Jack Halliday, Jack Hare, Rebecca Diss, Rhys Tyers, Max Stunt, Ella Al-Shamahi, Lucie Studena, Kevin Miller, Susan Blaylock, Arturo Arevalo
Despite some last minute drop outs we still had just enough leaders to safely lead some innocent young (and less young) novices astray underground. We piled into the minibus, and I turned the keys in the ignition. I mention the keys here as direct foreshadowing to The Incident, which will be discussed in detail at the end of this report.
Smooth like Bond we acclerated into a long traffic jam on the M4. This let up after an hour, making a mockery of our early start. Rhys had set his sights on the Cider Barn, the mythical home of the elixirs of the Gods. Google reckoned it was close by 10 pm, so I found an unorthodox route down the M5 that shunted us into the Mendip from the west, and arrived just in time.
After everyone piled out of the bus, I couldn't find the keys (again, this is foreshadowing) so I assumed Rhys took them and waited patiently as the cavers pouted back out in dribs and drabs, well pleased with their huge jugs (of cider). We reached the Shepton without incident, hung the minibus keys on a hook (foreshadowing), did a few trial squeezes through the coffee table and then went to bed.
Another trip to the Mendips. Know what that means? THE CIDER BARN. A place of beauty, true Somerset vibes and gallons of cider. We made the risky decision not to buy alcohol at the supermarket and made a mad dash to the cider barn, arriving 15 minutes before it’s alleged closing time of 10 pm.
Luckily for us, the party was still in full swing and there was a guy singing actually quite good karaoke. We pushed through the crowd of inebriated Somerset-ians(?) to the bar, on the hunt for the hard stuff. A guy was sat around the other side of the bar, surrounded by people who weren’t talking to him. He looked at someone (possibly Susan) and said “I’m a farmer...I’m trapped here...Look at the roof!” in a strong somerset accent which i can now only remember as JackHal’s quite bad impression of it. A good start.
Soon the bartenders appeared and got Rhys some cider to “get you absolutely bollocksed” and was advised that he shouldn’t drive on it. Shame.
Other ciders were purchased and we headed back to the van. Once we were all there, the bartender bounded over to us and opened the minibus door. Terrifying. Slight panic that he was somehow angry with us was quickly depleted as he offered us some free 8.5% bottles which he “isn’t allowed to sell in jugs” because we greatly improved his sales for the night.
What a place.
Let's preface a couple facts: 1) this was my first caving trip ever, 2) I like writing in stream - of - consciousness so unless someone edits this that maybe the style.
Now that disclosures are out of the way, I'd say this all started the night you assemble your kit. I found some regulars at the union pub paneled in wood (you know the good one). Putting together a kit was more involved (ie struggling into wetsuit, me taking so long that Jack tentatively knocks on door to check on me) then expected and this was a light gear trip with no ropes! Post-kit bonding time at the pub included a jacket potato (like a loaded baked potato). Head home.
Friyay! Load bus - everyone pitches in, ready in under 30 minute. Pile into van, London driving quite exciting, halfway there stop at Tesco where you're given a food assignment (initially given bacon being both unfamiliar with UK bacon & now primarily veg was out-of-scope, tomats were more my speed) for the group meals, continue with high hopes for the cider barn (make it! For more details pls ask Rhys), tumble out, unload, explore the hut! The hut itself is a converted house, that's been restructured for large groups so you're not being squashed like sardines. Hang out in common room try the squeeze table, sample some cider, read all the history on the walls (like a toilet seat? & snake skin), sleep.
Eastwater Cavern: Jack Halliday, Rhys Tyers, Max Stunt, Ella Al-Shamahi, Lucie Studena
Swildon's Hole: Jack Hare, Rebecca Diss, Kevin Miller, Susan Blaylock, Arturo Arevalo
The next morning we were up at a reasonable time, made breakfast and plans and headed to our respective caves. Kevin and Susan are my housemates and hadn't been caving before, and neither had Arturo, an exchange student from LA. With the Mud Sump impassable, we knew we couldn't do the short round, but there's enough cave down Swildon's to have a good time.
