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A Spherolithic Saga

Once again it is Christmas time.  (Actually, it is a stinking hot day in the middle of summer, but articles have to be written in advance).

Imagine, if you dare, a meeting of the Belfry Bulletin Literary, Historical and Scientific Research Committee trying to decide what cultural pearl to cast before readers of the Belfry Bulletin 1n 1969.  In years past and at great expense, they have unearthed hitherto missing portions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Obbs; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Beowulf.  They have made collections of valuable scientific laws; they have revealed most of the history of the B.E.C.  What else can there be possibly left to do.


Consider these erudite gentlemen sitting quietly frustrated and surrounded by an aura of learning, old cigar smoke and beer fumes.  At last one old fellow emits a cackle and shakes in nervous excitement and the D.T.’s. “What we want”, he chortles, “Is a ball.”  There is a collective sigh.  “I mean,” he explains, “A crystal ball – for looking into the future” he concludes somewhat unnecessarily.

At once, life comes back to the old gents.  At dead of night, a slow precession creaks its way into Cuthbert’s.  Old wooden ladder is carefully unreeled.  Candles are lit and, deep in the secret recesses of the cave (not shown in B.E.C. Caving Report 13) a giant Sphereolite is carefully crystallised.

The results of this work have been so astonishing that we hesitate to make them generally known. Indeed, like our History of Mendip Caving, it may not be believed at all.  All the same, we feel that this report should be presented to the public at large (whatever that may mean)……

The 1970’s were a frustrating period for Mendip Caving.  The number of cavers continued to rise while the number of caves stubbornly refused to increase.  North Hill Swallet was, of course, continued and even caves like Alfie’s Hole were opened in sheer desperation.  23 new caves, it is true discovered in Fairy Cave Quarry during the 1970’s, but over the same period, 24 were quarried away – a net increase of minus one.  The B.E.C.  Long Term Planning Committee were still confident of obtaining a grant for the New Belfry.  Meanwhile, permission was obtained to erect two temporary huts on the site.  By 1976, there were over 300 caving clubs on Mendip and clubs visiting the area that year were estimated to be over 600.  By 1977 the situation had got so bad – with clubs as far a field as the JOCC’s (John O’Groats Caving Club) visiting every weekend, that the M.R.O. was forced to introduce traffic regulation into all Mendip caves and to organise the C.T.P – or Cave Traffic Police – to enforce them. Very few cavers in those dark days escaped without at least one endorsement on their caving licenses.

Even worse were the queues. On popular weekends, the queues for Swildons and Eastwater would overlap somewhere near Priddy Stores and the suffering of cavers waiting on bitter winter days to go underground were indescribable.  Many cases of exposure and exhaustion were treated every weekend on this most gruelling part of any caving trip.  Cuthbert’s was not much better off.  The introduction of clearways – like the one from the entrance down to Mud Hall – helped a little, but a worn out caver entering Mud Hall on his way out knew that he must go on or face the chance of an endorsement or even have a suspension of his license.  In vain, some pleaded that they were engaged on important work in the cave.  This cut no ice with the dreaded C.T.P. and thus further exploration was discouraged.

All the clubs tried to find ways out of this dilemma, which was threatening to put a stop to caving entirely.  In some caves, even breathing became difficult owing to the vast numbers of cavers in the cave.  Some clubs invested in breathing equipment.  Others installed ventilation in their caves.  Over 500 diggers were recruited to dig North Hill Swallet, and 3 to enlarge Alfie’s Hole.

In 1978, the B.E.C. Committee decided to lend the entire Hut Fund (which had been growing at compound interest) to finance the production of a cave locator designed by Setterington, Prewer and Price.  In return, the club held all patents.  At the 1979 A.G.M., many irate speakers questioned this action by the Committee as being unconstitutional.  In reply, the treasurer blandly pointed out that the 1968 A.G.M. had given him powers to invest the money’ as he thought fit’.

By 1981, this locator had passed its preliminary tests (locating the Belfry sceptic tank) and had found three new caves.  The Committee, being urged by the Bennetts to recover the money spent on it, began to prowl round Mendip with the device, quickly buying or leasing known cave bearing land.  In 1983, a B.E.C. company called Rentacave was floated, and became an immediate success. In 1985, the club began to drive bargains with clubs in other caving areas, taking them over in return for discovering new caves in their areas.  Thus, by 1988, club membership stood at 13,200 and the profits from Rentacave not only paid back all the money to the Hut Fund, but enabled the club to buy more cave bearing land and to put up a further 5 temporary huts on the new expanded Belfry site.  The place for the New Belfry was, of course, left empty as the Long Term Planning Committee now had every confidence that the Government loan would soon be forthcoming.

In 1989, it was proposed at the A.G.M. that the title of Tackle Master be abolished and that Norman Petty should be known as Tackle Lord.

The continued profits from Rentacave, plus the membership fees from its 21,730 members in all parts of the country were wisely invested until the B.E.C. Portfolio became a legend in the City of London. It is an open secret that the knighthood of Sir Robert Bagshaw in 1992 was a consequence of his helping the Government of that time out of a nasty financial hole.

