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Of Mice, Scallops, Stags and Cavers – The Mendip Migration 2013

By Stu Lindsay

This year’s migration was a busy affair with no less than 33 people (over 150 bed nights) making an appearance for a few days or more with at least half a dozen regular faces for various reasons failing to show. Lucky them! It had to come; a run of bad weather well bad to the point that it was not blue skies and sunshine until all had gone home except for Duncan and Stu. (The last day is always traditionally the best – Ed)

As always one of the main attractions was Campbell’s. This giant of a dig, up valley from Claonaite, had seen another wet damaging winter with large chunks of the peat overlying the lip being washed into the hole. For most of his time Stu L along with help from various members of the migration endeavoured to build up the final section at the top of the entrance slope retaining wall and pave the area of the stream bed immediately above it.

Meanwhile below ground some of last year’s efforts had been buried and another route appeared to have been partially washed out; this would be the focus of the 2013 effort. However as mentioned the elements were against us, with snow wind rain and cold all randomly available at any time of the day. To say conditions were unpleasant was an understatement until that is Jo Meldner, on her first migration, and Liz Wire stepped in and engineered Ye Hotel Comfy Depression in the larger (2 -3m wide) of the 2 storage depressions, with seats a shelf and even a mini roof! A pole driven into the floor soon found a space below the peat and the water puddling in the bottom drained away. We now had some respite to nibble our sarnies and drink our tea from the oft evil wind blown snow! Note that in the past five migrations 3 have been tee shirt and shorts weather, one has been 4/5 days from 12 when the weather was damp with the odd snow flurry but this year it certainly bucked the trend . Although 27 people and Digger the dog helped out at the dig the kibble count was down. The previous year saw 286 kibbles retrieved in about 5 hours but in the whole of the 2013 migration we only just came close to doubling it. Water on day one was measured at just over 20 litres a minute, (or 1.5 tonnes an hour!) running into the dig from the stream; there were days when it was double that, so no wonder progress was slow. It was cold wet muddy digging below and freezing cold on the surface. Progress was maybe a few metres.

The hole in the wall, just up from the stream which has received periodic attention from Mark Brown and Stu L over the past years was again not forgotten and on the final day all debris generated by a couple of visits in the week, (Jo M Barry and Stu L) was cleared into the stream to be slowly washed away. At the same time Stu spent the time clearing out a spring that had seemingly reversed itself in the old raised river bed. Simon Brooks declined the opportunity to investigate the metre by metre by over a metre and a half long passage because “The roof is only a few feet thick, and the grassed over boulders we are standing on are most of it”. Upon retelling the tale back at the Belfry (Stu’s ‘rivers of blood speech’, someone called it) about the digging exploits, procurement of the venison and other events I suggested in reverence to the departed and partly consumed stag (see text later) I ought to call it Oh Deer but it was promptly stated that I should have called it Venison Stu……..so be it.

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View from the south of Campbell’s dig

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The walled stream bed
Normally Assynt has a pattern; people arrive and go digging, walking or caving, then the pub then there is a day off. It’s usually the curry evening on the Thursday night. Digging and walking forays usually end up at the Inch or the Alt for a couple of pints or a meal before returning to the hut where those that have fed start to drink and those that need to be fed cook. Around 22.30 most people are drinking chatting swapping yarns and joking around the little wood stove till the wee small hours. But often there is a diversion……enter the scallop shell, a bit of science and a cremation……

The little wood burner generates quite a concentrated heat; about a tenth of the Belfry stove on a bad day but it needs feeding regularly. Duncan wondered if a scallop shell would burn and as there’s plenty of these lying around he deftly placed one amongst the glowing embers. However, far from actually burning it changed colour and almost glowed. It was readily removed with the help of barbeque tongs for a closer inspection, and was now a pure white shell devoid of markings. Now earlier in the day a routine check of the mouse traps in the attic resulted in a mummified mouse being extricated and binned. One and one makes – you’ve guessed it! Somehow the poor thing was retrieved from the bin. “How sad,” said Duncan “A poor mouse binned. Let’s give him a decent funeral - a cremation.” So the fire was re-fuelled and another bed of embers sat there patiently glowing. The mouse, on its cremation vessel, was duly inserted, and a few more bottles of ale were consumed as the mouse gradually glowed to extinction and the shell was removed.

Some time later Stu happened to mention to Duncan that years ago they used to cook limestone boulders for 24 hours then immerse them in cold water and next day they had mortar or a form of quicklime. Back into the dying embers went the shell; again it glowed and was then removed to be immersed in a randomly selected cereal bowl of cold water. “Sssssssssssssssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzz bubble bubble!” - and although the shell reappeared from the departing steam almost intact, the process had started and the now cold shell in cold water started to crumble aided by the odd poke of a finger At the same time the dish began to warm, (chemical reaction). It got warmer and warmer and warmer. “Blimey!” said Duncan, “We have created Plaster of Paris with essence of mouse!” Next day it was quite impressive. Anyone with a broken bone needing a splint?

