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A Man of Mendip

by Alan Thomas

Cavers who never knew the late Herbert Balch are often apt to scoff.  I am putting these few recollections of him on record in the hope of showing what an essentially delightful character he was.  Some of his theories may be long since outdated and many of his exploits less heroic by modern standards but a human being he was larger than life.

He was, of course, an old man when I first knew him.  As a freelance caver at the end of the nineteen forties I used to call in at the Wells Museum to find out what was going on.  He was always willing to chat about the current caving scene and knew everybody connected with it.  In one such occasion he told me of the death of Pat Browne. Apparently a week or so before he was killed Pat told him of a cave he had discovered  on Eastern Mendip and had offered to tell him in strict confidence the location of it but Mr Balch had said, “Don’t tell me until you are ready to tell everybody.”  And so it was the cave was lost.

Later I knew him regularly on Saturday afternoons at the Badger Hole, his archaeological dig at Wookey Hole.  Mr Balch sat at the sorting table in the cave entrance whilst the rest of us dug and carried out buckets of material.  Many splendid finds were made.  Once one of the diggers brought a fragment of human skull with him and concealed it in one of the buckets.  The old man saw it, smiled and threw it into the spoil heap.  Asked how he knew it was not a genuine find, he said he had seen it before!

Once, in 1953, I went on the bus to Wells from Bristol to ask Mr Balch for a testimonial.  “Schoolmaster!” he said, “I’ll show you some schoolmastering! These boys from the Blue School came here yesterday.  They wrote their names all over my visitor’s book and stuffed pieces of paper into the slot of my little stop model.  The chief culprit is coming to see me shortly.  If you’re still here then you’ll see some schoolmastering!” Presently a boy of about twelve arrived and said “Mr Sellers sent me Sir.”

“Oh, you’re the boy who played about with my slot machine and wrote his name all over my visitors book. And not only that wrote it so badly that I can’t read it.  Go on read?”

“Roger Dors, Sir.”

“Well, Roger Dors….Dors? Dors of Hunters Lodge?  Oh, I know your father and your grandfather and, of course your poor cousin, Francis.  Well, Roger, there are things in this Museum…..”

Another incident occurred about this time that sticks in my mind.  Peter Bird of the Bristol Museum went to see Mr Balch on business.  Whilst he was there he was shown some pieces of new red sandstone containing a vertebrate fossil – “the oldest in the world and the first pieces ever found.”

“ I saw them about a fortnight ago” said Peter.  “Alan Thomas got it from an old man in a pub at Cheddar.”

“Now I know that your are mistaken, said Mr Balch.  “Alan Thomas is a nice boy; he doesn’t go into pubs.”

One final anecdote before closing: not many years before he died the B.E.C. invited him to the Annual dinner and received a very nice letter declining to accept and signed “Herbert Balch, 84 Not Out”.