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Two Hundred and One Years in Swildon's Hole

By Graham (Bassett) Wilton-Jones

BB544-swildons1Buckett was 70 in February.  For those of you who don’t know Buckett, he was member no. 699  (and his wife Ann no. 700).  His membership only lapsed because the BEC membership secretary never reminded him to pay his subs, that and he took up windsurfing, racing at top level in national events most weekends. But he never lost interest in caving, so when he retired this year he decided he fancied a nostalagic trip to Mendip.  Where better to go than Swildons, where he’d spent many a mud-soaked day exploring in the pre-wetsuit era.

Right: Buckett in his grots and fibre helmet; the shopping bag holds the ladder!

Having caved with Buckett since the early 70’s, I was asked to go along.  We also invited Colin Shabter (Wessex) who caved with Buckett in the 60’s, with High Wycombe scouts.  Ashford Spelaelogical Society (there’s a few of us still active), one of the oldest caving clubs in the UK, still had some bits of tackle stored in Buckett’s garage.  Years ago, when we constructed our own ladders, we had two twenty foot bits of wire for the last ladder, but there were only twelve rungs left, so we made it with 18 inch rung spacing; we were younger and fitter, and much more flexible then; this ladder would be ideal for the Swildon’s Twenty.  We could use that today, along with our “travelling line”, a length of 1960s hawser-laid nylon.  With the three of us having a combined age of 201 years, a lifeline on the Twenty seemed wise.

It was a fine April day as we walked across the fields from Upper Pitts.  The thunderstorms, which developed considerably during the day, were tracking further north, missing Mendip altogether.  We remarked on the size of the trees by the entrance: whilst the old ash tree already looks old in the 1898 photo of the entrance, we remembered the rest as mere saplings.  Now there are the beginnings of a wood! 

BB544-swildons1Buckett was intrigued by the massive rock movement underground, between the entrance and Showerbath; clearly there is a lot of change still to take place in the not too distant future.  It has become difficult to know what to touch, in case it all starts moving while you are on it, or under it; and when is the ash tree finally going to succumb to the depths?  These trees only live for about 200 years.

At the Twenty, someone had rigged the pitch in exemplary style: double belayed traverse-line of new-looking static rope leading to both pitch-head bolts; pulley and double life-line from the top bolt; shiny new ladder hung from the lower bolt.  We left our shopping bag of ancient tackle on the shelf in case it was needed, and wondered what any potential rigger might think of it.....            or whether they would even bother to put it on the pitch for us.

BB544-swildons3After the flood (of 1968, not Noah’s deluge; we are none of us quite that old) the Double Pots were scoured out to considerable depth.  We noted that, should you fall in now, you would be more likely to break a leg than get totally drenched.  In essence, Swildon’s is just the same trip that it has always been, but there are so many little, and not so little, changes, not least at the end of Swildon’s 1.

After a gentle, uneventful amble we stopped at the sump for Easter eggs, and decided that none of us was prepared for a complete soaking, so Swildon’s 2 could wait for another visit (ten years time?).  Voices came and lamp glow appeared through the air-space, then someone emerged, crawling through the sump, preceded by tackle bag.  Three more figures came through, young ladies clad in identical yellow plasticized coveralls, their faces beaming smiles; clearly all this new gear makes sumps and ducks a pleasurable experience.  Whatever next?  

We reminisced about “proper” caving gear: we used to wear whatever we could find that would not matter if it got dirty or torn, or what could be thrown away afterwards.  I recalled that my first proper caving trip, in Ogof Pen Eryr, was in old army boots and anorak, with second-hand scooter helmet and a rubber torch.  I had previously explored the caves of Dovedale in cycling plimsoles, shorts and a bicycle lamp, but that wasn’t real caving.  Today, the nearest thing of Buckett’s apparel to “caving” equipment was his coal-miner’s helmet.  He had trainers on his feet, he was wearing his carpenter’s trousers (with obligatory paint splatters), and he had a ten-quid head torch from his local builders’ merchant. 

After a brief diversion into Tratman’s Temple we were soon back at the Twenty.  Our ladder had been rigged, but was into the groove in the stal.  At least the lifeline was there, after a fashion.  Buckett was first up.  He happens to have an artificial hip, and there is less flexibility in these than in the real thing.  Perhaps 18” rung spacing is not such a good idea.  Buckett and I found the climb “challenging”; Colin maintained that it turned a pleasant little trip into one of the most dangerous he had undertaken.  I think it was a joke but maybe he was serious.

We emerged, unscathed and like happy little boys after a morning’s mischief.  On the surface we met Mrs Sparrow, who was about to take a small party underground.  We advised her against it, as it was still such a lovely day, but they all went down anyway.  Such is the lure of caves. 

Buckett will be back.

Bassett  April 2012