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Exploring Swildons Hole.

The author of this article, Francis Webb, died during August 1975, was an associate of Kangy’s and suggested to him that the club might be interested in reading of Swildons before modern techniques reduced it to the relatively simple trip of nowadays.

A trip made on 6 May 1938 – by Francis Webb. The Silver Jubilee of King George V.

When I was an undergraduate I made the acquaintance of a student named B---.  We used to doze opposite each other in the University Library and to a casual observer we must have looked equally devitalized.  I suppose that's why we first grew friendly - we recognised in our respective attitudes the same sort of half-contemptuous, half-guilty protest against the exertions of our neighbours around the table in the quiet bay where we sat.  There were earnest young women, bespectacled and prim, who read and wrote simultaneously with a savage concentration terrifying to behold.  The proximity of so much virtue intruding on our repose would cause us to exchange an occasional troubled glance.  Then B--- would settle himself back in his chair, and relapse into sightless contemplation of the book propped open before him, never moving his eyes or turning a page.

Still, this isn’t an entirely fair and complete picture of my friend.  B--- once removed from the debilitating academic atmosphere of the Library, could be active enough – and one and one of his chief interests lay in the 'pot - holing'.  He was the Secretary of a Society which existed to open up and explore the numerous caves in the neighbouring range of limestone hills.

One morning I encountered B--- in the University Club.  He greeted me with a little more animation than usual. "Care to come caving this weekend he enquired we're thinking of tackling - - - Hole, and we need a party of nine.  Got to have some dull looking clots to carry the gear, so I thought of you".  Now here I was woefully misled at the recollection of a previous excursion with B---.  It had been very pleasant, the party had been mixed; we had travelled in a luxury coach; there had been floodlights and underground lakes, wonderful caverns, impressive stalactites and a first-rate tea.  Nothing very strenuous and the whole thing had been undeniably interesting.  So, ignoring the somewhat equivocal implications in the phrasing of the present invitation, I accepted at once.

When I arrived next day at the hut, situated in a lonely part of the hills, which formed the headquarters of the Society, I was puzzled at first by the curious lethargy which seemed to be gripping everyone.  For the most part, fellows, about a dozen of them, were lying on their backs in the sunshine doing nothing, as only undergraduates can.  After a bit I began to wonder when we should make a start. The summer afternoon was slipping away and it would soon be teatime.  I voiced my curiosity to B--- but he was unconcerned.  "It's all right, no hurry, this is an all night show, lie down and rest".  I lay down and, as I digested this cryptic information, I began to slowly realise that this expedition, and my previous experience of caving, were just likely to be very different.

At length, Primus stoves were lighted and Bacon and Eggs began to sizzle in the pans.  Meanwhile, from a little shed, which formed an annexe to the main hut, coils of line and a bulky maze of rope ladders began to appear. These were followed by sledge hammers and crowbars.  My suspicions were rapidly confirmed.  Evidently, 'carrying the gear' was going to form no inconsiderable contribution to the exercise.

We set off about 6-30 pm dressed in filthy old boiler suits and stout hobnailed boots.  Together with two other neophytes I had been allotted the humble role of bearer to the leader of the party.  We four were to go ahead with most of the tackle to a place obscurely designated as 'the top of the forty' whilst the seasoned campaigners followed on unencumbered and at their leisure.

We crammed ourselves into a car already loaded with rucksacks and ropes and bumped for several miles over a rough track to an isolated farmhouse.  Here our leader obtained a key from the farmer and. then led us across a field to the bank of an innocent looking stream.  But there was one feature peculiar to it.  After a few hundred yards it suddenly disappeared through a padlocked iron grill into the ground - and it didn't seem to reappear anywhere either.

Our leader raised the grill and disappeared into the hole.  It was the most unimpressive entrance that could be imagined. Squeezing myself through the narrow opening I could help feeling a sneaking sense of shame in sinking out of sight down an (extra) ordinary looking drain.

Inside, the passage was narrow, low and very dark and wet.  We lighted stubs of candle and dragging our cumbersome burdens, groped forward, following the bed of the stream, wading waist deep in water.

