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Obituaries - Mike “Fish” Jeanmaire

Mike Jeanmaire was born in Bristol on 20th December 1945, and brought up by his mother, in the villages around Mendip. When at school, it was due to his liking for fishing, and not as many thought because of his free diving of sumps, he was given the nickname “Fish”,  a name that was to stick with him for the rest of his life.

In the early 1960’s, Fish started caving on Mendip, and under the influence of Mike Wooding, Oliver Lloyd, Mike Boon and other legends of the time, he soon became one of the leading cavers and divers of the time. Following the example of some cavers who had inadvertently free-dived Sump II thinking it was Sump 1, Fish set about preparing himself to free dive both Sump II and the deeper Sump III.  Fish was the first person to routinely free dive down the Swildon’s streamway to Sump 6. Whereas in 1965, it was considered impossible, or suicidal at best. A couple of years later this trip was to become routine.

In late 1966 Fish had the idea of the “Long Round Trip” in Swildons, free diving down the streamway to Six, and then out through Damp Link and Shatter Series. In January 1967 Fish led Brian Quilliam and James Cobbett on the first “Long Round Trip”, which remains one of the hardest trips on Mendip, and one that is not often repeated.

I first met Fish when I joined the Axbridge Caving Club in 1967, where  Fish was already a 60’s cult figure. He had moved out of the Axbridge hut by then and had joined the BEC (membership No: 669)  and was living at the famous or some might say “infamous” 375 Fishponds Road in Bristol with other members of the BEC. Fish however was still a regular at the Axbridge Hut, who along with James Cobbett and the other members of the Exeter University Speleological Society (EUSS) which included Liz (nee Heather) used the Hut as the base for caving on Mendip. Fish was spending a lot of time diving in Swildons, Stoke Lane, St. Cuthberts and various other caves on Mendip, South Wales and Yorkshire.     

For us young Axbridge cavers, which included Tony Jarratt and Dave Yeandle,  Fish was not only one of the hard men of the day, with his daring cave exploits, but he was quite often dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, and was to us really quite hip, as like Fish and Liz we were all mad keen Bob Dylan fans.

Frequently after returning to the Axbridge Hut from the Hunters’ on a Saturday night,  we would visit the newly opened Charterhouse Country Club (the old Nordrach Sanatorium), right opposite the hut and it was after one late evening there, with Fish dressed in his “denim suit”, sang “With Lloyd On Our Side”;  his version about the political struggles going on in the CDG, based on the Bob Dylan classic “With God On Our Side” I must say Fish’s version  brought the house down.       

After a short spell in Leicester, Fish and Liz moved down to live in Plymouth, where Fish regularly explored the local caves with the Plymouth Caving Group. Fish and Liz were married in April 1970.

Tony Jarratt and I used to travel down to meet them and James Cobbett and the rest of the EUSS crowd and experienced the delights of the Exeter University Speleological Society dinners – but that’s another story. 

In 1975, whilst living in Nottingham,  I organised the Pegasus Caving Club’s Expedition to the Grotte de La Cigalere, where Fish and Cobbett dived the terminal sump, our expedition being only the third to reach the end, and the first to dive the terminal sump.

Fish and Liz  moved to Derbyshire in 1975, initially to Buxton and then to Peak Forest, just a short walk from Eldon Hole. Fish and Liz spent a lot of time doing up their cottage to which friends and guests were always warmly welcomed.

Whilst  living in Derbyshire, Fish worked for some ten years as a miner, in the underground Sallet Hole and Ladywash fluorspar mines, where he lost the end of three fingers due to an industrial accident. Once invalided out due to a bad back in 1988, he started a two year full-time, HND course in Mineral Surveying at Pontypridd in south Wales. However, by the time he had completed this the UK mining industry had reached such a low point that he was never to work in mining again.

Fish held the post of Chairmen of the Cave Diving Group for thirty years until his health started to fail him, he resigned in 2007.

As Brian, “Scoff”, Schofield, the current Chairmen of the CDG said,  it was Fish’s honesty and his ability to both respect tradition whilst allowing frontiers to be pushed back that made him such a good Chairman of the CDG. CDG meetings at Fish and Liz’s were always very popular and resulted on many occasions with a very crowded cottage in Peak Forest. Scoff thinks that much of this might be put down to the numerous  coffee and cake breaks which preceded a slap up lunch with fine foods and wine. Though this was more to do with Liz’s hard work whilst Fish played the perfect host.

In addition to caving, Fish’s other interest was motor bikes, more specifically Ducati’s, of which he owned seventeen over the years. He was a prominent member of the Ducati Owners Club Great Britain. Whose meetings Fish and Liz attended all over Europe for many years, on the bike, including several Ducati Members’ Gatherings at the Ducati headquarters in Bologna, Italy. One year, Fish’s Ducati 350 won a “Best in Class” trophy of the British Ducati Owners Club, though breaking down on the way back to Derbyshire. Another one of Fish’s bikes was the fastest in class in the UK in a time trial, albeit with a younger, lighter and more foolish rider. Fish’s enthusiasm for Ducati’s never left him, and he continued riding these Italian exotic bikes for some time after he became seriously unwell.

Even though Fish’s health was deteriorating and he was eventually forced to use a mobility scooter to get around, it didn’t stop him and Liz going on the 2007 Wessex Cave Club expedition to the Pierre St Martin in France. Where  Fish, with Liz, entered the “Salle de Verna” on his scooter.  As he entered the large chamber, the scooter stopped with a complete electrical failure, this also resulted in the scooter, now having no brakes, not good with Fish on the scooter pointing up hill at the time! It took Keith Fielder and Brian Hansworth quite some time using a rope to pull Fish on his scooter out through the EDF tunnel,  much to the amusement of both Fish and Liz.  Fish eventually burnt out the motor of his scooter whilst exploring the GR10 routes around the PSM. 

With Fish’s health deteriorating, they had made the decision to move back to Mendip and in 2008 after Liz had retired they left Peak Forest to live on the Somerset levels, with views of the Mendip Hills from their bungalow.

I remember visiting Fish at St. Margaret’s Hospice in Yeovil after he was recuperating from one of his now increasing number of lung infections and, without any emotion telling me that his lungs were stuffed, there was not going to be a lung transplant, and it wouldn’t be long before he died. But typical of Fish he continued, “and what about you,  how are you doing, what have you got planned next?  I found this very humbling, and typical of Fish. 

Fish finally succumbed to lung failure on 2nd November 2010.

Stuart (Mac) McManus

January 2011