MCG Occasional Publication No. 5
A Caver's Ramblings into the Past
written by Malcolm Cotter
My age is such that flashbacks and musing over the past have become more common. Thus, this is an account of an old man looking back through the mists of time, with help from a chronicle of events. The more I write, the more I remember. Our perception of past events seems tied to our own life span, so what happened before we were born is as distant history. Although a few of you are older, most are younger than the writer and born after the time the Group was well established. The early days of our organisation comprised a very young and, for the most part, integrated group of people. Our great and main asset was an endowment of youthful vigour where anything seemed possible. There were visits to mysterious places and the ever-present promise of discovery and exploration of hidden worlds. Those at the beginning were soon joined by others who were immediately involved, as must be the case with any organisation. Without everyone through time, nothing would have happened. Unlike a sculpture, we are a work of art able to change and survive. There was sometimes controversy but we are a fortunate species where through time our perception of what is bad is forgotten but what is good is enhanced.
Now, let me go back to the year 1953. It was eight years after the Second World War and England had conscription to military service. At the start of the year, I was a 19-year-old airman posted to Lytham St Annes to attend a nursing-cum-first-aid course. Lytham St Annes was within reach of the Craven District of Yorkshire with many of the mythical caves I had read about. Armed with a second-hand paperback copy of Norman Thornber’s "Pennine Underground", a trip to the area was planned. This book was an excellent pocket-sized guide, giving very good instructions in note form of the whereabouts of caves and potholes and what was required and involved in their exploration. Some years before, in a book entitled "Modern Exploration", an address given for the British Spelaeological Association (BSA) turned out to be that of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society (UBSS). On making an enquiry, a helpful reply was received from the UBSS giving me the correct address of the BSA. On writing to the BSA, a swift reply gave news that accommodation was available at their Headquarters in Settle.
A booking was then made for a visit to Settle. The BSA HQ was in a mews and I had been asked to go up an external flight of steps on the right where I met Eli Simpson, known to all as Simmy. Simmy seemed to live in that part of the building. I had arrived without sleeping bag so Simmy kindly loaned me some blankets. I was then shown to the actual hostel accommodation, access to which was by way of a second flight of outside stairs at the end of the mews in Duke Street.
The year started with the vestiges of food rationing. On going into a Settle butcher, I was amazed to be told that it was not necessary to give in my weekend ration card. The butcher said that he would let me have whatever I wanted, so a couple of excellent chops were chosen.
There then followed several months potholing every weekend with the BSA. Many hours were spent with Eli Simpson in his den adjacent to the sleeping quarters, where he outlined his survey work. The mode of getting to the potholes also came as a surprise since taxis were frequently used, everyone pitching in to the cost. Parties were generally large, but on several occasions my sole comrade was a slightly older caver known as Cas owing to his likeness to Norbert Casteret. (I cannot remember his actual name although his first name may have been Don). On one occasion during a discussion on caving organisation Cas remarked that he thought that I wanted to start a caving club. This was denied, but he was right - although I did not appreciate it at the time.
My course completed, a posting to Little Rissington, Gloucestershire followed. A further visit during a Bank Holiday was made to Yorkshire but my thoughts turned to the nearer caving area of Mendip where, some years before, I had been treated to a day visit to Cheddar and its caves. On that visit a good guide to the Cheddar caves and another to Wookey had been purchased. Other information on the Mendip caves had been gleaned from E.A. Baker's book "Caving", that Mr King, Hon. Secretary of the Devon Spelaeological Society, had let me borrow. "Caving" described, in an exciting manner, the exploration of Swildon's Hole. Later, H.E. Balch's book "The Great Cave of Wookey Hole" had been given to me as a present. A caving trip to Mendip was therefore sought after.
Much excited conversation ensued among the many young people at the RAF camp and one named Dillan (or Dyllan?) Evans told me that he had been caving in Wales and had his own equipment. A partner was thus found and a trip planned. Knowing that John Hooper had caved on Mendip a letter enquiring about places to stay was sent to him. A quick reply let me know that Mr (Albert) Main allowed cavers to stay in his barn at Manor Farm, Priddy. A letter was sent to Albert Main and again a quick reply confirmed that cavers could stay in his barn.
In the 1950s many factories and offices worked Saturday morning and so it was in the RAF. Dillan and I obtained what was known as a 36-hour pass covering the period from about noon Saturday to midnight on Sunday. It was on the 14 November 1953 that we eventually set out.
