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Mindblown in Upper Flood Swallet

Tony Jarratt

“…That cave is one of the wonders of the universe… A monstrous fine cave indeed!”

Patrick O’Brian, Treason’s Harbour

Most B.E.C. members, especially those attending the Annual Dinner, will by now know of the magnificent extensions to this cave, which were discovered initially on 10th September by members of the Mendip Caving Group (see Descent 193, pp 20-22). On this date Tim Francis pushed the final of many desperate squeezes amongst horrendously loose boulders to enter a huge boulder chamber, The Departure Lounge, with a finely decorated and walking-sized stream passage leading off into the distance. Julie Hesketh joined him and they explored some 500m of passage, initially 12m square and with magnificent flowstones, stalactites, curtains, straws and mud formations in abundance. At around 400m the draughting Charnel Inlet may provide a future easier entrance. Unbelievably it took 25 minutes of mainly walking in occasionally 10m high streamway to reach their terminal point and they were very understandably “gobsmacked”. On 30th September a second major breakthrough occurred when a loose section in the roof above the terminal stream sink was passed upwards into large fossil passage and the beautiful Royal Icing Junction. Here the undecorated but extensive phreatic East Passage was followed for several hundred metres to an airless tube and further on an ascent and descent of calcited boulders led past a superbly decorated and immediately taped-off side passage (see later) and down to a low arch with a muddy crawl leading to the Gothic-arched phreatic tunnel of West Passage. After around 150m of heading due west in practically a straight line they reached a dangerously loose but strongly draughting boulder choke. Partway along this tunnel a couple of calcited boulders in a side passage concealed a possible way into a stream passage below, from which emanated the roar of water – Chuckle Choke. The team of Tim, Julie, Mike Richardson, Bill Chadwick, Doug Harris, Mark Ward, Peat Bennett, Ben Cooper, Brian Snell and Korean caver Dangwoo Park had explored, by the end of October, about 1.4km of stunning new cave system which, added to the old cave, gave a total length of some 2km. This was a tremendous result and a suitable reward for their tenacious digging efforts over the last two years – and that of their fellow club members, particularly the late Malcolm Cotter, over the last thirty-eight years! The “ Blackmoor Master Cave” – as predicted by Malcolm – was now a reality and well on its way towards linking up with the Cheddar River Cave, picking up the great swallet caves of the Charterhouse and Tynings areas en route.

The team had had a couple of close calls in both the breakthrough choke and that in the terminal West End Chamber and decided that they needed advice from an expendable old git as to the best way of making them safe and on how best to get through the latter choke. Your scribe was delighted to be invited along in this capacity and had the special job requirements of being skinny as a rake and armed to the teeth with drill and bang. Thus, on 1st December he joined Julie, Bill and Mike for an 8½ hour trip. Having last visited this cave as photographic assistant to Paul Deakin on 7th May 1988 all memories of the nastier bits had been erased. Following recent heavy rain the Canal in the old cave and the streamway in the extension were higher than usual necessitating the wearing of thermals and Neofleece. Most of the regular diggers prefer to wear two fleece suits due to the cold and draughty conditions.

Once past Golden Chamber the series of tight, awkward and loose squeezes amongst boulders was negotiated with occasional pauses to shore up the more dodgy ones with convenient rocks. The tongue-in-cheek “Easysqueeze” was struggled down through and the magnificent stream passage beyond entered after about 1½ hours of generally grim caving. From then on we shouldered our by now detested tackle bags and basically strolled along the ample and highly scenic main drain admiring massive bridges of calcited stream debris and flowstone overhead. The odd boulder climb or low, wet bit merely emphasised the ease of the rest of the passage. At Charnel Inlet we paused for the writer to undertake a scientific draught test (fag break) resulting in the airflow being noted as heading towards the surface – possibly via the old M.C.G. discovery of the mined natural rift at Charnel Shaft. If permission is granted this will be dug in the hope of providing an easier entrance and essential rescue route as at present any fairly serious injury would, in the writer’s opinion, prove fatal without the use of a drilling rig to drop a shaft directly into the extension. An exit via the breakthrough choke is simply not an option. With the amount of loose rock in this practically virgin cave, both underfoot and on ledges or overhead, the chances of broken bones are high and the team have already got away lightly.

At the point 550m from the breakthrough squeeze, where the main stream is lost in an impassable tube, we climbed up into the higher levels and followed more superb passage to the beautifully decorated Royal Icing Junction where the plan was for Julie and Bill to survey East Passage while Mike and your scribe went West. Julie then remembered the taped-off, formation encrusted crawl, Neverland, to the left of the slope down to West Passage and decided to have a quick look after doffing her oversuit, wellies and gloves. We left them to it and pressed on to West End Chamber where the large fallen slab that had failed to squash the diggers received two long shot-holes and a dose of 40gm cord with a no.4 detonator attached. This was fired from back down West Passage, which acted like a giant gun barrel. Mike was most impressed with the ear-shattering detonation and distinct shock wave. Highly satisfied we dragged the bang wire back to the diminutive Chuckle Choke where we were surprised to meet the others – twitching with excitement and impatient to drag us off to inspect the 150m or so of mind-boggling passage discovered by Julie. We were not going to complain so a hasty charge of 12 and 40gm cord was wrapped around and between the two offending boulders (the drill battery having run out of power) and fired by Julie from the base of the calcited slope. She, also, was impressed when the earth moved for her but desperate to discover more wonders so minutes later we were all minus wellies and oversuits and creeping carefully between pure white pristine formations into a low, crystal-lined canal. Julie had already cut her unprotected hands on the floor crystals so this time we all wore gloves after swilling them in a nearby pool. Much of the next 100m had once been a much deeper pool with the result that inverted, crystalline “bullrush” formations proliferated and the walls below the ancient water level were a veritable jewel box. Straws, stalactites and helictites in profusion decorated the ceiling throughout and necessitated extreme care. I truly believe that Julie has discovered one of the most beautiful continuously decorated sections of cave passage in Britain – if not THE best. Passing through this lot was a slow-motion nightmare and bloody (literally) sharp on the hands, knees and un-booted feet.

