which we were initially planning to travel through too; it looked attractive! Mark demonstrated that going into a mine tunnel without a helmet is a bad idea, even if you only go in a few tens of meters. And then we called it a day.

It was only 5PM or something. I never thought we would ever be done so early! And I wasn’t all black and bruised and soaked and exhausted and dehydrated. But it was a very pleasant day with a nice mine, pretty views, and good company! One cannot complain.

21 June 2010

Hitchhiker in need of guide

I was driving back from Wales with a beautiful view on the hand of my fuel indicator going closer and closer to red. Time for filling up! When I left the gas station near Bristol I had to give priority to all sorts of cars, which gave me the opportunity to actually take notice of my surroundings. In the grass next to the lane sat a young man. And I thought he was just sitting there for the heck of it, until I noticed the bit of cardboard in his hand, which read "Devon". An inconspicuous hitchhiker! So I opened the door and asked him where exactly he had to go. He was not very clear about that. I told him I was headed for Plymouth. He then asked if that was close to Devon. I figured this was going to be a tiresome conversation, but I managed to find out he wanted to go to Exeter, so I told him to jump in.

Between Monmouth and Chepstow I was unexpectedly treated to this sight: Tintern Abbey!

He kept on going on about that there should be signs indicating Devon; weren't there signs indicating Cheshire as well? And wondered if Plymouth was near "the main part" of Devon. I gave him the well-meant advice to get his geography together if he wanted to become a more efficient hitchhiker. Efficiency didn't seem to be his thing, though; he was homeless, and looking for work on a farm. Not an enviable life. And exhausting, too; around Cheddar he fell asleep, and didn't wake before Exeter. I hope he found what he was looking for.

This wandering boy had the questionable honour of being my first hitchhiker! I haven't had many opportunities to accomodate any. There were not many around in Norway. Neither in England, actually, and I hardly spotted this one. But I think it's a generally good thing to use the space of your car if you can. We'll see, maybe others will follow! And maybe even those who have some grasp of where they came from and where they're going to...

Rendez-vous in Wales

In the previous blogpost I describe why a Plymouth resident would go to Cowbridge, South Wales, to get a valid ID. There are times in which one could have more reasons to pick South Wales for such a quest. Family business!

It may not be so evident why that would work if one’s family is distributed over the Netherlands and Finland, but sometimes fate works in strange ways. The first possibility for the consulate to give in to my wishes was in the beginning of the period my father, his wife, her sister and her friend would be hiking Offa’s Dyke Path, near the English-Welsh border. So I was only an hour away from him when I was standing outside the consulate.

I had a booking for the same hotel as them, a detailed description of what route they would take, my dad’s mobile phone number, and the information he didn’t really know how to use it. And with that I started my quest.

I soon found the hotel, and sent my father a text message asking how far from town they still were. No answer. So I just set off! My dad’s good with navigation, so his description of how they would approach town was clear as a hammer on a church bell. I expected to see them appear behind every curve in the road...

At some point I was climbing a winding path through the woods, when I saw the trees retreat and the slope end. I figured that may give me a wide enough view to spot them! And lo, indeed I did; only some tens of meters from the end of the trees I saw two white heads. I shouted, but that did not have any impact.

I came so close they really could not fail to notice me. It was good to see them! It turned out the other two had chosen another route. And it also became clear they did not expect me to come from that direction. A discontinuity in navigation after all! But without consequence. We walked to the hotel together. They were tired after a hot day with 27 km... they deserved a beer. So that was top of the to do list. Elly and Gerda, the other two, had just arrived seconds before us, and felt like a pint too.

The rest of the evening was spent on shower, food, and an early bed. I had figured out the best thing to do would be walk with them the whole next day, sleep there, and then go back to my car in the morning and drive back. Between Monmouth where we met, and Pandy we would sleep, there would be 27 km of nothing. And nothing has difficult logistics. Their B&B only had 4 beds, so I’d bring my tent, and sleep op the nearby camping.

The next morning we had an English breakfast (in Wales, mind you!), bought lunch, and were off. It was a beautiful day and the landscape was friendly. The occasional passing person or dog too. And while walking there was ample time to catch up. I don’t see these people very often!

