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Mendip Politics

As many of you will know, over the past few weeks there has been much political activity on the hill. The cause of this being mainly the Fairy Cave Quarry proposals, and the scheduling of a substantial number of caves as "Sites of Special Scientific Interest" (SS81).

There has been a lot of pub talk, speculation and finger pointing, mostly based on rumours and misinformation.  There has been very little available information, and what could be gleaned left a great deal of doubt in peoples minds.  I have therefore presented for publication a compilation of material, that I have recently received as secretary, explaining the above problems more fully.

The matter of what we are going to do about them as a club is more complicated.  At a recent committee meeting they were discussed at length and I was given a number of directives to take to the  "Council of Southern Caving Clubs" (CSCC); they are as follows: -

1.                  The club will support any action that would re-establish and improve relations between the caving community and local landowners.

2.                  The club supports, with reservations, the proposal to turn certain caves within the Fairy Cave Quarry complex into Show Caves.

3.                  The club will propose Tim Large as Conservation and Access Officer of the CSCC.

4.                  The club does not have confidence in the present Conservation and Access Officer of the CSCC. 

CSCC Meeting held 10th May 1986

Re: Fairy Cave Quarry

This meeting was convened purely for the purpose of passing a resolution regarding Fairy Cave Quarry, thus forming a CSCC policy on the subject.

After much discussion it was decided to defer the details of this resolution to the CSCC AGM, so that the subject may be discussed in conjunction with the SSSI problem.  An amendment to the resolution was passed enabling this action.  I hope to establish the minutes of this meeting in a future BB.

I hope the following material will help to put members in the picture regarding these important changes. In my own opinion I think we, as the caving community, have made rather a "pigs ear" of the situation, and may very well have to live with the consequences for some time.

Bob Cork.
15/5/86

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This is a letter from the National Caving Association to the Mendip Councillors.

Harrow
Middx.
24 March 1986

Fairy Cave Quarry - Application Nos 059755/002 & 003

At the forthcoming meeting of the Planning Committee you will be called upon to determine two applications by Hobbs Holdings Ltd in respect of their development of Fairy Cave Quarry near Stoke St Michael as a show cave and leisure complex.  The NCA is extremely concerned that the full importance of decisions about to be made concerning this matter may not be realised and the enclosed comments are offered for your consideration.  The Planning Department recognises the relevance of the points raised in this document and has asked if a copy is to be supplied to Committee members, as they are only able to give a brief summary in their own report.

The importance of these cave, and the threat to them cannot be stressed strongly enough.  Commercial development as proposed by Hobbs Holdings Ltd, and being actively promoted by their consultants Dr W I Stanton and Mr R Whitaker, may lead to their destruction.  This must be avoided and we would please ask that you read our detailed comments carefully before coming to any conclusions.  The additional points below are also offered for your consideration.

1.                  These caves are amongst the very few most important in the country, and certainly the most vulnerable.  It is imperative that any possibility of damage is avoided.  Their destruction would be a loss to the nation that will never be replaced.

2.                  Every existing show cave in the country has been extensively damaged through commercial exploitation and bed management.  It is probable that these caves will suffer the same fate, if not in the short then certainly in the long term, there being inherent conflicts between commercial interests and conservation which are almost impossible to avoid.

3.                  If development of these caves were to occur the only means by which their future might possibly be secured would be strictly imposing all the conditions defined in our detailed comments.

4.                  The Cerberus Spelaeological Society has been responsible for the management of the caves since their discovery.  This special knowledge and experience has developed a unique awareness of the problems that exist in protecting them.  Neither the Society or the NCA have been consulted by either Hobbs or their consultants concerning this matter and this give very great cause for concern.

5.                  As part of a publicity campaign Dr Stanton appeared on Points West (BBC TV 13 March) and stated that the development would necessarily be on a low key small scale involving minimum alterations to the caves and a maximum party size of ten etc. However the outline plan is for a very large scale operation which Jeremy Hobbs has confirmed 'further plans for the future would put the operation on a much larger scale with up to 250,000 visitors a year (Shepton Mallet Journal 6 March).

