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If It’s Caving You Do

by  S. Gee, Hon. Sec. Orpheus Caving Club, Northern Group.

In the following article I shall attempt to describe the link between Oxlow Caverns and Mask Hill Mine.  It is based on actual events during the descent, but credit must be given to the British Speleological Association as they first made the actual link up, and without their help I would not have written this.

Let us begin in 1949 with a descent of Oxlow Caverns near Castleton.  We arrived at the entrance in a snowstorm and quickly made arrangements to descend.  The entrance proved to be a mineshaft 50 feet deep.   This we negotiated safely and found a long sloping passage leading to a second shaft of 30 feet.  At the bottom, a short passage led to a small round hole.  This proved to be the East Chamber, and the passage entered roughly halfway up this huge cavern.  A descent of 60 feet brought us to the bottom, where we found a small stream that is said to come from Giant’s Hole.

Returning to the ladder, we climbed for 30 feet and saw a mined passage.  This we followed for several hundred feet, and eventually came to the edge of the West Chamber.  This was an 80 foot ladder and was made most uncomfortable by a small steam that ran down our sleeves and re-emerged like a siphon in our boots.  Just here there happened an incident that shook us all.

So far we had not been using lifelines on the pitches, and had trusted entirely on the soundness of the ladder.  The fifth man down was about 25 feet from the bottom, when, without warning, the ladder broke.  Luckily he was unharmed and we soon fixed a new ladder in place.  But the incident taught us all a lesson, and on the return journey we all used lifelines.

The West Cavern was a really impressive place of large dimensions.  The roof was so far above us that a 100 foot spotlight could not reach it.  At the extreme end of this cavern was a low arch through which we passed and entered a second large chamber.  This is known as the Waterfall Cavern, and from high in the roof crashes a fine waterfall that disappears through a hole in the floor.  It is understood that further shafts can be descended down this hole, but owing to the weight of water these were abandoned.

The source of this waterfall was to remain a mystery to me for a further two years.  Then, by chance, a B.S.A. member mentioned that some years previously, a party of them had descended an old mine shaft near Oxlow, and after a journey of many hours through a series of mined and natural caves, had emerged through the roof of the Waterfall Cavern in Oxlow Caves.  I decided to form a reconnaissance party to hunt for the rumoured ‘Mask Hill Mine’.

After inspecting several shafts without success, we found one that looked more promising.  The descent was organised and the shaft was found to be 100 foot deep.  A party of four assembled at the bottom, in a small mined chamber in the floor of which was a second-mine shaft.  Here we decided to abandon further explorations owing to shortage of tackle.  It was very disappointing, but a strong draught of air from the second shaft convinced us that we were on the right path.

The following week-end we returned with more gear, more information and more members.  Reinforcements from the Oldham Speleological Society arrived early Sunday morning and the descent started without delay.

The party assembled at the bottom of the entrance shaft without incident, and the second shaft was laddered and found to be 50 feet deep.  At the bottom a short mined passage opened out into a large natural chamber, and from here a 30 foot rope climb down the cavern brought us to a steeply sloping passage, which ended once more in a large chamber.

Before us lay a large pothole; a small stream cascaded over the edge and appeared to fall for many feet.  Although we did not know it, this was the ‘Big Pitch’ called ‘Murmuring Churn Pot’ and is 180 feet deep.  A 40 foot ladder was put in position and I was elected to go down.  The small cascade, I found, was not so small, and dampened my spirits more than somewhat.  I reached the end of the ladder and found that it just reached a very wide ledge, which had a steep downward slope.  The stream trickled over this ledge and disappeared below.

With due caution I approached the edge and peered into the gloomy depths.  The ledge I was on formed one end of a large fissure chamber some 100 feet long and 20 feet wide.  A dull rumbling drew my attention to the far corner where I saw a truly marvellous sight.  From far above from the roof cascaded a fine waterfall - in fact, the waterfall that later appeared in Oxlow.  At this point I was interrupted by a call from above, telling me that time was running short and that once more the venture must be abandoned.

A descent was arranged for the following weekend and it was to be an all night session, as this was the only way that we could find sufficient time necessary to complete the exploration.  At 9.30pm. we arrived at the hole and found to our dismay that of the expected 15 members only 5 had arrived.

We decided to try and get more men from a nearby hut where several members of the Derby group were staying.  Unfortunately they had only just finished a descent of the Oxlow system, and were all very tired, too tired, in fact, to be of any assistance to us.

It was decided to carry on as arranged and trust to luck.  We returned to the hole and found, to our great delight, that 3 others had arrived, one of whom was the much needed surface man.  The surface man is a very important member on descents of this kind, and he has a very hard job.  In this case he was to spend a long cold night waiting by the field telephone.