My companions: Joke, Wim, Gerda and Elly

The hills were rolling and the route was clear. Generally. Various types of cattle adorned the way, and many a meadow allowed us a coffee break. Insects were a nuisance, but long trousers solved that. And in that way the day unfolded quite pleasantly. My feet hurt from the asphalt that was found along the route, but that was foreseen and accepted.

It was special to have such a long walk with my dad again. He’s slower than he used to be, but he gets there! How many people pull this sort of thing off at 72. And I realised Joke has already been his wife for half my life... that gives a lot of common past. I don’t know the others very well, but they were nice companions.

We met all kinds of cattle that day!

The path sometimes went straight through orchards and fields...

At four o’clock we passed an impressive castle, which unfortunately came with impressive rain clouds. Soon it was pouring down. And that didn’t last long. But the dry spell afterwards lasted much shorter. With a few dry minutes as exception it rained for the next three hours; often torrentially. I realised I had underestimated this trip, by not even bringing my backpack’s rain cover, and leaving my waterproof trousers in the car. The mood did not suffer significantly, though, and the speed picked up; rain refreshes, and diminishes the desire for coffee breaks. So close to seven we reached the edge of the neighbourhood the B&B was in. But only the edge. There was a path that seemed to lead to it, but it lead past, separated by a solid, sturdy British hedge! Just what we did not need. With some fence-climbing and field-sloshing we found an entrance after all, and soon after entered the B&B, all dripping.

White Castle

The heavy rain did look good! Felt slightly less optimal, though.

The lady did not mind our puddle-creating talents at all, and was even willing to put me up for the night as well, on my camping mattress in Gerda’s room. I do not see myself as a fair weather camper, but this was welcome! So we hung out our wet stuff, had a shower, had a cuppa, and went to the pub for a hearty meal. Food is good after a day like that!

None of us are diehard party people, so this was an early night as well; for me an unexpectedly good one as the B&B lady had given me a thick duvet to boost my thermarest. And the next morning another British breakfast would be the venue for my departure. I had ordered a cab to bring me back to my car before my parking ticket would run out, and it would come in the middle of the breakfast hour. A few last pictures were taken and cheeks kissed, and then I was off! It would be a sunny day of “only” 15 km for those I left behind; I hope they had a good day. And a good trip further along Offa’s Dyke!

19 June 2010

Quest for identification

I want to go to the USA and therefore I had to first go to Wales. If you want to enter the USA your passport has to be valid for another 6 months. A ridiculous rule, but nobody has the power to tell the USA that in such a way that they'll listen. Mine of course would only be valid for another 5 months. And the Dutch consulate in Plymouth does not issue passports anymore.

One can go to Southampton or Cardiff. I've been to (the vicinity of) Southampton several times, and it's not a very pleasant drive, with 2 lane roads with a roundabout every 100 meters. The train connections suck too. And I'd never set foot in Wales! So Cardiff it would be. Or rather; Cowbridge, as the consulate actually is in a village west of Cardiff.


So with proof of address and my old passport I drove up, on a sticky sweaty Thursday. And arrived in good time in the hamlet of choice. Checking the address my heart jumped; the first thing I saw was a big sign indicating the Norwegian consulate! Then I noticed the smaller sign below of the Dutch equivalent.

Inside they advised me to first go to the chemist on the other side of the road, for pictures; there they know exactly what the requirements are for the pass photo. That was done in a whiffy. So then I could hand all necessary paperwork over, and have my fingerprints scanned. The friendly man helping me out turned out to be both the Dutch and Norwegian consulate official! Not that he spoke either Dutch or Norwegian, but still. And 15 minutes later I was standing outside again. And it’s only a matter of time before I have a passport with all bells and whistles and vuvuzelas one could imagine. A questionable honour, but it will get me to our fieldwork!

16 June 2010

Real subaerial caving

It has happened in the past that we had difficulty finding the entrance to the mine of our choice. It has never happened before we didn't succeed in the end. But with thousands of mines around, and nature actively reclaiming the remains, it was bound to happen that one day we would simply not find what we were looking for. And yesterday was a likely candidate. Dave officially led the trip, but the  last time he went looking for that mine (which was before my time) he could not find it. Luckily we had Ali this time, and he knows where it is.

