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Thixotropia Blues

Rescued from the Jaws of Death in two Show Caves in one day but out in time for the pub - or “Thixotropia Blues”

I'd been looking forward to March 30th; it was the day the summer staff started their sentences at Cheddar Caves.  Part of the morning was spent witnessing them taking the Oath of Fealty to Sandra Lee, then we old hands introduced ourselves with a few words (or in Andy Sparrow's case, a lot of words).  Finally I had to sit through Chris Bradshaw's introductory lecture in Bullshit; things never to be mentioned (rocks falling on people, Wookey Hole); and how we must never talk to the press because they have a way of twisting statements, especially if something has gone wrong.

That over, I was free to get on with the job for which I had been trained at vast expense: painting handrails.  Down at the Speleological Wonder of the World, Cox's Cave, I happily slapped the Hamerite on the railings, floor and formations with only a few breaks for meals, coffee, craps etc. until about 4.45pm when ZAP! all was darkness!  Of God, I thought, I've been struck blind. They said it would happen, but I couldn't stop.  Then I thought, oh deary, deary me, the lights have out.  Ever resourceful I used the handrails I'd just painted to guide myself to the light gone and the main entrance which was, of course, locked. It was vital to get out, it was Monday, and Monday night is digging night!

Cheddar seemed deserted, but soon the rest of the staff started to go home, so I waved and shouted at them, receiving friendly waves in return.  Eventually the occupants of one of the cars thought I was behaving in an even more erratic manner than usual and returned.  Informing them in carefully moderated tones that I was locked in the cave I dispatched them to the office.  Soon Mr. Bradshaw drove up to release me.  He explained that John the maintenance man and two of my "mates" who were helping him had skived off early, forgetting about me. He also found the incident most amusing, but I was soon to wipe the smile off his face.

There was a good turnout for digging that Monday night.  One of the new guides had been digging before; he even claimed to have done a bit of caving and said his name was Tom Chapman.  Another new guide was a sexy student called Carol who said she enjoyed a dirty night out so Tom had asked her along to the Far Rift Dig.  Also present were Grahame from Bath, a graduate from Adventure Caving and owner of the Far Rift Pump last used in World War 2; Adrian Brewster, restorer of the BEC's first log; Miles Barrington, now a spy from a minor show cave down the road; Robin Brown to supply vocal amusement; and Oliver Conte, a Frog guide who was apparently there as a result of his imperfect English.

Far Rift Dig in Gough's Cave was started by Andy Sparrow a year ago, and we've been making steady progress towards Daren Cilau ever since.  It's only inches away from a breakthrough (according to Andy) and (again according to Andy) has a slow draught despite the fact that bang fumes take a week to clear and after two hour's work the air becomes so foul that diggers are forced to recover in the Gardeners Arms.  Unfortunately it flooded during the winter and we've spent the last couple of Mondays pumping the water out until we were left with some superb slurry. On this Monday we were to remove the slurry by "Plan "A", which involved myself, wetsuit-clad, thrashing about in it to make it runny enough to pour into 25 litre containers. The thrashing about went well, but the damn slurry wouldn't pour because it was like thick, lumpy custard, so “Plan B” was put into operation.  I crawled to the dig-face and started digging out mud to mix with the slurry so that it would be thick enough to move in bags.

Well, that didn't work either, the mud wasn't thick enough and there wasn't enough of it but 'nil desperandum' I had a third plan which after much thought I had called "Plan CR.” This was to get myself firmly stuck in the mud so that the MRO would have to rescue me and they'd get the slurry out in the process.  All started well - Tom tested the mud and only got out by abandoning his wellies. The air was becoming nicely foul and dangerous, so I lowered myself into the mire and got my right leg firmly stuck. Miles, Tom and Adrian couldn't get me out so Tom; went off to realise his lifetime's ambition and made an emergency call.

While waiting, Adrian and I chatted comfortably about Neil Moss, but the air became worse and I started to hallucinate because I saw Tim Large underground!  A damn solid hallucination, the miserable sod put a rope around my trapped foot and he and some others pulled me out.  The mud is still there, and "Plan D" is to leave it there.  Hell, even Chris Bradshaw was down the cave, whoever next?  Wig?

A great reception committee was waiting at the cave entrance ­ the MRO in force, the police, an ambulance, reporters, probably even Lord Weymouth.  I was sorry to have missed Richard Stevenson with his bottles, I was told it was a sight to behold, and Lori was left to push his Land Rover out of the way.  Receiving a glacial smile from Sandra I splodged up to the Caving Room, got my wetsuit off, put my clothes on over the mud and got to the Gardeners Arms with the digging team for a bit of peace and quiet.  Holy shit, now what?  In bursts a papparoggi and being too pissed to resist I get myself photographed.  I did manage to prevent him getting my hooter in profile, but the damage was done.  HTV, the Western Gazette, the Daily Mirror, even the front page of the Cheddar Valley Gazette, who treated the affair like the Second Coming.  Oh well, its fame of a sort.

The next day I sidled up to the Caves, threw my helmet into Sandra's office and grovelled on the carpet. (This is, of course, standard procedure).  She was very nice about it, actually; we can still go digging so long as we operate a written check-in and­out system.  She was a bit put out to see strange cavers appearing from holes in all directions, so everyone who digs there please note.  A book or blackboard will be provided and must be filled in.

There's a lot to do in Gough's - the Font's team are continuing to find body-shredding passages, the new extensions above Lloyd Hall are not worked out, the Sand Chamber dig is a comfortable place and may even go somewhere; and Andy has his eye on a new patch of mud off the Boulder Chamber.  I just hope I find more than notoriety.

Finally, to everyone who was at the rescue, thanks.

Chris Castle - April 1987