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Wigmore Extended

 

The following is the combined text from two Descent articles and this is presented here so that it can form part of the BEC reference material. 

Chris Jewell

My Wigmore story begins with reading Mendip Underground one evening at home in Potters Bar (a long way from Mendip!). According to Mendip Underground “the stream resurges at Cheddar Risings giving a potential depth of some 300m to the bottom of Sump 3 in Gough’s Cave, conceivably one of the deepest caves in England and with a potential length in excess of 10km” With my enthusiasm fuelled by this I purchased a copy of the Wigmore report from the BEC library, started reading all the old CDG dive reports and persuaded Tony Jarratt to tell me what he knew over a pint or four.

Amazingly for such a major cave on Mendip, with excellent potential, only a handful of people had been to the end. This seemed too good an opportunity to pass up - caves change over time and fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm can open up new possibilities. Having been down the cave once before as a dry caver I knew it was a fairly sporting cave, which required quite a lot of tackle. Therefore I’d need to keep it rigged for the duration of the project (thanks to the WCC!!) and have a plentiful supply of sherpas (thanks to the BEC and friends).

As one of the original diggers and local cave guru I discussed my plans with Tony Jarratt whose enthusiasm for the project was contagious, whilst he also provided lots of practical assistance, such as putting me in touch with one of the original explorers Mike “Trebor” McDonald. 

I undertook several initial trips into the cave, firstly to check out dive base and the state of the kit left there from previous exploration projects and then later to drop off cylinders for my first dives. Thanks to Fiona Crozier, Duncan Butler, Matt Blount, Bruce Blagden and Rich Beer for their help hauling out the abandoned cylinders and old dive gear.

I then made a series of dives over several weekends assisted by several people, Rich Bayfield, Fiona Crozier, Ian Peachey Rich Llewellyn and Andy MacDonald, progressing further each time and becoming comfortable with the cave and the sumps. Firstly to the beginning of Sump 5 on my own, then with Stu Gardiner’s support (a recent BEC convert and my new diving partner) I passed the Rubik Sump and reached the start of Sump 7.

Stu Gardiner takes up the Story…

When I was still very new to caving and the Upper Series in Swildon’s was still an epic journey I recall my friend and caving mentor John Freeman telling me that he used to carry “Trebor” McDonalds cylinders down this awful place called Wigmore Swallet. I distinctly remember him saying that it was one of the worst places on Mendip to lug equipment through and that he would never go back again. This story had put me off the place for years and I could never find any valid reason to venture into such a place.

So in August 2007 when Chris asked if I would like to join him in having a look at the end of Wigmore with a view of possibly re starting the abandoned dig I was naturally sceptical due to John’s comments about the place. But then after doing some research and speaking to various people I came to the conclusion that this place had potential and surely must be worth a look.

The 9th August came and there I was at dive base kitted up and ready to go. The River Yeo although icy cold was unimaginably clear, but like most Mendip sumps the heavy silt soon clouded up to reduce the visibility to zero. The original dive line was still in a good condition and a testament to the previous divers who would have laid it in liquid mud. We continued on until we reached Sump 5, known as the Rubik Sump, which was Chris’s previous limit the trip before. Here I waited in waist deep water while he slotted himself in and checked out the nature of the beast, making a few attempts before pushing all the way through. After a short wait though the line started to twitch and he returned after checking out Sump 6.

Chris Jewell continues…

After the success of the previous trip with Stu I was ready to attempt Sump 7 and head to the end of the cave. Unfortunately Stu had other commitments so I resolved to make the trip on my own. BEC members Mark Stephens and Duncan Butler provided the Sherpa support. A ladder would be required for a pitch known as Slime Rift and I also strapped a bolting hammer and driver to my cylinders, as I knew there were very few places to belay off. The Rubic Sump was more awkward with ladder in hand but I soon reached my previous limit at the beginning of Sump 7. 

For anyone who doesn’t know the cave the sumps are all fairly short and shallow, with the exception of the 65m long, 6-7m deep Sump 7. The original divers used 4ltr cylinders to reach the end and my preference was for 300bar 3’s to give the same amount of gas. Filled to 300bar they had settled down to about 280bar once in the cold water and I was confident this would give me plenty of air for the trip. However I didn’t want to hang around in the deeper parts of the sump unnecessarily and planned to make a swift swim through 7. Being the only diver in the cave and ahead of the silt cloud the vis was excellent. I could easily see the passage shape, where in the past the original divers had groped around in zero vis. After the initial arch at the bottom of the pot in Sump 7 I rose up the silt bank to see a shimmering surface. Straight away I was confused…”the sump was meant to be much longer than this?!” I thought to myself. The tell tale line heading down the silt bank into the darkness provided the obvious answer – no one had spotted that surface before! With no proper line reel and mindful of my objective at the end I continued my dive downstream, leaving the air bell for the future.