We parked the cars and got into our gear. Lots of gear; it was an SRT trip. Some of us preferred to carry the SRT kit in a bag instead of dangling it from their bodies, and Lionel decided to even leave out the oversuit. It would be quite a walk, and he figured it would be too sweaty that way, so he elegantly strode around in his thermal underwear, wellies and helmet. And we set off.

Only minutes later there was confusion. The first batch went in some plausible direction, but Ali c.s. seemed to have gone somewehere else, without attracting our attention to this discrepancy. This was found out what could have been in time; he came back. Several of us were already crossing the river. I heard him say something about that both ways would work, but that the river-crossers would have a more cumbersome approach. I quickly assessed the situation; follow Ali on the easy way to a certain mine, or follow the stubborn impatient guys, who are known for getting themselves in trouble, taking the assault course? Not difficult. Even though it may mean not ending up underground; the last trip I did both Lionel and Richard condemned themselves to an above-ground evening by the very same behaviour.

On the other side it became apparent that Lionel, who was in the lead, erroneously assumed he was following someone, and had no idea where he was going. Nor did anybody else of that group. So we had no other choice than to go back. We crossed the river again, and went for a search. Lionel used his military voice to beckon to the other group, inadvertently scaring the heck out of many, many sheep. Once we heard an answer, but searching the area it seemed to have come from was in vain.

It was an interesting scene. Lionel was fanatically strolling this way and that, cursing civilians for being so %$*@# disorganised (mind you, he earns his living protecting donkeys), Rupert was staying constructive, Richard lagged behind with a face that said enough about his assessment of the situation, and I amused myself observing all that, in the process probably making then men's moods even worse.

At some point we had gone so far we had left the mined area, so we went back, half hoping at least one of them would have done the same. No sign of a living non-cattle soul, though. So we searched the other side of the river. We sure did get our exercise in this hilly terrain! And we were rewarded with a beautiful landscape with picturesque mine-related ruins, but not with the company of our friends. At some point we gave up and went back to the cars. This involved crossing a cemetery, where Lionel made me laugh by announcing he'd take off his helmet to be less conspicuous. Yes, indeed, without the helmet he would blend in well with any innocent passers by, in his thermals-with-wellies. Sure. I was wiser than to bother to try to look normal, with all my SRT kit dangling from the climber's harness.

We reached the cars, which was of not much use, as both Rupert and Lionel had been passengers and had no access to the cars they had travelled in. Not very much later, though, the other group came back too; they did not look happiest either. They had of course found it, but only a few feet inside the adit there was a drop that could only be negiotiated with ropes. And guess who carried those...

Some words of frustration flew, but soon enough everybody had shed their caving kit, and we were off to the pub, where all discordia was immediately forgotten. And the good news is, that now many of us can find this mine, and we have a proper trip there to look forward to in the near future!

15 June 2010

World cup everywhere

I tend to blog about what I find interesting, and football is not among those things. But when I was confronted with that disinterest, and its contrast with the mood of so many people around me, last friday during England's first match, I thought I may have to blog about it anyway. About wandering around in a world overtaken by a strange force.

Roland can't stop keeping me up to date on what goes on in the Dutch national team. The cartographers have organised a sweepstake that they want me to join. People all around ask me what I think of the Dutch team or the Dutch results. The streets were empty last Friday evening, and the restaurant I went to was almost entirely filled with women. The entire town is white-and-red. It's everywhere. Of course it is.

Yesterday I got my cue. When I went to the supermarket the supporter imagery was so confrontational I got my camera out and knew what my next blogpost was about. At the entrance lay a dog in supporter colours... his name's Floyd, by the way, and he looked as uninterested as I am. But still he's a beautiful symbol for the mass hysteria that prevails around the world.

Cavers and climbers, by the way, tend to be conspicuously indifferent towards football. So with Roland on fieldwork and a caving trip on tonight I'm relatively safe today! Even though Floyd made another appearance...