May Day was truly a “Mayday! Mayday!” moment. Everybody was driving back from the Inch when a young suicidal stag decided to end it all by hurling itself across the road impacting the front of Stu’s van and staggering 20m to its final resting place - well almost final. With Liz having appeared looking for Matt as he was late all successfully made it back to the hut including Rambo, the one horned stag. Enter the butcher Mr Knief and with his willing apprentices Rambo was duly carved up with a couple of kitchen knives and a wood saw. “Beware yellow snow?” No, “Beware pink snow!” The GSG car park is on a slope and the tell tale signs of the impromptu carnage had dribbled down the lane and like invisible ink reappeared through the dustings of snow over the next few days. Fried venison, stewed venison, grilled venison (we would have had venison burgers if we had a mincer) was the primary source of protein for the rest of the week.

It is with many thanks Stu has to be grateful to Barry Lawton and to Bob Mehew. Bob for going into Inverness to collect spare parts and Barry for expertly fitting them. Duncan and I finally made it back to Mendip, thanks to a few bits of string and a roll of parcel tape (yep that’s the truth parcel tape) and string holding the front together in the absence of bodywork to attach the bonnet and light to.

On inspection the van was written off twice before the power of the community of the caving world and TLC took a hand. Who would have thought that (and most people know what a Tardis Stu’s van can be) a simple comment like “What am I going to do with all my caving kit?” would provoke an almost complete turnaround? “Oh, you’re a caver? I have a friend who is a caver - dives all over the world, usually has a pony tail, his name is Simon.” The TLC is a certain practice I employ with all my vehicles which is to never use tap water in the cooling system. Simon was Simon Brooks present at the feasting on poor old Rambo!

Two final well attended sessions took place at Campbell’s the second, on probably the best day weather-wise was a hectic digging session followed by the lowering of the tower. The weather this year was certainly the over riding influence, snow on 3 or 4 days with flurries on others, and nothing like the warm weather experienced over the past few years, but that is what makes it so much better in the majority of years when the sun shines the wind blows warm and the eagles feel free to soar. With the tower down, most went their separate ways, save Duncan and Stu for whom a fun day was still in store. Below two photographs of Barry Lawton in the dig

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The last day was spent with Duncan diving in the loch at Knockan. During the course of it a concerned visitor, Sue from Scottish Heritage appeared. However, after explaining who we were and what we were doing she relaxed as she was aux fait with the GSG and indeed had been to the GNTM. Sue was very to thankful to Duncan for not only removing a load of old and illegal fishing tackle but also his info on the shape of the loch edge; a series of steps and transit van sized boulders. There were small green or white sponges and finger sized sharp pointed green plants which grow on the 6inch layer of peat. No fish were seen. “Feel free to dive again and try to put a report into the GSG publications of your findings,” Sue said as she departed.

After dinner and with the sun blazing down a trip up from Stromcubie (sic) was made to follow up a lead found a couple days before. Duncan and Stu in tee shirts and shorts spent a few hours in the warm sun kissed hummocks of peat without successfully re finding the hole. They split up and Duncan found a bit of an anomaly in the upper river bed which he commenced to exploit. Stu found a number of active little sinks taking water before in a depression he found one with 2 streams entering. After building a couple of dams, easy with the peat, he built up a head of water whilst he cleared out the entrance way, With no tools it was limited but water did seem to go down a bit. Breaking the dams a surge of water entered, and after, the flood pulse gurgled away for a count of 15 seconds before it was quiet again.

After he joined Duncan the next hour was spent enlarging holes and peering into voids. The water flowing down the surface stream was less than the water appearing at the first point Duncan explored. After our efforts and some upstream efforts by Duncan, the water on the surface was reduced by half, however clearing out a number of small apparently unrelated resurgences in a radius of 3m or so trebled the water flowing onwards downstream to a water fall. There are some small cave passages there, and some intertwining springs, but what we achieved was more for the fun aspect in doing it than true research. All the way down to the water fall water appeared and disappeared, and high on the bank some 15m/20m higher and 20m or so from the edge three body size sinks were noted. At 8pm in glorious sunshine we called it a day and, a big mistake, went to the hut had food changed and went back to the Inch. It was closed - at 930pm it was closed! So we went to the Alt and spent a cheerful hour with some of the locals. The Mendip Migration may be a long way but it is really good fun with good beer good food great walks interesting caving and of course digging - if you like it.

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Foul Weather

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The author breakfasting

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Trevor the butcher

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Cul Mhor viewed from the GSG hut

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Barry Lawton by 3 G’s dig in high water conditions