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Stoke Lane Slocker - 50 years ago

a note by Dave Irwin

Having been persuaded by Estelle in her new post as Editor of the BB I've promised to supply a page or two from time to time relating to events of historic importance from the long history of cave exploration on Mendip and occasionally from elsewhere. In addition most members have accumulated books, photographs, booklets and leaflets (ephemera) and at times I hope to be able to discuss some of these collectibles.  However, to kick the series off I intend to sketch an event which involved club members some fifty years ago taken from various notes that I have lying around the place.

FIFTY YEARS AGO

During the years following the end of the Second World War cave exploration rapidly reached a peak on Mendip - culminating with vast extensions in Swildon's Hole and elsewhere.  The years 1945-c.1965.  In fact it was also to prove one of the great periods of cave exploration in the British Isles.  In Yorkshire Gemmell, Myers and Comes were among many that opened up now popular cave systems in the Yorkshire Dales including Lancaster Hole and Easegill. In Derbyshire Giant's Hole was its 'Jewel in the Crown'.  In south Wales the newly formed South Wales Caving Club were pushing OFD in an effort to push the likely sites in the area since access to Dan-yr Ogof was barred to all caving activity.  At the time of SWCC's formation the CDG came into being at the same camp meeting held during Easter 1946.  The latter sprang into action with a succession of diving meets at Wookey Hole and in the sumps of OFD.

Throughout the war years students at Bristol University had limited time to continue the work of the society at Burrington and Charterhouse making several new discoveries.  East Twin Swallet extended, Rod Pearce and others opened up Rod's Pot.  All this was in addition to a full exploration of G.B. Cave and the preparation of a survey. Pupils at Sidcot School also played their part as members of Sidcot School Speleological Society (SSSS).  Willie Stanton, Chris Hawkes and other SSSS members were carrying out limited work on Western Mendip.  Sidcot Swallet had been extended by the discovery of Paradise.  In 1944 SSSS began work at the active swallet in the Longwood Valley.  They opened the cave but when they reached the head of the climb into Main Chamber they decided that it was too dangerous to continue alone.  The Stride brother invited members of UBSS and WCC to accompany them to complete the exploration.  This was in early April 1945.  When Stride left the school for Bristol University, work was carried on by the Speleological Society eventually opening up August Hole - a misnomer if there ever was one!

On Mendip, caving club memberships were increasing and various parts of Mendip were being pushed in a way never before experienced by the cavers of the pre-war years.  WCC and MNRC members were re-examining Eastwater Cavern which was to eventually lead to the exploration of Primrose Pot.  The same groups were also examining the far reaches of Swildons Hole that eventually led to the opening up of the Black Hole Series in 1950.

The BEC located at The Belfry, initially near the Beeches and then transferred to a new site - that currently owned by the Club.  Digging in the St. Cuthbert's Depression was at first sporadic, but eventually St. Cuthbert's Swallet was entered in 1953 - the largest single discovery ever made on Mendip

STOKE LANE SLOCKER

Eastern Mendip was the 'Cinderella' area for cave exploration.  No doubt its distance from Wells was a contributory factor.  Though there was a bus service in the 1930s, bicycle or pony and trap was the main mode of transport in the earlier decades of the century.  Time and money was at a premium and though Balch was well aware of the swallets in the area he made little attempt to exploit any of the sites.

The St. Dunstan's Well resurgences and Stoke Lane Slocker were well documented since c.1880.  The earliest known exploration of the Slocker took place sometime during 1905 by cavers from Downside Abbey.  The cave ended at what today is known as Corkscrew Chamber.

Fifty years ago the discovery of Browne's Passage, in June 1947, was the great break through that began the real exploration of the cave.  Previously the cave had been simply considered an alternative wet trip to that offered by Swildons Hole.  F.B.A. Welch, the well-known geologist, explored the cave in August 1930. The cave ended at a terminal sump, where the water flows under the choke at Corkscrew Chamber.  It was impenetrable and further investigation of it had to wait until after the second world war before the 'younger generation' came along to find a slot in the caving work being carried out on Mendip.