13 June 2010

Reality check

After the climbing of the previous blogpost Ali gave me his camera to get the pictures off. The memory card also had older images, and I shamelessly scrolled through them. It started with caving pictures. And then some caving pictures. And some pictures of caving, intercalated with some more pictures of caving. And after 137 caving pictures suddenly the picture below. I don't often laugh out loud when I'm alone, but now I did!

Climbing on the Tor

The Mendip weekend had strengthened my conviction I should get me some more climbing practice, and Ali was eager to get the same. Ferret, a caver form the past who had recently rejoined PCG, was also interested. So I needed the Saturday to do all these things that needed doing, but the Sunday just begged for a climb. So off we went! To Sheepstor, this time. It looked good.

Ferret and Ali explore the rock

I wanted to just climb, just like Ali, and Ferret wanted to lead. And we all got what we came for! We did some demanding routes (that is, for our skills), and the last climb only worked for me because Ferret used his weight on the rope to motivate me past the most difficult bit. But it was good!

Ali in action

Me still coping

We were the first there, and the last to leave. And when it was fairly crowded in between the mood was excellent. Our neighbouring climbers at some point had an acute use for the rope Ali had just gotten into place for a climb we wanted to do on toprope... Ferret found out that among climbers one can get away with making anti-football statements, and I caught up with Fred, an oceanographic PhD student who also appeared on the scene. And now I'm tired in the arms, and all bruised again, but hey, I always am nowadays, and I feel good!

Here I'm really struggling!

Blog porridge

Do round numbers matter? Not really. They tend to be fairly arbitrary. We only celebrate 10 year anniversaries because most of us have 10 fingers. A year, that's something real! But consists of 365 days. Generally, that is. But the lure of round figures is strong anyway. I saw the 600th blogpost approaching, and intended to do something with that. But I lost focus and now I'm past. It does show my garrulity; for the past 3 years I have kept the flow going. And there's no sign of my loquacity failing. I hope many will bear with me!


Quite unexpectedly I received an invitation to a sort of a housewarming-barbecue from Sally, who had taken me horseriding in autumn. I had no idea she was moving! When I walked through the street she apparently now lived I wondered if it perhaps was just a prank. Who would believe such an abrupt move. But it was no prank. The house had no number but a name, and the only house without a name sign had to be the one by exclusion, so I cautiously approached it. I was relieved to see a dark-haired lady in the back garden! It was the right house.

The first thing I did was shake hands with Sally's husband, which was a long anticipated pleasure, as the young man had been so conspicuously absent everywhere I had been doubting his existence for months. Then I got introduced to the others, among them the juvenile reason for this fast move: Olive, Sally's puppy! A very charming half German Shepherd half Rottweiler. A lady like that should not live in an appartment in town. And this place was on the edge of Totnes; much more suitable.

I was quite rired after a week of microscoping and caving, but it was worth coming to Totnes! When you're tired, being in the spacious back garden of hospitable people, surrounded by puppies horsing around, faffing with a barbecue and watching a bonfire is quite a good thing to do.

A bonfire is a good way of getting rid of gardening waste...

...and of the cardboard boxes that come with moving house

12 June 2010

Rescue without casualties

Should I blog about every time I go caving? I just officially joined my 3rd caving organisation, and I am tempted to join a 4th, and it's getting a bit much. But this Wednesday there was another rescue training, and I had made a pretty picture of cave rescuers huddled around a heyphone. Reason enough to blog.

We would do Haytor Mine. The idea was to get familiar with the mine, and to try our specific radio in iron ore-infested surroundings. No plastic casualties to be recovered this time. So we scurried through the breadth and width of the mine, and tried to keep communication going with a team at the entrance, using the aforementioned Heyphone. It seems that that is a radio specifically developed for cave rescue by a John Hey, which uses the earth as an antenna. It did not work flawlessly, but in an emergency situation it may not either, so all the better if we would train to get the best out of it in limiting circumstances. So we did! Another evening well-spent.

The small lights in the background are the guys faffing with the radio; we explorers have gotten a bit distracted by a lake. Do notice the fairly steep ceiling, which indicates the general slope of all stopes.