At the entrance we prepared our bladders for the long caving trip, but just as our relief arrived there was a bugling noise of a bugle and a huge number of large dogs appeared. We sat still as they raced around us, and a man on a horse wearing a red coat ran by, shouting "Hi Ho! How goes?" to us. We gave him a look: "You think you look normal, your honour?" Still, this hunt is an obvious foreshadowing of the Incident which followed on Sunday evening.
Into the cave. Some Cambridge types climb down through the tree to bypass us. We let them go first, they seemed very keen. Kevin and Susan are a bit spooked by the freeclimbs and the tightish section near the beginning. Kevin isn't sure he wants to continue, but lured deeper by Stan Rodgers songs and complete fabrications like "this is the last tight bit!" he makes it down the short climb into the streamway below.
After a few more sections we pause at Showerbath chamber to catch our breath and take some photos. Diss leads off to the Forty, where we rig a rope on a chockstone. At this point Kevin seems more at ease and we move quickly to the Twenty. No real issues down - Cambridge Team 1 approach from the bottom, looking for Cambridge team 2 who are above us. Something complex happens and suddenly Cambridge team 1.5 speeds past us down the Inclined Rift. We will see them again, much like the van keys after The Incident.
Kevin doesn't like the Inclined Rift, but everyone enjoys the Double Pots and I take lots of photos to prove it. Down, down to the Sump. The water is clear, no foam, and even a small airgap through to the other side. I demonstrate how to acclimatise by lying in the water, and then I go through. Easy.
On the other side I hurriedly prepare my flash and camera, crouching in the water with the flash at arm's length to bring it at 90 degrees to the camera. This pays off spectacularly well when Arturo bursts through the sump and I catch the water pouring from his helmet. The others are close behind and seem to enjoy the experience.
Diss leads us down towards Sump 2, and I bring up the rear. I pause when I see three faces peering down at me from a ledge. It's Cambridge 1.5, who are lost (see also: The Incident) looking for the Black Hole Series. I've never been, but my laminated print outs of the Mendip Underground have some suggestions, so they skim read these and confidently head off. I never saw them again.
Sump 2 isn't very exciting, so we go back to the Landing. Cambridge 2.5 show up (Thom, Hattie and Paul) and we trade Mexicana cheese for hot tea and double deckers. I climb up the Landing and slide down to show how fun it is, and some of our novices do as well. Thom goes face first down the slope, showing off his ripped wetsuit and exposed boxers.
We leave Cambridge to look at Sump 2 and head out. Everything is quick now, with little fear. Susan goes ahead and at the Inclined Rift manages to go surprisingly far at stream level. I call her back and climb over the top to show the correct way. She loses both wellies and has to pass them to Arturo before edging through the rift crying "I'm stuck! I'm stuck!". She is not stuck.
Back on track and to the 20. Most people climb quickly. Susan almost makes it but lacks the upper body strength to get to the top, so I grab her belt and swing her up. It wouldn't be a Swildon's trip without someone getting too tired to do the ladder properly.
Back to the hut, just before the Eastwater crew. Janet is there, lots of cider, plenty of caving games (randomised pot and sling, cardboard game, squeeze machines). An excellent night.
As the mud sump is currently impassable due to some syphon hoo ha, our plans were not to do any Swildon’s round trips but to take our most novicey humans to sump 2 and leave the less novicey novices with Rhys in Eastwater. I am still yet to do the round trip despite having been to Swildons 5 times.
Jack Hare and I went to Swildons with Susan, Kevin and Arturo. None of them had really been caving before and Kevin is quite claustrophobic so we weren’t sure how long the trip would take.
Before entering the cave, we hear some horn type sounds, get surrounded by a tonne of foxhounds and greeted by a dude on a horse in a red jacket. Scary.
All went very smoothly in the cave and i was pleased to remember most of it from previous visits. The ladder was fun as always and I made sure to get wet wherever possible because damn wetsuits are warm. All the climbs were infinitely easier than I remembered - I used to freak out a bit on the second of the double pots where you have to traverse around a pool but found it very easy this time. Think i may just finally trust that my arms can actually hold my weight if i lean outwards.
I now definitely know which left turn is the way to the start of the round trip and which leads to certain terror. You also know you’ve missed the turning if you end up at a waterfall that’s relatively constricted at the top.