The journey took all afternoon and into the evening. The bus journey from Bristol was slow and, since it was very dark outside, our senses of what lay there were influenced by the engine noise. The engine was in low gear for much of the time so it seemed that we were going up a mountain. On this our first visit we went all the way into Wells arriving there well after 8pm. After what seemed a long wait in cold weather we caught a bus to Priddy. This bus was the only one of the week, allowing people living along its route to visit Wells and to see a film. In the countryside, away from towns, there was no electricity except what was provided by rare privately run generators. Our bus therefore had the only electric lighting in the whole area. The bus stopped and the driver pointed to a dim light saying that was Manor Farm. We got off the bus and, since our eyes were used to the lighting inside, into total darkness. We watched the brightly lit bus leave and continue on up the hill, temporarily illuminating its surroundings and leaving us feeling lonely.
We made our way through an obvious gateway past farm buildings. This led us to the back door of the farm. A knock at the door was made, and Albert Main, carrying a paraffin lamp met us. He remembered my letter. We enquired if he could let us have milk and eggs and were told that he could supply them. We were then shown the barn. At about this time an enquiry was made regarding cave location. Albert Main told us that a group from Sandhurst Military Academy were going down Swildon's Hole that evening. He then pointed across Priddy Green saying that the party was in the New Inn and would probably let us join them.
The barn remains much the same today as it did then except that the vertical ladder to the loft had all its treads. The barn was divided into two halves. The side nearest the road had farm machinery and tools below and a room divided into two above. The upper room had probably, by its appearance, been a dwelling in the not too distant past. At the top of the ladder one alighted into a space used for storage of farm requisites such as horse harnesses. Beyond, a separate room space had at the end a fireplace with shelf above onto which a light such as a candle could be placed. Two small windows were set in the wall either side of the fireplace. Against each sidewall was a bare steel bed. Behind this section of the barn and up another ladder was a loft from which hay was forked to cows below. We were told that we could sleep in the hayloft which was a much warmer sleeping quarters than the other room. By the time we had taken our rucksacks off Albert Main came up to the living room with milk and eggs.
"The fee for an overnight stay was a shilling [5p] a head. Sometimes if the weather was very cold Mr Main would bring up coal for the fire."
On entering the New Inn, we found the Sandhurst party sitting on benches next to a bare kitchen table. The bench to the left of the window was high backed. On the table was a silent mantle lamp, so that the small gathering was contained in a lit area. Behind the table was a range-style hearth. We enquired if we could join their trip down Swildon's Hole. A friendly affirmative was given with the added message that they would leave for the cave once we returned with caving gear on.
"There were two lamps in common use at the time both having a paraffin reservoir at the bottom and glass chimney. The simpler and cheaper lamp relied on the light directly generated from the wick and adjusted to burn with a flame just less than the smoke point. The brighter lamp was similar to the simpler lamp except that the light was generated by vapour burning on an incandescent mantle made of a fine woven filament containing Osmium. The latter lamps were very bright. In this country the main manufacturer of the wick mantle lamps was Aladdin. Another type of paraffin lamp known as the Tilley was occasionally used where portability and relative storm proofing was the main consideration. The principle of the Tilley was similar to the Primus. Paraffin was vaporised and burned on a mantle. The drawback was the need to start the process using methylated spirit, to regularly pump up the pressure, and a background hissing noise."
"Electric miners' lamps were available but very expensive. Miners' carbide lamps were also available. I had seen the Miners-type carbide lamp in Devon but not in use and did not know where to get them. Lighting as always was a subject under constant discussion. In Yorkshire, home-made electric systems were the norm, probably because of the regular wet conditions. Small government-surplus cells were available and being tried. On Mendip carbide was the main light, frequently backed up by a home-made electric system fitted to the helmet. Candles were also taken for emergency, prepared by a short burn to wax the wick and so render it waterproof."
Once changed into caving gear, we returned to the New Inn and left at once for the cave. It was by now late, probably about 10pm. John Richardson, the leader and a charming individual, had caved in Devon and Yorkshire so we had something in common. We engaged in easy conversation and before long were within sound of the Swildon's stream. The cave would have been difficult for us to find on such a dark night. In addition, it would probably have been locked. A goodwill fee of a shilling [5p] a head (or was it sixpence [2½p]?), was paid by explorers.