After the earlier narrow passage of Wigmore, Vindication Streamway is an impressive place more reminiscent of the Swildon’s streamway and deserving of some real attention. I progressed down the cave until Slime Rift where I placed a bolt for the ladder and moved on towards the end. After navigating the first boulder choke I was stood at the terminal choke, a silt covered pile of boulders, “Goodbye Bob Davies”.

As a dig site I decided it wasn’t as much of a lost cause as the original cavers had considered it. The water clearly backs up here but I could see space between the boulders which a bit of digging and shoring could do something about. Satisfied with my recce trip I turned tail for home and the party at the Belfry, which I was already missing. Once on the surface my thoughts headed back to Wigmore, we needed a proper crack at the end soon and I ought to check out that airbell as well…

A few weeks later after the BEC AGM and dinner I stood packing my dive gear by the car. I had persuaded Rich Llewellyn Smith and Barrie Lawton (both BEC) to help me down the cave. However due to a late night and ‘everything to excess’ my enthusiasm was waning and it was already approaching midday. I mustered the last of my energy for the trip with the thought that whilst the weather was good I should at least check out the airbell. My plan was to make it a quick trip, probably find the airbell didn’t go anywhere and be back with Rich and Barry in less than an hour.

I’d carried a line reel and several silt screws down the cave on previous trips so I placed one of these (plastic drainage pipes to the non divers) in the silt below the airbell and unwound my reel. The inevitable silt cloud caught up with me whilst I did this and I emerged out of a muddy swirl into clear water, watching the reel unwind as I moved towards the reflection above. Just before I broke the surface I remember thinking “Go on…please!!” …and wow…it didn’t disappoint!!!

I was able to explore a large stream inlet up to 15m high in places and frequently 3-4m wide. I followed the stream upwards for over 100m over a boulder strewn floor before the passage divided. The water issued from a small crawl whilst I followed the passage into a high chamber with a climb at the end. This climb looked easy enough with a bit of gear and some company so I retreated to follow the stream coming from the crawl and explored an estimated 40m of passage to where the gravel prevented further progress. Extremely pleased with myself but mindful of the cold sherpas, who had been told that if I was gone for more than two hours to start worrying, I called it a day and headed back to Yeo Pot for a early evening exit. Knowing Tony Jarratt would be delighted I quickly headed for the Queen Vic for dinner, to tell him what I’d found and start planning the return!

Stu Gardiner continues

On 14th October after an evening with Chris at the Belfry tinkering with kit and making final plans we headed off early on the Sunday morning armed with a mountain of equipment and fortunately the Sherpas to move it! The plan was for one group to help us down to dive base and a second group to come in several hours later to help us out. Thanks to team 1 (Matt Traver, Ian Peachey and Mark Stephens) for getting up early and to team 2 (Matt Traver (yes twice in one day), Helen Brooke and Bruce Blagden) for staying late. Dive base was reached with few events other than that of Ian’s headlight falling off at the top of Black Pudding Pot plunging him into darkness. Each of us carried a small tackle bag consisting of surveying, bolting and photographic equipment, which we dived through the first four sumps before I reached my previous limit …

The Rubik Sump was next… I had been beating myself up all weekend and during the entire trip over this and wasn’t looking forward to it. The Rubik Sump is basically a sumped rift and requires a feet first entry on your side; the original divers recommended that you unclip one of your cylinders so that you can drag it behind you, therefore making it easier to squeeze through. This was out of the question though as we had a tackle sack each to contend with. I inserted my legs into the sump and bit down hard on the mouth piece as the jagged rock was determined to rip it from my mouth. The cylinders were a constant pain as they kept rolling in front of me and snagging, not to mention the rear of my harness catching on the other side of the rift. For the first 10ft it was a tedious backward and forward type motion to free up hoses, harness and wetsuit. Then after about 20ft in my mouthpiece was torn from my mouth as my hose caught up. My left hand was holding the bag behind me and I would not have been able to re seat it without letting go of it which would have been a bad thing as it potentially could have blocked the rift and our only way out. So I had little choice other than to let go of the dive line and rapidly replace my mouthpiece… a quick blow out and I was breathing again. Relocating the thin strand of dive line in the murky water was easy even in zero visibility as thankfully the passage was so small! The sump then increases in size a little as you drop out into the bottom of the rift and it’s possible to roll over and dive out in a normal fashion. The Rubik Sump was everything I had imagined it to be but I was now on the downstream side and still had to go back through!!!

