Search Our Site

Article Index

 

Under England's Mountains Green

The article that follows was lifted from The Florida Speleologist. Vol. 27, No.3, Fall, 1990

by William Sibley-Dem~ NSS 23516

I didn't think as we stepped on the plane that I would have many opportunities to get underground during my vacation this past August.  My wife Laura and I were married about a year ago, shortly before moving from Pennsylvania to the vast, still only partly explored karst landscape of Central Florida.  Now I was finally going to meet my in-laws, all of whom live in the south of England and none of whom are cavers.  The night I first met Laura, I showed her some of the photos that I helped Ed McCarthy and Carl Samples take in the big caves of West Virginia -- Friars Hole, Organ, Buckeye Creek.  She must have been impressed.  One of our first dates was a trip back to the waterfall in Casparis Cave (Fayette Co., PA).  She was unusually quiet inside.  While walking the mile back to the car, in the rain, she said "I've never felt so grotty in all my life".  She later confessed to being a bit claustrophic.  She married me anyway, and knew she was marrying a Caver.  We were married above ground.

Anyway, Laura hadn't been home to see her family in nine years, so we just figured on spending three weeks establishing (for me) and re-establishing (for her) family ties with no firm itinerary.  I did manage to do a bit of research on the side, though, and packed along a few recent issues of Descent and Caves and Caving.  Thus I was armed with addresses of caving clubs, in case I found myself near any caves with time on my hands.

Naturally, we spent a lot of our time relaxing in domestic surroundings with family and old (new) friends. We stayed with Laura's sister, Ann, who lives in Uckfleld, East Sussex, on the River Uck, which flows through the lovely South Downs into the Ouse (pronounced "ooze"). Here there are few proper caves -- mostly medieval storm drains, disused railway tunnels, mysterious prehistoric chalk mines and "deneholes", hermits' grottos, and the occasional 280 foot deep Roman well.  Many are associated with wonderful old legends (although, some times, it seems that smuggling must have been the primary industry at some point in history). All have been carefully mapped and documented by groups like the Chelsea Speleological Society ... whose defination of "caves" might be "circumscribed, air filled void, explorable (subterranean)" .

Actually there are a few solution caves in the chalk, including Beachy Head Cave with over 1,100 feet of crawlway, but these are rare and invariably small.  Cavers without caves will push anything dark though.  Growing up in Pennsylvania I found culverts under the highways that were pretty long.  We have a different dilemma here in Florida where unchecked sinkholes greatly outnumber cavers and it's hard to get a mapping party together to mop up a few sandy crawls in a known cave because of the lure of finding something like Briar Cave, The Catacombs, or Warren Cave under the next hole down the road.

The natives have been caving in Britain for a long time (King Arthur is rumoured to be waiting to make his reappearance in some hidden chamber and, who knows, Caesar may have toured some show caves after the invasion) and the easy discoveries have already been made.  Florida is new to speleology.  Our cave legends have to do with things like Johnny Weissmuller swimming into Ocala Caverns and coming up at Silver Springs during the filming of "Tarzan and the Lost City".  But to get back to my story.  Between hikes and day trips to sip wine in the shade of centuries-old oaks surrounded by roe deer near stately homes in the countryside, we learned to identify unfamiliar birds, go hedgehog spotting, play cricket, and spin on spinning wheels. Laura's sister Ann spins all of Paul McCartney's wool.  (He keeps sheep you know.)  Linda McCartney phoned one evening while we were there.

I got my first good look at limestone when we drove west to visit Laura's brother, Roy, in the quiet village of Combe Martin on the rugged north coast of Devon.  Here, under prehistoric tumuli-studded foggy moors, we found the remains of the ancient silver mines that some believe were first worked by the Phoenicians.  Be that as it may, we had a smashing time wandering about the coast with it's dramatically tilted Devonian (of course) Limestones and Shales thrusting into the crashing surf, picking up “cuttlebones”, and chatting with seaweed collectors.  There are a number of fine littoral caves in this area, reportedly much used by the old smugglers, but many are accessible only by boat.  There is one small entrance in Lester Point that is easily visible from the pebble beach of Combe Martin Bay.  It is not marked on the "Pathfinder' topographic map, or even listed in Tony Oldham's "The Complete Caves of Devon" (which I acquired for my library).  Roy describes it as a fine place in which to hide and surprise curious beachcombers, but high tide: prevented us exploring it ourselves.