At that time the cave just inside the entrance was very different to that at present. There were two ways on, one dry and the other wet. We took the dry way just inside the entrance on the right. The way is now made difficult by a rock fall so is rarely used. A low short passage led to the top of Jacob's ladder. (The present day short cut from the bottom of the drop a little way inside the entrance, to the top of Jacob's ladder, was not open). We went down Jacob's Ladder and along the Short Dry Way into The Old Grotto. The contrast with Yorkshire was soon apparent, the steepness of the cave giving depth without the presence of numerous pitches. In those days the way down was by way of a pitch known as the Forty-Foot Pot. The actual climbing drop was closer to 30 feet but the shaft measured from a higher way in was the reason for the name. On this occasion the Forty was descended by way of a wire rope ladder, the first time that I had used one. Water was diverted away from the ladder by a short length of pipe; even so enough leakage and splash ensured a thorough wetting during descent.
"In Yorkshire descents were still being made using rope ladders. On a long pitch, there was so much rope stretch that several steps had to be made, pushing rungs to the ground, before actual ascent began. The large rungs also cut into the ground, and could be sat on, so that a few people sitting on the top of the ladder could hold it without using a proper (and more desirable) belay. "Help" was also available from the lifelining party above, pulling one up the ladder!"
Swildon's Hole made a great impression on me, being a beautiful, clean watercourse decorated by such a profusion of calcite formations. This was particularly so at Barnes' Loop where a grossly exaggerated note of the height of formations (75 feet) is made in my log. After a short wait at the sump we returned. At the Water Chamber we changed route, returning by the Wet Way. Our time underground was about 4½ hours.
The night outside was very cold with a hard frost freezing our wet clothes as we made our way back across the fields. John Richardson invited us to join his party for a hot drink in Fountain Cottage once we had changed. We were made welcome at Fountain Cottage and given a mug of hot coffee that was very well received.
"Fountain Cottage belonged to Sandhurst Military Academy for many years but was eventually sold and came into the possession of Alison and Pete Moody, of the Wessex Cave Club."
On our return to the barn there was another caver who had changed and put a miner's carbide lamp on the shelf above the fireplace. This was the first time that I had seen this small lamp in operation, and I thought it desirable to obtain one.
"There were two makes of carbide lamps then manufactured in England, Premier and Daylight. They were of similar brass construction although the Daylight lamp, being polished with a slim waist water chamber, looked the more elegant of the two. It seemed to me that the squat, uneven-surfaced Premier was the slightly more reliable. One fill of carbide generally required two fills of water and water lasted about two hours. It was important not to overfill the carbide chamber because by so doing the greater space taken by spent carbide bunged up the gas outlet preventing smooth operation."
"One place where carbide lamps were regularly lost was in Swildon's Sump 1. On one occasion my lamp came off there and in the process of feeling around for it I came across a second! Carbide lamps became known as "stinkies" owing to the smell produced by the reaction of water on calcium carbide. Acetylene, the gas generated, produced a bright if somewhat yellowish flame of intense heat. Great care was thus required when ladder climbing to avoid a nasty hand burn. There were also hilarious incidents like an occasion when an open tin of carbide was dropped in the Water Rift in Swildon's, erupted with a mass of bubbles, and was set on fire. What may well be described as a consternation dance ensued by those in the confined space. There was also an occasion reported when a conservation-minded caver, aware of the unsightliness of spent carbide strewn about caves, used a tin into which to empty his lamp. Unfortunately the substance was not completely spent and continued to react, eventually exploding! There is little doubt that much could be written about the subject of carbide lamps!"
Now back to the barn where the other caver questioned me with regard to my caving background. I told him that I was a member of DSS and BSA. At that time Dillan and I knew nothing of Mendip caving organisations. A caving companion in Devon had told me that he had stayed in a wooden club hut on Mendip.
We eventually got to bed in the small hours and, because of time restraints, continued that pattern for many following trips. We slept well in the hayloft but woke to a very cold frosty Sunday. Looking out through the windows at the end of the barn gave us first sight of the landscape outside. A good view was gained across the road and up the valley leading to Swildon's Hole.
Water was obtained over the road from a constantly flowing standpipe, Priddy Fountain. This fountain ran for many years before being stopped and a plaque now marks the place. Water was boiled in a white churn-shaped billy-can over a small portable paraffin stove and a brew made. Breakfast was cooked in a couple of aluminium mess tins. These mess tins were not the ones issued to us although of the same pattern. Our service issue tins were required to be shown on kit inspections, so needed to be shiny, a requirement known in military circles as "Bull Shit".
Our return was started soon after we had eaten to allow us time to get back to camp. The only bus connection to Bristol passed Hill Grove so we had to walk the three miles to the road junction. That three miles has always seemed to be a long three miles. Everything was carried in or attached to a rucksack, wet caving things at the bottom. The clothing had previously been wrung out by the two of us, working together, one at each end of a boiler suit, twisting as much as we were able. My own outdoor clothing was somewhat sparse for the weather, comprising a vest, shirt, pullover, unlined anorak, short pants, trousers, socks and boots. At Little Rissington camp there was a communal warm washing and drying room. It was of course before the days of washing machines.
