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The Fernhill Project

Jack Waddon looking into the entrance of the cave, 1960

The cave was exposed by quarrying in 1960, opened and explored in 1960 by WCC, and the entrance was permanently buried under quarry tip about 1965

(Barrington and Stanton, The Complete Caves of Mendip. First edition, 1970).

In fairness to Willie Stanton, he did remove the word "permanently" from later editions of his book.  It was however, not an unreasonable statement, for a vast amount of surface clearance material had been bulldozed over the edge of the quarry.  This material poured into the entrance bedding-plane, filling it and eventually produced a heap which rose almost to ground level.

It is unfortunate though, that the entry in 'The Complete Caves' implies that Fernhill Cave was opened up by the Wessex, as this isn't exactly the case.  So, perhaps it would be a good idea if we start with a bit about the history of the cave.

The first caver to take notice of the cave was Jack Waddon, a BEC member who was nosing around looking for caves - sorry, conducting geological field work - in the quarry.  He noticed an enlarged bedding-plane in the (then) north-west corner of the quarry working face (note 1).  The bedding-plane was largely filled with a thick layer of stalactite, but at one point, a gap in the stal flow emitted a strong draught.  This was on the Whitsun weekend of 1960.

Jack returned to the quarry on 17th June the same year with Phil Davies of the Wessex and together they removed sufficient rock to make a passable entrance.  Jack squeezed in and made the first descent of the bedding-plane to a boulder-strewn floor some 43 feet below (note 2).  He made this descent without tackle and, as the bedding-plane gets wider with depth, he may well have found the ascent a little tricky for he comments that a 'knobbly dog' would have been useful. 

Strange that he didn't have to plaster the top with 'P' hangers before it was safe to descend.  It seems that things were done differently in those days.

The following day, Jack and Phil returned and explored the cave together (note 3), conducting a rough survey and photographing it carefully, as they thought that the formations might be damaged by blasting very soon.  A more accurate survey was made in July 1962 by Dennis Warburton, Jim Hanwell and Phil Davies of the Wessex (note 4).

How much investigation and probing was carried out in Fernhill is now unclear.  In November 1961, Balch Cave was broken into by the quarry and as this was a more exciting prospect for exploration, it must have drawn people away from Fernhill.  At some stage, the cave was closed by the waste tipping mentioned above, but even the date of this is unclear, Stanton says 'before 1965' and photographs taken in 1964 show that the entrance is blocked, although the bedding-plane itself is still visible.

The bedding-plane.  The entrance is on the right, under the tip.

That is the end of the first part of the story of Fernhill cave.   For over 40 years since then the cave slept quietly on, largely undisturbed, under a mound of quarry waste.  There were a few attempts by the Cerberus and more recently by members of the ATLAS conglomerate (possibly ATCONG in modern speak) to force a route from Fairy Cave through the intervening boulder ruckle.  All these attempts met with failure, but at least the ruckle did not get contaminated with squashed digger.

The idea of reopening the cave never quite went away and kept distracting ATCONG from our main problem, that of finding somewhere decent to get a drink on Eastern Mendip.  Anyway, to get to the point;  Alan Gray, (who despite being a lager drinking Axbridge member isn't entirely bad), started to examine old photographs of the area.  He was helped in this by Hannah Bell, who came across several prints in the Wells Museum collection.  Alan reckoned that he could identify rocks in the present quarry face that were present in 1960s photographs of the cave entrance.  He went on at great length about this in the pub, possibly hoping that if he talked enough, he could avoid having to buy a round and he very nearly got away with it.

In a very creditable piece of detective work, Alan identified three key areas of rock which were in the old photographs and also identifiable in the quarry face today. One is particularly clear and is marked with an arrow in the photographs.  Appropriately, it bears a strong resemblance to that icon of the 1960s, the CND symbol, (a sort of inverted Y to those of you who didn't experience the 60s and much the same to those who did experience the 60s and so can't remember anything).

The entrance is under the mound on the right.

By December 2007, the rest of us were sufficiently convinced to put our money where Alan's mouth is and we started a collection.  It was obvious, however, that extra funding would be necessary.

Just a minute.  All cavers like bats, they are our friends and we all love them dearly.  We were not thinking about re-opening a cave;  we were creating a bat roost.  The main chamber of Fernhill was said to be some 20 metres by 12 metres; that's quite a bat roost.

Natural England likes bats as well.  It is extremely fond of them; it thinks they are a Good Thing.  Natural England has more money than the average caver.  A lot more.

Richard Witcombe, cunning fellow that he is, put two and two together and came up with considerably more than four.   This meant that the project was beginning to look possible.  With further help from the Fairy Cave Management Committee and the Council of Southern Caving Clubs, we were on our way.  Seriously, we are very grateful for this financial help, as the project would not have been possible otherwise.  Formal acknowledgements and a list of private contributors is at the end of this article.

