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Renewed Digging Effort In St Cuthbert’s 

by Estelle Sandford

About 2 years ago I started actively looking for a new dig site in St Cuthbert’s. This had been driven by me noticing that some of the hydrology of the cave seemed to have been naturally changing over the last 10-15 years (I had been involved in collecting water samples for the hydrology article Roger Stenner had written in the 90s, so had been pretty intimate with this particular cave's water course and levels!). With many discussions over a few beers, a few of us had never been totally convinced the 'original' way on for the water in St Cuthbert’s was via sump 2. It had been noted the geology of the cave passage changes between sumps 1 and 2 and doesn't seem to look as 'old', plus, we had also been convinced that the area around Cerberus to Lake Chamber areas may hold some secrets. This was fuelled by the Lake seeming lower than I remembered it on several visits to the place in early 2009, before the sump actually opened (don’t remember it doing that at all in the 90s), and also the stream-way was sinking in two places above Stal Pitch, meaning there is little to no flow from there until Plantation Junction during the drier summer months.

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Estelle in Lower Rocky Boulder

I had taken a break from active caving for a few years due to injuries and other life stuff and, it had been a while since I’d last actively dug and caved in St Cuthbert’s, but it has always been somewhere that holds a lot of intrigue. I have always been convinced the cave has more to offer, plus not many people have actively dug in there for quite a few years, and ‘things change’, plus I love caving in that place! Two changes I initially noticed was that the stream-way was flowing consistently in an old dig site on the right hand wall on the bends above Stal Pitch, where historically it had sumped and, at this point, it was taking much of the main stream-way, rather than it going down the main stream passage where it should go, plus, some of the stream-way water was disappearing just below where Everest Passage joins the main stream. After encouraging it back down its traditional route, Mark Denning and myself decided to go and have a dig there initially and, soon decided it was best attacked from the other side in what is marked on the survey as Cerberus Pool, although these days it is more of a mud bath! Instructing Mark to stay somewhere safe as a just in case measure, I went underneath some very dodgy looking boulders and through a squeeze, and then we had a voice connection to a smallish hole just below the plaques in Cerberus Hall. We dug this out enough for me to exit that way and, for Mark to also have a look; this inspired us to have a go at the dig site below.

I recruited a few keen BEC diggers and we attacked the dig site from the newly widened hole just below where the plaques are. This was dug downwards through what appeared to be a mud filled dodgy boulder ruckle to about 30ft. deep, before the winter rains made digging impossible. All the spoil was brought up into Cerberus Hall and deposited in the top of where Cerberus Pool was. Historically with the hole below the plaques, I had remembered looking down to water not far below, and while in the winter there was still a water level in there, this was a lot lower than I remembered. This dig was resurrected briefly in 2010, but after the winter rains had given the site a good soaking, some of the boulders were looking seriously undermined and we decided that other sites had more potential, so we picked up our digging kit and relocated it elsewhere!

We had also been keeping an eye on Lake Chamber over the summer months with regular visits and finally, in early September 2009, we noticed that the sump to Lake Chamber Extensions was open. A dive line that had been in there for probably about 15 years (put in by Jingles mid 90s) was climbed out of the water the other side (the tibloc is a wonderful invention!) into a quite muddy section of cave (Lake Chamber Extensions), which is rarely visited because of the Lake Chamber sump. We explored, and then for about a month until the sump closed again, we worked on two sites – one which was a beautifully scalloped mud filled phreatic tube and another widening a heavily draughting rift. The rift was probably the most inspiring dig we had seen for a long time, but without taking up diving to continue working on it, there was no choice but to wait and hope for the water levels to drop far enough for us to be able to pass the sump again during 2010.

