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The Rediscovery of Loxton Cavern

By Nick Richards and Nick Harding

Photos By Martin Grass, the authors and…er…one taken by Tony J

Made weak by time and fate
But strong in will, to strive, to seek
To find and not to yield…

Ulysses.
Tennyson

“You buggers, I’ve been looking for
that cave for thirty years…”

D.Irwin.

SOMETHING OF A QUEST FULFILLED!

After a three and half year search – some may actually say “two hundred”, we would like to announce the rediscovery of Catcott’s Loxton Cavern and its welcome return to the collective consciousness that is Mendip Caving and indeed the world stage such is the importance to cave science that this system represents.

What follows is a condensed version of around eight months digging time that followed several years of false starts, the discovery of a small system and the location of various potential sites for further excavation (more about these at a later date). 

No longer lost.

Loxton Cavern was opened in 1757 by ochre miners and was visited not long after by Dr Alexander Catcott of Bristol who described the system in his diaries. C.J.Harford followed some years later and wrote about the cave for a gentleman’s periodical called The Gentleman’s Magazine (1794). The cave came to the attention of Cornish miners in the 1790’s where certain ‘green veins’ were tried for copper. These veins upon assay contained no copper and the whole affair was given up. The miners removed the best stalactites for sale or as gifts The cave was lost sight of in 1807 then in late 2003 was rediscovered by BEC 1st Formers Nick Harding and Nick Richards (Aka The Pair of Dirty Nicks)

Groundwork

Having scoured the hill above Loxton for a number of years we decided that our options had come down to one of two sites in which to dig and having tossed the proverbial coin chose an area that best seemed to fit the (reassessed) clues given in the descriptions by Catcott and Harford. In March 2003 the first sod was turned. At this stage let us just say that confidence was not high but well founded in that our searching had so far been in vain but not without discovery. We had found a few small systems (reports to be filed at a later date) but nothing that in any shape or form fitted the descriptions in Catcott’s report but our enthusiasm was little dented or expunged.

Immediately the top layer of soil was removed we found ourselves confronted with a draught seeping up through the boulder back fill and our wild, possibly even schoolboy enthusiasm was fired up. This was fuelled by tales from a Mr Raymond, a nearby resident who, when attending his pigeons could hear the ground boom like a drum as horses made their way up the track.  

Digging down over a number of weeks – using a bedrock wall for guidance we pursued the illusive cave. Then one afternoon Nick R moved a stone and saw a void beyond. We then back filled our progress to date and broached the ground further down slope to afford an easier access point to gain entry.

We had in fact found a small rift back filled with spoil that led to a low arch and then on into a small stal lined room and the first hints of the “Green veins” described by Catcott. Pausing at this stage to consider a route, we began digging downwards in this rift, fashioning, over a stepped structure, a slope of tin sheeting (discovered not far from the entrance - the area was an obvious dumping ground and tip for household waste) – facilitating an easy haul of bucket after relentless bucket to the surface.   

Over the next few months we extracted several tons of material (felt like about a hundred tons to be honest!) from the ever deepening rift to a point where the walls pinched in. Having, seemingly, exhausted this direction we moved our efforts back to where the rift widened and here a small arch was discovered and more importantly miners’ tally marks in a small phreatic hollow. This was indeed a major clue and a welcome sight after months of work. We felt now that we were on the right trail and that maybe, just maybe Loxton Cavern lay not far beyond.

At this stage we decided to abandon the small phreatic rift, back fill that, collapse the material down slope and start again from the top, shoring up the walls as we descended. Before we had had no real target to aim for and in a sense we were just fishing for some obvious way on but with the discovery of the arch and the tally marks we had, at last, a focus for our efforts.

Into the hill

This arch proved, after much work to be the roof of a chamber with a fine vein of green clay – indeed, more clues. Heading down and in, we removed more material (Lum!) – the small abandoned stal lined room being used as a spoil dump until that was replete with boulders.  Driving on down the slope of this new chamber we came across an arch at the bottom through which a heavy draught permeated – a cool strong wind that can only come from underground (or a group of hung over Eskimos). Our hopes were now high – the highest they had been throughout the entire search (nay, quest!). Pausing in the dig briefly for Mad Phil to entertain us with some blisteringly marvellous scaffolding work we then dug on and cleared out the arch that had, for a while been obscured due to the machinations of the impish deities of the ‘down hill dig’.