Heyphone training in progress

Feminine safety

Being Dutch I always think biking is a default, and anything related to treating it as an oddity has to be regarded with suspicion. But when I stumbled onto a stand of the university's Bicycle Users Group, I realised that even though biking is not something exotic, it might be worth joining them. For one thing, bicycle parking on campus is quite an abomination, and it shouldn't be. And that hasn't changed, but in the meantime my membership lead to me receiving an interesting mail.

Some organisation keeps track of what cyclists get hurt or killed where, when and how in the Southwest! That's useful information. I feel very safe in traffic here, but still, people do get damaged, and it is worthwile knowing where it tends to be what that goes wrong.

There were two things that caught my attention when I checked that site out. One was that there were (luckily) hardly any deadly casualties in Plymouth, and one of the only two there were was very suspect; it was a person getting killed on a bicycle track I know, and where there is no other traffic, except for some intimidated pedestrians. The site helpfully added the information that this person met his unfortune on a friday in the dead of night, with no other vehicles involved... the mind immediately extends this concise information to a plausible story. The scenario anyone would come up to would hardly classify as a traffic accident as far as I am concerned. A very British end, though.

The other thing was that I checked all accidents between me, the sea, and the surroundings the other way. Accident after accident was involving a male! And this means nothing to my personal safety, but superstitious as I am I thought it was reassuring that on the map below, where I live in the circle, there have been lots and lots of accidents in the 8 years recorded, but only the one with the arrow involves a female biker... we girls just seem to bike in a safer way. Let's keep it that way!

11 June 2010

Caving weekend in Mendip Hills

When you drive from Bristol airport to Plymouth, as Roland and I did after the Scotland fieldwork, you soon see a strange scar in the horizon. That scar is Cheddar Gorge, in the Mendip Hills. So I saw my near future when I drove past; only two days later I was due there for a caving weekend. And when I say caving I often mean mining, but this time we would really go caving sensu stricto.

Originally I would drive Neil and Rebecca, his girlfriend, there, but at the last moment they reconsidered and travelled with another lawyer duo. So on a sunny Friday evening I placed my car on the pavement in front of Ali's house and honked. We were go!

When we arrived we were greeted by Lionel, Sarah and her son Daniel, who had already been there for a few hours. The four solicitors, who had been going for a walk, appeared too. We dumped our bags inside, and I changed into something less inviting to mosquitoes, and altogether we headed for the pub. It was a bit of a strange, remote-farmland-kind-of-pub, where we enjoyed their odd beverages and our anticipation while waiting for Dave, Dave and Rupert. When they arrived we were complete for the time being.

When we got thrown out from the pub I went to bed, listening for quite a while to the ongoing merriment downstairs. After a while that unfortunately changed to involuntarily listening to Dave's disconcerting snoring. I tried to get all the sleep I could get, so by the time I got out of bed everybody else was already downstairs and the aromas of a proper English fry-up were already invading the sleeping quarters. Fortunately my continental yoghurt breakfast takes much less time...

The plan was to have Ali faf around with the lawyers for a while; do some basic training, and then take them to Swildon's Hole, while the other cavers would divide into a group going into Shatter Cave and one going to Fairy Cave. Shatter Cave has very delicate structures, and can only be entered with a leader, and with a maximum of 6 people. So we drove to the quarry that held these (and several more) caves, and met our leader for the day. Dave, Dave, Rupert, Sarah and me followed Mandy, a local caver, while Lionel and the brothers Richard and Dan went into Fairy Cave.

The Shatter Cave group

Me elucidating our guide

Shatter cave is a beautiful dripstone cave, but in order to keep it that way one has to stay within demarcated paths in most places. There were some minor squeezes to be negotiated, but nothing wild. But we had Dave, and he's a bit of a photography nutter, and we all appreciate his dedication to that art and are more than willing to scurry around with flash guns in our hands. That does mean, however, that we did not proceed particularly fast. At some point we did, however, go too fast for other Dave, though, and he stayed behind.

The Canopy Room

Me idly pointing a flash gun somewhere behind a beautiful serrated curtain

Glamour picture of Rupert and me (Shatter Cave pics by Dave)

We did not reach the end of the cave; at this speed that would have meant both Dave and the Fairy Cavers would have been bored and/or starved to death waiting for us, so we went back, making sure Dave left his camera in its bag. We found Dave who had started to get cold, but that was quickly solved once we got outside. The weather outside was such that we found Lionel back sunbathing on a rock, being quite in touch with his inner lizard. They had had a good time too; they had encountered some challenging climbs and some cold water. And now they were hungry.