6.                  An initial small scale development is dangerous in itself without very strict controls that guarantee protection for the cave.  Although these may well prove impossible to implement or enforce in any case. The larger scale development proposed future would prove disastrous.  In Hobbs outline planning study a monthly distribution of visitors based on 250,000 per year gave a peak figure in August of 75,000 - a number far in excess of that which could be sensibly catered for in a whole year if conservation of the caves is to be a consideration.

7.                  When the applications were submitted Jeremy Hobbs stated in a Radio Bristol interview that the Nature Conservancy Council had no objections to the scheme.  He has further stated 'we are doing this in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy' (Evening Chronicle 13 March).  Both these statements are untrue, no discussions having been held or agreements reached.

The caves of Fairy Cave Quarry are not suitable for large scale commercial development.  If development on any scale were to be permitted it is essential that no work what-so-ever is carried out without every minute detail, from any modifications to the caves through to future management, being agreed and known to be enforceable before hand.

It is hoped that after reading the enclosed material you will have a better appreciation and understanding of the threat that now faces a very unique and important part of our National Heritage, and that you now share our concern that these caves are preserved for future Generations.

If you require any further information or would like to discuss this matter in detail please contact the Associations Conservation Officer, Graham Price, 31 Waterford Park, Radstock, Bath, Avon, BA3 3TS, Tel: Radstock 3U251 (home). Trowbridge 68115 (work). We would be pleased to answer any questions you may have or attend a meeting if this would be useful.

Yours sincerely.

M C Day, Chairman

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NATIONAL CAVING ASSOCIATION

SHOW CAVE DEVELOPMENT AT FAIRY CAVE QUARRY - COMMENTS

Introduction

This report forms the basis of comments which the National Caving Association, jointly with the Council of Southern Caving Clubs and the Cerberus Spelaeological Society, wish to bring to the attention of the Mendip District Council Planning Department and Planning Committee with respect to the proposed development of Fairy Cave Quarry as a Show Cave and Leisure Complex.  There is a real danger that the full importance of decisions made concerning this matter may be missed.  The aim is not to suggest the outcome, but rather to create an awareness of the implications and offer a way in which any proposals should be considered to afford the necessary protection to what is a unique and important part of our National Heritage.

Perspectives

The two caves around which the original proposals were centered, Shatter Cave and Withyhill Cave, are the remaining arms of a once larger system.  They are indeed beautiful.  Many thousands of years have had to pass for the caves and their breathtaking formations to evolve to their present day pristine condition. Their timeless beauty is in fact entirely dependant upon the inextricably slow growth of crystal upon crystal, protected as they are within passages and caverns themselves the result, over the centuries, of the chemical and physical action of rainwater on solid rock.

The elements and the ravages of time have over the same period changed the surface features of the surrounding area beyond recognition, many times over.  In recent times man has accelerated the process.  Protected as they are the caves have survived intact to the present day to find themselves, for but a very brief moment in their long history, under the responsibility (by virtue of ownership) of a Quarry company. A company who, in their exploitation of the surrounding rock, have breached the passages thus revealing their existence.  The present owners have since relayed a large central portion of the system which was the equal of any which remains.

We do not know why caves of such beauty are to be found in an otherwise unlikely area, but we do know that the caves of Fairy Cave Quarry are unique, a product of the particular natural circumstances prevailing in a small geographical area over past millennia. Small as they are, there are no caves anywhere else quite like those found at the quarry.  Formations of the type to be seen there are rare enough anywhere, but are becoming all the more rare as the passage of countless visitors to the sites which are accessible takes its inevitable toll.

So the decisions with which we are concerned here are peculiarly different to those more commonly referred to planning authorities.  In the normal run of events, decisions, good or bad, have only a relatively short term effect-man-lade features will eventually be superseded by more appropriate ones in time, or the natural environment, if allowed, will revert back to its local characteristic form, obliterating much of man's influence in the process.  The quality of life we seek to preserve rarely extends beyond our own lifetime. The beauty to be found in caves is however, in no sense 'reversible' and can in no wav be superseded, but is in every sense immensely fragile.  That which is lost is lost forever and cannot be replaced.  Inappropriate exploitation of any kind simply serves to reduce the stock which exists, denying it forever to future generations.

