MCG Occasional Publication No. 5
The Rather Random Memories of Richard Woollacott!
Malcolm asked me to put down on paper an account of some of the more important events in the early days of MCG history with which I was involved, for inclusion in a possible publication dealing with the Group's history; how it actually was, rather than a mere list of dates and facts would give.
I started to do this in a very factual way, but it ran away with me and all sorts of other things crept in. I considered editing out all the rubbish and self-indulgent opinion and memorabilia that had found its way into my screed, but decided that what follows is MY history of MCG and for me at least worth putting on paper. No doubt others will see the same period and events in different ways; if they were to record their feelings and memories as well one would get the feel of the time and a much better picture of how it actually was than a mere list of dates and facts would give.
My first trip with the MCG was Easter 1956. I think I was on my motorcycle, but I seem to remember the involvement of a coach. We camped in Velvet Bottom for the weekend, and I think it was cold. Malcolm walked us across the hills to Goatchurch which must have been quite a trek.
Most members in those days were very young, ages probably ranging from 16 to about 25. Considering that, I think that we behaved by and large very responsibly. We had the problem that we were from London and therefore mistrusted by many locals, we started a policy of re-building dry stone walls when we found them down and closing gates and that sort of thing. It paid off in time, and we were eventually accepted as OK people.
In those days our means of transport were a little decrepit. One trip to Derbyshire a year or so later was made in a van borrowed from some Scouts. It went fine until the battery started to run down. A quick conference decided that something electrical had to go. Lights were essential, the windscreen wipers were also as it was raining hard, so it was the petrol pump that was disconnected. The journey continued with petrol from a jerry can being poured into a funnel that connected to the carburettor by a rubber tube. On one occasion a member, Barry Jackson who was expected on Mendip on Friday turned up on Sunday evening and was awarded the prize for the longest time taken from London to Mendip. His delay was caused by a track rod end falling apart and resulting in the car's entry into a ditch and his entry into the hospital that was at the top of the hill just before Marlborough. When discharged from the hospital, the track rod was re-assembled and held together with some electrical flex wound round it. This temporary repair took him to Mendip, back to London and running around there for a week or so before a new part was obtained. His other claim to fame was his general driving policy. He had the theory that if you were driving on a minor road that crossed a major road you should go as fast as possible since, the less time you were on the intersecting road, the less likely you were to be hit. He also claimed that whilst driving, particularly in fog, if you couldn't see it, it wasn't there. Malcolm Cotter was in those days famed for "running out of road" on his motorcycle. It was rumoured that local dealers kept a special stock of handlebars for him since it seemed that most Mendip trips required a replacement pair.
Gradually our transport facilities improved, and I graduated from a motor cycle to a car - a 1933 Ford 8 model Y. After I had had it for a bit, I discovered the name Dolly May written in the dust on the back. This was so right as a name for the car. Paul Green had it engraved on two brass plates which were fitted to the bonnet. It was a long time later that I discovered that the author in the dust was Pete Goddard. One Friday it was announced on the radio that all roads to the west were impassable due to snow, so I telephoned a few people, Malcolm was one I remember, and suggested a trip to Mendip. We set off early on Saturday and did quite well until about Marlborough when a substantial snow rut broke the front nearside spring. The only way of proceeding was for two passengers to sit in the back on the offside on the lap of the third. We proceeded to Devizes and a breaker's yard and purchased a spring. Fitting it had to wait till we got to Mendip, where the garage by the BEC hut fitted it.
In June 1958 a new committee was formed. No doubt club records will give a more accurate record than my memory, but as I recall, Robbie Charnock was Treasurer, David Harle was Editor and produced the first Journal, Tony Crawford was Tackle Master manufacturing in his kitchen the best Electron ladder on Mendip and I was Secretary.