I asked some older locals about a cave shown on the map half-way between the partly thirteenth century church and the old rectory on Clorridge Hill, but they said that the entrance had been covered up by recent construction.  I had no way of knowing at the time that just west of the village on top of Napp's Hill, above Golden Bay, is Napp's Cave -- the longest and most exquisitely decorated cave in the district -- full of unbroken helictites and big clusters of irregular branch-like aragonite crystals locally referred to as "flos-ferre".  Nor did I know that in Buckfastleigh, south-east of Dartmoor, is the William Pengelly Cave Studies Centre, situated on the edge of the greatest concentration of caves in Devon, some of which contain the richest deposits of interglacial mammalian remains yet found in Britain.  Oh well, I'll be better prepared next time.  On the way back to Sussex we drove right around the Mendip Hills that I had read so much about.  I remember pointing out the window and saying, "Somewhere over there is Wookey Hole, and Swildon's, and Eastwater."  No one with me knew what I was talking about.

Two thirds of our stay went by and I still hadn't gotten underground.  I was having trouble concealing the symptoms of "cave withdrawal syndrome" and hadn't even a lump of carbide to sniff.  I cleverly suggested a trip to the town of Wells to see the magical old cathedral and it's wells (springs).  I could at least touch some real cave water.  Also I knew that there was a caving shop nearby to which I could escape and talk cave with someone.  I rang up "Bat Products" as soon as we arrived and went over straight away. Outside was what once must have been a sort of Land Rover, but was now a vehicle shaped collection of cave bumper stickers and decals.  I knew I had found the right place.  Inside was Mr. Tony (J-Rat) Jarratt, Proprietor, Caver, and Model (he appears dynamically posed in exposure suits on many Bat Products adverts).  He looked to me like a dreamy­eyed Mitch Miller after a cold rinse cycle.  Tony was about to close up shop and head into the hills for the afternoon, but we chatted for a while and exchanged Bulletins.  I said I was going to wander around town for a bit with the family and he invited us up to the Hunters' Lodge, "the best pub in the Universe", to meet the rest of his brood -- the Bristol Exploration Club (BEC).

Caving Areas of Great Britain

After seeing the "wells", a resurgence in the garden of the Bishop's Palace in the shade of the great cathedral, we made our way to Cheddar Gorge with its fine limestone cliffs and show caves.  We found it a busy place full of tourist types, but a good opportunity to get our whole party underground.  Gough's Cave is nicely lit, well decorated, and tastefully guided by disembodied voices. Later, we retreated to the top of Cheddar Gorge (a perfectly wizard spot for knadgering about) to picnic and "down a few tubes".

We arrived at the infamous Hunters' Lodge Inn, Priddy, shortly after it opened for the evening. We found it surrounded by all manner of caving vehicles and at the centre of a migration of slightly damp-looking shapes on foot coming over the hilltops from all points.  Inside it was practically standing (crawling or chimneying) room only.  Over the fireplace hung a collection of carbide lamps, above the bar a row of tankards with Bertie the Bat Insignias on their well worn sides.  From one room seemed to radiate the unmistakable sounds of Morris Dancing to fiddle -- but this may have been hallucination or mass hysteria caused by the dense concentration of cavers.  

The first order of business was, of course, to obtain from the barman (also a caver) a pint of the best -- "Butcombe Bitter" -- a spunky, aggressive bit of foam that rewards repeated, if not continual consumption.