Eventually we emerged into a magnificently adorned and very high junction chamber with the way on down to the left and a superb flowstone slope pouring down from a major inlet up to the right. While the others poked about below I gingerly climbed this in my wetsocks and with a clear conscience as the fantastic triangular crystals in the floor had a curious black, speckled staining in places on which one could walk with care. They are similar to those in Happy Hour Highway, Hunters’ Lodge Inn Sink (but here in their thousands) and in the Grotte du Grand Roc and Gouffre de Proumeyssac, Perigord. After some 30-40m of steeply ascending phreatic tunnel I reached an awesome pool with dinner plate diameter, pure white calcite bosses in its centre. This was later named Pork Pie Pool for the shape of the bosses and in thanks for Bill’s tasty caving snacks. The others joined me here but the magnificent pool was not crossed as the passage beyond seemed to be solidly blocked with flowstone. There may be high level leads in this area as it was obviously once a main route in from the surface.

We all then continued “downstream”, Mike exploring a muddy phreatic tube on the left which soon ended in a static sump. Just beyond this I scrambled down into a lower canal passage ending in a calcite choke. The main passage continued overhead and this was where Julie had stopped due to a large hole in the floor, which she considered needed protection to surmount. Finding myself in the lead, and blessed with longer legs, I got the job of traversing over the c.6m pit down to the lower passage. This got me to another c.6m drop beyond where an almost vertical flowstone cascade was free-climbed down into a high canal passage with the usual masses of pretties. Further along the continuing bore tube a couple of descending tubes on the left intersected sections of a lower, muddy and relatively small stream passage with a trickle of water. This probably originates in Mike’s static sump and was left unexplored in all directions. My recollection of how far I followed the main phreatic tunnel are blurred by the adrenalin rush of the moment but I realised I was alone and in someone else’s cave so I left a marker and returned to the others. About 3-400m was found in this series today and it was left wide open and 3-4m in diameter for Julie and a different team to return next day.

Feeling highly pleased with ourselves we began the long slog out. I had a struggle pushing my heavily laden tackle bag up through the breakthrough choke squeezes and was glad to see the entrance. My arm and leg muscles ached for days afterwards. Too many soft-option digging trips in Rose Cottage Cave! As usual the best bit was the smug gobbing-off in the Hunters’ afterwards. My overall impression of the system was of being in a Welsh cave misplaced beneath Mendip and at times the trip felt exactly like being on a push in Meghalaya. I’m sure that Julie would agree with this having sampled the delights of Indian cave exploration.

On the following day Julie, Tim, Doug, Brian and Dongwoo carried on from my last point to reach a free-climbable c.6m pitch to reach further sections of the muddy streamway and a climb up to some huge boulder chambers. Another 200m or so was added to this magnificent system to give a total current length (5/12/06) of around 2.6km and making Upper Flood the fifth longest cave on Mendip. I am convinced that this is only the beginning but trips to the various ends of the cave will inevitably become longer and more arduous. To sum it up in Julie’s own words I include a quote from Grampian S.G. newsletter No.129, December 2006: - “I went down Flood on Friday (having taken a day off work to push the place)… We went down “Neverland” – so called because it was soooo pretty we were never going to push it… Erm, ach well. It WENT!!!! For 500m!!!! To the most unbelievably fantastic formations I have ever seen. And we only dug for about 10 minutes with our bare hands moving rocks aside… Wake me up someone; I think I am dreaming…”

Access for non-M.C.G. members will gradually improve as the explorers very rightly mop up the open passages. Several of the club’s Upper Flood leaders have yet to see the extensions but sub-normal body size, experience and stamina are a must for this exacting cave. Alternatively get stuck into a dig in Manor Farm Swallet or join the “Klondikers” anywhere between Charterhouse and Cheddar. There’s plenty more to be found and the lower it gets the bigger it must be.

My grateful thanks to my M.C.G. colleagues for the invitation and for one of the “best trips ever” and my congratulations to them on their discovery of this magnificent Mendip cave system. Keep on diggin’!  

A question for vintage members. In Velvet Bottom, between Upper Flood and Manor Farm and near the old buddle pits on the south side, west of the bend, I have marked on a map a potential cave – Trat’s Site. I suspect that this was a flood sink noticed just after the Great Flood of 1968 but I have forgotten from where I got the information. The grid ref. is ST 5020 5535. Does anyone have any information on this site?