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Puck Suds

EXCAVATIONS AT BOWERY CORNER SWALLET FROM 1937-1989 AND AN ANCIENT MENDIP PLACE-NAME REVIVED.

"In Somerset you must be an expert with "Jelly" and spend your week-ends at the bottom of a sink-hole hopefully endeavouring to blow a way in somewhere."

YORKSHIRE RAMBLERS CLUB JNL Vol VI No 22. 1936

At ST 53135254. Opposite the lay--by in Plummer’s Lane, is a swallet in Lower Limestone Shales which takes a considerable amount or road drainage and run-off from the NW slopes of North Hill.  Recorded in Barrington and Stanton (1) as Bowery Corner Swallet this site has recently been the scene or much digging activity, most of which is here documented.

In 1988 Bob Williams (2) traced the original name of the swallet as mentioned in a manuscript of 1768 and before this in a Judgement of the Chewton Mendip Minery Court dated 1661 (see appendix 1).  It is proposed to reinstate the name Puck Suds for this cave - a suitable addition to such attractive old names as Lamb Leer and Cuckoo Cleeves.

Cavers became interested in this swallet in 1937 when Hywell Murrell and friends looked at the site, though it is believed little work was done.

1960 saw Mike Thompson and Jim Hanwell of the Wessex Cave Club at work here but after digging a deep muddy pit they failed to reach solid rock and gave up.  This was before the main road was re-aligned and there was some confusion as to whether the BEC dig was in the same place.  This was recently confirmed on a visit with Jim.  (The old road still exists as the lay-by opposite).

In 1976 Willie Stanton (WCC) dye tested the stream in reasonably high water conditions using Rhodamine.  This followed an earlier and only partly successful attempt at Fluoresceine testing. The water was proved to feed Cheddar risings with a flow through time of 50 hours under the prevailing conditions.

Tony Jarratt.

The "Group Of Friends" Dig 1982-1986.

This site was visited during 1982 immediately after research brought it to light in Willie Stanton's Complete Caves of Mendip, 1977.  As fortune would have it I was employed by a National company. Whilst working locally I experienced a very heavy downpour of rain.  Looking to the north, thinking of the sink which had been dry earlier that day, I resolved to drive the 16 ton vehicle in my possession to the site.  On reaching the site some water was present in the ditch close to the road and also in the field ditch.  There was a steady stream coming out of the concrete pipe that drained part of the field.  The flow remained the same for half an hour after which it began to increase.  Within another hour the bowl shaped base of the site was under four feet or water.  Marking the levels of the various streams showed they were still increasing though the level above the base stayed at four feet depth.  Not believing my luck that a sink such as this could remain untouched I first went to the farmer, Mr Wesley Voke, and obtained his permission to dig there.  The only rider in the agreement was that the fence be kept in good order to protect his livestock, namely lambs.

Wesley’s farm became our secure materials yard where we stored all our equipment.  It was the first time that I had found that a genuine interest in caves existed in the people that live above them.  Much tea and cake later we realised that the reason he didn’t mind us digging there was because he didn't own it!  Still, as a neighbour he provided us with encouragement.

Further research began into the history of Bowery Corner, though alas some leads were not available to me.  However, Mike Thompson furnished me with first hand information.  When he had dug there (1960 I believe) it had been down through clay with no apparent way on.  It was also noted that some of his contemporaries believed that the Bowery site was not the one that they had dug.  This confusion dates from when the road was under alteration and repairs. Seeking information from the county Engineers Office provided no definite clear plans of “Before and After".  I was happy with what details I had and persuaded Ken James and John Widley to help me. Digging took place on Wednesdays and good progress was made until one wet evening when alighting from my Land Rover we could hear an almighty noise.  Looking over the grass verge we saw that the top of the shaft had a white crown surrounded by bits of vegetation.  The 12 foot shaft had filled completely.  Before we had had a stream almost permanently present but this was something else.  Stopping only to change underwear we went to the bar.

