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John Stafford's Memoirs.

By Chris Castle

The March '97 batch of new guides at Cheddar included one whom we thought to be the famous actor Patrick Stewart, fallen onto bad times.  This was not the case; it was in fact John Stafford.  He had moved down from Northants, having previously lived in many parts of the British Isles, and had taken a job at the Caves for a quiet life until he retired.  He had to put up with cries of "Make it so" and "Belay that order, Mr. Worf'-indeed, he joined in with the fun and told visitors that he used to be a Starship captain.  Fortunately we have since become bored with the joke.

He enthusiastically accepted an invitation to join a trip around the Adventure Caving Route in Gough's Cave, and because there were three Johns he told us to call him Staff as that was what everyone, including his wife Anita, always called him.  I soon found out that he had been a keen caver in his youth, had been a member of the BEC, and had taken part in many of the early explorations of St. Cuthbert's.  "Are you the Stafford of Stafford's Boulder Problem?" I asked, and of course, he was.

Staff started helping out with the abseiling, but his activity duties increased after I had a slight climbing mishap in July '98 and put myself out of action for a few months with various broken legs and things.  Staff continues to do this work at Cheddar.

His caving enthusiasm re-kindled, he has been on many Mendip caving trips with me, including many sherparing trips to Lloyd Hall for the CDG, and joined NHASA (Junior Section). In October of this year he visited Cuthbert's II for the first time, accompanied by myself and Rich Long, and I afterwards asked him if he would write up his Memoirs of his early teenage years exploring the cave.  This he agreed to do, provided I typed them up for him, which I have done with, I must say, great labour as I am a lousy typist.  However, I was helped by the fact that Staff, being of the older generation, can spell and string coherent sentences together.

A few explanations may be helpful.

"Knobbly Dog" - a hand climbing aid, consisting of a single length of ladder wire with short lengths of aluminium tubing swaged every 0.3 metres or so. One survives near the end of Cerberus Rift in St. Cuthbert's.

Pemmican - "A North American Indian preparation of lean flesh-meat, dried, pounded, and mixed with fat and other ingredients." (Chambers Dictionary).

The Shunt - a constriction in the old Cuthbert's entrance (abandoned in 1964).

Staffs Memoirs

The earliest trips in Cuthbert's could probably be best recounted by Chris Falshaw as my first visit did not occur until the "long trip" of the 20th/21st March 1954.

This party was particularly honoured by the presence of Bob Bagshawe Secretary and Treasurer of the BEC. Requests for vast expenditure on tackle for exploration of this new system had caused Bob some concern - he had to see if there really was a big cave so close to the Belfry.

The trip was absolutely amazing.  A fair amount of water was pounding through the cave, no fixed tackle, only rather primitive wire and wood ladders and heavy lifelines.  The main streamway from Pulpit Pitch was the normal route at that time which meant you were pretty wet throughout the trip.  Four hours was about normal to reach the Dining Room and each "outing" was about the same length so we had hot food and drink at about four-hourly intervals.

We newcomers - Bagshaw, Knibbs and myself - were conducted to the marvels of the Gours and on to the Sump. In many places throughout the trip one or other of the party would have a quick look into holes / passages not yet explored.  The main exploration involved the continuation of Cerberus Series into Mud Ball Chamber and the discovery of the Lake Chamber.

It so happened that the Lake was at a level where parts of the ceiling touched the water and gave an impression that the Lake might continue further than we could see. This, as you know, has proved to be a false hope.

Coase confidently stated that a vertical passage from above the Rat Run would lead to a particular hole in Everest Passage so he was told to get up there and prove it, which he did. I think Bennett went next, then it was my turn.  The others had gone up using a handy hold half way up.  That hold, and the rest of the boulder attached, came away in my hand. I was not far enough up the tube to push it to the top and it was too big to drop past me.  Instead of descending, getting rid of it, and starting again I was stupid enough to try pushing it up as far as I could, letting go and trying to wriggle up an inch or two before it landed on my head and then repeating the operation.  Again and again and again.  In true BEC fashion no-one helped at all, just rolled on their bellies laughing their socks off.  All except Bagshaw who had dozed off in the Dining Room while all this was going on, as far as I can recall.

Someone put that boulder carefully aside and, for at least a year, I had to check whichever load I was handed to carry out of the cave to make sure that it did not contain that bloody boulder.  Those good friends of mine did their best to trick me into carrying it out so they could present it to me at a Club dinner.  The phrase "boulder problem" they thought was most apt as I was then, or became soon after, the Club Climbing Secretary.

On this, my first, trip I probably also saw a sight that became synonymous with Cuthbert's trips. Norman Petty wore a stout all wool fireman's jacket under his boilersuit.  Whenever we were waiting at the top or bottom of ladders Norman would undo his overalls, produce a damp rag from his tunic pocket and carefully polish the uniform buttons whilst singing quietly to himself about Pretty Little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.

More trips followed; many were concerned with more detailed examination of passages and chambers only briefly looked at in the earliest trips.  Not much remains in my memory of the details apart from being sent up for a good look round what became known as Pyrolusite Series.

On July 3rd with Waddon, Petty and Falshaw a real find was made when we pushed a simple squeeze into Rabbit Warren Extension.  The going was easy and new routes were in abundance.  Each of us must have had the thrill on several occasions of being first into a new chamber or passage that day.

Two sightings of Plantation Stream were found and possible continuations of routes located.  One of those was what I believe is now known as T-Junction Chamber.  A very short length of exit passage was partially blocked with good stal.  The passage appeared to continue beyond this stal but not with any certainty so we did not touch.  Years later, following the discovery of September Series, the explorers (King & Co?) pushed Cross Legged Squeeze then were stopped by a stal formation.  As they could see a chamber beyond the stal they broke through to where we had been in July 54.

