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NHASA invited to Windsor

To devotees of the Somerset and Dorset Railway Windsor Hill is the site of the twin single bore tunnels, but to cavers it is the area in which the first 'pretty' was found on Eastern Mendip, now known as Windsor Hill Quarry Cave.  By the 1970's much had of course been located in that general area, and expectations were high for the Windsor site in particular.  The railway and its associated quarries had closed and general access had become easier.

The Windsor Quarry area is roughly three-quarters of a mile by a half and lies at a mean height of 600ft. The surface streams, where present, drain southwest towards Croscombe passing through Ham Wood.  It is a quiet area, peaceful in its new role as an industrial archaeological site, with the exception of the regular vandal who tries to destroy our winching systems.  The tree that supported our derrick was nearly destroyed by an explosion and several efforts were made to cut it down.  [Unfortunately he has now succeeded and the tree is destroyed - Ed]

As usual, interest was developing from several sources.  The B.E.C. represented by Albert Francis, Mike Palmer and others, dug on the north side of the railway in the late 60's and one would expect, others to have tried their luck as well.  In the early 70's, Hedley Hill, Shepton Mallet Scouts Leader, was looking for a dig site, and his ploy when approached by members of NHASA was to pretend that he was the landlord.  Mike Thompson spotted the site on a walk down the valley and he and Jim Hanwell followed up with a spot of dowsing.  NHASA then adopted it after abortive efforts at Doubleback and Rock Swallet.

The site comprises a little valley whose southern side is a minor scarp slope at right angles to the dip, and the other side is the railway on a small embankment.  At the head of the valley is a culvert emerging from the railway.  The floor drains down to a quarry and there are open holes for the water in the scarp and also adjacent to the embankment.  Our site lay in the valley floor and may have been opened by the railway engineers in the 1870's - now there's a thought for the record books!

Say seven years work, or about 350 Wednesday evenings, and it can all be summarized in a few words. One can write pages of detail but unfortunately it must all be compressed into a few phrases.  We work as a team and each person contributes his or her skills and talents, so it isn't generally necessary to mention any particular name in relation to an incident or bit of kit.

The first stage of the dig was to enlarge the entrance in a downwards direction to expose fully the dominant surface features.  This left us with a hole some ten feet deep, five feet wide and fifteen feet long.  A right turn was taken along the strike in a westerly direction, but this was abandoned after a rock nearly killed our future MBE, Bob Whitaker.  We then attacked the dip in a direct line with the entrance, for ease of hauling, and dug southwards at a 30 degree slope.

The passage exhibited a half-tube in the roof and we dropped the floor to give ease of passage, such that it varied from three to six feet in height, and where necessary the tunnel was wall or roof lined by our building expert, Albert, using S&D coal ash for his concrete.  For some distance there appeared to be a fill between the roof and floor and spoil could be freed with a bar without much trouble, and in one section we gained six feet by entering an open passage.  This bit gave trouble in 1980 when there was a minor roof fall and Albert and Prew were stuck on the far side, fortunately they could come out after a few minutes heaving away at the debris.

We used the traditional Mendip sauceboat for transport to the entrance hole, but not the 'Guss and Crook'.  Spoil was transferred to a simple bucket hoist system to reach the surface.  As time progressed the sauceboat had to be pulled by a winch assisted and pulley-guided method.  It became very labour intensive and it had an enormous drag factor.

The culverted stream caused trouble in winter and many efforts were made to get rid of the water down adjacent beds and holes.  It was an odd experience to divert a large stream and see it sink away.  The chief gardener made us build all sorts of walls and dams to control the flow and at one time we tried to bypass our hole and send the water further down the valley by trenching it and by lining the trench with polythene tubing.  Despite all this there were many occasions when digging was impossible by virtue of excessive water.  With so much quarrying in the vicinity the water carried a good load of silt, and at times it could refill the space that had been laboriously dug the previous week. When diverted down an adjacent hole it could be heard from our dig face and it sounded just like the old forty foot, as we kept telling the youngsters.

Eventually the half tube disappeared and we found ourselves staring at a bedded face with no obvious prospect.  The lure of the water sound led us to deviate eastwards and follow some thin gaps in the beds.  Blasting became necessary to give us a decent height and this was our downfall, for having cleared last weeks debris we had to drill and bang again.  Windsor rock is hard, very hard, and we made slow progress. Plaster charges were tried but they did little work and minds were tuned to alternative procedures.

Windsor Hill was probably the first caving site where a compressor, owned by the diggers, was a regularly used piece of equipment.  It was an intelligent cave, for provision was made for the telephone line, the air line, the bang wire and the spoil transfer system.  One day, at some dig or other, we shall have an injector, and we will have a cement line as well.

