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Cheddar River Cave

Since the discovery of the river cave in Gough's I have maintained a detached interest in the proceedings mainly because I could not see myself diving in through Dire Straits. I think my feelings about the site were shaded by watching Martyn Farr emerge unimpressed from this sump nearly ten years ago.

With the opening of the dry route into Lloyd Hall my interest was rekindled although I still was not in a tearing hurry to get in.  However recently I seemed to have run out of excuses not to dive and felt if I did not do some cave diving soon I was going to become very rusty indeed. The discovery that exploration had reached the point where diving sherpas were required gave a point to my awakened enthusiasm and so it was that two weeks ago with dripping nose and cough I rolled up at Cheddar to help carry in gear for a push the following weekend. As I tramped through the show cave I thought "This is just like Wookey"; this delusion stopped at St. Paul’s where the caving begins.  On this trip again bulb failure meant I was groping about on a side light in unknown territory.  A crawl through a stal grotto leads to a drop into another chamber and a hole in the floor. This is passed to a low exceedingly muddy bedding passage which becomes extremely tedious with kit especially when it starts to go uphill.  At the top is a short rift to an excavated choke.  This was the breakthrough point.  A climb up through now thankfully stabilised boulders takes one into Makin Progress a boulder chamber from which the original explorers had to dig their way out.  Here we dumped the bottles and took a look at the top of Lloyd Hall.  A climb down a rift at the top of the chamber ends on a sloping ledge which on the right terminates abruptly in a seventy foot pitch into Lloyd Hall.  On the left a further narrow rift opens onto a traverse which looked horrendous with my dim light.

I spent the week having nightmares about the traverse rather than the dive but eventually Saturday dawned. Brian Johnson came along as a late recruit and we arrived early at Cheddar only to find that the heavy brigade probably should not be arriving for another hour or so.  When they did arrive poor Richard Stevenson turned out to have an appalling cold so the adventurous part of the diving programme had to be curtailed.  Clattering sherpas including Chris Proctor {thank you Chris} staggered into the cave until a huge kit dump had materialised at St. Paul's.  Brian and I led off into Lloyd Hall after Quackers, the dive controller, had rigged the short pitch on the far side of the traverse.  The traverse proved to be extremely tame in a good light and I was soon descending the forty foot pitch into Lloyd Hall.  The pitch descends a rift in the corner of the chamber and drops almost straight into the water.  A traverse round the wall leads to a shallow area and some ledges where scaffolding poles provide some support - not as good as the Prid diving platform!  The kit then had to be lowered item by item down the big 70 foot pitch using a large pulley.  The pitch enters the centre of the chamber so gear had to be swung across before it hit the water.

Lloyd Hall is a large chamber the floor of which consists of a deep lake.  It is L shaped with the short arm of the L being much wider than the long arm.  The diving base is at one end of the short arm and the short pitch in is at the other. The upstream exit is reached by a swim across to the far side of the chamber.  The rock is pure limestone - a welcome change to the curious conglomerate of Wookey.  The water level in this chamber can fluctuate immensely - a consequence of the restricted outflow from the resurgence of this presumably enormous cave system.

Much shouting and bellowing accompanied the transport down the pitch of all the paraphernalia required in cave diving exploration.  Soon a mound of bottles bags ammo boxes and rocket tubes surrounded our tiny perch and it was time to kit up.  We swilled mud off pillar valves and started connecting valves.  Disaster'!  One of my high pressure hoses started to hiss ominously even after some turns with a spanner and, in unison or sympathy, so did one of Brian's.  Fortunately some spare valves were available although one of them was an octopus rig (two second stages on one first stage I for which I drew the short straw).

We continued kitting up, disparaging remarks being made on the disparity between my 100 cu. ft. of air and Brian's measly 80 cu. ft.  This was a consequence of Brian discovering, at 6 a.m., that day, a note on his bottles saying “Thanks for the air - I owe you a refill" - and having to scrounge what he could at the last moment.

At last we were ready; bags of kit to be ferried through were handed aver, valves were checked, lights switched on.  We sloshed our way across the lake to the diving line.  Impatiently I dived; the cold was a shock, as was haying my gag ripped out of my mouth at 4 metres.  This was due to the octopus rig living up to its name by wrapping itself lovingly around the line.  Untangling everything I set off again kitbag in one hand line in the other.  Before me stretched a blue line and a light green impenetrable haze; no rock walls, and initially, no floor.  There was a surprisingly strong current much more noticeable than in Wookey, then a floor appeared - a bedding consisting of huge black scallops.  The line veered off in another direction and I was ascending then swooping down into a black walled rift before levelling out again.  Holes loomed up in the floor over which I drifted like a cloud before the tightly belayed line led upwards again.  After several hundred feet of zig zag switch back progress the bottom became sandy and a gradual ascent began.  Suddenly a water surface appeared and I popped out, Brian a minute or so behind me, into a low chamber.  In front was a shallow, but slippery mud slope and the usual bits and pieces of kit one usually sees on the far side of regularly used sumps.