The Club by this time was keen to get a cottage on Mendip particularly as we were the only club without one. During the previous few months, a sectional wooden shed had been found for sale and a deposit placed on it. Money was raised from the membership as loans to the club, the intention being that these loans would be repaid as and when the club could afford it. Robbie found that all the money (I think about £100, a lot of money in those days when the average member's earnings were £6 - £8 per week) had gone, filched by the person who previously had occupied the position of joint Secretary and Treasurer. My first job therefore as Secretary was to report the theft to the police. He was charged with this as well as with breaking into telephone boxes. I think he went to prison for a bit, but we never saw a penny back. We had to withdraw from the shed purchase and forfeited our deposit. The members all cancelled the club's debt to them, so it could at least start with a clean slate. Robbie was a fantastic Treasurer and restored the club's finances in no time. Actually one had to cross the street to avoid one's pockets being emptied by him.
Again I cannot remember dates, but a year or so later, we discovered a tumbledown building by the smelting tunnels at Nordrach. This had potential so we started to make enquiries. Jim Fry (who with his wife were the best friends that the club ever had) gave us the answer, the building was owned by Farmer Tucker who lived at Frome. The next weekend driving down, we called in on Mr Tucker, and eventually found him working in a field. I walked over to him and explained that we would like to rent the cottage from him if it would be possible. He replied in a lovely Somerset accent - "Well" he said, "I were going to put a tractor in there, but if you wan 'er, you have 'er". That was the end of the matter. Nothing in writing, no rent to pay. We used to send him a bottle of Scotch at Christmas and that was it.
We did a lot of work on it, as I remember the roof was pretty OK, but there were large pieces of wall missing and no doors or windows. This was put right and initially we had one room as a dormitory and the other as a kitchen/living room. The kitchen was equipped with calor gas rings. Incredible as it may seem to some, we managed to install this without blowing up the building. On the dormitory door was placed a notice which read "Foremen's Lounge", the same one that is still in the present cottage, its third site. This was "liberated" in about 1958 from under the nose of a painter busy painting the door he had removed it from. It is now heading towards being an antique. The dormitory was used by both male and female members for some time but as there was a small room in the centre of the cottage, as yet undeveloped, there was a suggestion that this could be female sleeping quarters. I conducted a survey amongst the membership on the question of segregation with a result that was most surprising for me at least - almost 100% of the females were happy with the existing situation and almost 100% of the males wanted privacy!
Outside we eventually built a concrete-block building to house an electric generator we obtained. This was potentially somewhat lethal in that it was 250 volts DC, but gave us light. Even in those days vandalism could be a problem, so the building had a notice on it which read "Beware - sewage disposal". This seemed to do the trick as it was never interfered with. Around the cottage we built a dry stone wall, a labour of many hours. The master craftsman at this was Peter Goddard who always put his hand on the right stone for the right place.
Our pub was the New Inn on Priddy Green , newly installed with electric light. Bitter was 10d (that's 4p) per pint and scrumpy was 4d (1½p) a pint. In the 1950's it had two landlords, Sylvester and Oliver Speed. Sylvester was the elder, and had an affliction which caused spasms of twitching. One would order a round of drinks and after a considerable delay, they would arrive. He would ask for the cost and would disappear to the under-stairs bar with the money. You could hear much mumbling and chinking of coin, and he would return with your change. This was always wrong, always too much. Not wishing to 'do' him one would give it back, but when he returned with a modified amount of money after some significant time, this time it was too little. At this point you gave up as you were ready to order the next round of drinks. Sylvester died, and Oliver and his wife took over. Oliver in 1914 had never been further than Wells until he was picked up and transported to France to dig trenches in the Great War. Once returned to Priddy after the war, I don't think he left the village again. When Oliver died, Mrs Speed took over, assisted by her daughter (who's name I think was Phyllis). After a while, we were given the use of 'the best room' instead of the bar. Whether this was a compliment or because of the songs we sang I do not know. Eventually Mrs Speed became too infirm, Phyllis ran it for a while, but then it was sold. It had been in the Speed family for some 400 years.