The first compressor, to which we had access, was a small model designed for underwater use, and it had a hydraulic action, needing a return as well as a supply hose.  It made a useful hole but was not really man enough for our purposes; neither could we afford to buy one of our own.  So, we ended up with the navvy's friend, the typical noisy but effective air compressed version.  It did us proud and is still a good investment after use at other sites.  Earmuffs are essential gear, for the risks to hearing are well proven.  The hydraulic compressor, with its enclosed oil content, had to be sited close to the entrance and this was a disadvantage to the social life of the dig.  The ideal situation is to find a dig where a compressor can be sited at a reasonable distance.

No measurements were taken, but the length of the main hole, down dip, was about seventy feet when we rebelled at the transport system in use and made the experts do something.  A monorail was devised such that the lengths of timber, say five feet long by six inches by two inches, were fixed centrally in a line down the passage with the six inch measurement being in the vertical plane.  The sauceboat was fixed up with bogies that had one wheel resting on the top of the monorail, which latter was steel-capped to reduce wear, and one on each side. The leverage on these side ones was acute from a loaded boat but the thing worked well.  However, unlike mountain railway systems there was nothing to stop a runaway, and the loaded projectile was potentially lethal, especially as it had pointed ends.  Up top a new winch was provided with two or three handle positions at different gearings to suit various stages of decrepitude.

Our deviated eastern passage gave us a further problem.  The floor was very rough, and solid, and spoil had to be passed bucket by bucket to the main passage.  Eventually a lightweight monorail was suspended from the roof from which the buckets could be hung.  All mod con in fact.

Our final session was on Nov 28th '81.  Everything that had been brought out-the previous week was back in situ again, and we retired disheartened.

The area is still full of Eastern Promise for few sites have been worked.  We all have our own interpretations for failure to find a cave, and it's worth while listing a few, for they can also relate to other sites.

1.                  The theory of open joints.  Perhaps there is no cave.  For a hole the size of Swildons entrance, say 3ft by 3ft, can also be represented on a surface 50ft long by 24ft wide.  If the width contains 9 bedding joints each 1/4 inch wide then the Swildons water can in theory disappear within this area, and limited erosional features can lead to wishful thinking about a theoretical cave.

2.                  Surface disturbance.  At Windsor the stream may have been diverted when it was culverted under the railway, and this happened twice as the line was originally single, then doubled.  Any stream near the quarries would have been used and possibly diverted for steam raising in machinery or for shunting engines.

3.                  Streams that appear to sink in well-established holes within the quarry area may in reality have had a short life.

4.                  If one can't actually follow a stream then the adjacent parallel bed may be too low or too high in relation to the theoretical cave.

5.                  The labour force required to work the dig became too large.  No spoil could be stored part-way to the surface for the stream merely washed it to the bottom again.

6.                  One of the best possible sites was too near a possessive cottager.

Yes, we benefited from this experience.  Our current dig has several localities that can be used as temporary dumps with a small labour force.  All spoil is put into poly bags so that it cannot be washed down again, and we don't have a stream, but that's another story.

There is much more to NHASA than a weekly cave dig may suggest.  Our average age is high, because we have been around for some time, and we are no longer in the first flush of youth.  We don't do epic trips; we just have epic spells of survival between trips.  This aspect of caving is not often mentioned, but we have helped one of our group to overcome severe depression, we have convinced another that there is caving after severe illness, we have helped each other to give up smoking, and we cope with all the ailments to which middle aged gentlemen are prone, like a lack of an excuse to go to the Hunters midweek. Some of us are young, though, and romance can blossom amongst the buckets, boats and compressors.  Brian and Lucy will have many happy memories of Windsor.  We encourage doctors, for we specialize in odd accidents, or how to cut your eye with a caving helmet or burst your thumb with a lump of honest limestone.

It's a rule that in order to attend the NHASA dinner one must do some digging, and it is amusing to note the faces that appear at infrequent intervals.  Some of these people are normally busy at their own digs, others are members of the Craven 'A' team, to whom we play host, and others are noted for their shy and retiring habits.  All are welcome, for we are all equal participants in my last statement .

Wednesday evenings are a period of sanity in a doubtful world, and if we find a cave, well thatÂ’s a bonus.

(Note for new cavers) "NHASA", or the "North Hill Association for Speleological Advancement" was formed in the 60's when "NASA" or the "National Aeronautical and Space Administration" was a new and upwardly mobile entity in the USA.

Richard Kenney 07/09/87.