Shucking off our gear we looked around.  In front of us was a wall of mud coated boulders whilst on our right a powerful stream flowed silently out at the base of the boulder pile.  The mud formations created an impression immediately - they ranged from mud stals to strange regularly spaced knobs coating the rock. In some places the rock was covered in separated mud ribs.  Brian set off up through the boulders and I followed.  We discovered we were at the base of a 15 metre high boulder pile which had fetched up at the narrowest point of one of the biggest chambers I have seen under the Mendip - or elsewhere for that matter.  This was Bishop's Palace.  In front of us was an eighty foot wide boulder chaos, the roof in the distance lifting into blackness.  We picked up our bits of kit and gingerly scrambled up over the pile, taking different paths as we went.  I ended up at the top of a steep climb down a tilted wall which I realised when I reached its base was an enormous "Berger sized" boulder.

Brian and I united at the top of a fixed rope climb over more big boulders.  It was the start of a 5 metre wide 30 metre high rift passage which took us past an extraordinary display of mud stalagmites.  The fresh look to the cave, the black coating on the walls and the size of the passage combined to give a sense of grandeur and isolation.  Signs of civilisation loomed ahead in the form of a bottle dump.  Beyond a boulder pile lay a deep flooded rift, one of the Duck Ponds, beyond which the cave continued as another deep sump.  I dug out my camera and Brian went off to pursue the sound of a healthy stream.  A rock window led into a ledge above a parallel rift with lethal looking mud coated walls.  4 metres below ran the underground river flowing tantalisingly out of reach. Apparently in lower water conditions no flow is apparent.  I began taking pictures although it was difficult to know where to start.  Brian poked about, at times patiently posing as I discovered a particularly photogenic vantage point.  Several rock windows overlooked the Duck Ponds and these provided great photographic opportunities.  Despite the absence of any sta1 the variety of erosion features provided plenty of close up material.  Chert ledges protruded up to half a metre from the cave walls, and in places bridged small rifts.  Protruding like black frozen worms fossil crinoids smothered the walls in other locations.  Many of the mud formations seemed disturbingly fragile but it seems clear that this part of the cave floods reasonably regularly so one hopes that they are self renewing to a certain extent.

Approaching voices indicated that the other members of the team, Howard Price, Malcom Foyle and Rich Websell, were starting to sherpa kit through.  Watching their lights descending the rift was impressive.  We exchanged enthusiastic remarks and then Brian and I set off back to the sump.  On the way back we could see more of the sights.  Perched 10 metres above the floor on a precarious ledge was a boulder jutting out like some casually placed diving board.  At the top of the big boulder, Rich showed us how the roof soared to incredible heights which may explain the incredible drip formations. The top of the big boulder is littered with pits bared into the rock, from which run deep grooved channels like horizontal fluting.  In other places the drips have initially hit mud which or angled boulders, creates the most amazing splash features.

We gently scrambled down the boulders to the sump and prepared to leave, still babbling enthusiastically.  Our final turn of the day was to pose for Rob Palmer as he continued his video filming for what I gather will eventually be a film documentary on the site.  We then slid beneath the waters of the sump and made our uneventful return to Lloyd Hall.  Here we reversed the process we'd performed on the way in by hauling our kit back up the pitch.  I was grateful for the size of the pulley when hauling the 60 cu. ft. bottles back up the shaft.  Pete Rose: like the US cavalry, then appeared at the last moment to help us get our kit out.  He had several moments of embarrassment before finding Makin Progress.  These included having to ask a cave guide the way and then trying to make conversation with the caving dummies in the show cave!  He insisted on leading Brian and I out past the dummies, a route which turned out to be about the filthiest in the system.

All in all this was an excellent return to cave diving and Cheddar now ranks alongside Wookey as a British classic.  It is interesting to speculate how much progress would have been made by now if the Cheddar River had been discovered many years ago. There is no doubt that Extremely advanced cave diving techniques are going to be required in the near future. Cheddar is still wide open.

P.S. Your correspondent has also discovered that the Cheddar cave management are also extremely sensitive about publicity so do not make the mistake that I made of mentioning to the press that you are visiting the cave if you are sherpering or diving.  Strange as it may see, you can apparently have too much publicity!  Brian and I are very grateful to Quackers (Mike Duck!) for baling us out with spare valves and for his sterling work as dive controller without which any dive in Cheddar would be something of a mini epic.

Peter Glanvill  March 1988