The club had been digging Timber Hole in Velvet Bottom for some time without too much progress, so we thought a new project might be a good idea. Always believing in modest ambitions, finding the master cave for the Mendips seemed a reasonable task to set ourselves. We therefore settled on Coopers Hole in the gorge. This was owned by the Marquess of Bath, so I had to write to him to obtain permission. How do you write to a Marquess I wondered? At the time I worked for Kodak, so I went to the Typing Pool Manageress, a noted dragon who scared everyone in the organisation. She was surprisingly helpful, perhaps impressed by a young man wanting to send a letter in a proper fashion, so she looked it up in her Pitmans Manual. The result had to be seen to be believed. The signing off section ran to about 8 lines saying things like – I have the honour to remain, Your Lordship's humble and obedient servant and so on. This I duly copied into my letter asking for digging permission. How he must have laughed, I don't expect anyone had written to him like that for years. It did the trick though and we got the OK to dig. He was marvellous. We of course dug a man-sized tunnel, but being a man of vision, eventually he employed a gang of labourers to dig behind us and enlarge it to the full arch width as it is now. Malcolm and I took him down the tunnel to see it on one occasion, quite a thing for a man of his age. During the trip he entertained us with his colourful language that would have done credit to a docker. When we returned to the surface plastered in mud, he sat down on the solid leather seats of his car - something expensive like a Jaguar or a Merc – in order to remove his boots. When I said "You can't do that!" his reply was "I have people to sort this kind of thing out", a phrase I have used myself many times since, much to my wife's displeasure.
As well as Coopers, MCG had many other digs over the years. One successful one was Ubley Hill Pot, which amongst other attractions held a quantity of human skeletons. Then after the weekend of the breakthrough, Malcolm went back to London but I stayed on for the following week. Malcolm, unknown to me, decided that there was the opportunity of some publicity for the club and telephoned the BBC to tell them of the discovery. Apparently, the BBC got on to the local police to ask them if they knew about the human remains that had been found. It was news to them so they informed the Coroner who decided that that they should be inspected to establish if an inquest should be held. Meanwhile, not knowing any of this, as my van had problems, I got a lift into Bath by Jim Fry to get the part I needed. I was coming back on the bus, when it was stopped suddenly in the middle of nowhere by a policeman standing in the middle of the road. I was sitting at the back of the bus in very scruffy clothes and with about a week's growth of beard. The policeman strode down the bus to me and said "Mr Woollacott?". When I owned up, he said "Come with me please" and marched me off the bus and into a police car. It was only then that I learnt what Malcolm had done and the resulting consternation amongst the authorities. The outcome was that I had to take a pathologist down the cave so that he could certify the bones as ancient. There had been the murder of a taxi driver in Bristol a few days ago, and that evening the Wells police were asked by the press if they would make a statement about the man arrested on the bus. Unfortunately they published nothing, otherwise I might have made some useful money from a libel action.
We were having a party, either the Cottage Warming Party or the Cottage Re-warming Party, I forget which. We thought that "Patron the Marquess of Bath" would look good on the club notepaper, so we invited him. I established that his favourite tipple was Worthington E, so we got Mrs Speed at the New Inn to order a firkin for us. We also had several Winchester jars of a clear distilled alcoholic liquid capable of stripping paint that had been prepared by a member who perhaps should remain anonymous. Diluted 50/50 with water it could be drunk with care, and I remember preparing a punch with it, but made sure that not a drop of it passed my lips. The party was good. The Marquess arrived with the Marchioness and two of his children. Lord Bath did justice to the Worthington and Lady Bath extolled the deliciousness of the punch. During the evening we visited the lake just below the cottage where she found, to her delight, quantities of tadpoles. "We don’t have any of these at Longleat" she exclaimed, so an empty pickle jar was brought and a selection of tadpoles were captured so The Tadpoles of Longleat could be added to the Lions of Longleat as the house's attractions. During this process unfortunately her daughter fell into the lake, but by this time no one really cared. When it came to the time to go, Lord Bath drove his car straight into the ditch outside the cottage, and we had to push him out. What time he got back to Longleat I do not know. Anyway, the party did the trick and he accepted an invitation to become the Group's Patron, a position he occupied until his death in June 1992.