Some dried up structure; this picture I actually made myself!

We changed, thanked our guide, and went back to the hut, where we found four oversuits drying in the sun, and an abandoned Ali. It turned out the lawyers had gone! They had gone into Swildon's hole, and already at the entrance had had difficulty with negotiating the rocks and slopes. They had decided to give up, pack their stuff, visit the much more comfortable show cave in Cheddar, and then bugger off, back to Plymouth. This also my explain why they decided to travel together... Stwange cweatuwes, these lawyews. But we are not strange at all, and we had a cup of tea and something to eat, and were off again, first to the local caving shop, and then to the next cave.

I had started caving in my fieldwork waterproofs, had then changed to waders, had changed back to waterproofs, had then switched to a random cheap-ass boiler suit, but it was time to go for a proper caving oversuit. They are fairly waterproof, don't retain much water, and are very sturdy, which is good, considering the amount of time you spend abrading them on rock. So upon finding the targeted shop I walked in and started to try some on. Lionel did the same, as his was due for replacement. I quickly settled for a sassy outfit in Brazilian colours, and only because they did not have that in his size we did not walk out with identical suits. A narrow escape from what would have been quite a good middle-aged married-couple-on-holiday look. I added some neoprene socks and was done. There was some hesitation to leave, as this was a typical children-in-a-toy-shop atmosphere, but we ripped ourselves away from all these gadgets and went back.

I wanted to save the suit for in case we would visit another cave like Shatter Cave, which can only be entered with clean kit, but Ali assured me we wouldn't, and insisted I wore it into Swildon's Hole. He was wary of people getting hypothermic; something that had happened in the past. My new socks came in handy too. So looking all shiny I followed the men (and lady) to the entrance. It was a beautiful cave! A lot of it was a subterranean stream, about a meter wide, and who knows how high. In the wall the sedimentary structure could often be seen, but some of it was covered in speleothems. There was some clambering and squeezing involved too.

Me getting into my brand new suit, which seems to get approval from the men

Dave and his kneepad bitches

At some point we reached the concisely named 20 ft drop. It was quickly rigged, so one by one we could descend on a wire ladder, secured by a safety line attached to our belts. And then on, through the "double pots"; their proximity was announced to me by a splash and roaring laughter. It's two small climbs around small pools, and evidently, Dan's grip had slipped, to great amusement of his mother. I made it dry, amongst others because Lionel saw my slow progress and just grabbed me by the way-too-long belt I wore...

Dave and Ali clambering down a small waterfall

We followed the stream further, until it seemed to end, except for a rope vanishing into the water, indicating there was a passage below the waterline. A sump! I'd never done one. Richard was our first man, and he lay down in the water, and decided against it. Lionel was still dry and wanted to keep it that way. Dave might not even fit through. I thought that may mean the end of our exploration, but I had evidently not reckoned with Ali. He did not hesitate, grabbed the rope, and vanished. And I'm not a fan of having other people have all the fun without me. I took a deep breath and followed. A good baptism for the suit! And myself. It's a cold wet thing to do, but it was less than 1.5m, so there's not much to it. These caving lights are waterproof... On the other side I found Ali, and a humorous traffic sign. He said we could just go on to what in practice would be the end, and then go back, and catch up with the rest. So we raced over the gravel and bellycrawled though more water to the second sump, which is much longer so we would not pass, and then turned around and did the whole thing again. I was glad I'm not cold very quickly, for the water definitely was.

The sign on the other side of the sump

When we emerged again Ali suggested we took the prettier but more difficult road back to the double pots. That required me using Ali's shoulder as a foothold on more than one occasion, but it was pretty indeed,as far a I coulsee that hrough my self-made fog cloud. A sump is not without consequences! Being as soaked as anyone could be I could just wade through the pools, but for the practice I climbed both, though up is always easier than down. And at the 20ft drop we teamed up with the rest again. Richard and Sarah were up already; Richard was manning the safety rope. Dan was next, and he went for it so enthusiastically it got eratic and he had me worried, but it all worked out. Dave got there too, in spite of his well-known dislike of rope ladders. I was next, finding him catch his breath. Rupert was right behind me and with the three of us we went on. We went wrong somewhere, but found out soon enough, and not much later we came out again, into the nice weather.