Very soon I became familiar with two common experiences common to caving.  One was the extricating sensation of hot candle wax spilling onto the back of your hand when you clutching for your life some knob or cranny in a slippery passage, and dare not move a muscle to avoid it.  The other concerned the unbelievable perversity of loosely bundled rope ladder.  Of all the damnable contrivances to attempt to convey through narrow, twisting passages, nothing could exceed the malignancy of this horrible contraption. Lying flat on my back, with the tunnel roof an inch or so above the face, it was necessary to pass the ladder bit by bit along and over my body, into the grasp of the man ahead.  I had just pushed the leading end beyond my head when I found my arms and hands locked immovably.  Meanwhile the ladder travelled slowly over my upturned face, each rung hooking me in turn underneath the nose, until it was jerked free by an extra sharp wrench which banged the back of my head against the floor, clunk-clunk-clunk for forty interminable feet.

Of course, we were not always in such cramped situations.  Sometimes we passed through large and echoing caverns, the sombre, moisture stained walls reaching endlessly up into the darkness.  Still dragging our loads we climbed along slippery ridges and slopes following the course of the water through a maze of crevices and fissures.  Occasionally we climbed down a vertical rock face with only the faint gleam of our leaders candle at the bottom to guide us through the darkness.  Each time we came to a particularly awkward place, I began to hate my rucksack and the rope ladder with increasing force.  Sometimes I seemed jammed beyond all hope of release, then being hung like a worm on a fish hook.  I would succeed at last in extricating myself and to hurry after the flicker of my companion’s candle light, before fading into the distance

I had just become used to going this way when trouble occurred.  I overhauled the other three who were holding a council.  One of my fellow bearers, slipping on a sharp rock, had jammed his leg on a crevice and his knee was badly damaged and perhaps broken. Luckily, our leader was a doctor he decided that we would go on with the kit to the appointed rendezvous and then return to get the injured man to the surface.  So leaving the injured securely anchored to the rock with an array of candles for company, we continued along a low and narrow tunnel with the water still swirling waist high around us.  As we progressed, labouring under our burdens, suddenly the roof sloped to the surface of the water, barring our way.  Above the bubbling gurgle of the water which disappeared though its outlet I seemed to feel rather than hearing a dull reverberating roar.  Here I was instructed to make myself comfortable whist the others returned to the scene of the accident and the injured man.

For the first hour, the novelty of my situation was sufficient to outweigh the disagreeable aspects but after a while, sitting in the rushing water, I began to feel cold.

By bracing my back against one wall of the passage, and my feet against the other, I managed to raise myself partly out of the stream but even so I wasn't very comfortable.  Then I began to think of the weight of rock above my head.  Somewhere, perhaps miles above my head was sunshine and open air but all I could see was the dripping black roof of the tunnel, toothed with stalactites like the mouth of some dreadful prehistoric monster I reflected that I could not possibly find my way back alone through the labyrinth of passages and caverns through which we had traversed.  My thoughts were rather depressing and I hoped that my friends would not forget to come and collect me.  I decided to stop thinking so and amused myself by singing all the most flippant songs I knew.  Pretty soon, that got to be boring also but I found that a new interest became most absorbing - this was in watching my candle stub grow rapidly shorter and I watched with dreadful fascination it’s dwindling - I was going to miss that friendly flicker when it eventually went out.  At length it gave its last glimmer and I was alone in the darkness.  Not quite alone, it seemed however, for I began to be aware of a curious almost imperceptible flutter in the air around me, something that suggested the darting flight of a bird, but softer, more ethereal.  I’m glad that I didn’t know then that some caves are often inhabited by myriads of bats, I wasn't really sure at the time whether anything was there or not; it just felt like something flitting past my head now and again.  I thought that it was time that I pulled myself together or I might begin seeing things too and after all there wasn't anything to really worry about.  Old B--- and the rest would be along any time now and they would laugh like hell to see me clawing the wall and gibbering.  But in spite of my best efforts I must have looked pretty wan when at last a distant gleam heralded the arrival of my friends.

