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"Them Muddy 'Oles"

By Chas.

"You won’t get me down one of them muddy 'oles."  This is more or less what I said to Robin (Gray), less some emphatic expletives, back in 1976, when I accompanied him and a group of our sixth formers to the Mendips.  They had come to cave, I to booze.  Seeing them emerge, each looking like "The creature from the black lagoon" from what looked to me impossibly small, wet and rocky holes, I could not imagine how seemingly intelligent, normal people could actually enjoy this activity.

I had like most tourists visited walk in, walk out show caves on various holidays.  Cheddar and Wookey Hole, St Clements Cave in Hastings, the Blue John Mines at Matlock Bath, Crystal Canyon Cave in Sequoia National Park California.  There were too, many evenings spent playing Skiffle, listening to Jazz, boozing and wenching in Chislehurst Caves Kent but that's another story.

In recent years, coming down to Somerset and visiting The Hunter's, meeting the amazing collection of characters who congregate there, a disturbing and nagging notion had started to grow ... maybe I might like to look into one of them "muddy' oles" after all.  I was teetering on the edge of sanity.  After a lengthy period of hints and begging (not quite on bended knee) my old mate Robin said we would go and have a look at Sandford Levvy .... "We'll see if you like being underground and take a few snaps.  "One of my raisons d'etre being photography, I readily agreed.

So we set out on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June this year.  We drove to the dry ski slope near Sandford, parked and kitted up.  I forced myself into a strange one piece garment decorated with soil and well placed holes.  It seemed two sizes smaller than me and was, it appeared, a PVC coated nylon oversuit.  A site helmet with Petzl lamp and battery pack, my walking boots and I was dressed as a caver, so far so good!

"It's somewhere along this path" says Robin.  We hiked for what seemed like hours along a densely wooded hillside, my oversuit emitting vast amounts of steam!  "I think we've missed it somehow" admitted Robin.  With a merry quip of "Oh how very vexatious!" on my part, we retraced our steps.  A good three quarters of the way back, and nearly hidden by a fallen tree and a kids 'camp' we found, at last, a lowish hole.

In we slid, me on my backside.  The well placed holes allowing a quantity of mud and water to lubricate my nether regions but it didn't seem to matter.  We were in a tunnel, both high and wide, partly paved and about three or four inches deep in water, at least my boots didn't leak.  We strolled to the far end of the passage not attempting to climb a fixed chain in a cross tunnel, as we were assessing possible points to take my snaps.  A light tripod, the camera set on B, the lens at about f8 and 35mm on the zoom range. We fired two small flash guns several times for each of about fifteen exposures, of which two or three are not too bad, great room for improvement.

After what seemed like a few minutes but was in fact two hours, we emerged into daylight. "Where are we going next" says I with the enthusiasm of an innocent.

A few days and a phone call later, Robin and I now joined by Trev, set out for a trip to a "real" cave.  Clad this time in a furry undersuit beneath the oversuit (which was now four sizes smaller than me!!) helmet and wellies.  Across a field and into a bushy dip, there was an iron box which we entered. Down the fixed ladder into a "great Big Cave". "Gor Blimey!!!"  I thought as I followed my companions down and saw, horrified, Rob ooze into and disappear through what looked to me a tiny mousehole with a floor of loose stones and water.  A silent prayer and I slid my bulk after him.  To my great surprise and relief I found that I barely touched the sides and roof.  With much bashing of elbows, knees and helmet I slid, slithered, stumbled and clambered along with my easy moving friends.  Trev and Rob called out the facts that we were in various places with some odd sounding names (well known to those bothering to read these ramblings) . I took their words for it, they had, after all, been there before and anyway I couldn't see!!  Two layers of clothing and many layers of Butcombe inspired flesh equals a very hot lad.  This, coupled with cold cave air caused my specs to achieve a total opaqueness. Sliding my glasses down over my nose and peering over them I saw, in very soft focus, some attractive formations. I voiced my enthusiasm greatly, although somewhat incoherently as my nose was being pinched by my specs.  I sounded like one of life's less fortunates.  Arriving a little breathless at the terminal choke, I was amazed at Trev and Rob's touching faith in me as they suggested that I should lead out!  I have since come to the conclusion that this was so I could be shoved from the rear if necessary.  Off I went, being told to go left, right and up at the appropriate places.  Sweating profusely and gasping like a leaky boiler, with a bit of squeezing and a lot of climbing, a dip through the 'mousehole' and we arrived, all too soon, at the iron box.

What fun!!  I was hooked, even next day when every joint and the bits between were aching.  Bruises and scrapes appeared in picturesque patches on elbows, knees and other places. Sanity had now given way to a troglodyte madness, I had enjoyed myself greatly.

About a fortnight later I was back in Somerset from my S.E. London home, to play washboard with 'The All Weather Welly Band' at Priddy Folk Fayre.  It was, of course, only natural that another trip was mooted ... to the realms of subterranean Mendip.