Our party for exploration was now six men and one girl.  The first shaft was descended safely and some of us were at the bottom of the second when we were arrested by a shout and a loud crash.  The full nature of the accident slowly dawned on us.  Someone above, whilst lowering gear, had not tied something securely, and a sack containing several bottles of beer had fallen and had been smashed to splinters.  There followed many muffled remarks regarding persons who did not use safety lines.  We gazed ruefully at the wreckage, but, as the old proverb says: - “It’s no use crying over spilt milk”.

By twelve midnight we were assembled in the first natural cavern and here we had our first meal.  On arrival at the ‘Big Pitch’ we attached a further 100 feet of ladder and once more I was elected to be the first down.  I reached the ledge and gently lowered myself over the edge into ‘Murmuring Churn Pot’.  Conversation with the rest of the party was made very difficult by the noise of the fall.  At approximately 80 feet down my light suddenly went out and I remembered that during the week’s excitement of preparation I had forgotten to have my accumulator charged.  This type of lamp does not slowly die out, but just goes out without warning.  My spare lamp was in my knapsack at the top of the pitch.  I switched the lamp off and clung to the ladder.  This type of lamp, if turned off for a short while, recuperates a little, but only for a very limited time.  After several minutes I switched my lamp on again and was able to see a narrow ledge to my left.  By swinging the ladder I could just make it.  This I did, and from my precarious position I surveyed the depths below and saw that the ladder was hanging 40 feet short of the bottom.  After much shouting, those above realised what was wrong and lowered an extra ladder and my sack which contained my spare lamp.

I fixed on the extra ladder and descended to the bottom to find that the ladder ended on a sort of rock bridge with the stream falling through a hole in the floor.  On the right was another shaft about 30 feet deep.  At this point I began to feel the effects of a recent illness, so I decided to return to the surface.  Two other members arrived at the bottom and I told them of my intentions.  I was joined by a chap who had not done much caving and who was nearly all in.  We made our way through the caverns by means of link belays that had been left on the descent.  This enabled us to use safety lines on all pitches.

After a total of 11 hours below we emerged on the surface in early morning sunlight.  Two hours later the rest of the party emerged tired but triumphant.  They had descended the 30 foot shaft that I had seen, and had reached a long cavern that ran parallel to and above the ‘Waterfall Chamber’ in Oxlow.  A further 70ft. pitch through the waterfall completed the linkup.

We left the de-laddering for another week and all trooped off to the hut for a welcome breakfast and bed, our minds busy with thoughts of an interchange of parties between Oxlow and Maskhill.

S. Gee

Notice to Intending Contributors.

It is imperative that notices of future trips etc. must be in my hands at least six weeks before the month of publication required, e.g. this, the August Copy is being prepared mid June.  Although this seems a long time ahead, I have to arrange copy and cut the stencils.  Then the completed stencils go to Ken Dobbs and Co., who add the heading and print, arrange and staple copies, and sort those who receive their copies by hand from those to whom they are posted.  The ones to be posted are then taken to Stan Herman who folds, addresses, stamps and despatches them.  So Please let me have all ‘Dateline’ gen. as soon as possible after the idea has germinated.

T.H.S.

Additions to the Club Library

Wessex Cave Club Journal No. 39. (April).

Transactions of the C.R.G. Vol. 2 No. 2.

C.R.G. Newsletters for Jan. & Feb. 1953.

W.S.G. Bulletin for April 1953.

Birmingham C. & C.C. Newsletter for April 1953.

Cave Science Vol. 3 No. 20.

Underground Empire by Clay Perry.

The Story of Everest by W.R. Murray.

J.I.

Letters to the Editor

Briarcroft,
Marlborough Cresc.,
Latchford Without,
Warrington,
Lancs.

To/
The Editor
‘Belfry Bulletin’

Dear Sir,

At some time during his career, every caver must be asked to give a lecture about caves.  Any lecture is greatly improved by a set of good slides.  The majority of cavers probably do not have such a set, or even a set of prints, which are not so satisfactory - and even the most active photographer is likely enough to find that he does not have a photograph of the particular subject he wants.

There are, however, a considerable number of photographers in the club, and taken together, their efforts should represent a very good selection of photographs.

I should like to canvass opinion regarding the institution of a register of cave pictures which could be drawn upon by any member wishing to get together a lecture.  As I see it at the moment, any pictures offered would remain in the keeping of the photographer who would merely send details of them to the register.  This would be available for consultation by any club member who would select those he wanted and borrow them from the various photographers on the understanding that they would be returned as soon as possible, in a good condition.

