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 “So What?”

By ‘Senex’

Most of us, when some older caving types starts to talk about life in the caving world of twenty or so years ago, quietly drift off and find somebody with a more interesting line of conversation.  We all know – or we’ve been told, that conditions were different on Mendip a generation ago. So what?

After all, it would be trifle odd if things hadn’t changed and our reaction on being told that life was tougher, or quieter or something is to go off and find out who is buying the next round of beer.  Reminiscences may well be all very well for those who only have the past to remember, but we want to get on with things.

Yet, if some time machine were possible, and the Caving Secretary could announce a trip for the weekend to Mendip of the immediate post war years; most of us would probably queue up for the experience and the chance to actually seeing for ourselves.  In the absence of such a machine, it might be interesting to one, which sets us down in the London of 1945 or 6, with a weekend on Mendip in the offing.

The trip has been planned for some time.  It had to be. Like many cavers of that period, we do not belong to any club.  Cavers are very few, and our two or three caving friends in London have got to know a handful of people who are sometimes able to get to Mendip.  There are few clubs, but these are things we have mainly heard about rather than been in contact with.  For example, we have heard about the Wessex Cave Club, but we have yet to meet a Wessex member, and have no idea at all as how to get in contact with one. Amongst the few cavers we know are some members of the Bridgwater Caving Club, and we have heard that some of them will be on Mendip next weekend and will bring some tackle with them.  We hope to be able to do a ‘full’ Swildons – something we have been hoping to do for nearly a year now.  We hope that the weekend will be a success.

Managing to leave work early on Friday, we make our way to Paddington and onto the crowded train to Bristol.  From there we walk to Prince Street to catch the 27 bus to Priddy Turning and from there we walk the last three miles to Priddy Green.  Lifts are out, as there is so little road traffic.  Indeed, it will be most unusual if a single vehicle passes us in either direction on our walk from the main road to Priddy.  Even in a few years timer, it will still be possible in the middle of the road up Deer Leap after a ‘midnight Wookey’ and sleep the rest of the night on the road with no fear of being run over.

So we arrive at Priddy Green.  This is the caving centre for Mendip, and Priddy Green consists of the Vic and Maine’s barn as far as we are concerned.  It will some years yet before the Speed brothers get used to serving strangers at the New Inn, or caving huts appear.  There is the U.B.S.S. hut at Burrington, but, under normal transport conditions, this might be at the North Pole.  The Vic is therefore the place where we meet our friends, keep warm, and refresh ourselves.  Maine’s barn see to our cooking and sleeping arrangements, and Swildons and Eastwater are the local caves, unless we walk over to G.B. or the newly discovered Longwood Swallet.

Dumping our gear in the barn (this consists only of caving gear and food.  Sleeping bags are rare; costly, and very bulky to carry over long distances) we make for the Vic, where our little party completes the assemblage of Mendip cavers.  We are in luck, for with our party included, there are almost a dozen and we should be able to get some caving in.  The B.C.C. types have not only got the tackle, but also have a motorbike with them, on which three of them have travelled from Bridgwater.  One compensation for the lack of transport is that regulations are very lax compared to today’s standards, and one stood a good chance of doing an illegal journey of this length, with the possibility of nothing more than a reprimand if caught.  The bike is one of the few machines of the late 1920’s or early 1930’s which occasionally comes onto the market.  It has a hand gear lever on the tank which limits its passengers.  The days of the excellent ex-WD bikes are still to come, and the record of seven cavers on one bike – all in line astern – is a few years off yet.

The bike does mean that we shall be able to roam further afield during the weekend – on a relay system if necessary, so we retire to the inner room and plan the weekend in detail. Most of us have had some difficulty getting there, and we don’t want to waste any time.  Having done this, we walk across the green, to ‘stack out’ for the night in the hay – after removing our boots, or course.  Breakfast helps to remove the cold and stiffness, and we set off for Swildons.