Diving down into Sump 7 was quite nice, with pretty good visibility. I followed the line down under the arch and followed it up the silt back to where I located the line Chris had tied on. I backed up Chris’s snoopy with a peg, looked left and saw the large glimmering airspace. Following the line up I surfaced in the air bell and was instantly amazed at what Chris had discovered!! I de -kitted at the side of the pool and waited for Chris to come through, anxious to explore the new passage!!

Now in caving mode we set off up the new passage following the water. Large boulders and mud strewn floors were encountered until we came to a steep mud bank that was spotted on Chris’s previous trip. I managed to climb up trying not to damage the mud too much to discover a sizeable chamber with three passages leading off. Two of these will require bolting and the other seems to drop back down onto the stream way but will need a line due to the smooth mud coated sides. Back in the main passage we continued along to the end to the climb, which had previously stopped Chris. Upon a second inspection, with better lights, we decided that more hardware would be needed to tackle this, and so left it for the future.

The next priority was to investigate the inlet passage and the source of the water running into Sump 7. After a 30m hands and knees crawl in 3” of water a low section was reached that required the gravel floor to be dug out. The passage could be seen beyond and a water cascade could be clearly heard around the corner. I started digging with a crow bar to loosen the gravel, which was not ideal but was better than nothing. A few attempts were made with helmet off but it was still too tight on my shoulders so I then handed over the digging to Chris. He continued to dig the gravel out while I filmed on the digital camera and he made two attempts, passing it on the second. Unfortunately passing it meant leaving his helmet on the near side and sitting up in the dark virgin passage he was reminded of why we always wear helmets!! After the cursing I recall him shouting through “you better come through Stu!” I squeezed through and off we went… to find another 30 – 40m of passage ending in a similar low section with ongoing passage seen beyond. This can be easily dug out to gain access but due to time restraints we retreated back to the main passage to start the surveying.

The surveying took around 2 hours, which left us just enough time to take some pictures, though ideally more flash guns were needed. However this is something that can be done on a subsequent trip.

 Back at our dive equipment we kitted up and started the journey back to dive base. All was fine apart from being very over weighted with the kit bag in Sump 7 and having to climb out from the elbow of the sump. Arriving back at Yeo Pot dive base I was pleased that we were only 30minutes late – at 5.30pm, but was surprised to find a distraught fiancée waiting for me.  Apparently we were 1.5hours late and a rescue was not far off!! We later figured that my watch had been knocked and set back 1 hour between dive base and Sump 7. I blame Rubik Sump as it managed to knock everything else!!

This new discovery is very exciting especially with the inlet being in limestone. Digging and exploration in the new series is always going to be a slow and difficult process due to the nature of the cave for transporting equipment and the evidence of water backing up in wet conditions. Personally I felt a radio location exercise of the large chamber and the climb would help us pin point the new system and may open up a possible surface dig to try and find an alternative entrance.

The new section of passage is trending roughly South East and the main part we surveyed is 135m long. When you add in the un-surveyed crawl a reasonable estimate would put this new section over 200m in total.

On 15 December I returned with Simon Cornhill (CDG) to tackle the climb at the end of the dry terminal chamber. Simon had gear problems and had to exit the cave to get another cylinder. Meanwhile, using a specially made dry bag with a diving dry zip and inflator, I transported a drill and batteries downstream to Young Bloods’ Inlet.

The bag worked extremely well, except that I’d used carry mat to pad the drill, which made the whole thing very buoyant. This mean I had to weigh it down with lots of lead and stones. In the water it was fine but it then weighed an absolute tonne between the sumps!

When Simon arrived we managed three hours of bolting and climbing, reaching a point over 20m above the floor with the aven still going. A loose rock was encountered which will need to be brought down at a later date. Sherpa assistance for the trip out was kindly provided by Andy Rumming (DSS), Alan Brady (DSS) and Ian Peachey.