In 1993, the Long Term Planning Committee announced that the chances of obtaining the grant were now greatly increased, particularly as two club members were now standing for Parliament. The Committee approved the erection of 11 more temporary buildings in the meantime.

The passing of the Limitation of Drunken Travelling Act in 1994 made it an offence to consume alcohol at a distance greater than 1 mile form ones residence.   This led to a wholesale closing of pubs – the Hunters being one of those affected.  Brewery shares tottered.  At a general meeting of the Southern Council of Caving Clubs, the Wessex Cave Club agreed to convert the Upper Pitts into a pub in return for free facilities for all Wessex members at the Belfry site – so that they could sleep within one mile of Upper Pitts.  In addition all B.E.C. members were to join the Wessex so that they could drink st Upper Pitts. By 1996, all other Mendip clubs (with the exception of the Shepton) had joined the B.E.C./Wessex.  Membership figures in 1996 were: - B.E.C. 25,292, Wessex 21,187, Shepton 19.

In 1998 Parliament passed the first Hoverway Acxt and (largely through the efforts of the five B.E.C./Wessex members) the chosen route for this 300mph hoverway was South Devon – Mendip – South Wales – Derbyshire – Yorkshire, thus making it easier for all club members to visit their favourite caves.

In the year 2000 the Wessex Catering Club (as it was then known) laid on a Millennium barbeque on the 100 acre field.  This was attended by over 30,000 Cavers.  In preparation for this event, the B.E.C. erected 27 new temporary huts on the Belfry site.   The Long Term Planning Committee assured the club that the grant would soon arrive. Many old club members were present on Mendip now again for this event.  Alfie and Sett, for example arrived from their respective retirement villas in Spain.  The climax of the evening came when a resolution was passed to abolish the title of Tackle Lord and to crown Norma Petty Tackle King.

By 2007, in spite of efforts to repeal the Limitation of Drunken Travelling Act – breweries continued to fail and a series of amalgamations took place.  This only left two combines – Courage and Worthington.  In reply to a question raised in the House, the Home Secretary said that both of these concerns had been bought up by the Wessex, who had changed their name to the Worthington Courage Caterers.

At the A.G.M. of 2009, it was agreed to change the name of the B.E.C. to the British Exploration Club, since it was now the only caving club in the country (with the exception of the Shepton, of course).  At the next year’s A.G.M. the two surviving members of the Long Term Planning Committee said that since the club’s name had been changed, it would have to re-apply for the grant.  This was agreed and the Committee authorised to erect a further 39 temporary buildings.

In January 2011, the last member of the Long Term Planning Committee died.  Two days later, the long awaited Government grant arrived.  This sum, due to inflation, now represented 1% of the sum required for one temporary hut (of which the club now had 137) and by unanimous vote of the Committee, it was agreed that the site for the New Belfry should never be built on and that the grant should be used to erect a single plaque on this ground to mark the work done by the Long Term Planning Committee. A decision to erect a further 130 temporary huts to mark the occasion was carried amid cheers.

In 2014, a question was asked in the House by the member for Shepton Mallet ( ind) on the subject of the one mile residential limit.  He pointed out that the temporary huts at the Belfry site now stretched past the Shepton Hut on all sides and that many were more than a mile from Upper Pitts.  The Home Secretary replied that, although both these sites now occupied several square miles each, they were still listed as one residence each, and their centres were less than one mile apart. The member for Shepton said that it appeared the Government was being run by the caving lobby. 

This produced a spirited reply from the opposition benches.  Clive Price pointed out that the so-called Government had by no means a monopoly of B.E.C./Wessex membership.  He was himself a member and his father had been one of the inventors of the Cave Locator.  As Shadow Foreign secretary he could assure the House that policy in all matters would continue to be in line with that of the B.E.C./W.C.C. Committee whichever Government was in power.  He sat down amid loud cheers from both sides of the House.

In 2016, the U.S. and Russian caving expeditions to the moon set off.  In reply to a written question as to why the British Government had made no move to send a task force, the Minister of Technology, the Rt. Hon. Julian Setterington, said that it have never been the British way to spend vast sums of taxpayers money on what could be accomplished more cheaply by a little careful thought and planning.  He announced to a hushed House that two years previously, his department had sent an instrumental satellite to the moon containing the B.E.C. Cave Locator.  He was now able to state that there were no caves on the moon.  Moreover, during the last five years, when every American and Russian caver had been occupied in preparing for this unnecessary expedition, it was pleased to announce that the B.E.C. has been active in these two countries discovering new caves and forcing amalgamations of local caving clubs. Already, it was rumoured that the entire N.N.S.S. had joined the B.E.C. and that the W.C.C. had taken over Hilton Hotels throughout the world.  He said that it was no secret that both the U.S. and Russian economies had been strained to the limit by the expense of the moon expeditions and by the money poured out of both counties to the B.E.C. and W.C.C.

In 2019, the Congress of the U.S.A. tabled the Declaration of Dependence being “A humble petition to be re-admitted to the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Shepton Mallet.

At this point, one member of the B.B. Literacy, Historical and Scientific research Committee became so excited that he spilt best part of a pint of rough cider over the Sphereolite. As the acid ate into the surface of the crystal, the pictures from the future faded out – as the author of this nonsense has every intention of doing so at this stage.