DISCOVERY OF STOKE LANE TWO

Pat Browne, from Frome, joined the BEC in 1946 and living on the eastern fringes of Mendip it was natural that his main interest lay in caves and potential sites located in the now classic east Mendip area - Stoke St. Michael and Oakhill.  It meant that he could cycle easily to Stoke St. Michael and the surrounding villages to fully explore sites that could be found.

Berman of the MNRC reported in the 1947 Report (note 1)

An outstanding discovery due to Pat Browne, of Bruton School, and members of the Bristol Exploration Club, is a large and important cave system at Stoke Lane. When examining the old "slocker" cave of that valley, he discovered an extension of the streamways from Stoke Lane to St. Dunstan's Well, leading into an unexpected upper system, following the steeply dipping Carboniferous Limestone, which passes under the Radstock coalfield. Its approach is made difficult by a highly polluted sump or trap in the streamway, and efforts are now being made to open a dry approach from the surface not far distant.  There are human and animal bones in this cave awaiting excavation, and there are very fine stalactite formations.

Pat Browne wrote of his success to Balch and in his account he catalogued the sequence of events. (note 2)

THE OPENING OF STOKE LANE SLOCKER
The series of expeditions which have led to the discovery of a vast system of subterranean wonders.
? May 1946 Leader P. Browne Party A.J. Crawford
Old cave fully explored. About 800 feet from entrance of cave, beyond the point at which the main river is seen for the last time, a small stream was noticed to be flowing in the opposite direction to that of the main one. This stream disappeared amongst a pile of massive boulders covering the floor of a small chamber. Suggestions of a cave system beyond were made but nothing found.

It was to be another year before Browne returned to the cave and on May 31st 1947 he descended with two companions D. Sage and J.H.H. Mead all from Bruton School. (note 3)  They returned to the boulder pile and gave it another close inspection.  A short period of digging removing a boulder (note 4) and a way on was found. Browne squeezed down into it and found that the passage continued:

…..for about 250 feet. The way led through a series of low water tunnels, and encrusted grottoes, the passage ("Browne's Passage") ends in a water trap.(note 5)

In fact it was the significant breakthrough that had been required to focus attention on this cave for further exploration despite the fact that it was extremely wet, muddy, subject to severe flooding and most of all it was some distance from the centre of Mendip caving activities. In the days of restricted transport a visit to this cave required prior arrangements with fellow cavers who were lucky enough to have personal transport.

Thrilled by the new discovery he immediately contacted two BEC members to form a strong party to descend the cave the following weekend, 3pm on June 7th, Roger (Sett) Setterington and Don Coase readily agreed and joined him for the descent.

On the appointed day the stream level was high following heavy rain during the previous four days. The normally dry entrance was now taking a high volume of water. Browne recorded: (note 6)

... but that day the water was thundering over the boulders and pouring into the narrow opening, and on into the darkness beyond.  All being in readiness for the adventure I abandoned all thoughts of personal comfort for the following four hours and crawled into the uninviting gateway to the strange world under the hills.  Within seconds I was forming an admirable substitute for a leaky drainpipe, with the icy water pouring up the legs of my boiler-suit & emerging by means of vents above the knees!

Moving on down the through the entrance passage with it's once leech infested pools the party met the fast flowing streamway.  A unanimous 'mud please' was the reply to Browne's question at the Duck - partial submersion or mud via the oxbow?  A re-inspection of the 'old cave' found several points of potential extension, which was to eventually become Ridyard's Link and Fingertip Squeeze. (note 7) From there they moved on into Browne's Passage. Browne wrote:

... D. Coase found a mud aven leading from 'Cairn Grotto'.  A by-pass to the Nutmeg Grater was discovered by P. Browne, who also found a large tooth in the "Cairn Grotto".