I now checked Willie Stanton's water tracing results of the area (1974) and found that he had received a doubtful trace at the first Cheddar rising after 72 hours.  Estimated flow at the time was 10 gallons per minute. The experiment was repeated in January 1977, using 100cc of Rhodamine W.T. in an approximate flow of 20 GPM, the result was positive at Cheddar.  Wookey, Rodney Stoke (Spring Head) and Rowpits all proved negative.  A rhine draining an apparently unpolluted area of moor gave a consistently high reading in the Rhodamine range.

The effect of the flood that we witnessed was all too apparent on the next visit.  The shaft was previously 12 feet deep and approximately 4 to 5 feet in diameter.  It was now 8 feet deep and 8 feet in diameter.  Both the walls of the shaft opposite the two main streams had been carved away leaving an unstable area.  Over the next month the debris was removed and work recommenced.  The main problem was that there was no limestone to be seen or any hard rock for that matter!  Again and again the sides of the dig collapsed causing great disappointment. We were fearful of Mr Voke or the council complaining that either road or field was fast disappearing.  The digging team’s numbers had now shrunk to one. This meant that progress was painfully slow.  Still working in the area I regularly hijacked the lorry I drove and utilized the road drill and pump to make digging more enjoyable. You haven’t lived until you’ve used a road breaker in a confined space.  Sometime later the company realized that the mileage I was achieving to and from Bristol and Frome was excessive, and on one occasion followed me to the site.  As my foreman made himself comfortable in the back of the lorry for the duration we were interrupted by the nice Inspector man who looked down the hole and asked what I was doing.  Digging was continued through my suspension.  I now had problems with the moving of spoil so the decision was made to involve others of like mind.  The site was offered to both the Severn Valley Caving Club and the Wessex Cave Club. No takers so the L.A.D.S. were shown the site.  Shortly afterwards they joined the B.E.C., where old diggers retire.  With this new blood the enthusiasm infected many.  Once again digging became regular and with this came the installation of concrete pipes for the entrance shaft along with excellent prospects.

Pat Cronin

The BEC Dig  1986-Date.

On 10th October 1986 AJ cleared washed in debris from the six foot long entrance passage which was occupied by a muddy pool.  There was no airspace or draught and there were obvious signs of backing up by floodwater. Other projects then took priority for the next few months.

A major clearing operation took place on 24th May 1987 when the floor of the collapsed depression was lowered and the entrance enlarged and made more "cave-like".  A very low, scalloped bedding passage led off with the stream running away beyond.  It was decided that the site was interesting enough to warrant the installation of concrete piping to prevent total collapse of the adjacent field and roadside edges and to enable the swallet to be used as a spoil dump.  Further clearing took place and on 30th and 31st May PC and ML began construction of a concrete block wall at the cave entrance.  Between the 5th and 7th June the piping of the swallet was completed with help from a large team, the pipes being brought over from the "cave entrance factory" at Mells by DB using a hired trailer. Three lengths of 30” x 36”pipe were lowered into the hole by Land Rover, positioned and backfilled (see appendix 2).

Digging along the stream way now took priority.  The low bedding in shale was enlarged to hands and knees dimensions and spoil hauled to surface by hand.  This necessitated the ejection of the old Tyning's Barrows sheer legs over the entrance on 4th August.  The stream sank in a small hole on the RH side of the passage but it was decided to try straight ahead and this was enlarged for some 15 feet before being abandoned in favour of the sink.

By the end of August there were small lenses of limestone appearing in the shale and chiselling through this was difficult and time consuming.  This problem was solved with the aid of a Kango drill and generator followed up by “banging”.  Fumes were encouraged to leave the cave with the help of a Camping Gaz stove lowered down the entrance shaft to act as a “Fire Bucket”.

By early September, after a lot of hard work, the descending sink passage had been pushed for some 15 feet to a rock pillar blocking the way on.  This was banged on 6th September and when AJ and NS returned to clear the rubble they were amazed to find an open rift passage leading on.  This was some 25 feet long and in one place was large enough to stand up in.  A choked bedding passage led onwards.  The cave now totalled some 50 feet and qualified for the 1987 digging competition.

