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Early Days

Bude
Cornwall
17.3.85

Dear Tim

Herewith article as promised on the “Pre-history of the club – please pass to Robin.

I hope that this will stir up others to recall the very early days.

It is such a pity that the other really early members are still untraceable – I’ve waded through the Bristol area phone books, but none of the similar names there “ring a bell”

All the best

Harry  

Early Days

In this our Jubilee year I felt it opportune that there should be a definitive history of the B.E.C. These notes cover the years to 1949 when more erudite pens than mine can take up the story.

During the Blitz years, one of our members - John (Jock) Kinnear, offered to write a history of the B.E.C.  All the original records, logs, etc., were posted to him; they never reached him and as a mail train was blitzed the same night, it is reasonable to assume that they were destroyed with the train.  As a result of this loss, there is no early record of Club activities and as the only remaining founder-member it has fallen on me to try to put together a record of those early years.  After almost fifty years some incidents remain clear, whilst others are hazy, but I have put down the facts as  I remember them.

It can be said that the B.E.C. was conceived as the result of a love affair between myself and the cliffs and caves of North Cornwall.  As far back as I can remember I spent my early childhood climbing on the cliffs and exploring the sea caves that abound on that coast.

When just after my 9th Birthday I was suddenly transported to Bristol and found myself in a large city, I was, for a time, utterly at a loss in such a strange environment.  My memories of caves and climbs began to fade, to be spasmodically revived by visits "home" to Cornwall.  I found that the "huge" caves that had so excited me in the past had become, usually, quite small and uninteresting holes.  Then, at school during a class on the geology of Mendip, mention was made of Caves!!  All the earlier feelings came flooding back and after asking a lot of rather naive questions I was told of a huge" cave in Burrington Combe called "Goatchurch".

The next Saturday I set out on my pushbike to Burrington to find it.  After a lot of hunting around I found the entrance and was amazed - compared with my previous experience, this was gigantic - it actually had a gate and a handrail!  Having no lights I ventured no further than daylight allowed me and emerged elated by what I had seen.  Subsequently, taking candles and matches I made another trip and managed the through trip, exiting via the Tradesmen's Entrance.

Several years passed. I left school and joined a well-known firm of Electrical Contractors.  Early in 1935 a group of us were discussing hobbies and I mentioned my trips to Goatchurch.  Four of my colleagues

thought that they would like me to take them there and so on record go the names of Tommy Bartlett, Cecil Drummond, Ron Colbourn and Charlie Fauckes, who together with myself began a series of trips to Mendip and the formation of the B.E.C.

We had, at first, no intention of forming any organisation.  We were just a small group who wanted to go underground, but after our first couple of trips to Swi1dons, we realised that there was a lot more to caving than crawling around in semi-darkness.  We managed to find Swildons entrance and after Herculean struggles in the stream, reached the Lavatory Pan!

We didn't like the look of that so we retreated.  On our second Swildons trip we reached the top of the 40' again via the Wet Way as we then knew nothing of either the short or long Dry Ways.

As a result of these two trips we began to realise that we needed tackle to go further; that tackle cost money; that money was almost non-existent amongst Electrical apprentices (average wage 15/- [75p] per week) and that to explore caves regularly we had to get organised.

Getting to Mendip was no problem - we had our push-bikes and so no expense (except energy).  Tackle was another matter altogether - then we heard of another group of enthusiasts who had recently formed themselves into a "Caving Club".  Here was the apparent answer - we would join them!  After much enquiry, the secretary of this club was located and Charlie Fauckes, whose home was nearest, went to see him.  He came away a disappointed man after a point-blank refusal to even consider "your sort" as members.

We held a meeting and it was decided, in June 1935, to form our own organisation.  The feeling was that although our main activity was caving, we had other interests that should be catered for and so the Bristol Exploration Club was formed, with an annual subscription of 5/- (25p) and a charge of 1/- (5p) per trip to cover expenses! Our initial membership was about a dozen which included the five originals.  At this inaugural meeting we drew up a constitution which has virtually remained unaltered through the years.  As an aside to the above, the other interests at that time included climbing - still actively pursued - and a rather bizarre interest in the supernatural. I remember us spending a very wet night under an archway in Bath, armed with cameras and waiting for a phantom coach-and-four, driven by a headless coachman, to come down Widcombe Hill.  Needless to say, it did not 'materialise'.

For a time after our first meeting all went smoothly.  Our subscription enabled us to buy ropes and the materials to make ladders.  We launched into 'official' notepaper and a bat - 'Bertie' - was adopted as our emblem, although he didn't find his way on to our note-paper until much later.

We familiarised ourselves with most of the smaller caves and then we turned to the larger ones.  Here too, we were successful and at the end of the first year we were still in existence and if not exactly flourishing, were holding our own.

Membership did not increase greatly in the following years.  We were not keen, anyway, on having too many members at first as we felt we did not have sufficient know-how or facilities to hold them after they had joined. We preferred to move slowly, consolidating our position as we went, so that when the time came, as we were sure it would, when members started to roll in, we would be in a position to offer them something good.

The outbreak of war in 1939 found the club in a stronger position than ever before although our membership was still only fifteen.  We had suffered one bad loss.  Our treasurer, Dick Bellamy, who was also our 'official' photographer, had developed blindness and this necessitated his withdrawal from all club activities.  His last trip was to Lamb Leer where we went as guests of U.B.S.S.

