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Annual Report Of The B.B.L.H.& S.R.G

This story is respectfully dedicated by the aged savants of the Belfry Bulletin Literary, Historical and Scientific Research Group (who endeavour to produce some seasonal nonsense every year for the Christmas edition of the B.B.) to Fred Davies.

He might, they hope, see some grotesque parallel between what follows here, and an incident concerning a meeting of the Council of Southern Caving Clubs, at which he was not present - having gone caving instead.  There might even be some sort of moral........ somewhere........

“A Tale of Two Caving Huts”

-------- I --------

It is midnight on Mendip, after an unusually hot summer weekend.  The last tints of colour have not long faded from the sky - and now the moon shines brightly down on dry stone wall and hawthorn tree alike.  All is still, apart from the soft tearing sound as here and there a cow still grazes.  From afar off, an owl hoots.

The vast army of squat little concrete huts which comprise the Mendip District Council's Caving Estate at Nordrach - which by day disfigures the face of Mendip almost as much as does the nearby University of Charterhouse, now looks slightly less revolting in the moonlight.  The horde of Hut Wardens; Tackle Officers; Caving Secretaries, members and guests who form the inhabitants of this dreadful place have all gone home.  The long lines of huts and the network of concrete paths now gleam more softly in the pale light of the moon and somehow contrive to look less like some enormous camp for displaced persons.

A solitary car, however, still stands in the car park; and the yellow gleam from the windows of Hut 213 single it out from the silvery ranks of its fellows.  Inside the hut, surrounded by a mass of paperwork, sits Sam Strangeways - the new secretary of the Haselbury Plunknett Speleological Society - taking his duties seriously, as indeed he must.  Before his predecessor cracked up from overwork, he had managed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough by concluding an access agreement with a local farmer for Dribble Hole.  Although this cave is only fifteen feet long, Sam is weighing up how his club can use this agreement to their best advantage.  He is moderately certain that the Perronarworthel Pothole Club might be induced to back his application to the Council for holding on to the agreement, which, of course, would give them both a lever against the Kingston Bagpuize Caving Group.  The reaction of the Nunney Association for Speleological Regression would be less predictable.  It is quite a problem.

But, thinks Sam, as he sits and ponders over the delicate balance between the five hundred clubs on the estate, it is a typical problem of present-day caving.  He sighs as he realises that next weekend will be just like all the others.  It is hardly likely that his club will be able to find the time to look for another cave as big as Dribble Hole.  Instead, Saturday morning will be spent in a hectic round of visits to other caving huts on the estate, sounding out opinions and listening to any rumours, and rushing back at intervals to Hut 213 to keep the others informed on the latest shifts of policy, so that they can deal with the other secretaries, who will be rushing round with equal determination.  After this, there might be time for a quick bite to eat before going to the Great Hall of the University of Charterhouse for the weekly meeting of the Southern Council.  After this, there will be the usual session of drinks at the student’s bar; where the give-and-take will be less official but equally hard.  Finally, they will get back to Hut 213 and stagger into their bunks - worn out by the days caving activity.  Sunday morning will be spent in planning the next week’s campaign and holding a post-mortem on the last Council meeting.  No wonder, thinks Sam, that the last Secretary of his club had cracked up.

With a sigh, Sam wrenches his mind away from these morbid thoughts and begins to stack his papers into his bulging briefcase.  With a final glance round the hut, he turns off the lights and makes his way thoughtfully to his waiting car and, one presumes, to Haselbury Plunknett.

-------- II --------

It is now Saturday, on the following weekend. The weather, as if ashamed of its temporary lapse, has now reverted to its normal summer behaviour.  A heavy, damp mist hangs over Mendip, turning everything to a uniform dull grey and finding its way through the many chinks resulting from the over-hasty construction of the University of Charterhouse.  Sam is in his car, and about to set off for the meeting.  His head is full of complex policy decisions.  The matter of the Dribble Hole agreement is fraught with danger and knife-edge diplomatic moves.  He starts off and drives mechanically through the mist.

Suddenly, Sam realises that he is on the wrong road.  He stops the car and peers into the thickening mist.  None of the terrain looks familiar.  Panic-stricken, he realises that he will be late for the meeting. Without his vote and speech, the Kingston Bagpuize might even side with the Perranarworthel!

All around him, Mendip lies still and silent, much as it did all through the centuries before cavers appeared on the scene.  As Sam scans the dim outlines of old walls lining the road, a strange peace begins to settle over him and the University of Charterhouse begins to feel as insubstantial as its already corroding bits of flashy aluminium really are.  With a sudden, decisive movement, Sam winds down the window and flings his briefcase out.  A great load seems suddenly to be lifted from his mind.  With a faint smile on his lips, he lets in the clutch and drives off slowly into the unknown.  It is a big moment for Sam.

