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St. Cuthbert’s Nostalgia

As the decades ease by some caving trips stand out more than others. In the 1950s there was one such trip – into the not-long-since discovered St. Cuthbert’s Swallet.

On the evening of Friday 19th March 1954 I humped my heavy rucksack the one mile to Walton–on–Thames railway station and caught a train to Waterloo from whence I took the tube to Gloucester Road station where I met Dennis Kemp (WSG). I squeezed myself and kit into his already crowded vehicle and we headed towards Mendip: I think I was a WSG member at that point in time. The stated plan was to do a long trip to the Black Hole area in Swildon’s.

We duly arrived at the (old) Belfry where discussion soon indicated that, due to weather conditions, Black Hole was out of the question. I remember feeling very disappointed. However, it soon transpired that there was a 24-hour trip planned for St. Cuthbert’s – from midday Saturday until midday Sunday. I volunteered to join that trip and was accepted (beginner’s luck – I had only been caving for about a year).

A group of BEC members, whom I recall included Sybil Bowden-Lyle dammed the stream on Saturday morning to allow us to go down at 12.00am. The other members of the team were Bob Bagshaw, Roy Bennett, Norman Petty, Don Coase and John Stafford; all much older and more experienced than I was. On the way down we spent what seemed like ages (actually about an hour) putting in a Rawlbolt at the top of Arête Pitch. The descent of the Water Chute introduced me to the use of “knobbly dogs” (short alloy bars on a single length of wire – AJ). The roomy yet complex aspects of the cave were quite fascinating. Its vertical nature was something I had never previously experienced (Pulpit Pitch was awesome!). It was also perhaps the wettest cave I had been into!

At last we arrived at the Dining Room. Here we put down all the food and cooking equipment that we had been carrying.

After a “meal” of soup, bread, tea and biscuits we set off to explore the Rabbit Warren; I recall the names Plantation Junction (where we made great efforts to pass the stal. formations that block progress upstream) and the Tin Mine. Our explorations eventually brought us to Curtain Chamber. We seemed to have been on the move for many hours but we were back in the Dining Room by 7.00 pm.

After another brew-up and meal we set off up a short climb and entered Cerberus Hall. Since I had probably been selected as “duty ferret” I wriggled through a flat-out crawl at floor level to find myself looking down a rather steep passage. The passage turned to the right but appeared to continue, so I started off headfirst downwards. On reaching the point where the passage turned, I could see that it led straight into a lake of beautiful green water. I performed the necessary acrobatics to get my feet to where my head had been and went on down to water level. I think everyone went down to have a look into Lake Chamber. Our next exploit was to make the connection via Rat Run to Everest Passage. This involved John Stafford pushing a small boulder with his nose, having committed himself to an upward squeeze in which the boulder was sitting!

Yet another brew-up restored us for the next phase of exploration. This time we visited Upper Traverse Chamber and High Chamber. It was now very early on the Sunday morning and we were getting quite tired. Back in the Dining Room we took our time over a final meal before setting off for the surface to keep the midday rendezvous with the damming team. The journey was slow and rather arduous, as we had to roll up all the tackle we had taken in. An enduring memory is that every time we set off on a new excursion from the Dining Room I thought how similar it felt to what I imagined it must have felt like going out into no-man’s land on a WW1 night patrol (it must have been a mixture of the wetness, the mud and the obligation to do as everyone else did). I think also that khaki was the dominant colour of our caving clothes.

Above the Water Chute on the way out Roy Bennett and Don Coase climbed up into Drinking Fountain Passage. They had not been gone long when the ominous sounds of nailed boots sliding down a rock wall signified that Roy had not quite managed to make a short climb. Luckily no harm was done and we carried on out. I remember hoping that the people on the surface would not be late putting in the dam. They were on time and we duly emerged very wet and very tired at midday.

Dennis Kemp’s Land Rover was loaded and ready to go so I wasted no time in sorting myself out. There were no hot showers in those days of course and I recall being very concerned that parts of my body (mainly hands and feet) were very wrinkled by long exposure to cold water. I even wondered if they’d return to normal.    

By Tony Knibbs (MCG)