The sump was slightly daunting as always, especially because i went through last. I always sort of imagine everyone going through the sump into oblivion but it never seems to happen. Major brain freeze though. We made our way to sump 2 without much fuss, bit of crawling through water before arriving at an as usual anticlimactic pool of water with a rope feeding in. Then headed back to the “slide” where we shared tea, mexicana and double deckers with some Cambridge cavers, one of whom was wearing a wetsuit (no oversuit) with a large hole in the bum. We did some sliding, breathing a sigh of relief when the freshers didn’t slide off the side to the vaguely significant drop.
Easy caving out and back to the surface to glorious sunshine.
The Eastwater team got back an hour or two after us and we ate the infamous all in pot pasta, made all the more delicious with the addition of peppers.
An evening of cider consumption and caving games ensued. Max Stunt gained the nickname “Cunning”, no idea why. He also developed an interesting technique for playing the cardboard game which I can only liken to those arctic foxes that dive into the snow in search of prey.
Rhys got bollocksed as promised and spent most of the evening stroking JackHal’s hair as though he were a cat.
Wake up, being an early riser help with an English breakfast!, told eat a lot you only have candy bars in the cave, suit up (hope that I have enough on since I feel cold often), then group splits and five people head to each cave (swildon’s & Rhys cave). Walk through a farmer's field to cave turret entrance in this case!
On way to cave saw a line of clothing coordinated cavers & heard bugling then right before entering a river of hounds went past followed by the mysterious bugler, a man on a horse in a bright red tailed jacket said, “hi ho!” to us and rode on and then we saw other riders on the distant hills. It was surreal and felt like I'd fallen into a fairy tale. I also learned that it was likely (not provable) fox hunting which sounds barbaric and is outlawed in most cases, but still happens.
To enter the cave you squeeze yourself through a metal frame and it is tight for the first bit with a shimmy under a rock slab so no time for acclimatization until a chamber 10 mins and then I ate ⅓ of my food supply and we took group photos because at least we made it in! Then Jack and maybe Kevin sang songs and we continued to trek down Down Down I didn't realize how far. It happened so constantly, I wasn't aware. None of the rock was slippery (unexpected) so that helped make descents easier. I don't remember the order of the cave or the specific names. Some of my favorite moments were waiting for another caver and noticing the formations at that place. Lots of diversity of rock and appreciating the timescale of this place! We went down the pots, a waterfall ladder, under a sump (that's where you pull yourself through an underwater hole before resuming land caving) and down to sump #2, beyond our skill or desire. On the way up we stop and shared tea and Mexican cheese with some cavers from Cambridge - very civilized. I learned that down was significantly easier and upper body strength or some substitution with technique is required to get out! Further up we met, my nemesis ascending the waterfall ladder. We started off OK, but then the rope was flush with the rock, which required a three feet reach and with fatigued muscles meant I required an ignominious haul up (thanks Jack the rescuer). After that the cave felt short and we exited to find a sunset + rainbow! It was glorious and I appreciated the surface a lot.
That night we rejuvenated with tea and cakes, then a modified Ottolenghi dish for dinner, & games galore that help you improve your caving acumen and become a cohesive group simultaneously! Like pot and sling and again maneuver through the squeeze table with the aforementioned cider to facilitate.
GB Cave: Jack Hare, Rhys Tyers, Kevin Miller, Susan Blaylock, Arturo Arevalo
Sunday started slowly. The very nice hut warden showed up to give us GB permits. I've rarely met a hut warden this friendly, it's disconcerting. Some fried food alleviates the hangover, though Ella's ibuprofen help a lot. Someone had piled rocks around the minibus and left a note saying "Jesus is watching you". We assume it was our friends in Cambridge, and made a mental note to keep up the fun and games.
We drive to Cheddar so Ella can work in a cafe. This route goes down Cheddar Gorge, which I've never seen and is good fun. We drop off Ella and battle our way back to GB, paying the farmer to park behind his farm. It's a short walk to the cave but it's bitterly cold above ground. Inside there are many bats and we move quietly to avoid disturbing them. Kevin handled the short wet squeeze very well and soon we were in the main chamber, with lots of oohing and ahhing.