There is then another sense in which this issue is different.  Modern thinking generally insists that the public has the right to enjoy the natural resources available to it. "Does beauty exist if it cannot be seen?" is often put forward as an argument, especially regarding caves. The answer is in this case that it certainly does, having existed for far longer than man has ever been around to do the asking.  Whatever the current law of the land the public has no moral right of access, if in exercising that right the beauty is denied for ever to those which follow us.

Current thinking has only recently begun to recognise these problems, and the site is to scheduled as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) by the Nature Conservancy Council in recognition of its importance. However, there are no formal guidelines as yet, and until these are clearly defined, and "seen to be enforceable, responsibility falls squarely on those who find themselves in a position to Influence events.

Potential

Potentially, the idea of a snow cave is not undesirable.  One can envisage, with a little imagination, a development where ten passages were virtually hermetically sealed off with constant humidity and controlled lighting and viewed through glass ports at a safe distance, rather like one would visit an aquarium.  Outside, one could find other attractions, experience other caves - perhaps less vulnerable - and study educational displays.  There would be no damage done during the construction phase, and no later deterioration, even if the site were to eventually fall into disuse. Such a development would be an example to the rest of the world and a continually popular attraction.  But the amount of effort and finance required on behalf of the developers hardly bears thinking about.  The response to any proposals must be to ask what will happen in practice, and what risks does this present for the conservation of the caves.

Practical Risks

Now that we know the caves exist and are available to be exploitation, the practical dangers threatening them arise in four phases:

(i)         Now, if there is no development

(ii)         During Construction

(iii)        During long term occupation

(iv)        In the future, if the operation is abandoned.

(i) Now

For all statutory purposes the Quarry is currently regarded as an industrial site with same interest, but with little statutory influence from local and national conservation bodies. The quarry is worked out to its current limits so a change of use is almost certain, and a future change of ownership quite possible.  Any future use could conceivably totally disregard the existence of the caves, and threaten the existence of the formations and deposits they contain. How industrial activity to date has affected the caves has been well documented.

The caves will remain accessible to determined visitors unless a large mass of quarry face is brought down over the entrances, although visits in recent years have all but stopped at the request of the owners.  Some deterioration was apparent even over the periods when access was allowed but restricted and tightly controlled.

In excavating a large central part of the system quarrying activity made important changes to the local hydrology.   Interception of the route taken by flood water regularly results in flooding of the western corner of the Quarry.  The same water backs up through the decorated parts of the system leaving behind extensive deposits of mud and silt as levels fall.  These events nave necessitated major clean-up operations undertaken by the Cerberus Spelleologlcal Society), but the caves remain vulnerable to such disasters.  A long-term solution to these problems must be found in any case.

(ii) Construction

The construction phase is potentially the most damaging.  It is difficult for even an experienced, caring caver to visit Withyhill without causing damage.  Shatter Cave is a little more spacious, but many of the important formations are close to the only path through.  Therefore, through necessity, visiting cavers have in the past been restricted to two per guide in Withyhill, and four per guide in Shatter.

It is essential for any developer to give clear and unequivocal answers as to who will be carrying out the work within the passages, how damage is to be avoided, and detail what alterations are to be made, almost on an inch-by-inch basis. Prior agreement in these respects is essential, and consideration must be given as to now the work will be supervised and monitored.  Sites away from the public view should be given the same importance in this respect as those being developed.  The damage that can be caused by even a careful and considerate worker with a large sledgehammer, but with little experience or understanding of the strange environment in which he now finds himself, can only be imagined.

Any suggestion of 'sacrificing' parts of the cave in order to develop others considered more worthy of public interest may make commercial sense, but is tantamount to legalized vandalism.  The end result is simply a loss to the cave which can never be made up, neither numerically nor in terms of quality.

