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The search for Pant - y - Crac or Fun adventures up the gorge

About 5 years ago, I decided to have a good look at the plant life in Cheddar gorge that grew in all the places inaccessible to the usual plant recorders.  My reason for this was because of a faint grumbling in the air about tree cutting and rock damage caused by tree roots penetrating rock and levering them off (onto the heads of unsuspecting passers by).  Well, I began at the top end of Cheddar Gorge by Black Rock Gate and gradually worked my way down (and up) the gorge so to speak. At the time of my investigations, the flock of Soay sheep would retire each night to a series of ledges on both sides of the upper gorge.  These ledges were protected from view by dense tree growth.  As most if not all of the caves or cave entrances in the Gorge had been used at some time by sheep, goat or man, I felt it a necessary part of my investigations to check these out at the same time.  It was whilst on one of these forays that I came across a deep cleft in the rock face high up from the road on the Showcaves side.  Many a strange sight has greeted me on these excursions, sleepy sheep, bottles filled with dead mice and piles of rubbish in most unlikely places.  This one, however, was one of the strangest finds to date, for there wedged in the crevice was a collection of women's clothing.  Most of the items seemed to be old, although one or two were obviously recent. My first reaction was to look around for the body or what was left of it- remembering a similar "lost person" incident not that long ago that was discovered by a club member .... Anyway, to my great relief, there was no visible body and as I made my way across the narrow ridge of rock, a few more items appeared, mainly of the ladies under dress type of garment.  Well, shortly after this I discovered a superb specimen of a once magnificent male Soay sheep, complete with curved horns.  This I eagerly dragged down to a safe spot where I managed to cram the skull into my rock bag, and promptly completely forgot about the earlier strange find.  The skull now graces my front room and has been used on many a talk about the Gorge. Now, I am getting off the track a bit but, some 5 years or so later, which takes us up to last December, I happened to be talking to a Cheddar Cave club group about adventures in the Gorge.  One of them asked, had I ever found Pant -y -Crac?  At this, I became interested and he told me of his own ventures and discovery some ten years ago.  We decided then, that we must both have discovered the same crag, and decided that come the warmer weather, we would both try to remember the location of the site. What follows is an account of the excursions into a part of the gorge that offer a superb alternative trip through the area, yet one that has only been done by very few people.  We started our first trip in early January, working upslope from the bend below Bone Hole (see map).  The scree slopes in this area are loose, most of the tree stumps are dead and many of the small bluffs offer excellent short climbs of a somewhat dubious nature.  Many of the buttresses that we passed across from the top have flat tops where you can rig an abseil and get down fast.  Others are connected by deep loose and dangerous bottomless hanging gullies, which a slip down would end in death- if the occasional shrubs didn't stop your progress!  It took an hour and a half to progress some 400 metres horizontal distance.

This was about 800 metres vertically, looping up and down, often using a rope for support, often stopping on a ledge to look in and never discovering our original site.  We finally made the road by descending the scree slope to the left (uphill) of Sow Hole.  Disappointed but exhilarated by the dangers, we agreed to meet again later the following week, with an aim to explore the upper section of the area.

Our second trip began from the path that rises from Black Rock Gate to meet the top tourist route from the pinnacles.  As the path bears right near the top there is a series of buttresses running to left and right of the path.  Our route was to the right, working along the steep slope above the road.  There are about twenty or so of these small climbable rock faces.  Many of them are deeply fissured, covered in trees, moss and so on.  A few are bare enough to boulder climb, but the rock is pretty loose in some sections, deeply cracked by ice heave and plant erosion. This trip took us on a diagonal path down to the road in an area that we both felt from our earlier memories was "about the right place."  Nothing! We finished off by descending a 50-metre scree slope - using a rope to add to the fun - down to the bend in the road opposite to and just below Bone Hole.  By this time, doubt was creeping in - although we were having a great time in the Gorge, discovering all sorts of fun adventure routes for the fun adventure types - maybe the place had been tidied up by the benevolent workers of Lord Bath's Estate!  Undaunted, we returned to my house for tea, cream, jam and scones (or is it scones?) and had another think.  We agreed to meet again the following afternoon, and to fit the trip in with a check on the lid to Bone Hole which was rumoured to have been "banged.

Below: - An old map of the area, showing our routes

Below: an unknown (to me) phreatic tube some 15 metres from the top of the Gorge, left (facing downslope) of the Pinnacles.

Trip three picked up from where two finished, for we felt it sensible to cover the ground thoroughly (looking for holes).  This was the trip above the buttresses that run up from road level, rising some 30 metres as the road nears the final bend before Reservoir hole.  The going here was very tough - mainly vertical, and often crossing the previously mentioned bottomless gullies.  My companion on this trip (son Edward) was not quite as intrepid as he thought, and we covered the ground slowly in some regions, using the (now essential) rope on some sections.  Disappointed again, we descended Shoot gully to the road.

A change of plan was called for as we were getting nowhere and it was looking like the wrong area was being searched.  Our next and most ambitious trip took us right to the top of the Pinnacles, starting at road level at the bottom of Shoot Gully.  This is the steep scramble just beside the "Showcaves bus turning circle".  For cavers, just below White Spot cave!  I won't bore readers with details of the climb up, suffice it to say, at the last section about 40 metres below the top, a sheep path goes right and left from the gully.  Right facing (downslope in the gorge) the path leads to a magnificent viewpoint but no caves and no way down or up except on a very long rope!  Left along the sheep path however, leads soon to the caves shown in the photos.  Doubtless, these have all been seen and recorded before, but new to us, it was fascinating to find phreatic tubes at such a high level in the Gorge.  It must have been very wet once.  Some idea of the age of the caves can also be gauged from their height.  Perhaps one or two might just lead down to ..... great site for a dig .... !  The trip ended with a superb sunset as we came down - certainly for me a great buzz coming off the hill at dusk - so no disappointments and we had discovered some caves.

Looking back at our trips, we decided to leave things for a while.  We were obviously trying too hard.  A bit of lateral thinking as to what we were looking for and how it might have formed led us to think that Pant -y -Crac might be quite easy to get to, but well hidden. Whoever had or had not been there before us probably wasn't a caver, although he might be a diver looking into tight places!

Anyway, rain for a week or so and then work, more work then suddenly one Friday afternoon an excited phone message on the machine from Chris.  "I've found it!  Details in the White Hart tonight, we visit tomorrow".

Saturday came, my hangover was cheered by the lack of rain, and Chris called at 12.30 that day and up we went.  Our second trip along the path from Black Rock Gate had passed very close to the spot that Chris now took me to.  We had dropped down too quickly, or started too far to the right, however, suddenly there it was.  Chris had carefully marked his way back to the path with small piles of stones and (with difficulty for there are many stones in this area!)  I followed his trail and there on the ground, a spotted mouldering half buried dress?  Further on and there it is at last, Pant -y -Crac, complete with at least five bras, three sets of tights, another dress and then as we slid down the slope after recording the crag, more dishevelled remains.  It was difficult to know what to think as I skidded down the scree slope to the road.  The remains certainly spanned a number of years, five? ten? Had the den more than one visitor?  Was it where I had imagined?  Anyway, the outcome of the search was that we had discovered some brilliant scrambles and hairy walks in the Gorge.  We had systematically familiarised ourselves with a huge section of largely un-peopled terrain and into the bargain had a bloody good time.  Anyone know of a better way to have some fun!

Martin Torbett and Christopher Binding Photos by the writers.  February 2001

Pant -y- Crac, Cheddar