Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index

 

The Excavation And Exploration Of Wigmore Swallet

This article attempts to bring up to date the history of this dig.  Several previous B.B. articles have been summarised numbers 356, 357, 368, 371, 391/2, 393/4 and 406/7.

This classic swallet cave is located in a small wood at NGR 5571/5256 at an altitude of 880 ft ASL. It was originally dug from 1934-7 by the M.N.R.C. and in 1938 by W.C.C.  The shaft was then abandoned at a depth of around 30 ft.

When the B.E.C. arrived on the scene the shaft was filled with rubble, bones and assorted rubbish to within 6 ft of the lip - the position of the present concrete cap.

The dig commenced on June 25th 1977 (not the 21st as stated in B.B. 356).  With the aid of the M.C.G. motor winch and an assortment of technical digging equipment the shaft was cleared out until a relatively solid iron ore and calcite vein partly blocked the way on.  This was widened with bang and on 12/12/77 Hesitation Chamber was entered, at a depth of 40ft.  Two days later the lower of the two 10ft climbs below here was opened up and on the 24th, Christmas Crawl was entered.  The squeeze into Santa's Grotto was passed on 28th December.  During this period much work was done on "ginging" the entrance shaft and this continued throughout the summer.  On 16th September 1978 almost three tons of concrete was mixed on site and used to cap the shaft.  A steel grating from the road leading to the Isle of Skye was eventually delivered to the site!

The amount of work done in 15 months was remarkable, even for a Mendip cave dig; scores of members and friends being involved, including many overseas visitors.  (A Wessex man, meeting a Dutch caver in the Pyrenees was once asked "How iss Vigmore going?").  Digging tales of this period are legion - a notable one being the free-fall descent of a lager keg full of spoil which missed Trevor Hughes by 1/4 inch! (our aim was not good that day .... ) .

The surface work being completed it was noticeable how the number of enthusiasts suddenly decreased. A survey to B.C.R.A. grade 5C was undertaken and digging in the floor of Santa's Grotto started during early 1978. On the 17th October this "went" and Pinks & Posies was entered.  Work was then concentrated on enlarging this passage to crawling size until the Smoke Room was reached on 9/12/78.  Many months were spent digging here but all was in vain due to continuous roof collapse and this area was abandoned on 6/2/82, being used from then on as a spoil dump for the new dig in the floor Blitz Passage.

On 3/3/78 the stream was dye-traced to Cheddar Risings with a flow through time of approx. 42 hours. This gives us a depth potential of 980ft to the bottom of Sump 3 in Gough's Cave arguably the deepest cave in England!  The distance from sink to rising is over 5 miles.  The Blitz Passage dig occupied our time for some 5 months until the discovery of West End Series in Eastwater Cavern lured us away - the last visit here being on 16/7/82.

Work resumed on 17/5/86 and continued unabated for the next seven months.  A lot of hard digging, blasting and shoring was involved including the use of the Acro Jacks which have given their name to a small chamber. The last working trip of this session was on 6/12/86 before the delights of other digs in Hunter's Hole and Bowery Corner Swallet caused an eighteen months break.

On 31/7/88 work recommenced but ceased on the next trip of 6/8/88 Bowery Corner proving to be marginally more attractive!

A four month session from 26/6/89 - 2/10/89 saw more work in the foul conditions of the lower part of Blitz Passage where huge fallen marl slabs and a quagmire of red mud seriously delayed progress and put off a lot of diggers.

The present bout of enthusiasm began on 10/9/90 and was heralded by the purchase of a Bosch cordless drill.  Using this magnificent tool the offending roof slabs were converted to handy sized lumps and dispatched on their long, slow journey to the surface via a series of plastic dragging skips.  After some nine trips a breakthrough was made on 20/2/91 and the small chamber now known as Baghdad was entered.  This relatively comfortable spot marked the end of the notorious Blitz Passage but below it a similar bedding plane crawl led tantalisingly onwards with the usual howling inward draught.

This crawl was vigorously attacked with all the available tools and after a further nineteen digging trips the next "open" bit of cave was reached.  This took the form of a 5ft deep open rift just wide enough to get a boot into.  It stretched right across the crawlway and seems to have acted also as an inlet. Several trips were spent digging and blasting along and down into this rift as a wider section seemed to exist at its base.  On 24/5/91 a small, blind chamber (Ghandi's Pyre) was entered above this rift.  Work now concentrated on deepening the rift and on 31/5/91 some twenty feet of tight open passage was entered ending in collapsed wall slabs.  Two charges were fired on this blockage and on 3/6/91, after 1/2 ton of shattered rock was hurled into space (!) the cave proper was entered - almost 14 years since the start of the B.E.C. dig.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

After the long, muddy man-made crawl from the entrance and the tight and awkward Sheep Dip it was almost awe inspiring for A.J. (Tony Jarratt) and R.B. (Richard Blake) to be suddenly confronted with a roomy 20ft pitch some 15ft across and 4ft wide.  An easy free climb down Blackbird Pot (named after the current residents of the entrance shaft) led to some 30ft of "WALKING" passage and the head of another, larger pitch - Vindication Pot. In high spirits the explorers returned to the Hunter's to celebrate and gather all available Monday diggers, six in all, for the afternoon push.