Pat Browne was to later to comment upon the notorious squeeze. (note 8)

... we crept along a narrow, arch-shaped tunnel for a considerable distance until we were suddenly faced with the 'Nutmeg Grater', a very nasty squeeze. On the return journey we found a by-pass to this section of the tunnel, but unfortunately this afforded us no greater degree of comfort than the 'N.G.'

Arriving at Cairn Chamber, Browne's limit on the first trip to this section of cave, it was noted that there appeared to be two possible ways out of it. (note 9) The first was an ascending muddy tube ending at a small muddy grotto, obviously prone to prolonged flooding. The second was a narrow, wet, rift, having three foot depth of water.  Browne chose to investigate the rift (note 10)

.. . I dropped into the icy water, beyond a low arch called 'Disappointment Duck', under which I was forced to submerge to my neck, the tunnel suddenly turned to the left and I found myself in small chamber in which the water was about 5 ft. deep.  A short distance beyond this the walls closed in and the roof dipped below the surface of a dark & horrible pool.  Spluttering and cursing, I made my way back to my two companions in 'Cairn Grotto'.

The move into the end chamber before Sump 1 intrigued Coase, who at that time was busily involved with the activities of the recently formed Cave Diving Group.  Here was a challenge the potential for extension seemed great and so a meet at the cave was arranged for Sunday 22nd June.  Pat Browne was able to be present, but the strong party of Coase, Harry Stanbury, Miss F. Hutchinson, R. Woodbridge (all from the BEC) and Graham Balcombe, then one of the countries leading cave divers, set off to investigate the sump.  The carry of the cumbersome diving equipment took some time, particularly through the end section of Browne's Passage, a series of low tunnels and the notorious squeeze 'The Nutmeg Grater'. (note 11)  Hammering away an awkward projecting flake of rock in Disappointment Duck Coase made his way to the sump. He noted later: (note 12)

... I then went on to the trap which is a miserable hole, a rift 6ft. high by 2ft. wide with water 3ft. deep.  After paddling around I found a very jagged hole just under water on the left-hand wall. By immersing in the water up to my neck I managed to put my arm through the hole and wave my hand around in an airspace on the other side.  With the aid of a stick, I extended my reach and confirmed my earlier impression of there being enough room the other side to get my head above water.  As I had only an acetylene lamp with me, Balcombe came through the duck with an electric torch ....

Balcombe's description of Coase passing the Duck and approach to the sump is more 'spicey' and amusing. (note 13)

... Then Don Coase, leading adventurer, went forward, squawking vociferously as the cold water rose above his belly then his armpits, and he disappeared round the comer.  We waited rather anxiously.  After a few moments he called back for an underwater light and another 'bod'.  I happened to be next in line and, regardless of my protests that I was only a guest, I was pushed in.  I found him standing up to his neck in the pit and with a grin of glee from ear to ear.  He had found a hole and thought he could feel surface at the other side. Yes, he was sure of it and struck the wall on the other side with the lamp.  It rang low and clear ....

Coase continued his account thus; (note 14)

.... Just as I was going to take the plunge Balcombe suggested that it would be advisable to use the chinstrap on my helmet in case it came off.  Doing so, I started off but hardly got under water when the helmet jammed against the rock and the chinstrap nearly strangled me. Coming up spluttering, I discarded the helmet and had another try, this time having better luck.  Once under water I slowly pushed myself through the jagged hole & rose above the water on the other side.  One nasty moment was when the back of my boiler suit got hitched as I started to come up, but luckily it tore itself free.  Shining the torch around I expected to find myself in a poky [sic] little hole like where I had started from, but no, this was a chamber about 15ft. across with a low roof & water waist deep.  The Main stream, which disappears from sight just before the beginning of Browne's Passage, comes in on the right under a low arch over a gravel bank and on the way down a 6ft. high rounded tunnel stretching into the distance! ...