The next distinct session of digging lasted until November and involved the clearing of the next 30 feet of flat out bedding passage - Skid Row.  This involved hand pumping of the first flooded section and considerable enlargement of the whole length of passage by chiselling out the roof and floor with the occasional bang for good measure.  Periodic flooding curtailed activities as the crawl is not a good place to be in wet weather.  Wet suits were generally worn by those at the face.  An alternating draught was sometimes noted and the stream could be heard running on ahead.  On 29th November another rock pillar was reached and CS and MG surveyed the cave at 80 feet length, the end being just under the main road near the lay-by.

On 30th November the pillar was instantaneously removed and the following day a further 10 foot section of roomier passage entered with a small muddy inlet coming in on the LH side. Unfortunately a deep puddle almost filled the main passage and the onset of winter made conditions here particularly unpleasant.  The site was subsequently temporarily left to its own devices and a concentrated effort put in on the Halloween Rift dig in a vain attempt to win the digging barrel. On very wet days during the winter the amount of water entering the cave was phenomenal - a roaring stream with few signs of backing up.

Work restarted on 6th May 1988 when pumping was attempted at the terminal pool but failed dismally due to blocked pumps and split hoses.  Another attempt on 12th and 13th May was slightly more successful - the pump actually working but being too difficult to operate for any length of time as it was situated at the face where there was little room to manoeuvre. A water valve was inserted on the surface to control stream flow.

Lethargy was about to set in when Tony Blick (Craven P.C.) appeared on the scene with his dowsing rods and promptly predicted that not far beyond the end of the dig would be a small chamber followed by more narrow passage and then an enormous void - some 150 feet across and at a depth of over 200 feet with at least one inlet of about 60 feet width.  Passing motorists over the next few days probably assumed that a mass breakout from Wells Hospital had occurred as hordes of bearded zombies clutching bent welding rods marched across the road in front of them.

On the first available dry weekend (when the stream entering the cave was almost non-existent) the pump was brought into action again and thanks to various refinements by PC (The Digging Plumber) it worked to perfection, the puddle being emptied within an hour after 150 gallons had been hauled to the surface in 5 gallon drums. It was a pity that much of this rapidly returned to the end due to a leaking reservoir.  This was resolved by storing water in a variety of buckets and pouring it away in the field next to the cave.  A little progress was made at the end but it was felt that life would be easier if some of the ceiling was removed.  On the following day, 26th June, a charge was fired to commence this operation and the debris was cleared on the following Wednesday.  It was found that the ceiling could be easily brought down by using a crowbar.

The following five months were taken up with regular weekend and Wednesday night clearing and banging trips, the latter courtesy of NT and AB.  Well over 250 skip loads of debris was removed and some 7 lbs. of explosives used during fifty visits.  Exciting interludes included the flooding of the cave on 9th October when the stream overflowed the spoil heap: the near permanent retirement of ML on 22nd October after he'd breathed in too many bang fumes: the detonation of 4 ozs. directly below the Mendip Farmer's Hunt: several visits by Yorkshire and Belgian cavers; a surface survey by TH and the fitting of a hinged steel manhole cover to the entrance pipe on 12th and 13th November '88.  The fifty feet or so of passage gained during this exercise was typical of the cave, low, wet and developed in shale with the occasional limestone intrusion.  On 27th November the diggers were somewhat put out to reach a minute sump.  Not deterred it was decided to bang over the top of this and on 3rd December the first charge was fired here - upsetting a large frog who had evaded capture!

On January 4th - nine trips, sixty five skip loads and 3lbs. bang later, the sump was bypassed following some eight to ten feet of digging and blasting a mud filled tube at a slightly higher level.  The sump itself proved to be some six feet long and has been preserved as a "feature'.  Beyond, a typical and partly choked streamway led on for at least, ten feet to a low archway. Once again we lost the digging barrel.

The rest of January (eleven trips, fifty skip loads and 4lbs. bang) saw the team some fifteen feet forwards and the inevitable sump 2.  During this episode the indestructible frog was at last captured and liberated.  It had survived six bangs!