The second wave of explorers descended full of adrenalin and Butcombe to bottom Vindication Pot at 35ft. Below this a dangerous boulder choke in the floor was excavated to reveal a loose 25ft pitch which was descended by V.S. (Vince Simmonds), A.J., T.H. (Trevor Hughes) and R.B. leaving the cripples (G.J. (Graham Johnson) and P.M. jnr. (Peter Mcnab to attempt an extremely hairy traverse over the top of Vindication Pot.  The third pitch, Hernia Pot, ended in a strongly outward draughting rift with a short and muddy inlet adjacent.

Meanwhile, above, P.M. had conquered the traverse by using fragile calcite finger holds and after 30ft or so had reached a large chamber beyond the pot and christened it "Don't Feed the Ambulance" (We may never know why!).

The floor of the chamber consisted of a wide crater and a 30ft deep free-climbable pitch blocked at the bottom.  Beyond this the impressive washed-out mineral vein continued to a 10ft high vertical mud wall which defeated the climber's attempts to scale it.  The smugly grinning team then left for the delights of even more Butcombe.

The following day the draughting rift was banged and on 5/6/91 a five man team returned to survey the cave from Santa's Grotto and continue work at the end.  The first project succeeded admirably but the latter suffered a setback when it was found that Hernia Pot had collapsed!  The whole floor of Vindication Pot had dropped some 5ft and filled the chamber below.  Several rolled ladders were luckily rescued from the mess but a bag of tools was lost.  Despite our disappointment it was evident, on consideration, that the best thing had happened, the collapse could all too easily have occurred on the first descent when four people were directly below the tons of boulders which had moved.

Our next plan was to continue with the exploration of D.F.T.A. in the hope that it would drop back down to the far side of the terminal dig.  While trying to scale the mud wall R.B. received the full benefit of a two foot long rock on the head but despite this he was still usable as a stepladder to enable A.J. to reach the top.  A short boulder slope led to a blocked crawl which was soon cleared to reveal a huge black space beyond. Named Drake's Hall in memory of the late Hillgrove Swallet digger, Bob Drake, the chamber now entered was very impressive for Wigmore.  Some 50ft long, 25ft high and 15ft wide it has a breakdown floor and ends in a massive choke.  Two roof inlets exist here, one of which was later climbed but ended in a hairy choke after 10ft.  The inward draughts from the entrance and bottom dig both go up into these inlets so there could be extensive but choked passages at a higher level, possibly corresponding with the choked rift below Hesitation Chamber and the postulated passage above the Smoke Room.

When the survey team arrived a further bit of useful work was done by digging out a short and muddy by-pass which connects the bottom of D.F.T.A. with the bottom of Vindication Pot - avoiding the traverse.  A climb in a rift behind the pot led down to a small chamber which was chiselled open into the pot to provide a free climbable but awkward by-pass.

 

Construction work now began by the insertion of a scaffolding frame to support the Hernia Pot collapse.  This was accomplished over a few trips and access regained to the terminal dig. A tight upward squeeze was passed directly above an impassable 20ft rift. Beyond the squeeze a short length of rift with two side passages was entered one choked after 15ft and the other partially blocked with mud but with a tremendous echo and the sound of what seems to be a large stream.  This was particularly encouraging considering the very dry nature of the other Mendip caves at the time.  Another minor discovery at this time was some 20ft of loose passage heading upstream from the top of Blackbird Pot.  (The three baby Blackbirds in the entrance shaft had now left the nest, one having to be manually assisted from the bottom of the shaft!).

On 22/6/91 - a Saturday evening! - a team of six forsook their beer to break into the huge extensions expected beyond the muddy crawl at the bottom.  Some desperate digging and a tight squeeze enabled A.J., pushed by G.J., to enter the new bit.  BIT was the operative word as a 4’ wide rift leading off into the distance was revealed! So much for the booming echo.  The stream could still be heard in the distance .... At least we made it out for a few beers.

Since then work has concentrated on blasting the roof off the muddy U-tube/crawl - known affectionately as Butch's Arse and in widening the rift in the floor below Hernia Pot.

This was blasted out and descended for some 20ft to where it became too narrow and choked with debris. Digging continues. The siren like stream still echoes ahead and the diggers are confident of a lot more cave to come; even if it takes another 14 years.

Tony Jarratt.