-------- III --------

It is later the same afternoon.  Sam has now left the car and is walking across a mist-covered field in which the vague shapes of cows can be dimly discerned.  Soon, he finds himself going steeply downhill.  He has arrived at a swallet.  At the bottom, there is a locked cave entrance.  Sam gazes at it with longing; recalling half-forgotten experiences.  He is startled to hear the sounds of approaching people, sounding muffled in the mist.  Looking in the direction of these sounds, he can soon distinguish several scruffily dressed individuals who are carrying caving gear.  Their leader, a large powerfully-built man, gives Sam a long, hard, appraising glance.

"Want to go down, lad?"

"Yes, please," Sam replies, suddenly realising that this is what he does want to do more than anything else.

"Get the lad some spare clothes and a helmet, Fred while I pick this ruddy lock!" the large man roars at a wiry-looking individual, who promptly disappears into the mist on this errand of mercy.

-------- IV --------

The great Hall of the University Of Charterhouse is packed, stressing some of it’s badly designed and poorly assembled girders close to breaking point.  The General Secretary is calling the roll of constituent clubs: -

‘ Glastonbury Spelaeos.’

‘Present.’

‘Goblin Coombe Caving Club.’

‘Present.’

‘Gordano Exploration Group.’

‘Present.’

‘Haselbury Plunknett Spelaeos.’

There is a silence, as four hundred and ninety nine delegates look at each other, wondering what could have happened.  They think variously in terms of falling asleep at the wheel; collapse due to overwork and so on. Not a single delegate imagines anything as wildly improbable as the truth.  The secretary of the Haselbury Plunknett Spelaeological Society has gone caving!

-------- V --------

It is now very much later on that same fateful day.  Sam is now lying in a bunk within a caving hut whose very existence he has never even suspected.  It is not on the Nordrach Estate.  It is, in fact, the Belfry.

As he relaxes, in a pleasant half-sloshed condition, he is recalling the events of the day.  A day which has given him more pleasure than he had thought possible.  There was the joy of once more being underground with friendly and experienced companions - the feel of rock and rung and water.  Then there was the coming out, tired but happy followed by the stew; the beer; the jokes; the songs; the journey back to the hut and the final cup of coffee.

Sam's only regret is that to-morrow he must return to Hut 213 and face harsh reality once more.  He is sure that these friendly, carefree cavers he has just met must represent some sort of unofficial set-up which, sooner or later, would find itself caught up in the complex machinery of real caving. With their complete ignorance of the cut and thrust of caving politics, they would never survive a moment.  He must warn them before it is too late for them to learn!  They obviously have no idea of what is happening in the real world outside.  He is still thinking along these lines when he falls into a deep and refreshing sleep.

-------- VI --------

It is now Sunday morning. Sam has just woken up and been handed a steaming mug of coffee by Fred Ferrett, who has already got up to perform this humane task.  The others are all stirring.  In one corner, Ron Runnit, the Hut Warden, is sitting up drinking his coffee.  In another, the bulk of Pete Pushem stirs under a pile of assorted cast-off blankets and finally heaves into view. He stretches out a great hand for his mug of coffee and focuses his eyes on Sam.

"Morning, lad. How's the ruddy head?"

Sam, after a quick inspection, is able to assure Pete that his head is in working order, his information is well received.

"That's the ruddy stuff, lad!  You’ll never be a member of this ruddy club if you can’t hold your ruddy beer!"

At the words, 'member of this ruddy club', Sam remembers his mission to acquaint these folk with the facts of caving life.  He looks around at the cheerful disorder of the hut - mentally comparing it with the antiseptic cleanliness of Hut 213, cleaned once a week by the council - and realises the enormous gap he must somehow try to bridge.  His face falls.

"What is the rouble, lad? " booms the voice of Pete Pushem once more, "Ruddy gut?"

With much misgiving, Sam falteringly tries to explain.  A sound like an earthquake interrupts his efforts as Pete's bunk rocks with his great roars of laughter.  It is just as well that Pete's bunk is not in the great hall of the University of Charterhouse.  Pete finally becomes coherent.

"You're all right, Sam!" he says at last. "You'll do. Trying to warn us about all the trouble at ruddy Nordrach and Charterhouse?  Telling us that if we didn't ruddy watch it, we’d be organised out of existence?  Is that what you were going to ruddy say? "

Sam merely nods his head. He cannot find words to express his amazement.

"You didn't think, lad", Pete says as to a young child, "that all the ruddy trouble between ruddy caving clubs happens ruddy naturally?  It takes ruddy organisation, that does!"  There is a note of simple pride in his voice as he goes on.