We soon found Tony, who took us round to meet the remaining members of the BEC (whose mottos are "Everything to Excess" and "The BEC Get Everywhere") the Wessex Cave Club (who seem to have just come from a tea party), the Shepton Mallet Cave Club, the CSS, MCG, and MNRC, etc.  All flock to the Hunters' when not digging in the dark.  Digging and singing are common amongst cavers on Mendip, digging in shakeholes and crawlways because most caves and nearly all new finds were first entered that way, and singing mostly in the Hunters' Lodge after being revitalized by a healthy dose of Butcombe's.  Sadly, this is slowly declining (the singing not the drinking). Storytelling is alive and well amongst cavers everywhere, and I took my turn telling of adventure under West Virginia and Florida.  At one point someone said, "Have we got a trip for you!", and it was proposed that I accompany the BEC the following morning on a descent of Saint Cuthbert's Swallet to remove the inadequate pump from Sump Two.  It sounded a sporting trip and hardly one to be passed up.  Laura had no reservations about leaving me in such hands and she soon departed for Southampton with friends.  I hadn't planned on an overnight stay and so was without so much as a toothbrush or change of clothes.

After exhausting the Pubs's consumables, we retired to the Belfry, the "hut" that the BEC maintains as their digs.  It is one of six such club headquarters on Mendip that stand ready to accommodate any number of local cavers and visitors.  I rode over with Tony; listening to Vivaldi Concertos under an incredibly stary sky.  The Belfry is easily recognized as the building with the human skeleton mounted as if climbing the flag pole from which hangs a red bat flag, perpetually at half-mast.  Inside were benches and bunks for dozens of troglophiles, an extensive library and communications centre, kitchen; shower, and meeting room with decorated by show caves 'round the world, and many appropriate (if sometimes out of context) signs and warnings like "It is forbidden to climb on these walls", and a caution about explosive bolts on the toilet seat.  One wall sported a partially completed heroic mural depicting intrepid twentieth century explorers in characteristic poses (Butcombes' in hand). Altogether comfortably like a well­equipped West Virginia Fieldhouse.

The Belfry

Tales were told and I learned much about the local style, which occasionally includes the judicious art of passage modification in the interest of science and exploration -- with explosives.  The euphemisms have only begun to be catalogued: Bang, Wonder Hammer, Chemical Encouragement or Persuasion, Boulder Laxative, etc. Some told stories of great doings in the huge, Welsh systems.

Apparently a few industrious individuals have spent up to two months a year underground (in ten day stretches) pushing and digging in caves under Mynydd Llangattwg.  I brought out my best snaps (yes, I am never without my briefcase) and entertained with tales of Florida Safari Style Caving - about being chased by Cape Buffalo into caves only to run into trogloxenic alligators in close quarters.  Eventually, the sound of an empty barrel being thumped signalled the time for a period of unconsciousness before the morning's activities.

The Mendip Hills upon which we slept consist of four great domes that have been eroded to form a gently rolling plateau almost 100 square miles in area and about 800 feet high on average.  A few valleys and gorges (as at Cheddar) are incised into the rim.  Virtually all drainage is subterranean.  In the steeply-dipping limestone, this has produced a profusion of caves typified by precipitous tight rifts, wet pitches, high gradient roaring streamways, and lower down, sumps requiring SCUBA or, in some cases, extraordinary bravado.  The local chemistry provides for a plethora of calcitic - enhancement in many a stal-covered grotto.

 “ England’s Mountains Green" have been a bit brown of late due to two consecutive years of unprecedented drought.  The drought has eased the cavers' labours somewhat, but certainly didn't dry up these caves completely, as I would soon find out.

Everyone was up at a surprisingly decent hour (for cavers) and there commenced a quiet flurry of preparatory activity as trips were registered on the blackboard with their estimated times of emergence.  Tony appeared with a lovely selection of gear to equip me with.  I crawled into my grots and kit, all of which miraculously fit perfectly, and fortunately did not include a weighty pair of "wellies". I had dreaded the prospect of being presented a pair of Wellingtons and having to cave/climb in what I imagined to be something like fireman's boots.  I had somehow managed to never have been caving in a wet suit, and I knew this was the time to try it.  I am thin and used to Florida's temperatures.  Kitted up (and looking fairly butch in black foam) we walked the short distance to the vertical cement pipe that marks the only entrance to Saint Cuthbert's Swallet (dramatic chord here).