The bit of the weekend would be familiar with us, apart from the huge and heavy ladders which have to be manhandled through all the tight bits, and which are continually coming unwrapped.  At the Old Grotto, the party pauses while one of the members takes a photograph.  To be more accurate, at least two of the party are involved, as an assistant has to set off the flash powder.  After some time, this finally ignites and fills the whole place with a dense white fog, through which we blunder onwards.  Our photographer assures us that the fog will be gone by the time we come out.

Below the twenty, progress is faster, as we have no ladder to carry, and finally we reach the end of the known cave ‘the sump’.  This is not quite true, as it has been dived, but only found to lead to a small extra bit

of passage length. Coming back, we are slightly relieved when our first ladder pitch is behind us and we start the process of dragging the wooden-runged and rope-sided ladders back to the surface

Back at the barn, stew follows and then off to the Vic for a beer; talk beer; shove ha’penny; beer; singing; beer etc.  Apart from any other reason, a fair quantity of beer helps us to ignore the cold in the barn, and gets us to sleep later.  During the evening, the landlord tells us that he has heard that two other cavers are about.  He thinks they come from Bristol. This news does not excite us much, for we know that the locals usually cycle out for the day and return home at night. However, just before closing time (an elastic hour in those days) they appear, and closing time is postponed. We gather that they belong to the B.E.C. – another club we have heard of, but whose members we have never met. They tell us, although there are only about a dozen of them actively caving, there are a lot more members at present in the forces, and that we shall see more of their club in the future. This starts a discussion as to whether we should all join a club and the Bridgwater boys point out that theirs is about to be disbanded when the works at Puriton close down.  We don’t arrive at any conclusion – this problem can wait for another day.  Instead, we get down to some serious drinking with our new companions, who finally stay at the barn with us, having become incapable of cycling.

Next day, over breakfast, we decide that the B.E.C. lads will use the B.C.C. tackle to do Eastwater with a few of the others, while the rest of us go to G.B. using the motorbike to tow two of us on cycles, while it carries three more.  (This bit is not invented, as it actually happened – although a few years later and in South Wales). There is, of course, only one way down the cave – via the Devil’s Elbow.  Luckily, the weather is pretty dry and there will be no chance of the elbow sumping.  If there had been, the trip would have had to be abandoned.  With nobody around to get a party out of trouble, no party could afford to risk getting into any.

Back at the barn again, we pause for a meal, pack our belongings, hope to see the others again soon, and start walking to the Main road.  There is plenty of time, so on the way, we stop at a pub called the Hunters, as opening time has just come round.  This pub is not frequented by cavers, but occasionally used, as we are using it, as a pause on the walk.  We take our beer on to the grass which comes almost up to the front door.  There, we start to talk about the weekend, which we all agree was affine one.  We know that we shan’t be able to talk about it at work when we get back, as caving is regarded as such an odd occupation that it isn’t talked about outside caving circles.

As we lie on the grass, in the evening sunlight, relaxed after a good weekend’s caving, we wonder what the others would say if the time machine could whisk this gathering into their future and deposit them in the same spot in 1968.  How would they react, we wonder, if the grass under them suddenly turned into asphalt; if the space between the pub and the road became full of cars; of the pub doors opened to disgorge cavers in large numbers, going back to the Wessex Hut, to the Belfry, to the Shepton or the M.C.G?

They would hear talk of St. Cuthbert’s, of Stoke Lane, and many other caves new to them.  They would hear of Journals, Bulletins, Surveys, Caving Reports.  They would hear of foreign expeditions.  In short, they would see all their dreams come true.

For this is what we all wanted in those far off quiet days.  Every time we talked over our beer, we would come round to wild suggestions about building our own hut, about discovering caves on Mendip for ourselves, about starting a magazine.  Almost as we set foot on Mendip, we wanted to change it all.

So we did.
So what?

Sennex.

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DON’T FORGET THE CUTHBERT’S LEADERS MEETING NOV. 10th Hunters at 2.30pm.  All are welcome to attend.