Stoke Lane II

The downstream side consisted of a deepish pool in the 15ft wide chamber.  From the right the stream that disappears before Pebble Crawl makes its reappearance (note 15) and flows downstream into fine, beautifully scalloped, 6 ft. high tunnel heading into The Sewer.  The Stoke Two stream continues for several hundred feet before encountering a high rift feature and Sump II.  Coase returned through the 'trap' as it was known at the time and called to Balcombe and Stanbury to follow him through the 2ft. long sump.  Their excitement of the possibilities overcame the cold from the freezing water and the intrepid explorers made their way into the water course.  The passage continued, dropping quite rapidly causing the stream to flow through a combination of cascades, boulder piles, large chambers, a high rift before the passage swung to the left and a boulder pile was encountered.  An easy climb over the boulders soon regained the stream and the second sump was reached.  At the first boulder fall a large chamber, Main Chamber, was noted but not explored at this time; neither was any attempt made to force the upstream section of the active streamway which gives way to Sand and C.B. Chambers. (note 16) The party made their return to rejoin their two comrades in Cairn chamber. (note 17)

... Then "full speed ahead" for daylight, where brilliant sunshine greeted us ....

An enthusiastic party reached daylight and anther trip was arranged for the following weekend to follow up the leads they had seen.  On this occasion, happily, Pat Browne would be able to join the party.  Had a fairy godmother told them of what was in store on that trip they would have just laughed!

Pat Browne's account of that trip is perhaps the greatest understatement of that decade

June 28th, 1947
Leader: P. Browne (1st halt) D. Coase (2nd halt)
Party - G. Lucy, J. Pain
Browne and Coase dived the trap and made their way into "a gigantic series of caves far superior in size and beauty to anything as yet seen beneath the Mendip Hills".  Boulder choke broken through, cave ends in trap. 6 main chambers were discovered together with the fragments of a human skeleton were discovered by P. Browne (also charcoal)

A consolidation trip was held on the 29th June but nothing noteworthy was found.  However, on July 6th, another BEC party consisting of Browne, Coase, D. Gommo and Angus Innes further investigated the new chambers including Bone Chamber, discovering a human jawbone and a connecting passage between the two large chambers.

The discovery created much enthusiasm in the press, a detailed account was published, together with some of Coase's (note 18) superb photographs, in the Bristol Evening Post (note 19) Browne also kept Balch informed of progress at the site and in August 1947 sent him a sketch plan of what had been discovered. (note 20)

Above Main Chamber the explorers moved through a succession of chambers until they finally dropped into the magnificent 'Throne Room' bearing two large stalagmites 'Queen Victoria' and 'The King'.  The chambers discovered contained some of the finest formations ever seen in a Mendip cave and the then contemporary cavers were struck by their beauty and were admirably described by Stan Treasure of the BEC in 1949 (note 21):

 ‘…..There are about eight chambers of immense size, with pure white banks of stalagmite cascading towards the cavern floor ... and in some of the caverns the floor, walls and ceilings are completely covered with stalactite and stalagmite formations .... The "Throne Room" is an impressive sight, the chief feature being two huge stalagmites which have been likened in appearance to Queen Victoria confronted by a pageboy.  Making our way across the slippery floor studded with "candlestick" stalagmite formations we came upon a charming grotto - a real gem of the cave system.  The whole cavern was just as a child would imagine fairyland to be, with banks of "Snow" and hundreds of little "icicles", and the floor covered with stalagmites of many hues .. , '

Today sadly, a mere fifty years or so after the chambers were first entered - I wonder how many visitors gain the same impression as Stan Treasure did in 1949?