Mural in progress  BEC Belfry

St. Cuthbert's is a far too recent discovery for the seventh century monk to have been involved in its penetration.  Actually, apart from my own cleverly forged mock manuscript, there is no evidence that he was a caver at all, although he did excavate a partially underground home for himself on the Isle Faroe during one of his antisocial periods.  The cave is named for the ancient St. Cuthbert's Lead Works which lie above it.  This mine is thousands of years old and may actually have been a significant factor in the Romans' decision to invade Britain.  It probably supplied the lead plumbing, for the famous Roman spa in the nearby town of Bath. Later, in 1927, the sudden disappearance of the sizeable, St. Cuthbert's Pool, and the occurrence of a large collapse ten years later confirmed for modern explorers the suspicion that significant passage lay below.

Digging began in the 1940's and was finally rewarded when the entrance series was breached in 1953 to reveal the most complex cave system on Mendip.  At over 2,200 feet, it is second in length only to Swildon's Hole. Major discoveries came fairly regularly through the '50's and '60's with the once terminal sump, (Sump One), being conquered in 1969.  A map of known passage was published in 1972.  Subsequent work has been on the production of a CRG Grade 6d survey, forming the basis of the soon to be published "Saint Cuthbert's Report", and a determined effort to, pass Sump Two.  This is a major project, involving the construction of a system of dams in the streamways to lower the water in the sump where divers have been digging for ten years in a slurry of mud and water.  Periodically, the pent-up water is released all at once to flush through the sump.  The water that St. Cuthbert's swallows reappears in Wookey Hole, a mile or more to the south.  Our task on August 27, 1990 was to descend and effect a removal of the inadequate and mud choked pump from Sump Two and to and be back to the surface before the pub closed for the afternoon.

Unlike a trip into Swildon's, the going gets easier the deeper you go in the St. Cuthbert's system, but that makes for a good bit of sport at the top.  Waiting your turn to climb down the pipe, you can't help noticing that the exposed limestone outcrop dips at about a 45 degree angle. You can follow that line a long way down in your imagination.  The fifteen foot climb through the pipe is an abrupt transition to the underground environment.  Within moments we were presented with our first (and later our - last) obstacle, the Entrance Rift.  Those ahead of me disappeared into a narrow crack in the bottom of a small chamber and called up when they were though.  A shadowy face told me where the best place to start was.  I climbed down and slipped myself into the 30 foot deep vertical slot.  A cable ladder hung to one side but was of little use, there simply was no room to climb. Sandwiched between well worn walls, the dilemma was not how to go down, but how to go down at some controlled rate. Every conceivable body surface was used in a sort of ropeless body rappel, the most interesting part being the narrow middle section where there was hardly enough room to flex my legs to form a wedge.  This can get a bit dodgy when a lot of water is cascading down the crack.  Everyone wonders on their first trip down how they will fair going against gravity on their way out.  Being in close contact with the walls reminded me how cold, dark, and hard limestone can be, not at all like the porous, white, rock I had gotten used to after caving for a year in Florida.  Clambering rather awkwardly, for the first time in a wet suit, over and through boulder ruckle quickly brought me to a 25 foot drop and the first of four heavy steel ladders that have been put into place with what must have been great effort.

It is not common practice on Mendip to fill wild caves with mechanical contrivances of convenience, nor is St. Cuthbert's being made into a sort of show cave.  The cave is almost unheard of outside Britain and because of its complexity and difficulty is in near pristine condition and not much trafficked.  Access is carefully controlled by the BEC on behalf of the landowners.  Trips are limited to small groups of experienced explorers led by one of about 25 designated leaders.  The construction of semi-permanent ladders on a few of the many pitches near the entrance was deemed acceptable to facilitate the difficult ongoing project of exploration and mapping in this complex system.  I am told I am probably the only person to have made a trip into St. Cuthbert's Swallet as my first trip underground on Mendip.

