1 minibus and 3 cars left Plymouth University on Friday evening, destination Wessex cave hut, Priddy. I was in Ewan’s car and much beer was consumed en route. Ewan, with the help of many handy kitchen elves made a lovely warm soup when we arrived, and leisure games included the sock-grabbing one while strung up on a harness from the rafters, and pan and sling; a caver classic and my personal favourite. This involved getting intimate with Sam Roberts, who incidentally has a remarkable sense of balance.
On Saturday morning we were awoken to the clang of metal pans at 8.30 (keen climbers!) as Chris Joyce had just stirred up enough porridge to feed half of Priddy! The weather was pretty miserable so climbers went indoor climbing at a wall in Bristol. Before this though we all went out and made use of the SRT training tower outside the hut. I took this opportunity to take the cavers through the basics of rigging a life-line from the top of the tower using a Munter’s (/Italian) Hitch and the wire rope ladder, in preparation for the pitch we would need to negotiate later on. Several cups of tea later, 11 of us got kitted up in our blue/red Warmbac boiler suits and prepared to descent on Swildon’s Hole – a short walk away over the merry muddy fields of Mendip.
On arrival we met Oxford University Caving Club (OUCC) at the entrance. The stream was fairly high, not quite up to the overflow tube. After letting one of OUCC’s three groups go on ahead, we popped down the manhole and were into the thick of it, the cold stream water quickly washing away any remaining cobwebs from the previous night. Lawrence Hylton lead the way, passing Jacob’s Ladder in favour of a route down the long dry way, personally interesting for me as I hadn’t been this way before. We rejoined the stream-way and proceeded to the 40-foot pot which had been rigged with a hand-line by the previous group as the water was gushing down with some force.
At the top of the 20-foot pot we life-lined down the wire ladder left in place by the previous group. This always means a bit of standing around and getting cold, and next time we’d probably split in two groups with Lawrence leading another half of the A&E contingent. A pause at the pitch was inevitable though as the passage was already busy and we now had an OUCC group in front and behind, but in anticipation of the water we’d all brought our hoods which makes such a difference when you’re trying to climb down a ladder with a waterfall gushing down over your head! Chris Wildblood and Rebecca Coombe, two much missed ex-A&E members made an appearance while we were negotiating the ladder and were a welcome addition to the party. A little further down the way one of the party got quite cold hands, and I was glad of the chance to use the new hand warmers – a recent addition to the caving first aid kit.
Down the stream-way everybody got nice and wet jumping in the Double Pots, Simon Thursz making a particular good show by falling backwards on landing, and submerging right up to his neck at the bottom of the second pot. On reaching Sump 1, I declared that we were to turn around and head back upstream towards the entrance. Much to my dismay the majority of the group, egged on by Mr. Wildblood decided that bobbing down through Sump 1 was an excellent idea, so I was of course obliged to follow. After we’d all reached the other side we had a few photos by the Wookey Hole sign before turning and swimming back through the sump. Rebecca led the sensible three who weren’t so inclined to attempt the sump back up the passage and we rejoined them near Tratman’s Temple.Luckily on the return one OUCC group was still behind us so in the end we didn’t need to rig or de-rig the ladder and life-line on the 20-foot pot. Thank you OUCC!
I was really impressed by all on the trip, as the Sump 1 return trip is no mean feat for fresh cavers, particularly at high water. Rest assured freshers, not all trips are this cold and wet and you all did really well.
Back on the surface the sun was setting, and after a lovely warm shower in the Wessex changing rooms, Ewan and his merry elves put on a delicious hot veggie curry and rice. Thank you all who looked after the gear and hung it up in the drying room as requested – kudos to you. Those who left piles of wet kit on the floor, not so much.
A few beers later Wildblood instigated a night-time trip down Eastwater Cavern. 8 People joined in on this, including Alex Rowe and Sab Deacon who had only caved once previously. With this in mind we set an ambitious goal of doing the ‘short round’, from the hut and back in one hour. I’m extremely pleased to say we achieved this, give or take a couple of minutes. I had promised the cave would by a ‘dry cave’ for some reason. I would like to say this was a cunning ploy to trick people into coming, however this was purely due to ignorance as when I did this trip a few weeks ago, it was bone dry. As it was, when we arrived at the entrance, a torrent of water was poring down the entrance shaft and I could already feel mutiny brewing in the cold damp air. A round of whisky and we took the plunge (one of our number bottled it half way down the shaft as it was too wet (Duncan if your don’t like your shafts wet I suggest you try some back passages instead).
