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Cooper's Hole ( Cheddar Gorge)

from an article by FIONA LEWIS

Cooper's Hole is the great recess on the right hand side of the Gorge about 200 yards above Gough's Show Cave.  Often is asked about Cooper's Hole its connection with Cheddar Hole, the cave or place of which Henry of Huntingdon wrote in 'Historia Anglorum' (1125-1130) when he described it as the third of the four wonders of England Huntingdon wrote: -

'Cheddar Hole, where is a cavity under the earth, which, though many have often entered and there traversed great spaces of land, and rivers, they could never yet come to the end'

Later John Hooker 1568 also wrote of Cheddar Hole in Holinshed's 'Description of Britaine' Chapter 24 'Marvels of England'.  He said: -

'Carcer Aeoli (Cheddar Hole), where into many men have entered and walked verrie farre.  Howbeit as the passage is large and nothing noisome, so divers that have ventured to go into the same could never yet find the end of that waie, neither see anie other thing than pretie riverets and streams which they often crossed as they went from place to place'.

'This Cheddar Hole or Cheddar Rocks is in Summersetshire and thence the said waters run till they meet with the second Axe that riseth in Owkie Hole'.

Other major openings now hidden by flood debris and road making may well have been accessible at that time.  We do know that flood water did run down the Gorge and into Cooper's Hole, from thence it was free to escape to the lower levels.  It does seem strange that such writers as Henry of Huntingdon and John Hooker should write about Cheddar Hole and not Cheddar Gorge.  Is it possible that the Gorge at that time was roofed over; this would then explain the 'pretie riverets and streams' which don't give the impression of being the great subterranean river which has defied all attempts of revelation.  It must be considered the awe and fear with which caves were regarded such caves as Gough's, Cox's or any other cave known today could well have been described as 'Large and nothing noisome' by those whom 'entered and there traversed great spaces of land and rivers' though 'they never could yet arrive at any end'. Taking these factors into consideration it must be assumed that either Cooper's Hole had a vast extensive entrance with only small streams or that the search for Cheddar Hole should be directed else where.

H.E. Balch in 'Mendip - Cheddar - its Gorge and Caves, suggests that Cooper's Hole in view of its size and position should be looked upon as the most likely approach to the hidden subterranean river of Cheddar.  When in 1931/2, R.F. Parry conducted an archaeological dig for the Marquis of Bath it was discovered that the floor contained much flood borne material, the removal of which would leave an imposing arch with dimensions at least 20' high by 30' long.  Excavations revealed that when lead was being mined at Charterhouse upon Mendip, and open heath smelting in operation, occasionally heavy floods would sweep down the Gorge, bringing slime, sand and charcoal in quantity from these works. This debris flooded into Cooper's Hole which at that time was thought to be an open and steeply descending cavity which reached the underground river.  When the accumulating debris had blocked the way on, the debris increased until the great archway was filled, always though it must be noted that the stratification of clay and charcoal indicates the bedding to be dipping inwards. Victor Painter a guide for many years at Gough's Cave told Balch that during the early 1920's before the road was tarred at times of heavy rainfall white limestone dust would be picked up by the running flood water and washed into Cooper's Hole, later reappearing at the resurgence near to Gough's Show Cave.

Parry's excavations showed that approximately 1'5" of recent debris layover the floor beneath which was a layer of 3'10" of yellow stratified clay containing Charcoal. Below this again was a layer of unstratified scree with a bluish matrix, this is thought to represent the long period when there was continual rock falls in the Gorge, scattered within this layer was remains of early Iron Age pottery and bones.  A layer of 5' 6" homogeneous reddish clay containing no animal or human bones or any signs of mans workman-ship lay beneath.  No rock floor has ever been reached and it is thought that beneath this last layer must lie somewhere bones of mammals from the Pleistocene Period of some 40,000 years ago, like those previously discovered in other pares of the Gorge.

 

After R.F. Parry little work appears to have been carried out in Cooper's Hole until the summer of 1959 when the Mendip Caving Group sought and were granted permission to dig by Lord Bath.  Much of the work was carried out in the lower dig where the water sank, but this dig was abandoned in 1962 at a point approximately 5' above the level of Cheddar rising, due to continual flooding.  A chance arose with the removal of spoil and the building of the car park retaining wall to probe around in the left hand corner at a. point where there was an indication of a shelving roof at floor level.  A very fast breakthrough was made through a tight upward sloping squeeze with a rock roof and loose mud floor.  Once through a clean cut rift was encountered with a stairway cut into the stal floor, this was climbed in the hope it led to something big, but alas, it stopped at a narrow bedding plane which was choked.  Much work was carried out and a breakthrough made, the bedding plane came out over a 6' drop into a chamber which a cracked mud floor covered in claw marks, the walls were draped in soft red stal and a pile of bones lay in one corner.  These bones were later identified by Dr Tratman as those of Artic Fox and the claw marks indicated that the chamber was at one time open, the entrance probably being through the bedding plane.  On the 18th August 1962 Lord Bath and the press visited Cooper's Hole and were encouraged to pass through the bedding plane hence its name 'Thynne Squeeze'.

Work ceased after about 1965 and nothing further appears to have taken place until now.  Following the report of a bang let off in Gough's being heard by Thynne Squeeze an exploratory visit took place on the 4th April 1980 and a choked aven observed just before Thynne Squeeze.  A further exploratory visit on 10th May 1980 resulted in the aven first being climbed by Tim Large.  A small hole was encountered which when cleared of debris revealed a ledge some 20' above floor level.  Much digging then took place led by Chris Bradshaw, Tony Atkinson, Tim Large and Myself. A boulder constriction was then encountered which had to be blasted after which a quick prod with the crow bar and it would rain boulders for as long a 5-10 minutes at a time, which we had to fend of from the ledge.  This is still happening today and what used to be a gentle sloping climb up to Thynne Squeeze is now a scramble up about 50 tons of loose scree deposited from the raining aven which is now about 60' high and heading we hope both for the surface and back into the hill towards Gough's.  At this point in time we have decided to remove the scree slope before we become in danger of losing the entrance.  We have estimated that at our present rate of progress what took about 10 hours in total to fall will take about a year to clear, so any help would be very welcome.

Notes

St. Cuthbert’s Swallet – the Arête Ladder is still out of the cave and a 25ft ladder together with a short belay to the rawlbolt is still required.

Dave Irwin is at the moment compiling a Catalogue of the postcards of the Mendip caves.  Anyone with any postcard, old or new, it doesn't matter, could they let him have a view of them so that they can be recorded. The whole manuscript is now approaching 120 page recording cards from all the show caves and also from other caves on Mendip including Cuthbert’s!

Allan Thomas adventure for his summer holiday was to cycle a round trip of 1000 miles up into northern Germany and according to all medical experts that he has talked to he has transferred all his arm muscles into his legs.  A good stabilising feature to the Belfry barrels no doubt with the new season soon to start!

A short, new cave discovered by quarrying was recently inspected by ‘Prew’ somewhere on Eastern Mendip.  The cave is now blocked.

Dates for your diaries:

NCA Meeting - October 12th - Derbyshire.

NCA Meeting - January 18th - Mendip

NCA AGM March 21st 1981 - Derbyshire.

For those teachers in the club interested in lecturing on caving at school may be interested to know that a number of film strips are available.  Full details are to be found in Caves and Caving No.8, May 1980 (BCRA Bulletin) and is in the club library.

Don't forget that a number of BEC Caving Reports are available at the Belfry if you want any see the Hut Warden or Graham Wilton Jones.