We decided in the breakdown-littered Arête Chamber to forego the "New Route" with it's impressive but time consuming 60 foot abseil of Pulpit Pitch and took the quicker "Old Route" through an exhilarating (and somewhat disorienting) sequence of climbs and traverses.  I nearly lost my sense of direction -- except for one: we were going downwards, relentlessly and precipitously.  The "Wire Rift" began as a narrow canyon going straight down­dip, and is traversed on steep damp ledges.  "This will be a bit of exercise on the way out", I thought.  Then I was chimneying out over the deep dark space of the Waterfall Pitch and Wet Pitch (where there used to be a steel wire for a handline) and appreciating the occasional word of advice on what not to do from my guides up ahead.  A few horizontal moves and a climbdown brought us to the ladder into Mud Hall, where routes again diverge in many directions.  We elected to climb up into the Pillar Chamber, well hung with stal and featuring a splendid calcite column.  From there an interesting climb-down through a slot took us through some low passage that was soon deepened by a vadose trench.  Where it widened again, we stopped to drink from a cold tin cup that is left under a trickle of fresh falling water.

I paused to look around and realized that we had emerged into a large breakdown room.  This was the top of the Boulder Chamber, one of the largest rooms in the cave, and we were taking a break under Kanchenjunga, a mountain of a block of stone that had come to rest on the floor.  The Belfryites enjoyed pointing out to me the many openings that we had passed that led off to extensive series of passage networks.  The Boulder Chamber is a major central landmark for exploration in all directions.  We had made good time so far, so they decided to show me a few of the nearby sights. On the south side of the room we approached the "Cascade", an immense wall of pure white, convoluted organ-pipe type flowstone about a hundred feet high!  Not far away I climbed up a slope into the bottom of a room whose decorated walls rose high out of sight.  I crouched directly beneath an amazing display of dripstone draperies, 'many at least 20 feet long and possibly the finest collection of calcite curtains in the U.K.  Nowhere did I see even a single formation broken by carelessness or malice.

Exiting the bottom of Boulder Chamber past "Everest", another huge block, brought us finally to the Main Stream. This meanders for a few hundred feet beneath the Rabbit Warren Series to Stalagmite Pitch.  We avoided the 25 foot drop by chimneying down between flowstone walls and crawled into Sewer Passage -- a low gradient muddy section of streamway. Here another stream adds itself to the flow, the passage turns south and becomes a nice rift that is soon nearly blocked by massive flowstone, which we climbed to enter the Beehive Chamber with it's namesake, a 20 foot high stalagmitic mound.  On the far side of the room we climbed a smooth rounded stal slope with the aid of a heavy chain anchored at the top and was rewarded with one of the most dramatic vistas St. Cuthbert's has to offer.  We stood on the brow of the Great Gour of Gour Hall -- a monstrous rimstone dam 20 feet high!  Above rose a high Aven [dome] almost filled with formations.  Below, the awesome cascade of calcite plunged steeply into the Great Gour Rift, a high stream washed canyon stretching straight into the darkness beyond.

Dwarfed by proportion gone mad, we carefully descended the face of the Great Gour and set off, splashing down the echoing canyon.  The cold water deepened as we approached a dam constructed across the stream to increase the airspace through the once impenetrable Sump One.  We left the rapidly diminishing rift and entered a cobbly crawl on hands and knees for the first time in the frigid water.  This became a flat-out crawl through the sump with a comfortable amount of air space.  Far from the warm daylight above we arrived in the impressive High Rift Passage of St. Cuthbert's 2 -- the world beyond the sump.

I was assured as we splashed and occasionally swam through delightful, high, gently sloping clean canyon that so far no one had as yet encountered alligators in the remote wet passages beyond Sump One.  I was much relieved because at this point my hands were really too numb for wrestling with giant reptiles.  Our progress was occasionally slowed by crawls in the streambed under flowstone chokes and: sporting climbs down waterfalls to invigorating plunges into deep pools.  Swimming became the most common means of travel as we approached the Aswan High Dam -- an impressive bit of work and quite a feat of shoestring engineering this far down.  A scramble over the wall of the dam to get out of the chilling water and we reached the now terminal Sump Two, that even today is being silted up by particulate debris washed down from the ancient lead works nearly 500 feet above on the surface.