On 6 January I was back at the inlet in very high water conditions with John Maneely (WCC) to push and survey the stream inlet crawl as well as drop off more gear for the aven climbing. We then set off up the crawl, easily passing the previous constriction Stuart Gardiner and I had dug out and on to where we stopped last time. Here the roof was very close to the water, making digging extremely difficult. I dug as much on my front as possible before I tried to get through on my back pushing gravel out of my way as I went - discovering that it is actually possible to dig whilst lying on your back! (as long as you can get your arms out).

I pushed through and John followed me 5m to a sump pool, which doesn't look amazingly promising - but is worth checking out. I lay in the water feeling the pool with my feet until I got too cold and we turned tail to start surveying.

In cold conditions, we surveyed the wet crawl back to where we’d previously dug through, before the cold then forced a halt. The carry out was long and hard and we eventually reached surface with the help of Sherpas, Ian Peachey and Bruce Blagden (SCG) after a 9 hour trip.

On 2nd of February we decided to put three divers through the sumps for the first time. Hilary Greaves (RRCPC) joined John Maneely and myself to finish off the aven climb. Fiona Crozier (BEC) and Katie Steckles (MUSC) provided the Sherpa assistance and for once the men were outnumbered by the women in the cave! After about a further 6m of vertical climbing I reached the top of the aven and a flat roof. The only possible lead was an impossibly tight rift heading off south east. Slightly disheartened I abseiled down so that John could head up with a tape measure to check the height – 26m in total. After cleaning the mud covered ropes and climbing gear the three divers pulled some of the kit out, leaving the rest for some shorter climbs closer to the sump pool. As we couldn’t retrieve all the kit it’s important to say thanks to Bruce Blagden who went down midweek to get my cylinders out after this trip.

After a few weeks off on Saturday 23rd of February we arranged a radio Location exercise with Brian Prewer (WCC). Stu Gardiner, myself and John Maneely made up the team, this time assisted down to the sump by Duncan Price (CSS) and Matt Jones (KUCC). (Do you get the impression it’s become a real multi club affair now!)

On the way downstream I decided to make a few notes about the general trend and bearing of the passage and sump depths. The latter proved impossible after two divers ahead of me but I managed to record the general trend to be E, with occasional sections heading SE or NE for short distances. Unfortunately these detailed notes did not survive the trip so most of this is from memory and we still need to do this properly for the Somerset Sump Index (I’m sure one of the reasons Duncan agreed to carry was to nag me about this!).

Stu had entered the water first and taken the radio location kit, which was stored in an ammo can. This survived the trip without flooding and when John and I arrived he was already set up transmitting. Meanwhile I climbed back up the ropes in the aven to rig them as a pull though so we could use them else where, whilst leaving thin string in their place in case anyone wanted to pull ropes back up in the future.

Apart from some strange noises and an unidentified voice on the frequency the radio location exercise was pretty efficient and we were quickly able to head off for objective number 2 – the un-dived sump. I’d carried my kit up from the sump pool so wearing one bottle with the other in Stu’s bag we set off. I seemed to have under estimated the awkwardness of this crawl, as we hadn’t gone far when it became apparent I’d need to push my cylinder ahead of me through lots of low ducks and crawls. Here protecting the valve and keeping it pressurised became very difficult. After lots of clanks and some hisses my regulator began to play up and after a quick conference about needing this in good working order to get back out – we decided to retreat and come back better prepared for the awkward carry. 

Back in the main passage we then contented ourselves with several hours of aid climbing in a sizable muddy chamber somewhere above the sump pool. This area looks interesting and there are several options here, the next trip will be very telling about the prospects here.

Once we ran out of bolts we turned for the surface and made it out just in time for the pub! The kit the three of us couldn’t carry out we went back for on Sunday with additional help from Fiona and Rich Llewellyn Smith (BEC).

On the radio location side, Brian was assisted by Phil Hendy (WCC), John Riley and Charlotte Riley. They left a stake in the ground to mark the spot on the surface and we were delighted to find three large depressions nearby – so there may be a surface dig starting here in the future!

Wigmore Stop Press…

On the last trip we (Duncan Price and I) dived downstream to Vindication Streamway and then free climbed back over the sump pool and into a small chamber at the top. We then followed this back along a short crawl until we could hear water. A bit further ahead Duncan spotted a rope and hanger and we realised we'd connected the passage back to Young Bloods' Inlet. This means it is no longer necessary to dive Sump 7 to reach the end of the cave. Plus if someone dug into Young Bloods' from the surface it would be possible to reach the end without diving at all!

We named the new piece of cave - The Generation Game - due to the gap in ages between Duncan and I!

By Chris Jewell and Stu Gardiner