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Caine Hill Shaft - Priddy

By Tony Jarratt
Photos Tony Audsley

“Our Miners in digging dayly meet with these caverns, which are of different widenesses, some of them being very large;” – J. Beaumont, 1681

NGR ST55/5248.5103 Alt. 253m

Digging Operations 2003 – 16/5/2007

Desperately needing a change of scenery from the squalid conditions of Rose Cottage Cave a few of the team have recommenced work at this interesting site situated in the front drive of Caine Hill Cottage, Coxton End Lane, The Batch, Priddy. Beneath a manhole cover a 5m deep ginged shaft leads to a waterworn and steeply descending natural rift partly enlarged by the Old Men as they followed a calcite vein in search of workable lead or ochre. The shaft was uncovered by Priddy tree surgeon Tim Andrews whilst enlarging the entrance to his drive in 2003. It was covered with a metal sheet and below a now demolished dry-stone wall but it is now entered via a manhole frame fitted by Alan Butcher (SMCC) and the late Barrie Wilton (BEC). Mike Thompson (WCC) heard about it in the New Inn and in 2003 commenced digging with John Walsh (BEC), Dudley Herbert (BEC), Tony Audsley (BEC), Rich Dolby (BEC), Mark “Shaggy” Howden (BEC), Tim Andrews and others but they dropped out for various reasons after a couple of years and the place came up for grabs. Tim was very happy to see it dug again and is an essential team member as he gets the spoil disposal job. Research into the name Caine Hill has failed to yield much information as to its origin though it may refer to the hill on which The Batch group of cottages is situated. A workman at St. CuthbertÙs lead works, Silas Vincent, once inhabited the nearby Windy Ridge ( ? ) Cottage (now demolished) but there is no evidence to connect him with its excavation. The discovery of a possibly nineteenth century clay pipe bowl, some domestic rubbish and scattered animal bones – later identified as deer by Hannah Bell - may be derived from an earlier cottager with a taste for ‘baccyÙ and venison.

The writer had previously dug there on 16th August 2004 in company with John Walsh, Jeff Price and Matt Butcher (SMCC) when 51 bags of sandy clay and a few rocks were brought out and loaded onto TimÙs pick-up truck. Further work was out of the question, all the breathable air having been used up by the diggers. He returned on 19th March 2007 with Trevor Hughes to find an alloy rigid ladder in the shaft, a second one partway down and many full bags awaiting removal. Lots more were filled and a total of 50 were hauled out with a few more left for the next session. Trevor was overjoyed with the dryness of the place and the ease of digging. The writer returned on the 21st along with Phil Coles, Sean Howe, Hannah B, Bob Smith and Henry Bennett. Another 35 bags were hauled out and tipped into TimÙs truck, which he had parked alongside in anticipation. Passing Templeton diggers were astonished to see the BEC working on an obscure, unknown and apparently secret dig! On the 25th he was back along with Trev H, Bob S. and Tangent (surface operative) and another 31 loads came out. It was now obvious that we had gone beyond the Old MensÙ trial and were in completely natural, and very old, cave passage with probably glacial infill. Small phreatic solution pockets containing calcite boxwork emphasised this. Next day Trev and your scribe continued digging and after the timely arrival of Tony Audsley and Rich Witcombe a total of 39 loads came out – much to RichÙs delight as he quickly claimed most of them for infilling at Rose Cottage Cave. Tony also brought up some photos of the site taken before August 2003, some of which are reproduced here along with others taken this year. A chat with Tim revealed the fascinating information that when his new cottage foundations were dug over seven years ago the builders opened up a large, deep hole down which stones dropped for some time and which was apparently trending in the direction of the car parking area in front of Manor Farm on Priddy Green. This may have been natural or mined. The writer was once shown a very strongly draughting hole under the kitchen window of Tree Tops, The Batch – only a couple of houses away from Caine Hill Cottage and apparently the drainage from the septic tank in front of this house flowed freely into another hole so there is obviously something reasonably sized in this area (albeit malodorous!).

On the 27th March Trev H, on a solo trip, filled another ten bags and reported that the LH wall seemed to be undercut enough to allow further downwards progress though the narrowness of the passage was not encouraging. It became even narrower on the 28th when Phil C, Sean H, Jake Baynes and the writer filled another twenty-one bags. The total of 31 (and one frog) were hauled out by Bob S. and Hannah B. Next day your scribe returned to fill another twenty bags and prove that the rift was not pinching out, though digging in the constricted space was awkward.