Apart from the actual caving we were also working on a scheme to rig fixed tackle so that more caving time could be devoted to exploration.  Coase, Bennett and I all worked at the Avonmouth Smelting Works. Don found that a load of steel ladders had been stripped out of the site by a demolition contractor with a yard in Shirehampton.  Don, Roy and I then spent many lunch hours dashing to the yard in Don's car, unbolting ladders into moveable lengths, then a hurried return to work.  By trial and error with wooden mock-ups it was found that the maximum length of ladder we could introduce into the cave was (I think) 5 l/2 feet.  On Thursday nights the ladders were sawn, drilled and fish plates prepared in Clive Seward's garage which was handy for the Wagon and Horses, the Club Thursday night boozer, near St.Mary Redcliffe- no longer in existence.  (The pub, not the church).

The Sandhurst club had been asking to see our new discovery so they were invited to assist in the installation of the fixed tackle.  This must have been quite a trip.  I managed to avoid it!  Get Kangy to tell you, it was his first time in the cave (Feb.55). On this general topic, the Knobbly Dogs used at that time were far better handline aids than the chains and ropes now in the cave.  You could grip the KDs much better despite cold, wet hands.

The fixed tackle made a considerable difference to the time and effort of getting in and out of the cave. Conditions had previously been so severe that Jack Waddon wrote to the firm which had supplied pemmican to the '53 Everest expedition, explaining our problems and asking if we could purchase any old stock.  They kindly sent us the last two tins as a gift.  The parcel arrived just as Jack was leaving for Mendip so he brought them along and added them to a couple of tins of bully beef in a Cuthbert's surprise stew.  I am still grateful that I was not on that trip as various people became ill on the way out and none was at work on the Monday except for Jack whose cast iron stomach was unaffected.  Concerned about the state of his friends he looked at the manufacturer's notes enclosed with the letter.  It seemed that everyone had eaten at least a twelve man-days ration in that single meal. The pemmican really was concentrated!

Our apres- caving meals took a turn for the better when the owner of the Miners' Arms (cafe, not pub) began offering cavers suppers, as much as you could eat for 3/6d (17 1/2p) at any time of night or day by prior arrangement.  The meal comprised of a bowl of soup, meat and three veg followed by bread and marmalade till you gave in.  He really did serve us at 3.30 am when asked on more than one occasion.

A trip I recall from later that year was the start of a high standard survey.  To begin with, all the tackle had to go to the Duck. Coase, Petty, Collins and myself dealt with this rather awkward job, passing numerous items from hand to hand whenever we could not get along carrying the gear.  Alfie, of course, started composing a song to go with the shouted checks on items being passed along.  The chorus was something like:

First tripod forward
Second tripod back
Third astro compass
UP Fourth man's crack!

The kit eventually reached the Duck and the first leg of the survey made back to the Gours.  We then had to push on in order to get out by closing time.  All went well until we were up the Entrance Rift and Petty, who was in front, decided to try a different way of getting through the Shunt into the bottom of the Entrance Shaft.  For the benefit of those who never met him I should mention that Norman was over 6 feet tall.  How he managed it I do not know but he seemed to get himself doubled up the wrong way round and was jammed in there for Gawd knows how long. When we eventually surfaced closing time was horribly close.  Without changing out of our filthy wet overalls we put a cleanish sack on the driving seat of Don's car and he drove to the Hunters with the other three of us hanging onto the outside of the car.  We passed money in and the hilarious mob within passed mugs of beer out through the windows to us.

Mention of the Entrance Shaft reminds me that part of the shoring was a large board stating that:

Climbing is Dangerous
and is Prohibited
by order
G. Robinson Manager Gough's Cave

As I am now employed by Cheddar Caves I find this memory rather amusing.  I had originally taken a sign from the other side of the road.  Older, more responsible, members told me to take it back because it must be National Trust property.  This I did the following Saturday after closing time and took the Gough's Cave sign instead which was deemed to be perfectly O.K.

Round about this time we started to break through the Bank Grill in Gour Rift.  King and I were there one day thumping away with hammer and chisel and were, we thought, about to succeed.  Both of us were nearly out of carbide but as there was a small stock in the Dining Chamber, went on hammering away.  We eventually gave up when our lights were seriously low and sped to the Dining Chamber to re-fill. The whitewashed wall on which messages were left said that Don's party were on their way out and were very sorry but had used all the spare carbide supply.  The other spare carbide supply was in Pillar Chamber and it is probable that the time Kangy and I took to get there has never been bettered.

On the following weekend Tony Dunn and I eventually opened the Bank Grill and Tony went through. He came back to say that it did not appear to be worth pursuing.  As far as I know this is still true.

That autumn (55) was really the end of my "early" Cuthbert's.  I had failed my exams which finished my deferment from National Service. In the November my call-up papers arrived, but I was not aware of them.  I had crashed my motorbike the night before and have no knowledge of the next four days.  It could have been worse but I was wearing an ex- WD crash helmet purchased from Roy Bennett three hours previously.  After two more medicals the Army still wanted me.  Due to argumentative skills learned in the Hunters' and the Belfry I persuaded the Army to leave things long enough for me to have another go at the Great Traverse of the Black Cuillin of Skye in May 56.  This I managed with John Attwood and returned to find that the Glosters wanted me next Thursday.

Thank you for asking for the stories of caving with the wonderful characters concerned.  I am glad to say that last week I had my first visit to Cuthbert's II - many thanks to Chris Castle and Richard Long who acted as guides and minders.  In another few days I shall be at Alfie's Geriatric Dinner - 50 years after my first club dinner which I regret to say was the Wessex.