February continued in the same manner with several clearing and banging trips until the second sump was turned into a pool and a small chamber created to give the team some working space.  Despite atrocious weather conditions there were six trips.  15 skip loads removed and 14 lbs. of bang laid.

The wet weather kept up throughout March '89 but this did not deter the diggers and the regular Wednesday night sessions continued.  Some fifteen feet beyond "Sump 2" a third sump was reached which in dry conditions dropped enough for a 2" airspace to appear with the sound of the stream running downhill beyond and a good draught.  Much banging and clearing in very wet and uncomfortable conditions was done in an attempt to pass this obstacle and this was eventually accomplished on Easter Monday.  Beyond lay another low, flooded section where more banging was necessary.  During the month there were 11 trips, 60 loads to surface and 2½ lbs. of bang used.

April saw the team continuing as before and it was noticeable that during the first weeks, three new diggers on three separate trips suffered from bouts of claustrophobia. By the 24th "Sump 4" had been reached with a couple of minor side passages nearby.  The noise of falling water had been merely a foot high step in the passage.  It was decided to bang over the top of the sump in a small, mud filled tube.  Over 100 loads removed. 3½ lbs. bang used and 12 trips this month.

Due to the breakthrough at Welsh's Green Swallet, there were fewer diggers available during May.  Even so, some 50 loads were removed and another 2½ lbs. bang vaporised in the course of 10 trips.  A heavy duty bang wire was installed., being pegged to the wall to avoid the sledge run. “Sump 4'”was eventually blown away, being some 5 feet long and running directly below an almost body sized, mud filled tube.  The tiny stream passage beyond this draughted and echoed well.

In June work continued in this tube despite problems with bad air which gave one or two diggers a nasty shock.  A brief pumping and digging session was had at the corner where Skid Row began.  This totally silted tube was opened up for 6 feet or so before enthusiasm waned, even though drain rods could be pushed forwards for a further 15 feet, 6 trips, 76 loads out and ½ lb. bang used this month.

In August the Romanian trip kept several of the team occupied and progress was measured by 3 loads out and 1 lb. bang used on 3 trips.

September saw the commencement of a dig in the right hand passage some 20 feet back from the end of the cave.  The main dig also continued, taking advantage of the exceptionally dry weather conditions. Over 5 trips, 3/4 lb. of bang was used, and 46 loads came out to a rapidly increasing spoil heap.

During 6 trips in October, 52 more loads were added to the pile and another l½ lbs. bang dematerialised. The good weather began to change and the cave got decidedly wetter.  By this time the dig extended to a point beyond the roadside at the edge of the lay-by opposite.

November '89 saw 28 loads out and 3/4 lb. of bang used over 6 trips.  It was obvious that the cave had recently completely filled with floodwater indicating another sump ahead.  Most of the work this month was concentrated on the right hand dig which was opened up for about 15 feet to where a low airspace over the rubble filling was encountered.

Digging here continued in December and on the 10th the writer, clearing spoil at the face broke into an open but small stream passage with a tiny inlet sump to the left connecting back to Skid Row.  To the right this passage continued for some 10 feet and appeared to open up into a larger, body sized tube.  2 lbs. of bang was used during the month with 70 loads to surface and 12 trips undertaken.

During the last three years of work there have been well over 153 digging and clearing trips during which about 900 skip loads of rock, sand, gravel and mud have been dragged out and used to backfill the entrance crater around the pipes.  Over 30 lbs. of assorted explosive has been used at great expense (don't forget the bang fund box in the Belfry!).  Over 60 BEC members were involved as were over 20 from other clubs - notably the SMCC.  A list of diggers to date follows.  Work is continuing in the right hand dig, now christened "Dipso" - it goes down-dip and you have to be a maniac to work there!  A further report will follow as and when the writer deems it worthwhile.

