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Tony Jarratt – The Early Years

By Stuart McManus


alt I think it speaks for itself with the number of people who are here to-day, just how popular, respected and quite frankly loved Tony, “JRAT” was. I think it’s true to say that everyone who met Jrat liked him.

I have known Tony for over 40 years when as schoolboys, we were introduced by Dave Yeandle at the Axbridge Caving Group Hut in 1967, where we became firm friends.

It is not possible to cover even a small part of Tony’s lifetime of cave exploration here today as a caver for over 44 years and logging 11,481 hours underground. All his trips faithfully recorded in 15 wonderful logbooks.

So I thought that I would just cover what started, I think, as fairly humble caving beginnings to become one of Britain’s caving legends and possibly one of the world’s top cave explorers – as Goon said Tony is of international standing, caving has lost one of its greats.  

Tony started caving when he was 14, as he said “a Naïve 14-year old Brummie school-kid” who cycled with his mates to the dangerously unstable but very impressive limestone mines in the Black Country town of Dudley, they used hand torches and hurricane lamps – but records that at least he had a pressed fibre miner’s helmet given to him by his uncle Glyn Thomas a Collier from Tredegar.

His inspiration to go caving was “How Underground Britain is Explored” (Showell Styles) which he unearthed in Saltley Grammar School library, and from watching dramatic cave rescues on black and white TV. His mother regularly stated that he would not have a motorbike or go potholing! Which Tony records was wrong on both counts.

Tony’s parents moved to Congresbury in 1965 and in the July, he went to Nailsea Grammar school. Whilst at school he found a like-minded person in Steve Shepstone, and together they explored some of the Mendip caves. They both joined the EGONS (Exploration Group of North Somerset) when as he says his real caving career started, with endless visits to Burrington Combe and even the Ystradfellte area, in those days reached by car ferry and a fairly remote place when compared to today. He added Eastwater, Stoke Lane and Swildon’s to his list of caves visited, climbing the Forty Foot Pot in Swildons on the 3rd July 1966 and as he put it “was now committed to a cold, wet, muddy and totally absorbing future in the world’s entrails in company with some of the craziest characters on the planet”!

Digging was in his blood from a very early stage of his caving career, he records “On the 4th February 1967 he commenced his first dig, in the Water Chamber of Goatchurch Cavern and was able to see into a small stream passage with a small decorated chamber above.
This was eventually reached in July and though only tiny, its exploration proved to be the nail in the coffin of normality and a life now dedicated to digging grotty holes in unpromising and obscure places throughout the land”.

In September 1967 he commenced digging with the Axbridge first Nettle hole and then in the adjacent depression of “Foot and Crutch Pot”, entering the cave in June 1968. Subsequent extensions prompted the renaming of the caves as Ubley Warren Pot in September of 68.

Tony and Dick Pike were interviewed on BBC TV in Bristol by Nicholas Tresilian on the 9th September 1968 about the cave discovery! Tony earning five pounds five shillings for the interview or £5.25p in new money. That was about 60 pints of Ben Dors beer at the time, not bad for 20 mins work!

Caving and dig prospecting continued, recording in his logs his observations on potential digs and leads in any cave he went in. It was obvious that doing the tourist bits was just not enough!

On Boxing Day 1969 Tony had his first cave dive, with Alan Mills, he records “Al taught me how to use the kit (40 and Orca) dived through sump 1 and the ducks and sump II. Due to cold and my not being able to grip the gag properly with no teeth (he had recently had all his teeth removed in just two dentist sessions as a condition of joining the Ordnance Survey, this was due to gum disease and not a torture for joining the Civil service! 

He finishes by saying, Superb …will start diving properly in the new year!

Tony joined the Ordnance Survey and after training to be a surveyor was posted to Shropshire in 1970, which allowed him to rekindle his interest in mines in the area as well as continuing to cave, dig and cave dive in Derbyshire, Wales and Mendip.

December 1971 saw Tony’s first trip to Ireland and County Clare, sampling the delights of O’Connor’s bar and the caves of county Clare. He records that the Dublin birds are tremendous!

In 1972 Tony, as a Wessex member with Pete Moody and a strong band of divers discovered and extended Desolation Row above Victoria Aven in Swildon’s Twelve.  Unfortunately, this was not to lead to the bypass to sump 12 as they all hoped.

In 1973 whilst still living and working in north Wales, he was instrumental in digging in to Ogof  Hesp Alyn, which turned in to the biggest cave find in north Wales.

Tony was posted to Scotland by the OS in 1975 and I’ll leave Goon to talk about Tony’s efforts in Scotland, which as usual were extensive!

Tony Joined the BEC in July 1977. In the same month Tony gathered a team to commence the digging of Wigmore Swallet. The results of their mammoth efforts in this cave are well known.

From 1977 Tony’s areas for caving and digging stretched the full length of the country until he left the OS and took over Bat Products from Phil and Lil Romford. At this point Tony was in his element, he could concentrate on digging on Mendip, with the holiday trips to Scotland and of course the annual trips to Meghalaya in India, to name but a few.

He became a MRO warden in 1983 and only stepped down in 2007.

Tony’s life was caving; he was also renowned for welcoming and encouraging new people to caving. Many people have told me if it weren’t for Tony I would never have gone caving or joined a Club. These are the next generation of cavers and he involved them all in his projects and hence why there are so many cavers here today.

On seeing him in Hospital straight after the diagnosis of his lung cancer I asked him again something we talked about over 25 years ago, did he have any regrets, and as I expected he repeated what he had said then “if I die tomorrow I’d have no regrets I have met such a great bunch of people, done and seen a lot, no I don’t regret anything.

I think the final stage of his life confirmed to me and I am sure to all of you, his strength of Character, after his Chemotherapy he went home to carry on as best he could, and wouldn’t let the prognosis get in the way of sorting out his life, organising diggers, going to his own wake and so on  - Absolutely fantastic! 

I think you would all agree he was an inspiration to us all and was quite frankly typical Jrat.

An extract from Tony’s 14th Logbook I think really sums him up:

“The rest of July then becomes somewhat epic, with no work getting done in Caine Hill due to lack of personnel, a couple of very promising extensions being made above the downstream end of Wigmore Swallet and my diagnosis with incurable lung cancer. The latter at this stage in time is not painful so life carries on as best as possible. Dave (Tuska) Morrison suggested on the 4th August 08 to start a new Hymac dig and instantly I suggested trying to get a new entrance in to Wigmore. Dave having just lost his wife we are both in low spirits and this is the obvious cure!  I’m on deaths bloody door and organising a major dig! Unbelievable!”

Home Close Hole was created.

Even when he finally returned to hospital for what was the final time, and we were discussing the aerial shots of Home Close we had taken with him, he asked me to go to the Hunters on the Wednesday night and check on how many bags the diggers had taken out of Caine Hill. Tangent was a little reluctant to tell me I recall, and when I returned the following evening even though Tony found it very hard to talk, he again asked how many bags were taken out, I told him I couldn’t get a straight answer, and I asked him what punishment I should give them if the team had not removed at least 20 bags each, – 10 lashes each said Jrat with a broad grin!

I think you’ll agree we have lost one incredible friend but he has left a lasting legacy with the digs and cave sites both here on Mendip and throughout the land.