"You see, lad, with so many ruddy clubs about, it was getting damn nigh impossible to get down ruddy caves, so we did a bit of thinking.  We reckoned that we'd never stop them coming to ruddy Mendip, so we decided to give 'em something else to do when they ruddy got here."

Sam's brain is rapidly getting into gear.  He will make a B.E.C. member yet.  He is still, however, a trifle confused.

"But how," he asks Pete, "do you do it all?  You'd need an army of spies to start with."

"Bugging."

It is Ron Runnit who speaks. "My old man got the contract to build the Nordrach Estate.  We hid mikes in all the huts.  We run the tapes back every Wednesday in the pub.  Gives us a couple of days to drop a hint here; spread a rumour there; do a bit of stirring somewhere else and bingo!  They're all at each other's throats again with no time left for caving. We've got it to a fine art, although I say it as shouldn't."

Sam's brain is now shifting from third to top.  He sees both sides of this shrewd scheme and is not altogether happy with the result.

"It's a bit unfair." he says slowly, not wishing to give offence.  Those poor beggars don't stand a chance!"

"Yes they ruddy do!" roars Pete."  Look lad, proper cavers are ruddy individuals.  They'd never stand for it.  All we're doing is looking after the blokes with no minds of their own. Anybody else doesn't have to play. Look at yourself, Sam!"

Before Sam can do more than think about what Pete is saying, a more practical note is struck by Ron, who points out that if they don't soon get up; have breakfast; muck the hut out and get moving, the pubs will be open.  Ever conscious of the more serious aspects of life, the B.E.C. take this sound hint.

-------- VII --------

It is late on Sunday evening.  The Nordrach Estate is once again deserted, as it was when this tale started.  Its exhausted inhabitants have all gone home to recover.  The girders beneath the Great Hall at Charterhouse are slowly creeping back to something approaching the shape hopefully envisaged by their designer.  Meanwhile, in a cosy Mendip pub, the B.E.C. are having the last drinks of the weekend.  They are relaxed and cheerful.  Sam has just adroitly manoeuvred Fred into buying the next round, but has been astute enough not to try that particular ploy on Pete, a fact which impresses Pete not a little.  In Pete's opinion, Sam will prove a credit to the club.  Pete is listening to what Sam is saying.

"The only thing that worries me is that - what ever is worth doing, you tend to - how shall I put it? do it, perhaps, to excess.  You're driving them a bit too hard.  There have been several nervous breakdowns this year already.  What we need is a bloke on the spot who can keep his ears open and use his loaf.  We can then see how hard we're driving them, and adjust the pressure to keep them at full stretch without crippling them."

Pete thinks this is interesting, but continues to listen while Ron takes up the debate on a serious note.

"But that means that you would have to be the bloke on the spot, Sam, and we can't expect you to go back to that ghastly estate and those terrible meetings.  Besides, my uncle put up the girders under the great hall at the university, and I personally wouldn't risk sitting in it for five minutes all by myself, let alone with five hundred other blokes for several hours."

Pete Pushem is still thinking.  He can already see great possibilities in having a bloke on the spot.  Much better control.  Of course, Sam couldn't actually be a delegate any more.  He'd need every Saturday for caving.  He ought to be somewhere where he could keep an eye open without wasting too much time.  A part time job in the estate office?  Ron's brother-in-law was on the district council.  Yes, it could all be arranged.

Pete grins. He has reached an important decision.  With a single gulp, he swallows the remains of his beer.  He turns to Sam.

"Drink up, lad!" he roars, "The next ruddy round's on me!'

Several pairs of startled eyes swivel rapidly in Pete's direction.  There is a moment of stunned silence - until the members present realise that, as always, Pete never does anything without a good reason.  Then, as one man, they bang their pots down on the bar. Pete is actually still grinning as he pays up.

The B.E.C. is about to improve its technique still further.

By way of an encore this year, the B.B. Literary, Historic and Scientific Research Group have also sent in this footnote about the work of that old club member, Charley Dickens.

After listening to the introduction to the play at the last club dinner, several astute members have pointed out that the entertainment given a few years ago - that tale about Oliver Lloyd, which, was performed under the title of ‘Oliver’ - was also written by Charley Dickens.

Rapid researches into the subject show that Charley wrote a number of pieces about the club besides the two already mentioned before he went up to London and turned professional.  There was, for instance, GREAT EXPECTORATIONS a tale about the more revolting aspects of Mendip life at the time.  Then there was HARD CLIMBS which speaks for itself. Perhaps his greatest effort was THE THICKWIG PAPERS - a tale about the publications department and the Cuthbert’s report and survey - but then again, perhaps not.

Altogether, Charley wrote rather a lot of stuff - rather like the B.B.L.H.& S.R.G., who would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.