B--- saw no reason for the obvious pleasure with which I greeted him.  He enquired briefly whether we had rigged the ladder for the descent of the 40 foot and it was borne in on me that the night was yet young and there was plenty more caving in store for me before we finished.

We duck through here said B-- indicating the hole through which the stream disappeared.  "Take a deep breath and don't get stuck.  Give me time to get my light going again when I'm through then feed the ladder through to me.  When that's through you can follow".  I swallowed down most of my insides and took a very deep breath indeed. I suppose that the part of the tunnel completely sealed by water could not have been more than a few feet long but to me it seemed as long as eternity.  I was determined to obey to the letter B’s injunction about not getting stuck.  No eel could have surpassed my performance in getting through that hole and as I emerged on the other side I remembered thinking ‘My God, to get home I’ve got to get back through there!  I found myself clinging to B--- and perched on a sloping ledge over which a tidy sized river was disappearing into bottomless space – the cause of that curious reverberation which I had previously noted was now apparent.  The noise was deafening.  Our candle threw sparkles of iridescence on the mist of spray rising from the gulf.

B--- and the old hands got busy with the rope ladder.  I realised that it was proposed to descend the fall.  When my turn came I wasn't clear headed enough to wait for full instructions though I understood vaguely that there was a twelve foot deep whirlpool below the fall and that the technique was to swing on the end rung of the ladder like a pendulum, letting go at the right moment so as to land at the edge rather than in the centre of the pool.  But the full force of the water on my head and its removal of the candle from my grasp, half stunning me and completely blinding my vision so confused my already partly turned wits so that I could only cling like a clam to the ladder, breathing in ragged sobbing gasps that choked me with water swallowed and inhaled.  Somehow I found myself gripping the bottom rung swaying slowly in and out, in and out of the full strength of the torrent as I tried to pluck up the courage to let go and fling myself to the edge of the pool.  I lingered so long on the bottom rung that at last a peaceful end in the depths of the pool began to appear preferable to further delay so I jumped and landed on all fours in a relatively shallow place from whence I was hauled by those who had descended before me.

After that, a mere twenty foot waterfall later on in our course seemed tame.  Even a 90 foot rope descent, the rope running in a sort of inverted parabola over inky chasms and sabre toothed pinnacles of rock failed to dull the vivid impression left on me by the first waterfall.  I could not help thinking that climbing up it again was likely to be just as impressive as the descent and in this I was not mistaken.

When we arrived at the extreme point of penetration into this particular cave, my powers of sensation were pretty well used up.  I can remember eyeing the long bamboo rod which had been used in an attempt by a previous party to blast a way onwards with explosives.  I wondered what it had been like in getting them down here. Portions of a home-made diving apparatus which had been employed in an effort to penetrate further underwater moved in me no more than a heartfelt thankfulness that certain essentials had had to be taken to the surface for repair, leaving the outfit temporarily unsuitable for use.

At last we started back. Once or twice I found myself at the rear of the party with my candle stub accidentally extinguished with no dry matches.  I resolved that I should be extremely active in avoiding this particular nightmare in the future, and hastened to catch up with B---, and so it was that we arrived within the sound of the 40 foot fall far in advance of the rest of the party.

Now B--- was proud of his lamp - it was a small acetylene affair with a naked flame like a lizard's tongue; the sort of thing that miners wear in their caps in which are free from firedamp.  He turned it up until the flame was nearly a foot long.  With this he was convinced that he could climb up through the fall and that it would stay alight despite the torrent beating on it.  He proposed that instead of waiting at the foot of the fall, we should surprise our friends by waiting for them at the top. Personally, any delay would have been acceptable but I was in no state to resist argument and B-- prepared for immediate ascent.