The next Mendip trip occurred on the 16th January 1954. This may seem a long interval but thoughts among service personnel were becoming focussed on returning home for Christmas, and I had a birthday weekend falling in this period. In addition, staffing camp sick quarters (like a small hospital) required personnel to work a weekend shift system. The interval was however crucial for the future of the MCG allowing me to preach the joys of caving to everyone willing to listen. Not surprisingly my colleagues at the medical centre were among the first willing to try caving. Small gatherings were held in various rooms within our accommodation and the proposal of forming a club was discussed. An exciting focus was thus created to liven up what was otherwise a rather boring existence during the dark winter nights.
The party of the 16th/17th January 1954 comprised Dennis Hemmings, Tony Windale and me. Our travel to Mendip was as before except that we got off the Bristol-to-Wells bus at Hill Grove and there waited for the Priddy bus. As I have a note stating that we left for Swildon's Hole at 11pm we must have eaten first. Milk and eggs were bought from Manor Farm. On seeing the eggs, Dennis asked Albert Main how he managed to provide such large ones to which the reply came "It's the way the hens lay them!"
As we did not have any tackle we were completely content to explore Upper Swildon's, or the passages before the Forty. Most present-day parties to Swildon's Hole go by as short a way as possible to join the Wet Way at the Water Chamber, then on downwards. Upper Swildon's, however, offers an interesting and sporting introduction to Mendip caving. There are walking-height passages, crawls, squeezes, climbs, all available wet or dry. The ways interconnect in an interesting manner and there are numerous calcite formations. In all, a fun experience and ideal as a training cave for new recruits.
The three of us set off keeping as dry as possible. We eventually reached the Forty, looked down and returned, with much laughter as we passed through a tight squeeze in the water rift that could be used to avoid getting wet.
"The passage then known as Water Rift lost its water as a result of the great flood of 1968. Before the flood a relatively horizontal stream passage extended from the Water Chamber to the squeeze leading to the Forty. The flood torrent removed ancient sediments from much of an old stream passage revealing the sloping stream way seen today. The relatively level Water Rift contained pools avoided on the way in but waded through on the way out. One spot in the rift tested the explorer's size and wish to keep dry where a tortuous and tight squeeze lay above a low wet crawl. It must be remembered that clothing before the advent of wet suits, fleeces and waterproof oversuits gave little protection against the cold. Many fatalities occurred as a result of hypothermia. The now dry Water Rift can be entered and forms an upper level passage to the top of the Forty. When following the old route it is hard to imagine that it once carried the stream. The shaft of the Forty now offers a clean and generally quiet chance to do SRT practice."
The return journey was made into a round trip by following the Wet Way. At the waterfall and low passage beyond, much kerfuffle ensued when Dennis thought he was stuck, so leaving Tony hanging onto rocks above the drop. When we reached what was then known as the Upper Water Chamber our exit stalled because the way forward through numerous entry streams was not apparent. Fortunately for us John Richardson was following with a Sandhurst party and pointed the way. As an added benefit we were again invited back to Fountain Cottage for a coffee.
Dennis and Tony greatly enjoyed themselves since their caving experience had turned out to be a great adventure with much laughing. I note in my journal "It was on this occasion that we decided definitely to put some ideas into operation and form the Mendip Caving Group". Even with this note my own view is that MCG started during our first trip in 1953, so it was written in information pamphlet no. 1.
Thus ended the first phase. Dillan Evans, Dennis Hemmings, Tony Windale and I became Founder Members. Dillan Evans and Tony Windale each took part in one more trip to Mendip. They, however, continued to attend our room gatherings at camp. Dennis had fortunately caught the bug and became one of our leading forces continuing for several years with great vigour and drive. Dennis had the ability to transform accounts of caving trips from somewhat matter of fact, to a life and death adventure. The stuff of sagas! He thus made an enthusiastic recruiting agent.
A note in my log details the second Mendip visit on 16/01/1954:
Total cost return journey 17/3d (seventeen shillings and thruppence - 86.2new pence). I seem to recall that my pay was 32 shillings a week less 3 shillings National Insurance leaving £1/9/0 - £1.45p
On present day  equivalent, relative to average earnings, travel costs equate to about £44.00. My pay on the same basis equates to about £82.00. (£4264 per year).
Sunday evening a special coach also collected service personnel from Cheltenham, returning to Little Rissington.
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.