As the war progressed, most of the older members were called up, so that except for one fortunate circumstance we would have had to close down, as did other Mendip clubs, for lack of active members.  We were fortunate to absorb the Emp1ex Cave Club.  The E.C.C. membership comprised members of the staff of Bristol Employment Exchange who had formed a club for similar reasons and on similar lines as our own.  The leading lights of Emp1ex were Roy Spickett and 'Jones'.  Older members who can recall 'Jones' will remember some of the hilarious escapades he led.  I recall a trip to the depths of Sidcot with a naked 'Jones' crawling over two of us and the sub- sequent boot marks and burns from our acetylene lamps along the length of his body!  I hasten to add that he didn't normally cave naked, especially in mixed company but had just shed his clothes to get back through a hole through which gravity had helped him on his downward journey.

1940/41 saw us jogging along as before, the number of new members usually equalling those called to the forces, but 1942 saw the most severe crisis in the club's history. There was a massive call-up, the result of which left us with only about half-a-dozen active members, all of whom were actively engaged in the war effort and so had very little time for caving. As all members in the forces had their subscriptions waived during the duration, we were badly hit financially.

For six months we struggled on and then came salvation.  A number of persons of fair caving experience applied for membership and from that moment our troubles vanished. It is mainly through the hard work and support of two of these men - Dan Hasell and Roy Wallace - the latter now long dead - that the club was put on the way towards the prominent position it holds in the caving world today.

The club was revitalised and it is from this time that the Membership numbering system began.  We little thought that by 1985 well over 1000 people would have been accepted for membership.

Mendip was still reached by push-bike, the severe petrol rationing precluding any other personal means of transport.  The emphasis was on "push" ropes, ladders and clothes had to be carried and in many cases made the journey more strenuous than the actual caving, especially on the return journey when everything was wet and muddy and consequently weighed more.  So, in 1943 we built what we claimed to be the first lightweight ladder to be used on Mendip - made from hollow duralumin tube and steel wire.  It was supposedly lighter than its French equivalent and was 40' long, to be followed shortly by a similar 20' length.  This ladder, now a museum piece, is held by Angus Innes.

Between 1943 and 1945 our membership again showed a marked increase and it was during this time that we became well known and respected on Mendip.  Prior to this, as one of the very few active clubs, anything untoward that occurred "on the hill" was laid at our door - "You're the only active Mendip Club; it must have been you who broke into Lamb Leer etc., etc."  In reality our conscience was clear, as to our knowledge, no B.E.C. member had been guilty of misconduct.  It was against our principles to antagonise others and although we knew that incidents had occurred, we also knew that we were not to blame.  This fact eventually was recognised and the ill-informed sniping ceased.

In 1946 we felt that it was time to consider having a headquarters on the Hill.  Our first temporary H.Q. was the stone hut across the valley from the present Belfry site.  I believe it had room for just six bunks and although it was completely inadequate for a club membership of 80, it was at least a toe-hold. Shortly after this an old cricket pavilion on Purdown became available and this was purchased, transported and quickly erected on the present site, in time for the terrible winter of 1947.  The journey to Mendip was notable for Angus sitting in the detailer on top of the load.

A hut on Mendip needed a name and what more appropriate than 'The Belfry'?- the home of Bertie and his clan.

The same year our dig at Cross Swallet brought us in contact with The Bridgwater Caving Club, the majority of whose members became members of B.E.C. - Sett, Alfie, Postle, Pongo, Don Coase, Shorty, Dizzie and Freda Hutchinson to mention a few by name.  We also absorbed the Mendip Speleological Group and became, individually, very active in the formation of the Cave Diving Group, in which Don Coase was an outstanding diver and Dan Hasell is now President.  The club also became a member of the - now defunct - Cave Association of Wales and also of the Cave Research Group.

In 1947 the Belfry Bulletin was first published and its success can be judged by the fact that after 38 years it still regularly (well, almost!) appears.

1947 also saw the discovery by the club of Stoke Lane II, Browne's Hole and Withybrook Swallet, and a week's caving in Derbyshire and several weekends in Wales and Cornwall were enjoyed by all who took part in them. During one of the latter, the club won first prize in the Bude Carnival:  Not as cavers, but as babies.  Angus, Jim Weeks and Dick Woodbridge were three of the four babes and their antics wrecked the efforts of the local band who followed them in the procession.

In 1948 membership stood at 98 and there was a considerable increase in caving tempo.  A survey of Stoke Lane I and II was completed, published, and was amongst a number of club items shown at a Caving Exhibition organized by the City of Bristol in conjunction with local caving societies. The exhibition was a great success; the photographs loaned by the B.E.C. which included a number of superb shots of Stoke Lane II by Don Coase, being a crowd puller.

During 1948 we absorbed the Clifton Caving Club and 'Shorty' formed a London section of the club.  Probably the outstanding achievement of the year was the purchase of another hut.  Belfry II (the Purdown pavilion) had become too small for our expanding active membership and was also more than a little decrepit.  A Naval hut sited at Rame Head in Cornwall was located, examined and priced.  It was almost new, even the bolts holding the sections together were un-rusted, and the size was about right.  We bought it and one weekend a party descended on it; dismantled it; loaded it on a lorry and transported it back to Mendip.  My memory of that weekend is - rain, sleeping on a concrete floor in a disused building ankle deep in sheep shit and a car (mine) whose front wheels always wanted to go in the opposite direction to the turn of the wheel.  If anyone is interested, buy Angus a pint and he'll relate more gory details.  This hut became Belfry III and lasted until it was burnt down many years later.

The outstanding event of 1949 was the attendance of a large party of members at the 2nd International conference of Speleology at Valence in the Rhone Valley.  Bob Bagshaw and party were featured in the local papers, complete with rather flamboyant prose and indistinct photographs.

I hope that some readers will have found this article of interest and that I have stirred the memories of some of the old-timers, perhaps leading to further notes and reminiscences of the dim and distant days of yore.