He explained that he would take a rope with him to serve as a communication        cord and lifeline.  When he signalled by jerking the line I was to tie it round myself and follow him up.  Without further delay he disappeared up the ladder.  As soon as I was alone I began to hate the idea of swinging again on the ladder and the whirlpool seemed to be making sucking noises with a sort of anticipatory relish - but at last the ladder ceased swaying - B--- must have arrived at the top.

I grasped the life line secured to the bottom rung and hauled it back to where I was standing. With numb fingers I began to fumble the line into a bowline round my waist muttering the Boy Scout recipe for rabbits coming up out of the hole and round the tree, which is supposed to produce the requisite loop.  But try as I might my bowline just wouldn’t come out right.  In the middle of all this preparation I became aware of a tremendous bellowing from above.  This was accompanied by fierce jerks on the line, which slipped from my un-nerved hands. The noise of the fall effectively drowned the sense of B—‘s shouts but guiltily conscious of my inabilities I interpreted that as shouts of impatience at my delay. So, abandoning any discretion and the struggle with the bowline I stepped onto the bottom rung and launched myself into the torrent.

My candle put out in an instant and at the same moment the icy stream hit my head with a sledge hammer force driving the breath from my lungs and forcing my head down between my shoulders.  My knees bent beneath the pressure from above until my arms were at full stretch, the water tore at the suspended        frame, stinging face, eyes and hands and battering my bruised senses to confusion. In the overwhelming tumult, rational thought was impossible, all the same I became aware of my feet stumbling on the rungs as I began to clamber painfully upwards.

Immediately the loop of the lifeline fell from my waist to my knees and then slipped further to my ankles. For some reason B--- was not taking in the slack as I mounted.  I toiled on, trying at each rung to step out of the loop.  Suddenly, one of my feet missed the rung and I clawed desperately with the free leg, waving it madly above the drop.  The ladder, free from my distributed weight, was pushed askew by the thrust on one leg and no longer hung vertically but made sickening lunges in all directions, threatening at any moment to hurl me off altogether.  All this while, B--- continued his unintelligible roaring from above.  As I swung giddily in the middle of the torrent, what I feared most suddenly occurred. My convulsive struggling caused my other foot to slip from the ladder and I was left dangling by my arms alone. Try as I might I was unable to locate the ladder again with my toes.      It was obvious that I could not last long like this and I decided that the last breath in my body should be devoted to communicating my difficulty to B---.   With the screech of a banshee I informed him of my predicament.  His reply was an immediate hauling on the lifeline which was well and truly tangled around my ankles.  Slowly but relentlessly I found myself being pulled upside down, my hands gripping the sides of the ladder in a frenzy- and my heels disappearing above my head in the grip of that ghastly loop.  Once more I outlined the position of my affairs to B--- in a vocal record which surely must have created a record.  Mercifully, he heard me and stopped pulling.  The sheer relief at being up the right way seemed heavenly, it gave me strength for one last effort and kicking myself free from the loop of line I wrapped myself round the ladder and eventually managed to get one foot on one side of it and the other on the other side.  This is held to be the safest way I now know but here there was a particular snag, the top yard or so of the ladder lay over a projecting bulge of rock, the rungs tight against its face so I was forced to risk again taking one foot off the rungs before I could drag myself to safety on the ledge.

I was greeted by an irate B---.  "You damned fool, why didn't you wait at the bottom?  I shouted to tell you that my lamp had gone out".

Neither of us had any dry matches so we crouched on the ledge in total darkness, listening to the fall of water, our teeth rattling with cold and, in my case, with ill repressed emotion, until the rest of the party came up to join us.

The remainder of the journey was relatively uneventful.  Emerging at last through the very ordinary grill I found the pale stars of a summer dawn above my head but I was not conscious of any sublime or elevated feelings. I was just immensely glad to throw away the remains of my last candle stub.  We had been underground, in icy water off and on, for nearly ten hours. Lying in a heap of straw in the farmer’s barn, warming our numbed bodies with rum, we treated the affair with a nonchalance which I found at first a little unnatural.  But gradually the whole experience began to fall into a more rational focus and when viewed through the tawny mellowness of a tilted rum bottle it began to seem a pretty good show after all.