April FoolsÙ Day saw some of the finest back at the working face. Trev H, the writer, Henry Dawson, Jane Clarke, Tim Ball and Fiona Crozier removed 54 spoil bags and did some tentative digging in the higher level of the rift as the bottom was beginning to narrow down. This problem was solved on the following day when your scribe, assisted by Tony A. drilled and banged the constriction to give more working space and used the vacuum cleaner to clear the fumes. They were later joined by Rich W, Paul Weston and Mike Hearn (the latter two “pressed” from the HuntersÙ) and 24 bags of clay and bang debris were hauled out for infilling at Rose Cottage Cave. Passing walkers thought that we were either mining (true!) or cleaning out a sewer. Another 22 loads came out on the 4th with Jake B. clearing the rift below the second alloy ladder, Pete Hellier and the writer working at the bottom and Phil C. and Darrel Insterell hauling. Seven bags were filled at the bottom on the 6th when your scribe drilled one shot-hole and the following day he drilled a second, charged the two with mixed diameter cord and gave Tim the chance to blow up his own cave! The fumes were again sucked out to pollute the pure Priddy air. The spoil from this bang was cleared on the 9th when Tony A, Bob S, Paul W. and the writer laboured underground while Mike H, Rich W. and Nicks Harding and Richards provided afternoon surface support. A total of 42 loads came out and the diggers were greatly encouraged by the opening up of a draughting hole on the right hand side just beyond the banged section - 13 metres from the entrance. Most of the spoil was taken away and dumped by Tim during the lunch break. Rich did a useful PR job by rebuilding the drystone wall opposite the driveway and Tony took more record images underground.

On the 11th April both the bottom and part way down digs were worked by Jake B, Sean H, John Noble, Paul Brock, Phil C. and your scribe with Bob S. as surface operative. 40 loads came out. Hannah B. took away bones unearthed by the previous diggers for identification at Wells Museum. Another 17 loads came out on the following evening when Jake B, the writer, Andy Norman and Ernie White (the Barnsley Boys) continued with both digs. Andy suggested that the crystallization is of hydrothermal origin and he collected a lump of dogtooth spar for further study. On the 15th Chris Batstone, Faye Lillington, Tim B. and the writer dug at both sites and Martin “Milche” Mills (SMCC), Bob S. and John “Tangent” Williams hauled 25 loads out (and one frog) with another 12 loads from the bottom dig coming out next day courtesy of your scribe and Paul W. 31 loads came out on the 18th with Jake B, Hannah B. and your scribe digging and John N, Phil C, Pete H. and Sean H. hauling. Jake and the writer returned to their respective favourite digs on the 20th when the former opened up a passage on the RH side of the upper dig with limited airspace and the usual soft clay floor. 11 loads from here were hauled out. Another 53 loads, mainly from the upper dig, came out on the 22nd when Trev H, Paul B. and the writer took turns at the face where the excellent calcite boxwork on the phreatic-pocketed ceiling was admired. On a solo trip next day your scribe continued digging here and was able to squeeze in some two metres. Further work here would require the removal of a layer of the solid rock floor and the lack of airflow is not encouraging. It is suggested that this short but attractive feature is called Boxwork Passage. Further excavation was continued at the lower dig where it is now possible to work beyond the entrance squeeze and bag up the multicoloured ochreous infill. The second aluminium ladder was replaced with a wire ladder to give more working space.

The two enthusiasts were back at their respective digs on the 25th April, accompanied by Alex Livingston and Sean H, the latter recording progress with his digital camera. A record 61 bags were hauled out in very poor air conditions. Many more bags were filled from both digs on the 27th – Jake B. concentrating on Boxwork Passage and your scribe on the lower site. 1 load came out but dire air conditions discouraged further work. On the 2nd May Bob S. and Hannah B. hauled out these full bags, 27 in all and two days later Jake B. filled up lots more at Boxwork Passage and the main rift below it. Bob S. returned on the 7th May and he continued here while the writer pressed on at the end where the sudden opening up of a tiny, draughting hole made air conditions far more pleasant and enthusiasm was re-kindled. 54 loads came out on the 9th May when Bob S, Hannah B, Jake B, Pete H, John N. and the writer turned up in inclement weather when the best place to be was underground; as it was the following evening when the latter filled several “Tesco” bags and removed a large rock at the end. He suggests that this passage is called Root 66 due to the enormous amount of said growths sprouting from the infill. More work was done at both sites, next day by their respective enthusiasts and on the 13th and 14th May the writer continued clearing sticky clay from Root 66. He carried on disinterring a large rock here on the 16th, aided by Phil C. who also dug below Boxwork Passage. The short scaffold tripod left by the original diggers was replaced with the trusty, telescopic alloy one recovered from a long sojourn at West Horrington Shaft but due to a lack of personnel only 2 loads came out.

The current length is c.19m.and the depth is c.12m. Work continues.

To be continued in BB 529.