The initial construction phase, especially measures to protect the formations from the public, needs to be related of course to the number of visitors which it is deemed can adequately catered for.  Future modifications for example to cater for larger numbers would represent a major departure from the initial proposals, and so there needs to be a clear definition of what constitutes a departure and how such changes are to be reviewed, if the initial efforts lade to offer protection are not to be invalidated.

It will be difficult to guarantee that the protective measures which are built into the construction phase, such as screens around formations, will actually be effective over a long period.  Equally it is difficult to consider that any failure rate in terms of loss at formations is acceptable in view of the relatively short time it would take to denude the passages of all features of interest, given that countless generations will follow us.

Simply opening up a cave to increased air circulation can lead to rapid drying out of the formations, possibly for the whole length of the cave and others connected with it. There was ample experience of this as the quarry slowly excavated away the central part of the system.  It is clear beyond doubt that the continuing aesthetic appeal of cave formations depends entirely upon humidity levels and surface water films being maintained.  The installation of permanent lighting has a similar effect around each light, and causes severe and irreversible discolouration through algal growth. Carefully designed doorways and the use of individual hand lamps will provide the only solution.

Developing the surface site has potential risks.  A large quantity of water can at times enter the cave system at Withybrook Slocker to the south, and leads via an unknown route beneath the quarry floor to the spring at St. Dunstans Well to the north.  The main caves are dry 'abandoned' streamways but are connected via inaccessible conduits to the watercourse below.  Quarrying activity has already given rise to near disasters mentioned previously as the polluted waters have backed up into the dry systems.  Hilliers Cave, a northern arm of the system, is currently choked completely in places with sludge from the quarries stone washings.

Pollution, and thereby damage to the delicately balanced ecosystem of the caves, is a major problem. Clearly development of the site will involve run-off from car parks and other levelled areas. It is essential that any areas used for parking of vehicles are made impervious, and the flow generated properly disposed of through regularly maintained oil and petrol interceptors.  The problem of sewage disposal must also be considered, discharge of any effluent likely to find its way into the cave system, either directly or through seepage, being unacceptable.  Development proposals to meet these problems must be guaranteed to be effective.

Within the quarry there are currently fourteen cave entrances, each leading to passage of varying length and interest.  All the caves have been under the management of the Cerberus Spelaeologlcal Society since their discovery, and leaders have been provided as requested to accommodate visiting cavers.  This management and control has enabled continued use of this important recreational facility in sympathy with the need for conservation.  How the proposals will affect access to all the caves needs to be considered, and a management plan agreed.  A number of the caves have over the years become colonised by bats which are protected by law and how they may be affected needs to be clearly detailed.

(iii) Operation

Given that the public has the chance to get near to vulnerable formations the risk will always be present that someone might get round what protection is available, and inadvertently or otherwise cause damage.  The risk increases directly with the number of visitors, and hence with time. The direct result is a slow deterioration which can increase dramatically if the operators are under strong commercial pressure to pack more people in.  The pressure becomes worse as presently established Show Caves themselves deteriorate.  The initial proposals should look ahead to these possibilities with a strict guide-to-visitor ratio clearly defined, and obligatory.  It is almost impossible to determine this ratio prior to development, since it is unknown now extensive the alterations to the passage will be, however it is not unrealistic to suggest that a figure not many in excess of the cavers one to four may be applicable.  The overall number of visitors in the cave at any given time is also a critical factor.

The public encouraged to visit the caves will not only include those responsible, fascinated and perhaps educated, out also school children, disinterested unprincipled youths, souvenir hunters, the naturally inquisitive, the naturally disaster prone, as well as out-and-out vandals.  There is not the natural screening which a caving trip into an unmodified cave usually affords.  There are also no penalties for those who deliberately cause damage.  Hopefully a show cave complex would have an educational element but which must be of limited use in developing a sense of responsibility in a tourist making a once-only visit to something with which he is, after all, totally unfamiliar.