Another area of interest is where during the drier summer months of the last two years, all of the main stream sinks into the gravel floor below where Everest Passage joins main stream passage leaving the main stream route dry until Plantation Junction where Plantation stream joins the main passage. While not proven as yet, we think there is a link between this and Lake Chamber, but we felt that when the entire main stream sinks here, if all the water was running to Lake Chamber, that Lake Chamber ought to be a lot higher than it tends to be – the Lake Chamber sump opening in the summer months seems to be a more recent phenomenon, as while it was reported to have done so in the past, it certainly wasn’t a regular event. We had a go at digging this stream sink briefly, but the call of Lake Chamber Extensions kept us away, so this is another dig in progress as well, which hopefully we’ll return to in 2011 including once it starts sinking here again, to conduct a dye (or spores) trace to see if any of this water appears again before sump 2 and Lake Chamber.

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Estelle In Lake Chamber Extension

Spring 2010; with all our other dig sites in Cuthbert’s full of water, we started looking again for a new site; a tight rift between Cerberus Hall and Mud Hall Chamber was observed – nicknamed Project Pebble. This draughts very well, and widening of the passage was required to make it passable, but it is at least an all-weather dig even though initially it was only a 2 person dig! After a couple of months of widening the initial rift passage, Stu and I managed to squeeze past the first constriction and into a very muddy dig and finally turn it into a 3 person dig – so Sally joined us for a few digging sessions as we needed a small skinny person! Initially this followed a phreatic tube, but with continued digging out the mud, it seems to now be going downwards again in rift type passage and is still draughting well and, heading into blank space on the survey, but needs widening with plug and feathers. Fingers crossed, this will be a case of watch this space at some stage…

By July 2010, the sump was low enough for digging in Lake Chamber Extensions to resume and, in August on Henry’s birthday, the rift was finally widened enough using plug & feathers to be able to pass through. By now the mud tube tunnelling dig had split into two directions, and the left hand of the two digs was approximately 10ft long – it was a great way of keeping warm as widening the rift was a 1 person job, although the air was often nothing special in these tubes! After Stu had successfully widened the rift to get into a small chamber with a couple of potentially going leads, Mark and Stu relocated a couple of dodgy looking boulders, and this exposed a narrow slope, which we followed into a large chamber. Henry and I joined them and the four diggers were briefly elated on finding a large chamber with what looked like lots of ways on, until finding some footprints on the other side of the chamber, and then also some initials (which looked like they possibly spelt WIG!). It wasn’t immediately apparent which bit of the cave had been dug into, as the survey had not indicated to us, to be that close to anything. So the following week, we sent a team around the slabs/long chamber/rocky boulder side of the cave and, another team through the breakthrough, all armed with whistles and we soon bumped into each other at chockstone rift, confirming we had found our way into Lower Rocky Boulder Chamber.

We have since surveyed this loop, and with the assistance of Mad Phil who already has quite a lot of Cuthbert’s survey data recorded electronically, we have added it into his survey information. What it showed, is that the original survey of Lower Rocky Boulder series appears to be out by around 5m or so, which does make us feel a bit better, as from the survey, we didn’t feel we ought to have been that close to Rocky Boulder series! What it also proves is that it would be good to continue with resurveying Cuthbert’s to have the whole cave as a digital survey which is a project Mad Phil already had been working on, so if you’re keen to do some surveying in there, contact Mad Phil!

While making the connection wasn’t what we had wanted, it does open up opportunities to investigate Lake Chamber Extensions, once Lake Chamber has filled with water as there are a couple of possibilities there, and we intend to visit this part of the cave in wet conditions over the winter months, to see how much water Lake Chamber Extensions and the floor rifts hold. We also have a couple of other dig sites of interest to keep us going, so watch this space!

Core digging team: Estelle Sandford, Stu Gardiner, Mark Denning and Henry Dawson.

Additional diggers: Pete Hellier, Vern Freeman, Sally White, Paul Brock, Bill Combley, Mad Fi, Faye Litherland, Jo Hardy, Jake Baines, Mark Stephens, Rich Bayfield, Rich Smith, Ben O’Leary, Kangy King, Gary Kiely, Annie Audsley, Roger Galloway.

 



Don Coase. St Cuthbert’s original entrance. Photo: Kangy King

 
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