COASE SURVEY

During the Autumn of 1947, Coase, Stanbury, Geoff Ridyard and Browne surveyed the cave to CRG Grade 2. From what can be gathered at this time interval the survey was never published.  Though a low grade it was using the grading system later used in a publication on the topic published by the Cave Research Group. (note 22) Later, at the end of July 1949, Coase with the help of Ratcliffe and Ridyard, undertook a resurvey of Stoke Lane One to CRG Grade 4.  This replaced the original 1947 survey of the same set of passages. A mock-up survey of the CRG Grade 4 Stoke Lane One and CRG Grade Two surveys was pieced together from two separate dyeline prints but never redrawn to that standard.  For whatever reason the survey was never published.

Notes

1.                  Berman E., 1950, Report for 1947. MNRC Rep (40) in WNHAS Report for 1947-49, 9-11.

2.                  The report was duly pasted into Balch's Badger Hole Diary, now housed in Wells Museum Library, and he, Balch, added at the top of the page "Pat Brown's Account of his important discovery at Stoke Lane May June July 1947 and of persons contributing to the work.' Browne also sent Balch a second, more detailed, report (undated) after the main exploration had taken place. This report too is in the Badger Hole Diary

3.                  All were students from King's School, Bruton, Somerset

4.                  In the floor of Corkscrew Chamber.

5.                  The water trap was not Sump I but the outlet at Cairn Chamber. 

6.                  Browne, Patrick M., 1947, Stoke Lane Slocker BEC Bel Bull(5)1-3(July) also reprinted in the following:
      Browne, Patrick M., 1949, Stoke Lane Swallet, on Mendip. Brit Cav 19,35-37
      Browne, Patrick M., 1959, Stoke Lane Slocker BEC Bel Bul Digest 1(1)3-7(June)
      Browne, Patrick M. and Hasell, Dan H., 1974, Stoke Lane 1947. BEC Bel Bull(317)47-52(Mar) [History reprinted from Bel Bul (5), 1947]

7.                  So-called following the discovery of a circular route, the two ends were separated by an impossibly tight squeeze which allowed cavers to tough fingers but not pass through

8.                  Brown, Patrick M., 1947, [as above]

9.                  Brown, Patrick M., 1947, [as above]

10.              Brown, Patrick M., 1947, [as above]

11.              In the early 1950s post winter floods slowly modified the stream route. Though it disappeared at the start of Pebble Crawl, it began to reappear at the start of Stoney Crawl, during the post winter high water levels it gradually began flowing towards Cairn Chamber giving the caver a thorough wetting when passing the 'Nutmeg Grater'.
Cheramodytes [pseudo O.C. Lloyd], 1956, Mendip Notes. WCC Jn l4 (55) 40-43 (Mar)

12.              Coase, Donald A., 1947, Stoke Lane n Brit Cav 17, 43-45

13.              Balcombe, F. Graham, 1987, [as above]

14.              Coase, Donald A., 1947 [as above]

15.              Since that time the Bailey-Ward Series, 600ft of extremely low and wet passages have followed the missing section of the stream course. Only passable in low water conditions. Originally dug into by Avon Caving group in 1971 and pushed to its limit by West London Caving Club in 1974. A through trip is not possible.

16.              This led to a small sandy floored chamber, Sand Chamber and above it the C.B. Chamber [CoaseBrowne Chamber], another connection with this chamber is via the 'Changing Room' a small dry alcove a little down the active streamway an ideal place for the early explorers to change into more comfortable gear

17.              Coase, Donald A, 1947, [as above]

18.              Don Coase was not only an outstanding cave diver of his era but was also well-known for his photographic ability.

19.              Hucker, William, 1947, Most Beautiful of all Mendip Caves /I With Skeleton of Primitive Caveman and This is New to You.  Bristol Evening Post, 9th July [Stoke Lane Slocker -Stoke 2 discoveries; photos of Coase, Innes, Browne]

20.              Balch, H.E., 1949, Badger Hole Diaries, 1942-1953

21.              Treasure, S.G., 1949, Can you find a Better Hole'.  BEC Belfry Bulletin 3(25)2-4 [July,1949]

22.              Butcher, Arthur L., 1950, Cave Survey. CRG Pub. (3)