Dave Speed organised the excavation, because he is good at that sort of thing and Dave Gibbons provided an excavator, driven by John Stevens and a JCB 4345 articulated shovel, driven by Kevin Sparkes.  The machinery was delivered to the quarry on Friday 4th April and John and Kevin had a preliminary bash that afternoon, although work did not start in earnest until Saturday.  On Monday, the siege really started and continued slowly but surely through the next few days.  Nothing exciting, just dig, scrape, drive and tip over and over and over again.

Excavation underway. Note the arrowed boulder top left.

Now we come to the exciting bit.  On Wednesday 9th April at about mid-day (or 13h 16m 48s according to the camera) John uncovered the top of the wall of the entrance bedding-plane, complete with its stal coating.  Alan Gray could relax at this point, as he was no longer in danger of being strung up in one of the ash trees at the edge of the quarry as food for the rooks and crows.  He also could be satisfied that his predictions, particularly that of depth was close enough to qualify for a cigar - (but he didn't get one).

On Thursday, work continued on deepening what was now becoming a pit, as John had had to bench himself down to get deep enough to expose the entrance some 4(ish) metres further down.  As the pit was deepened to reach the foot-wall of the bedding-plane an interesting phenomenon developed in the 'wall of death' at the eastern end of the excavation trench.  A 40cm (ish) layer of compacted clay in the fill formed a supporting arch for the material above while the spoil below the arch fell away.  This created a tunnel-like structure running for some 4 metres directly under the vertical wall of spoil at the end of the excavation.

 Rich Witcombe, Dave Morrison and Jackie Ankerman admire the clay arch.

This arch rather concentrated the mind on installing the concrete entrance pipes as quickly as possible, for the arch was shedding material from the bottom at unnervingly regular intervals and at the same time it was supporting an almost vertical 7-8 metre wall of quarry waste above.  This was no time to hang around, the shaft needed to go in without delay.  The pipes were fed in as near to the line of the hanging-wall of the bedding-plane as possible, with Jim Young in the danger zone manoeuvring them into position.  Jim claims not to be interested in caving and so refuses to wear a helmet, but he did compromise this time and put on a woolly hat.

The pipes were placed some 3 to 4 metres to the left of the original route into the cave but to have sited them any closer to the 'wall of death' would have been foolhardy.  As the pipes were fitted together, John backfilled the excavation and continued thus until 10 metres of pipework had been installed and a reasonable ground level had been reached.

Jim Young and Dave Speed installing concrete rings.

The Speed/Gibbons complete service to speleology then lifted a large concrete pad from the other side of the quarry and installed it by the shaft to act as foundation for any winches, railway track and suchlike fripperies that may appear in the future.  They also transplanted a large ash tree and placed a substantial flat stone slab next to it, so that we could sit in the shade and have a place for a barbecue.  Who could ask for more?

We could, of course, have asked for easy access to the bedding-plane and also that the bedding-plane should be miraculously free from blockage, tumbling boulders and quarry waste.  Nice thought, but it's not what we got.

The present situation is that we have a magnificent spoil-heap and a 10 metre shaft, inclined at an angle of about 55°.  This inclination is a mixed blessing.  Because there is a small angular divergence between the shaft and the hanging-wall of the bedding-plane, about 5°, it means that spoil can exert a wedging action between the rock wall and the pipes as it compacts.  There are signs that this is beginning to happen.  On the other hand, an angled shaft means that a rubber tyred truck can be used and this opens up the possibilities of having a railway system and one can never have too many of those.

The situation at the bottom of the shaft is also mixed.  After several stabilisation sessions, which involved plastering everything in sight with cement, we exposed the hanging-wall and actually got into the bedding-plane by removing massively thick slabs of stalagmite from the foot-wall.

And then, over the May Bank Holiday, it rained.

Heavily.

The material round the base of the shaft turned into slurry and slumped.  So now, the shaft ends in a pile of mud and rubble and the bedding-plane is but a memory.

Work on stabilising this collapse has started (1st July), but that's probably enough to be going on with.

Contributors to the fund:

Jacky Ankerman, Tony Audsley, Hannah Bell, Tony Boycott, Pat Cronin, Geoff Dawson, Alan Gray, Dave King, Mark Lumley, Clive North, Duncan Price, Dave Speed, Rob Taviner, Mandy Voysey, Matt Voysey, Richard Witcombe.

Acknowledgements:

A very heartfelt thank you to:-

  • Hobbs Holdings Ltd, for permission to do the work.
  • Natural England, The Fairy Cave Quarry Management Committee and The Council of Southern Caving Clubs for financial assistance.

Notes

  1. Jack Waddon, 1960. Fernhill - A New Mendip Cave. Belfry Bulletin, 154, 6-7. 
  2. In 1960 it was 43 feet deep, metres didn't exist. The modern equivalent is 13106.4 mm.
  3. E.J. Waddon & P. Davies, 1960. Fernhill Cave - An Interim Report. Jour. Wessex Cave Club 6 (77) 112-117.
  4. P. Davies, 1962. Fairy Cave Quarry System. Jour. Wessex Cave Club 7 (83) 17-19.

By Tony Audsley