Robin suggested that Goatchurch Cavern would be different to my previous excursions, it was ... !!! The nearest I can get to a description is Piccadilly Underground station in the rush hour .... hordes of people, it seemed, rushing hither and yon.  Rob and I entered by the Tradesman’s entrance, he lifelined me down a fixed rope and away we went.  Dodging groups of boys and girls of assorted ages going in many and various directions. One group was being led by 'Snab' and we heard his dulcet tones reverberating from above and below, left and right from time to time.

The surfaces we passed over (with, in my case, very unusual parts of my anatomy) were, by much use, glacial in their slipperiness.  Excellent, I found, for going down.  Getting up was going to be something else though.  Rob called out various names.  Caves seem to have some oddly named sections.  One, "The Coffin", loomed large in my fevered imagination.  I was, of course, by now boiling hot and misty spectacled again.  All too soon we were on our way out/up.  It was then I found that my boots had minds of their own, wanting to go mostly .... down!!  With the help of Rob's knees, shoulders, head and whatever else of him I could stand on, we arrived at the entrance again, in spite of my ineptitude on the rope.  I emerged hot and totally shattered; a great morning’s fun.  Next morning ... the agonizing joints and muscles, bruises and scrapes appeared in glorious Technicolor and almost stereophonic sound!

Another visit to Somerset, this time to play with the band at "Folk in the Bath" at Cheddar and to celebrate Anita and Snab’s 25th anniversary.  The opportunity for more caving was demanded by me. Rob said "If there is some rain 'Swillies' should be good."  England were losing a test match to Australia so, of course, the heavens opened for several days.  The following Wednesday evening, among several vehicles parked on Priddy green, our party assembled, six in all.  Along with your chronicler were Robin, Trev, Davey and two lads from Felsburg, Jens and Amin.

Once kitted up we set off across the fields to the entrance of the famous Swildons Hole.  (I'd seen this cave, with many "faces" from The Hunter's, on 999 on the telly so I knew it was famous.)  In we went, a distant sound of rushing water accompanying my wheezing.  Not a great deal of water at first but as we got further down the others made gleeful sounds of approval as the streamway gushed over our wellies.  The way was, of course, all downhill, so slithering and crawling, down we went.  My knees, elbows and bum coming into frequent violent contact with unyielding rock, as did my helmet, without which what remains of my brain cells could have been totally disposed of.  Then came a ladder pitch, a new experience for me.  It was, of course, in a waterfall so I twisted and spun down, with a reasonable impression of Niagara entering first one ear then the other.  Not content with flooding my memory, it entered my oversuit (still several sizes smaller than me) went down my neck and filled my boots from the inside.  The next highlight was Double Pots.  I negotiated the first with "great skill" only to become a fully baptized "Son of Mendip" at the second.  Completely wet, inside and out, my glasses by now had become almost vision proof so all was exceeding well!  Real caving ... Great fun!!

After much squeezing (and bumping by me) as well as straddling apparently bottomless chasms and wading through raging torrents we arrived at our goal for this trip .... Sump One.  By this time I was puffing and blowing and feeling somewhat "Cream Crackered", unlike my companions who had barely broken sweat.  With closing time looming up at a fast rate of knots I realised with horror that it would be all uphill!!  After a short "blow" and a bite of snickers, we proceeded up.

Those familiar with cycling will have heard of a rather rude sounding condition .... "The Bonk". It is far from being a state of sexual arousal, but is a total draining of the body's energy.  I was at the start of the inclined rift when it struck!!  I tried to ease myself up only to get progressively lower, not what was intended at all.  My legs seemed to be made of jelly as did my arms and I began to feel a little apprehensive.  With a little help from my friends (a lot in fact) at length the obstacle was, at last conquered. Then with frequent rests and pounding heart I gasped squeezed and clambered onward, until there was a strange smell to the air and we surfaced. A hurried paddle through some particularly soft and aromatic cowpats back to the changing room at the farm.

Wet things off, dry things on and a quick dash to The Hunter's for a reviving pot of Butcombe and many thanks to the other chaps for helping an exhausted, bruised but very happy idiot.

I should now confess to those who haven't met me that I am not quite in the first flush of youth, but am a lumpy fifty three year old who in March of 1992 had a quintuple heart bypass operation.  (There is a rumour that when the surgeons opened me up and proceeded to reroute my plumbing, a B.E.C. sticker was found in my Aorta!!  All I want to know is how and who??!!)

It would seem to be a rather daft time to take up a "dangerous sport”, but I have never been cursed with a lot of sense, so why not?

I have now also visited Waterwheel Cave and Brownes Hole and can't wait for the opportunity to get down one of "Them Muddy  Oles" again.

Chas; a new and proud member of the B.E.C