I’ll not tart it up, the entrance series through the boulder choke was a bloodbath, except the blood was icy cold water crashing on to our heads and seeping under our suits from all directions, and the bath was a tight, awkward squeeze between great lumps of rough grey limestone. We followed the line down through the boulders and congregated at the bottom; I was on the verge of aborting the mission as our callout was at midnight, leaving us just two hours from the start to navigate our route. Being assured that we would ‘boss it’, I led the way down on the left to the Upper Traverse – a diagonal bedding plane that requires nerve as much as physical stamina and technique. This was passed without much of a fuss which was really quite impressive; the fact that we were racing the clock from the beginning didn’t leave too much time for hesitation.
Up the squiggly passage above Hallelujah Hole and sliding down into the Boulder Chamber, we were soon back at the stream-way, where we negotiated the boulder choke in reverse, against the water. Back at the entrance we had another round of whisky and sprinted back to the hut – one hour trip! Well done everybody – so proud of you all.
A pleasant evening was had in the warmth around the fire, and a birthday song for Anne Helene got her back out of bed and down for another beer or two! At 2am it was announced that it would be an early start on Sunday, getting up at 7.30am (climbers wanting to make the most of the sun forecast at Cheddar Gorge) and everybody promptly retreated to bed. Joe Tidball and I stayed up drinking whisky for a while and even got in on the cheese board going round some of the Wessex (WSG) members around the table. We then somehow talked ourselves into doing the Eastwater trip again at about 3am! With only the two of us we managed in about 30 minutes, and the water level had already dropped in volume by about half. I can honestly say a sleeping bag has never felt so good!
Up at 7.30 feeling surprisingly sprightly so I decided to go and put on the porridge. I didn’t make quite enough to feed everyone; I fear I was over-compensating for Chris’s earlier bid at feed-the-world. Still, this wasn’t too much of an issue as the latecomers seemed quite content to have another dig at yesterday’s porridge which luckily hadn’t developed too much of a crust on top.
We took just 6 cavers today as most people were keen to exploit the sunshine on the crag down at Cheddar. This time destination G.B. Cave! We got changed in the lay-by and then dropped down into the entrance passage. A couple of bats were hanging a little way inside; always nice to see some wildlife. We took our time on this trip as we had 4 hours to play with. After reaching The Gorge we turned right, following the passage down to the natural Bridge where we took a group picture. We took some time to admire the huge stalactites and flowstone in Main Chamber. This really is a huge chamber and it’s often passed through without much regard for its sheer size and the amount of pretties; I’ve walked this route several times now and notice more and more to it every time.
The waterfall was quite high so rather than going down and traversing it, we by-passed up over the flowstone on the right and via the Oxbow. This allowed us to get down to Ladder Digg and the sump at the bottom of the complex. There was organic matter high up the walls suggesting the water had been a good metre or more higher recently, presumably during the recent St. Jude’s ‘storm’. We went up back to the base of the waterfall, before returning by the same route to the Bridge, where we attempted some more photography. Next time we’ll take some more / better lights for photo opportunities here as it’s a great spot for it. I thought it would be fun to go up to the top of the passage to see the car before leaving, but there was a lot of loose rock and, more importantly some deep mud (well, I for one don’t fancy washing off those suits when we get back to Plymouth!) so we headed back up towards the entrance. We had a pause at the junction so we could test people’s navigation / memory, ‘I have no recollection of this place’. Well done people, you didn’t send us down to Devil’s Elbow, ‘ah, this way; the air is not so foul down here; when in doubt Meriadoc Brandybuck, always follow your nose.’
Well done Steph Allen (El Presidente) on your first ever caving trip; you did brilliantly and we’ll miss having you underground more often as you push your climbing career on the surface. Libby Clarke and Charlie Sinclair well done to you too, it was an absolute pleasure – really enjoyed the trip.
Down at Cheddar Gorge we met up with the climbers and walkers and dear old Shaun McCance, and a few of us popped to a cafe in Cheddar for a well-deserved sandwich and a cuppa tea. Back up at the gorge we had a good chin wag before hitting the road back to Plymouth. Back at kit stores the unloading of kit was clockwork and before long it was all hanging back up on the wall ready for the next trip, namely Peak District for climbing and CHECC at Castleton for the subterranean members.
Thanks everyone, I hope you all enjoyed as much as we did. Special thanks to those who cooked, cleaned, and generally made themselves useful – much appreciated. Pictures to come soon!
Thom (Caving Sec) on behalf of your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman, and A&E Committee 2013/14