It will be difficult to guarantee that guides will be able to educate, instil responsibility, and supervise their parties adequately.  Theirs will be the ultimate responsibility for protection of the cave, but their individual interest and the numbers they have to control are critical.  Many cases can be cited from established show caves where the current level of supervision has been found to be inadequate.

These particular caves have an additional problems in that their main interest will be visual and because of their vulnerability.  Visitors must necessarily be kept at some distance.  As an all-round experience of caving the public appetite may not be entirely satisfied, which may actually encourage behaviour detrimental to the caves such as reaching out and touching the formations, or leaving the defined path when the opportunity arises.

Present show cave developments do not give any encouragement whatever that these problems can be faced in a way that conservation of the resources demands.  Failure of any one aspect could conceivably result in the eventual loss of the cave in any significant form.  Above all guaranteeĀ’s need to be given that the solutions to these any problem will work, and are based on principles of conservation beyond those needed to simply maintain the attraction.  The answers should be viewed against the alternative of waiting until such time when man's resources and abilities are equal to his responsibilities.

(iv) Abandonment

It is most likely that development and continuing operation will be dependant upon financial viability. The risk most likely to be realised is that at some stage during construction, or after a period of operation, the project will be abandoned for lack of funds.  The very first job once the project goes ahead will be to open up the sites for easy access.  There can be no greater threat to the caves, short of quarrying them away, than to vacate the site  leaving unrestricted access.  Examples can be cited where this has occurred.  Two safeguards are required, first to ensure that there is adequate finance from the start to carry the scheme through to conclusion, and secondly to ensure that provision is made to leave the site if necessary in a suitable state for continued preservation, for example, by handling it over to an appropriate organisation.

Summary and Conclusion

It should be obvious then that the implications of developing this site are not to be taken lightly.  There are many dangers and it is essential that any proposals are considered carefully and numerous safeguards built-in.  Any decisions taken should not be taken in haste, and in summary the following points are made, and offered as the only basis upon which development can be allowed to proceed.

1.                  Any alterations to the caves including enlargement of passageways or creation of tunnels involving the removal of formations, boulders, sediments, or affecting any natural features, must be agreed in detail prior to any work commencing. Adequate independent supervision must be provided for the works in progress, and strict adherence to the agreed proposals guaranteed.

2.                  Large artificial entrances should be fitted with sealed solid gates, kept closed at all times and designed to maintain as near as possible natural air flows through the cave.

3.                  Artificial lighting should not be installed, but visitors issued with individual electric lamps.

4.                  Adequate protection must be given to all formations and other features to prevent damage, even to the point of constructing a cage through vulnerable sections, or by completely encasing formations elsewhere.  No artificial or foreign items should be installed in the cave ether than those necessary for its protection.

5.                  A guide-to-visitor ratio for any given cave must be established and strictly adhered to, along with the maximum numbers underground at any given time.

6.                  Guides should be properly educated in the development of caves and cave features and have a great respect for this unique and fragile environment.  Theirs is the ultimate responsibility for monitoring the cave and supervising visitors.

7.                  Any possibility of pollution must be prevented.  Car parking areas should be made impervious, and run-off discharged through regularly maintained oil and petrol interceptors.  Sewage, and any other effluents, must be properly disposed of; none should be allowed to enter the cave system! either directly or through seepage.

8.                  Accessibility to all caves in the Quarry area should be maintained.  Some are colonised by bats and continued usage must be guaranteed.

9.                  A management plan for all caves in the quarry, either developed or not, should be agreed, and hopefully include a provision for continued access by cavers for exploration and study.

10.              Independent monitoring of the development in progress, and during future operation, should be provided.

Perhaps the hardest consideration is that given that the right questions have been asked, satisfactory answers have been received and objectively assessed and the go ahead given, can the project be monitored?  Is it possible to call a halt if the caves appear to be endangered?  How can this be determined?  Can penalties be imposed if transgressions occur, and is it possible to make recompense, when mistakes last for ever?  Who in the end will take ultimate responsibility?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they must be asked and satisfactory replies received, if this unique part of our natural heritage is not to be spoilt and lost for ever. 

National Caving Association
Radstock
Bath
February 1980