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Caving in Burrington during the 1960's

I was living in Hengrove during the 1960's and was lucky enough to hang around with a reasonably adventurous group of people.  Transport was always a problem.  Basically all of us were on poor money; some of us were apprentices (including me). None of us could afford a car, so we cycled everywhere or thumbed lifts where possible!  One of our more bizarre stunts was to regularly race from the Bali Cafe in Union street Bristol (the IN place to be) to Piccadilly Circus in London starting when the cafe closed at midnight.  The idea being to get there by walking and thumbing lifts.  The last person to arrive would have to stand a round of beer in the White Lion pub at midday (in those days quite a dive).  My friend and myself never managed to arrive first but we used to run to the BRS depot in Bedminster and cajole drivers to take us as far as the infamous Golden Arrow cafe on the A4 in their clapped out lorries (quite an experience and mega uncomfortable!)

Back to the Combe!  We had very little money, but possessed a 1 inch to 1 mile ex army map of Somerset, a grotty cotton tent, and an American Army sleeping bag which my Uncle Bob had brought back from the Korean War.  We carried our rag tag camping kit in an old rucsac - the canvas and leather type.  One Friday night my pal Gary Moulder and 1 decided to thumb and walk to Burrington Combe and find the caves marked on the map.

By the way I still possess the aforementioned map (sadly I have mislaid my early Caving Log.)  We were forced to walk up the main Wells road as far as Whitchurch but just beyond the humpback bridge two men, who were going out drinking gave us a lift to Blagdon - which was rare luck in those days. Stopped for a beer in the Live and let Live (it's still there but much cleaner now) then walked the rest of the way to Burrington past the Cafe which in those days was just a grubby shed with dirty windows. Past the Rock of Ages and up towards Goatchurch, making camp on level ground partway up the valley near the stream. By now my shoulders were sore due to the pack straps rubbing and Gary had blisters on his heels.  Having brewed up I climbed into my luxurious sleeping bag while Gary, muttering about jammy buggers, rolled himself up in a grey blanket complete with blanket pins (Who remembers those?). Dawn arrived with a frost covering everything.  We cooked breakfast over the highly dangerous meths stove and drank our tea which was real leaf tea and sweetened tinned milk (I still have a soft spot for this kind of milk probably because it can be spread on bread and eaten while it drips down your arms).  Warning. My brother, a few months later tried to refill the same stove while it was still alight (hard to tell the difference in daylight ).  The pint bottle of meths erupted burning his hands, he dropped the bottle inside my tent and the lot burnt down in about 11 seconds flat.  Luckily we were outside trying to cook a meal.  All that was left was two charred tent poles, some metal eyelets, one half burnt guy rope and some partially burnt sleeping bags (they were probably damp which saved them.)

Back to the trip ... We caved in grots in those days - dirty old clothes and the lighting consisted of two old Raleigh cycle battery tubes with 3 U2 batteries in.  These were connected to cap lights by thin cable.  We were lucky to have 2 very battered Miners hats which a neighbour of mine had given us.  He was going to put them out for the dustman!!

Three spare U2 batteries in the combi jacket pocket and off we go.  Combat jackets had just arrived in the surplus stores due to the end of the Korean War.  They were very cheap and if you bought one with holes in which could easily be sewn up they were dirt cheap.  Gary said he knew the way to the cave so we walked up the streamway which was quite overgrown in those days looking for a cave on the left.  It took four attempts at climbing up the left hand bank before eventually we found the lower entrance.  Luckily we then walked up higher to find the main and what used to be a tourist entrance complete with some steps and a hand rail - now missing.  Pull on an old pair of trousers over the good ones, put on an old pullover tie light tube to belt with string, spare batteries in pocket and in we go.  What an adventure!  Reaching the bottom of the tourist bit we slid left into the cross passage and cautiously went right onto the end then ascended left and to our surprise emerged into daylight at the tradesman's entrance.  My first round trip!  Bloody Hell said Gary, have we tramped all this way just for that!  So we sat and had a fag (I smoked in those days).  While we were debating whether to go down again and risk getting lost in the huge labyrinth a man arrives with 2 young lads.  He is a youth leader from Bristol at the old Co-op Hall behind Redcliffe Church. Nice guy who kindly offers to show us the cave proper so we go underground again and discover the coal chute the maze the coffin lid water chamber etc.  On the way back down the valley he shows us Sidcot swallet and describes Reads Cavern.  We thanked him for the trip and brewed up at the tent then decided to walk to Reads Cavern on Saturday afternoon and locate it.  This proved to be a question of thrashing about in undergrowth until the stream way was located.  From then on it was simple to approach the rock wall and find the cave.  The main chamber was explored and a note was made of the passages leading off but we decided to explore it properly at a later date. Pottering back to camp we packed up and walked down the Combe to the main road.  As it was opening time we decided that the Plume at Rickford would do and then we would walk as far as we could that night.  Lo and behold! a van stopped and offered us a lift to Chew Magna. What a piece of luck!

So we ended up at the Crown at Chew - quite hard to find near the old Gas Works.  Wobbling out of there just before closing we walked through Chew Magna to the cricket ground and crashed out there in our respective bags - Gary still using his grey blanket with blanket pins.  The wall was an ideal place to sleep unobserved from the road. Woke up at dawn cold and damp brewed up tea with no milk.  It was common practise in those days when walking to liberate milk from doorsteps but only if there were more than two bottles as this implied that the occupants were probably stinking rich.  Sadly the milkman was late that day.  Nipping over the wall we tramped back to the Happy Landings on the Wells road in time for last orders midday.  Home Brewed or Simonds being the popular brews.

Having caught the Bug we returned many times to the Combe and eventually met Zot who took me on what was a big trip in those days down Swildon's via the 40 foot pitch to sump 1. On the way back I really struggled on the 40 trying to climb up in grots and a large waterlogged mohair sweater my wife Hilary had spent hours knitting.  This magnificent article of clothing unfortunately reached my knees -Zot was not impressed with my final feeble thrust to the top (because he had been standing in the dreaded hole soaking wet to his waist lifelining me. Still it was the beginning of a lengthy friendship and we have caved off and on for a long time now.

We had great fun in those days and some of us are still having fun now.  I hope that my modest meanders on Mendip have not proved too boring for all you tigers in the club.

PS. Meths stoves are still dangerous nowadays despite soothing noises from the manufacturers.



Mr. Wilson refers to past days within memory, but Robin's cartoon below needs some small explanation, so for all of you tigers who haven't read "Ten years Under the Earth" by Casteret, here is a small clarifying extract.

... Being hardened to cold water and to the negotiation of difficult underground passages, I did not hesitate to pursue the watercourse on its way under ground. Undressing completely (clothes hold water, catch on projections, and are hampering and dangerous in caves) I slid head first into the descending fissure which swallows the brook.