Tony Jarratt   9/2/90

The Diggers

1937

H. Murrell (WCC) et al.

1960

M. Thompson (WCC). J. Hanwell (WCC).

1982 - 1986

P. Cronin. K. James. J. Widley. N. Burns. A. Porter. B. Court(TGOF)

1986 – date

P Cronin. A Jarratt. M Lumley. R Brown. G Jago. D Bradshaw. R Neville-Dove. P Hopkins. C Smart. J Smart. K Jones. T Chapman. S. Macmanus. M. Grass. N Sprang. P McNab (Jnr). P Eckford. R McNair. R Stevens. S Mendes. J Williams. E Humphreys. T. Gould. M. Tuck. G Wilton-Jones. N Gymer. K Gurner. B Williams. J Watson. L Smith. C Harvey. A Sparrow. H Bennett. M van Luipen. S Milner. N Taylor. S MacDonald. A Middleton. R Payne. A.Cave. G Johnson. R Clarke. A Boycott. R Taviner. T Hughes. T Large. I Caldwell. D.Shand. S Lain. J Clarke. R Cork. A Carruthers. R Beharrel. P & S. Rose and kids. G.Timson. C White. P He1lier. A Hollis. T Phillips. R White. A Griffin. J Stanniland. S.Loader. V.  Simmonds. R. Chdddock. H. TuckeL A. Williams. M. MacDonald. (all BEC) T.Edwards (CCG). S Prince (CSS). J Shaw (OS). A Millett (CSS). S Tooms (CSS). S Brown. Wendy. J Thorpe. R North (NCC). J. London. F. Easer (GSAB). E. Bentham (EPC). A. Ward (NWCC). G Newton. M Knapp. K Savory (WCC). N Sims. I Hollis & dog. J Lister, P.Collett. A Edwards. A.& G. Taylor. M. Bareau. G. Douglas (all SMCC). S. Tomalin(GSS). Dave ?( MEG)

References

(1) Stanton - "Mendip - The Complete Caves ... ' 1977 p44

(2) Williams - "Axbridge Archaeological Society Newsletter 107 March/April 1988

 

Appendix 1

SOME UNUSUAL MENDIP PLACE-NAMES

1. -- 'PUCK(S) SUDS'

In this and ensuing notes the writer enquires into a few of the many Mendip place-names which have faded from local memory. 'PUCK SUDS' was mentioned in a judgement of the Minery Court which sat at Chewton Mendip on the 10th February 1661, (SRO.DD/WG); published by Gough (1931,p.45).  In these proceedings the Grand Jury heard the complaint of a William Rudman ‘of great wrongs and abuses done unto him by several disorderly persons as touching a Washing Pond or Pool and another watering place for Cattell both lying and being adjoyning to a place commonly called by the Name of Puck Suds’.  The offenders were local lead miners who used the water for buddling.  The Grand Jury decided that such usage should henceforth only be allowed with the 'Special Licence and Consent of the said William Rudman' and harsh penalties were decreed for any abuses.  Although the place was obviously within the Chewton Mining Liberty, which is clearly defined, no clue was left as to the exact spot.  However, this can be determined by studying the unpublished 'Perambulation of the Royalty and Liberty of the Manor of East Harptree and Richmond, 10th June 1768'. (SRO.DD/WG, Box 14). In this "Froom Barrow" is mentioned and this is the prominent round barrow at the side of the road to the west of the Miners Arms (it is called Castle Barrow on a map of the Chewton Minery which abuts in this area).  The East Harptree Liberty bounds continue westwards ;- "to Toad Mead, the waste of the said ground near to the Swallet Hole called PUCKS SUDS--". This is clearly Bowery Corner Swallet recorded by Barrington and Stanton (1977, p.44) as being an intermittent stream which sinks close to the wall at ST 53135254. (see sketch plan below).

The Mendip miners were very suspicious so could well have believed in the mischievous sprite 'Puck' of English folklore and the word 'suds' was originally used for dregs or muddy water which would certainly suit this area of marshy ground.

Bob Williams.

References.

Barrington, N. & Stanton, W.L 1977 Mendip the complete caves ---.3rd edn.

Gough, J.W. 1931. Mendip Mining Laws and Forest Bounds. Som. Rec. Soc, ‘45.

 

Appendix 2