Slides are definitely preferable to prints as they are much more easily seen by an audience.  Slide making is, however, a much less practiced art than printing, and probably most members do not have slides of their prints, but if the idea takes on then perhaps they would do so – or at least persuade someone to do it for them.

Please air your ideas on the subject – I am sure the Editor will be only too glad to provide the space in the BB and see if anything cane be made of it.

At present I have 30-40 slides, about half of them in colour, and I should be glad to make those available as the start of such a register.

Yours truly,
R.H. Wallis.

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I should like to say that Pongo’s idea appeals to me very much.  The club possesses a selection of slides which intending lecturers may use, but these are totally inadequate for any but the simplest lecture.  Such a scheme would place before those unfortunates who lecture slides of some of the best photographs ever taken underground, photographs that would explain some point of interest far more easily than by word of mouth, and would instil, in many cases, a modicum of confidence in the lecturer himself.  Some central point would be needed as a ‘clearing house’ for such a scheme, unless Pongo himself is willing to undertake it.  I would like to offer my services as ‘Clerk’ if this fine scheme becomes reality.

T.H. Stanbury.  Hon. Editor.

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There is plenty of space awaiting anyone who cares to answer the above letter.  I must apologise to Pongo for the long delay in printing this letter.                     

(Ed.)

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A very big ‘Thank You’ to all those whose who sent in ‘Songs’ for inclusion in the BB.  Also to those who have sent in articles of various types.  I should like, though, to see some new names amongst them.  The vast majority of BB material comes from the old-timers, and I am sure that there are amongst the ‘coming generation’ at least a dozen who could write worthwhile articles.  If it were not for the ‘Old Faithfuls’ whose names appear so frequently, the BB would be a very thin and infrequent paper.  Don’t feel that you can’t write –TRY – let me decide if it is good or bad (& I am sure that 99.999999 p.c of articles submitted will eventually be printed).

T.H.S.

Letter to the Editor

The Belfry,
   Priddy,
      Nr. Wells
         Somt.

16th. July 1953

His Grace, the Duke of Mendip,
c/o The Editor,
Belfry Bulletin.

Your Grace

                        In reply to your letter dated 1st. March 1953 I note your dissatisfaction regarding the future Belfry arrangements.

However, it is my pleasant duty to inform your Grace that the article describing the future Belfry arrangements which I published under the title ‘Guide to the Belfry for New Members’ was, as your learned secretary pointed out in his letter, merely an extract from this noble and erudite work.

On receipt of an exorbitant fee I shall have the pleasure of sending your Grace the entire contents of this admirable brochure, but, pending the arrival of this sum I append further details which I sincerely trust will put your Grace’s mind at rest.

Servants Quarters.

Extensive servants’ quarters may be found in Block 23 for those members desirous of bringing their own servants.  Separate quarters are provided for butlers’ lackeys, serving wenches, peasants, serfs and other old retainers.  Separate kitchens are provided for those wishing to avail themselves of our comprehensive culinary arrangements.

Garaging, Bangarage, Stabling, etc.

The above facilities are provided for the use of members of the upper classes and gentlemen.  Lock-up sheds for garaging and boots are provided for those arriving on foot.

Cellarage, Hangoverage, Stability etc.

The above facilities are also provided for use of the same under the personal supervision of the residents’ medical officer Mr. Hannam.

I trust that your Grace will continue his most valued patronage and in conclusion, since I am addressing your Grace, may I add:-

For what you are about to receive, we trust you will be truly thankful.

I am,

Your obedient servant,
Alfie Coliins.

Personal

Congratulations to: -

Ken Dobbs and Miss Connie Edwards, who were married at St. Martin’s Knowle, on June 6th.

And to: -

Menace and Jill Morris on the birth of a daughter (Lorna).

Photographic Competition

As announced in last month’s ‘Stop-press’ the club is to run a photographic competition.

Rules and Conditions of Entry.

  1. Entry is restricted to members only.
  2. The competition is divided into two sections.
    1. Above Ground.
    2. Below Ground.

A special prize is to be awarded for the best entry taken with a camera worth less than five pounds.

In each section two prizes will be awarded.

            1st. prize one year’s Annual subscription.

            2nd. Prize.  Photographic materials to the value of 7/6.

  1. The minimum size for entries ‘Enprint’.  (approx 3½x3½).
  2. The competition is limited to club activities.
  3. A fee of 6d. is charged for each entry.  Each entry must be sent with a separate entry form and fee.
  4. Competition closes at the end of November.

Entry forms are obtainable form Ken Dobbs, 55 Broadfield Road, Bristol. 4., to whom all entries must be sent.