 

Maps taken from: Mendip Underground: A Caver's Guide, 1977; Mendip Pub., Somerset, England

The relative inactivity while work was completed at the terminal pool was enough to set me to shivering once or twice despite the well-fitted wet suit (and they say the water in Welsh caves is twice as cold!).  This crew would just love skinny dipping in Blue Canyon or Briar Cave, I thought.  It wasn't long before the pump was out and we were retracing our steps, swims, crawls, and climbs, toward the surface so far above. Behind each dam, some poor sod was talked into diving down to pull the plug, to the sound of much cheering and applause just audible above the thunderous din of the escaping water.  Out of the blue (actually black) I heard, "How about a game of catch then?", and we began passing an American football back and forth to liven up the long swims in the downstream end of the cave.  I never did find out where the pigskin appeared from, or whether this was a traditional Mendip pastime or something planned to help me feel at home.

A few of us stayed in the stream passage up past the Boulder Chamber to climb the thinly-bedded walls of the Water Shute toward the Pulpit Pitch on the " New Route".  The drop itself not being rigged, we back-tracked to a climb up into Mud Hall and the beginning of the return thrutch up the steep ledges of the Wire Rift -- the sort of not quite vertical caving, requiring no SRT, that is common on Mendip but rare in my own personal experience.  I was probably mildly hypothermic and less efficient in my climbing than the Bellfryites ahead of me.  I know I was fighting the unfamiliar restrictive wet suit and using my arms too much.  I'm sure that I lagged behind the advancing column at times, but was never without a patient route finder.  The occasional rigid steel ladder provided a welcome means of expeditious vertical progress. From the Arête Chamber, we took a quick break before the final push to day light, and went over to peer down the 60 foot Pulpit Pitch for one last glimpse into the depths.

My friends in the BEC won't forgive me if I don't admit to being suitably knackered as I looked up the long anticipated final effort of the Entrance Rift.  Once in the slot, I managed a sort of halting abrasive wriggle by alternately advancing my knee caps, shoulder blades, and chin against the rock, with periodic gropes for the cable ladder.  Halfway up I heard the sound of approaching water as the flood gates at the entrance were opened to provide a final bit of interest.  A slow blur of cold stone and hot sweat and my small momentum carried me right up the entrance pipe to birdsong and sunlight. It should here be recorded that during this particular trip down St. Cuthbert's, not a single living alligator was spotted by any living member of the team in any passage whatever ... again. [Lest this reference to alligators seem odd to some readers the editor notes that the author has a very disconcerting habit of confronting large vertebrates, both above and belowground.  Anyone who can find an African Cape Buffalo in Levy County, Florida could find alligators in England. Ed.]

Back at the Belfry we untrussed our grots, stowed our kit, and without even towelling off, sped straight to the Hunter's for pints of Butcombe's and plates of Faggot and Peas. That afternoon I spent rooting about amongst the ruins of the old lead works and reading "The Caver's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer.  (Sorry. Actually, I found out that Thomas Hardy did write a novel about caving: "Our Exploits at West Poley" -- a children’s book and certainly not one of his best efforts).  We all found ourselves later at the Hunter's (of course) for an evening of balladry and the telling of stories about doing everything to excess - everywhere.  After spending a restful night in my choice of bunks high in the Belfry, I re-entered the one set of clothes I had with me (now a slightly different colour), dropped a handful of pounds in the collection box (the BEC doesn't charge enough for lodgings), and went down to Bat Products for a chat with Tony before leaving to join Laura and her family.

If the boys at the Belfry accept my invitation to cave with the FSS in central Florida, they will almost certainly "Get Everywhere".

The best of luck in their digs, dives, etc. and innumerable thanks to Tony Jarrett and all the members of the Bristol Exploration Club who spared not a jot in showing me the depth of hospitality extended to cavers from around the world in the huts on Mendip. I hereby authorize the Editor of the "Belfry Bulletin" to utilize as he sees fit any or all of this essay and its illustrations if he is in need of filler.  I apologize for the occasional, very American use of the exclamation mark (!) which he may delete with my permission.  I am currently at work composing a symphonic suite entitled "An American on Mendip" with lots of nifty parts for pewter percussion, which I plan to premier at the Hunter's Lodge Inn during my next visit to Mendip. With the help of Saint Cuthbert, it will be soon.