November 2nd 2003 – Mid-afternoon.

Barring the way on was a large boulder; a limestone Cerberus that had to be dealt with in a terse manner due to its objections about being moved. Lacking Dr Nobel’s remote shovel – perhaps a touch OTT on this instance (absolutely!) – it was disciplined with some rigorous and unsubtle hammer work. Then somewhere between 2 and 3 o’clock – the time and importance of the hour somehow lost in the excitement we slipped through and discovered that the arch opened onto a ledge with a deep rift below us. To the left, i.e. the West, there was a looming darkness that could mean only one thing – Cave! It was not quite Howard Carter and his famous phrase of “I see wonderful things” but we shared his sentiment. In the excitement Nick H uttered the immortal words “It’s somewhere to dump spoil at least” (about two hundred feet of dumping space!) having misread the geography (I assumed the way on was down the rift – honest!)  That’s one for the Big Bumper Book of Humorous Spelunking Quotes… along with “Mind that apple…”, “I strained myself blowing some moorhen’s eggs” and “Careful with that ferret, Savory!”

Anyway moving swiftly on…

The Cave.

There then followed an exploration of the system and all the time there was the growing realisation in the pair of us, to the accompaniment of plumber-style sharp intakes of breath that we had found the place that had so long been sought; that this was the very cave that Catcott and Harford had described two centuries before. It was an extremely emotive experience to say the least.

It took us a short while and some considered debate as to the geography and the lay out of the cave from the description given but very soon all doubts were removed as we stared upwards in the Hall through which Catcott had descended from the original entrance over two centuries before; dribbling candle in hand and powdered wig in disarray. 

The exploration continued and it was soon obvious that the miners had done ‘great mischief ’ with most of the more prominent, colourful and well-formed stal formations being smashed and broken up. Corduroy impressions were found in mud (Corduroy Passage) as well as two clay pipes forcing us to feel that they had been dropped there only the day before. We found pick marks in the green veins of “marl” that had once confused the miners into thinking that they contained workable amounts of copper and hammer blows on numerous walls and formations. More oddly (is that correct grammar?) there were a few incidents of graffiti – including a series of birds and a group of triangles. The overriding impression though was a wonderful sense of time falling away and a powerful feeling that the miners had only just left, repairing to the nearest hostelry, falling under satiric observation, to replenish their animal moisture.  

    

Reluctantly leaving the cave that evening we were both in that euphoric reverie that grips you when the events of a unique day sink in, one later topped up and further fuelled by a few libations at a nearby hostelry. Not long after a swift phone call to the Hunters was made to inform Master Jarrett of the discovery. (There was a rumour that he was unable to come to the phone that evening due to his early entrapment in an awkward rift situated in a perilous wall of beer filled mugs, the MRO later being called out to rescue him)

Shortly afterwards (i.e. some days later, as the crow flies) we returned with Chris Richards (a relation) who could barely contain his excitement about the cave and he was given the grand tour and shown everything that we had learned about the place so far. Another spectacularly happy man left the system that afternoon but not before telling us that we were looking at the “Eighteenth Century mind”  (there’s probably a quip due here utilising the words empty, damp and grubby in places…) when we looked about us.

Still puzzling over the geography it became evident that the eastern half of the cave described by Catcott was missing. However, we pushed on down the rift which dominates the entire system and made the discovery of a lower chamber (Glisson’s Chamber) not described in any account of the cave. Our cup had begun to run over. In the floor by an enormous boulder that sported a shot hole we found a tight squeeze into what looked like another chamber below. This was not breached until Master Tony J, now the forth set of eyes to see the cave in two hundred years volunteered to push his frame down into further mysteries, in a visit not long after.  He found a lower chamber (Firmament Chamber), much choked and with marks on the walls suggesting a fluctuating water level. He then set off eastwards along about 7 metres of passage to have a sniff about. Disrobing down to a fetching pair of pale purple Y-fronts, he once again forced the squeeze back up to rejoin us and to crack open a bottle of Champers on the surface. (Good man!) 

Go East Young Men.