We had great times in the cottage. One great culinary creation emerged, The Mendip Goulash. The compulsory ingredient for this Cordon Noir dish was a tin of Mulligatawny soup. Then it was a matter of adding the contents of any tins of food to hand, preferably but not always savoury, and giving it a good boil up. After food, off we would go to the New Inn for the evening. The return drive was usually accompanied by a rendition of Ilkley Moor or something. We had a wind-up gramophone that was used regularly. I remember in particular a 78rpm record of a melody called Mosey’s Turkey Trot, a modification of a melody by Mozart. This was improved greatly by an accompaniment on the tea chest double bass that we had. Often Bob Knott would perform his Flaming Gunion dance which involved him dancing around the cottage waving ignited water reeds that had been soaked in paraffin. All very simple pleasures, but those were innocent times.
We did actually find some time for caving. Goatchurch tended to be used for initial training trips for beginners. We introduced a lot of people to caving. In these days of the compensation mentality, it seems amazing what we did and got away with. I recall that we had a minimum age, fourteen I think, but we insisted on a signature on a permission slip that might or might not have been signed by parents. We never lost or damaged anyone though. In fact we were very safety conscious ensuring that party size gave sufficient experienced members to take care of beginners. Our gear was good too, and we spent a lot of money on our electron ladder and nylon rope. The main activity on Mendip probably took place in Longwood and Swildon's. In those days, access to GB was restricted to UBSS and their invitees. I think, though that changed later. We used to have away meets - Derbyshire, Yorkshire and South Wales and I recall one trip to Southern Ireland.
People are what make a club what it is. In our time we have had some real characters.
Arthur Cox, who we treated as the club Granddad though he was probably only in his early forties. His false teeth had to be seen to be believed and he played the piano with the enthusiasm of a whirling dervish. He rode an NSU Quickly moped from Ealing to the Mendips with style and aplomb.
Georgie Pape who learned each issue of Exchange and Mart off by heart and could give you a price and source of supply for anything.
Austin Sanders who disdained tents, and used to reside under a sheet of corrugated iron or anything else that came to hand. He maintained that on a trip of less than 10 days duration, washing was a waste of time.
Noel Dilly was a medical student in the best tradition. He was our explosives expert, and once rode a Lambretta Scooter from London to the Mendips over snow and ice rutted roads with, allegedly, 5lb of gelignite in one pannier bag and 50 detonators in the other. At one stage there were a few pounds of weeping gelignite stored in the loft of the cottage, finally used for a waterspout demo in the lake. He became something very respectable, a Professor I think in a London teaching hospital.
George Savage who was a time-served bookbinder and gave up that well paid job to join the Church Army. George never preached to anyone and was a person on whom one could rely completely. I wonder what became of him?
Then of course there were the Frys, not members, though why we did not make them Honorary Members I do not know. Particularly in those early days they were enormously helpful to us. If there was anything you needed - wood, metal, some wheels or anything – Jim would find it. Mrs Fry (I never knew her Christian name) was a sort of mother figure, someone you could always call on for a chat, with a kitchen in which you were always welcome. She was the only woman I have ever known who could swear without it being in any way distasteful. I called in once to ask where Jim was, "Gone to bleden" she seemed to say. "Where?" I asked; "bleden" she replied. "Where?". Still puzzled I asked again "Gone to bleeden bloody Bleadon" she said. I remember visiting the Mendips after a gap of about five years. I tapped the door of the Fry's kitchen and walked in. There was Mrs Fry seated by the Aga as always. She gave me a dirty look and said "Where the bloody hell have you been", just as if I had been missing for an hour or so.
Family commitments and other things caused me to leave the MCG, but I never completely lost touch with the Club or the Mendips. I got an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from my time with the club and made a lot of real friends. My active membership period in the 50s and 60s was in a world much less stressful than the present day. Even so, for us, running away down to Somerset at weekends was a welcome change from the pressures of weekday life and the club got a lot of young men away from their mother's apron strings. In the stresses of the present day it must be an even more valuable safety valve. Present custodians, look after MCG, you have charge of something valuable that should be worth at least another 50 years.
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.