By that time it was already nearly 8 o'clock, and the pubs there don't serve food to very late, so we had to get out of our wet stuff and into civilian clothes quickly, and make a dash for it. Sarah, who was out as one of the first, brought Richard back to his car as he had to get to work, and picked up the other Dave, who hadn't joined us. Big Dave worried us by not being hungry. He did feel like a beer afterwards, though... and after a few beers this time I was not the only one going to bed immediately after getting back to the hut; most of us were knackered.

This night the noise levels were down, as Dave volunteered for sleeping downstairs, and I slept so well I was already up before the Brits started their fry-up. Sarah and Dan would leave, and the rest of us, except for Dave, who is our calm gentleman caver and not a wild-eyed maniac as most of us now left were, would visit GB Cave. I had no idea what to expect but it would probably turn out amazing. We parked the cars near a farm, helped Big Dave into his knee pads, and went to the entrance. This involved some stepping over fences, and at the second fence Dave halted. He reconsidered; he'd worn himself out too much the day before and felt crap. This is a state in which doing demanding caving is not a good idea. So we wished him a good kip and continued with the four of us. We had started out with 13!

We clambered down, crawled through "the coffin", and soon ended in a chamber that illustrated well that this cave system contains the biggest underground open spaces in the Mendip Hills. Impressive! The room was adorned with a natural bridge, which we crossed. Soon after the bridge there was a corridor Ali wanted to take pictures in, but that didn't work out, as my flash gun refused again, and even though we had tested this configuration above ground, my camera did not work with a borrowed flash gun from Dave either. So we packed our gadgets away and stored what we saw in our own memory...

The ceiling with stalactites, but also helictites; gravity-defying, curly speleothems.

Onwards there was a vertical climb, to be negotiated with a wire ladder. That ladder, however, was in our bags, and Ali demonstrated skilfully how that works out. When he had it in place it was of course peanuts for us to follow. At that higher level there was a lot of boulder-climbing and belly-crawling to be done. We also encountered an almost-sump; bailing out the water made it a passage. And as this water, quite unlike that of sump 1 of the day before, was foul, it had several advantages to get rid of as much of it as practically feasible. Soon after that passage there was a squeeze to the Great Chamber; Ali found it, but did not manage to get through. We three lean caving machines did, and were rewarded with a majestic sight. But looking around me I noticed I was tired, and I did not mind going back, no matter how amazing this cave was.

Rupert coming through the sump-like passage

We squeezed back to Ali, and made our way back to the ladder. Ali now had the chance to show you can really abseil only using a belay belt. And then we took the alternative route back, that would come out underneath the bridge thet we had first crossed; this involved beautiful clambering over a subtle waterfall over nicely frictionally eroded limestone, with pretty bivalves and other fossils in it. At the bridge we heard and saw some other cavers; the first time for me, and something that the famous Mendip Caves are prone to provide. But soon we were crawling through the coffin again, and we were out.

Some white speleothem we could make a picture of without flash

We found the two Daves back at the cars. They had visited a boot sale, and acquired a roll of the finest biscuits. We eagerly helped them finishing these; even Ali, even though we did not cease reminding him of his incapacity to squirm into the Great Chamber.

All that was left to do then was have a cup of tea with some coffee cake, reflect on this nice weekend while slouching on couches, and then pack our stuff and our last energy to drive home. As we did. I'd never been underground so much over two days, and definitely not in caves instead of mines, but it was great! I learned a lot, I practiced more, in amazing surroundings and with experienced men making it both very responsible and very pleasant to do so. And it was good to simply share a weekend with a whole bunch of blokes with the same quirk as me. Or rather, a same quirk. I have been reported to have several. But when I got home I only had energy left for unpacking the bag, cleaning the kit, eating something easy, and going to bed. Dreaming of the Great Below!