With the initial euphoria still washing about us we then realised that we would have to strike east and find the rest of the system  - starting, and according to Catcott, with an impressive cavern. But where was it? He described coming along the narrow passage and straight into it. We had the narrow passage but it ended in the entrance chamber we had dug out and descended. The dark shadow of a “downhill dig” with its attending gremlins loomed over us and our spirits soon started to scrape noisily along the floor. We had come so far only to be thwarted by another six months of digging and trying to find somewhere to dump the spoil. (I had a suggestion, remember? NH)

We agreed that if we were to go east we should go east – not as daft as it sounds (actually no, that does sound daft) as the entrance chamber is angled sharply down in northeasterly fashion. An initial play was made for the eastern wall but we then realised there was a mounting slope of spoil above our heads and that something would have to be done about it. After fashioning a balcony out of scaffolding and tin sheets we constructed a spoil dump and divided the entrance chamber in two. Then the hard work could begin again (damn!)

Joining the fray at that point were the redoubtable John “Tangent” Williams (with assorted non working Heath-Robinson-esque illumination devices) and Mark Ireland whose combined sterling work in the early days of December allowed us to crack on down slope and on the 10th December Tangent found himself staring into the void. The following day all four of us entered the large Eastern chamber (Catcott’s Chamber) that we thought would be out of our grasp until at least the New Year, (04 that is – anything later would have been mildly depressing).

We spent the next few hours exploring this chamber avoiding the dis-articulated bones of sheep (no! pigs as Dr Roger Jacobi of the British Museum reliably informs us) that had “fallen” down an upper eastern gallery that obviously connected with the surface. In amongst a talus of boulders there was much detritus in evidence including pottery, boot leather and a flask, while Mark, in a vigorous ferreting session found the remains of a frying pan or skillet. What he intended to do with it was anyone’s guess but he was happy, for a short while, to entertain us with a bad facsimile of the sound of frying eggs – this of course could well have been his hearing aid on the blink, as, like so many things in life no one can really be certain about the true nature of anything in the dark. 

At the base of the north wall of the chamber the rift was in evidence again and pushing on down we came to the room described by Catcott as ‘the Dungeon’ once more showing signs of human visitation – including boot marks - numerous in number and candle mark initials much in evidence on the walls, “JH” being much in evidence.

At the western end of the Dungeon, Tangent, intermittently illuminated, over squeezed himself through a number of orifices to find further ways on that, with some removal of material, may allow further exploration in those directions.

In the following weeks a number of visits were made this time with Mad Phil who sported various cunning and modern surveying devices around his neck with which he marked and measured his way around the system, the result of which accompanies this article. This alarmed Harding because he has successfully avoided anything to do with mathematics for a good many years and indeed took up caving to avoid long division.  Several trips were undertaken over the next few months in which various likely dig sites were pursued. This included a passage heading off from Harford’s Balcony, the ‘North West Passage’ which for a short while held great potential (as they always do!) but narrowed down to a too tight squeeze. But there may be something beyond…

And on….

At present we are looking for a twenty-foot crawl to an easternmost chamber described by Catcott. In short another 70 feet of cave has yet to be found.  We will of course keep you posted with any developments in that area. There are also a few places that might well offer up potential digging sites. One or two have been pushed but these have subsequently proven to be false leads (despite exhibiting powerful draughts). One ambitious idea is to try and link Loxton Cavern with Loxton Quarry cave – in reality they cannot be far apart, perhaps only a few metres at most and should that ever be achieved would undoubtedly put the wind up the Axbridge Johnnies (Hoorah!).

Coda

So there it is. Catcott’s cave rediscovered with the flag of the BEC, with its sable bat rampant guardant, waving proudly above its peaks (um?).   There’s still a bit of work to do in there but for now we are awaiting permission to dig in Hutton where another lost cave described by Catcott awaits rediscovery so further exploration in Loxton Cavern will have to wait for a later date.  We are also hunting the South Cavity said to be 30 yards south of Loxton Cavern.  

Vale! And remember: “BEC perveniunt ad loca omnia.”
                  Champers all round – Cheers Tony J!

The Pair of Dirty Nicks

Great blessings be upon the following:

Tony Jarratt
Mad Phil
John “Tangent” Williams
Mark Ireland
Martin Grass
Chris Richards
Keith “ Action-Jackson” Jackson.    
Adam “Adders” Whydle