I took the standard route across the rock bridge, up into the White Chamber and then down the rift to the balcony that overlooks the waterfall in the Main chamber. Down from here you get into the Main Chamber and find the terminal sump. Walking upstream gets you to the waterfall, and with the low water levels the free climb looked easy. Rhys snapped some shots as we stood on the waterfall and we met a group of Yorkshire cavers on a holiday to the Mendips. As we left we saw the Cambridge crew again, who hndily told us they'd parked by our minibus.
A freak logpile collapse resulted in logs for and aft of Thom's car.
Back at the hut we cleaned up, throwing things away (this is foreshadowing) and emptying the bins (also foreshadowing). We left at a reasonable time and were well pleased with arriving back at 7 pm. Then disaster struck.
"Is it that it is that you possess the van keys?" asked Rhys in his usual manner and speech pattern.
"No. Aren't they in the ignition?" I replied.
"I assure you this is untrue." he responded in classic fashion.
Shit. Where were they? I searched the minibus. I searched my pockets. Diss, Jack and Rhys searched stores. We checked the toilets, the paths, the gutters and the hedgerows. No sign. Diss said she might have thrown some rubbish away. We tried to look in the bin but could see nothing.
I panicked a bit. This was clearly my fault. I'd been driving, I put the keys in my pocket, I should have them still. What did one even do in this circumstance? Keep it together Jack.
Everyone searched again everything which had been searched. Diss called security. We searched again. Jack and I went back to stores to let Rhys in so he could get home. On the way, we decided to grab the rubbish bin. Carrying it downstairs out of sight, we tried to pry it open. The trick is a toe operated catch at the bottom of the door. We pulled out the bin, and nestled amongst the other rubbish from the bus was the van keys. Total time, 60 minutes. Diss at least had the decency to look very apologetic.
Swildon's Hole: Jack Halliday, Rebecca Diss, Max Stunt, Lucie Studena
Today JackHal and I committed to leading (in Swildons) the novices that went to Eastwater yesterday. Ella was possibly fucked by Eastwater and spent the day in a Cafe doing work supposedly.
I did the route finding and JackHal did the belaying down the ladder. There were several set-ups there already as there always seems to be and so we used another groups ladder, along with our own rope. Apparently belaying down with a simple is a bit scary (I think i used a stop last time) so an Italian hitch or Stop descender are probably better life choices!
We got to the bit of cave where you know there are no memorable things between you and the sump (is it 5 minutes away or 30? Nobody knows). Eventually the sump appeared and i went through first, apparently (according to JackHal) doing a good job of making it seem like it wasn’t a big thing. Major brain freeze again.
We had assumed we wouldn’t manage to get as far as we had the previous day seeing as JackHal and I were less experienced with the route and ladder set up and it being Sunday but everything went quickly and we managed to get to sump 2.
JackHal needs to pee so he does it in Sump 2. We leave, he catches up and we soon bump into a solo CUCC caver who was apparently diving Sump 2. Whoops.
We made our way out in good time, as did the other group (went to GB) and got back to London by around 8 pm. Horrific. No matter, some shenanigans occurred after parking outside the union, involving keys in bins and other exciting stuff, so we didn’t get home too terribly early.
SIDE NOTE: Literally wasn't me that threw away the keys, js.
Late to bed (for me) and then ready to rock another day of caving! Repeat another hearty breakfast and then fuzzies (think: onesies fleece) instead of a wetsuit and more mystery candy bars (the labeling wears off) and a drive through a gorge to Cheddar! Our cars had been good naturedly pranked, covered in streamers and notes in purple pen about being watched and the wheels chocked with rocks (staying in theme). Then onto another farmer’s lot for parking and trek to GB cave with a lock! We had to sign our lives away so hopefully nothing happens. It doesn't! We do a circuit today. Primarily walking, one slightly wet side squeeze to arrive at the great chamber for photo time. It was massive with lots of white stalactites and a classic arch (another group taking photos here) with lots of areas to be by yourself even with other groups there too since it's a cave and not just a flat area. Then we meander around, some feel too hot and lay on rock slabs to cool themselves and then more photos in the waterfall! Run into the Cambridge group again and in a short couple hours head back and start hut clean up and refueling (more tea and cakes).
It's late afternoon when we head back and it feels quick, we make one pitstop, get there, and haul the stuff to caving club area for cleanup Tuesday to complete the cycle. We head home, but others have an extended adventure with the van keys, but eventually all ends well!