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Caves and Mines of Southern Wiltshire

An article by Andy Sparrow which perhaps supports the old adage 'Caves are where you find them'.

About fifteen miles west of Salisbury is an area of Portland and Purbeck rocks including several types of limestone.  The Salisbury Caving Group first inspected the area in 1972 and focussed its attentions on the Chilmark area where stone has been mined and quarried for hundreds of years.  Unfortunately, like so many other stone mines, the armed forces had put them to use and access was not possible.  Research showed that several mines extended at least three hundred feet into the valley side.

Up valley from this restricted area is a small wood in which we found a roomy mine entrance becoming too low after only twenty feet.  Thus defeated, we paid little attention to the area until February 1973, when I managed to gain access through a small, tight hole nearby, into a chamber and roomy passage.  Returning a week later with Rich Websell, we explored about a thousand feet of passage and named the find Chilmark Stone Mine.  Tiny decorated natural rifts are broken into in several places, and at one point a roof collapse has formed a sporting boulder ruckle.  Although the survey shown is only a Grade 1 sketch, a high grade survey has been begun by the S.C.G.

Later in 1973, we investigated another site a few miles to the west at Fonthill Gifford. Study of a 2½" O.S. map revealed an old quarry in a wood by a long artificial ornamental lake.  Our first investigation of the wood revealed more mines, this time with large, imposing entrance chambers.  However, they extended only fifty feet back into the hillside.  A subsequent inspection revealed a high natural rift with jammed boulders and a small choked tube with an airspace.  A start has been made excavating this.

Having located the small quarry shown on the map, we were interested to find several natural boulder-choked rifts.  Digging at one small pile of rubble quickly revealed a small tube blocked by a chert outcrop. This was later hammered away and the tube entered, but it got too tight after only six feet.

In June, Rich Websell and myself turned our attention to the largest rift in the quarry - about ten feet high and eight feet wide, thoroughly boulder-choked with some overhanging boulders balanced at the top.  We found a likely hole in the bottom left-hand corner and started digging away vast quantities of rocks and sand.  We soon uncovered a U-tube under an unsupported boulder, and after a little more digging, this hideously tight squeeze was passed.  Beyond, was twelve feet of roomy crawl between boulders ending in another choke, which we decided it was safer not to push.

In September we returned again and decided to enlarge a tiny passage visible behind the poised boulders at the top of the choke.  These were easily removed by tying a rope round them and pulling from below. Progress was then rapid and after digging out the floor for six feet we uncovered the top of a rift nine inches wide, widening visibly below.  Two more digging trips were made before this was passed, the next one being rather interesting since the entire right-hand wall of the dig collapsed - sending diggers scuttling in all directions as boulders tumbled after them.  In fact, this collapse proved a great help, since it made the new rift much more accessible.  When we returned, only a small amount of work was necessary before I was able to insert myself, feet first, into the rift and slowly worm my way down.

After a considerable effort I managed to get my chest through, while my feet kicked about in thin air with no indication of how far beneath me the floor was.  To my unspeakable relief, the floor proved to be only about seven feet beneath the squeeze, and I dropped into a section of fluted rift passage between boulder chokes.  The choke behind me proved to connect with the ten foot crawl, while a crawl beneath the other choke soon became too low.  A start has been made connecting the two caves so as to facilitate further digging.  They are obviously two parts of the same rift passage, to which we have been given the name of Ammonite Rift, after a fine example of that fossil just inside the lower entrance.

Anyone foolish enough to wish to visit this most unusual cave or Chilmark Stone Mine is advised to get in contact with me, or other members of the Salisbury Caving Group.

Editor's Note: Andy's address is: - 2 Bounds Green Road, Bounds Green, London N.11.