Ben Zelenay, Dave Kirkpatrick, Fiona Hartley, Jack Hare, Javier Maurino, Kelvin Choi, Melanie Singh, Oliver Myerscough, Rhys Tyers, Saber King, Sam Page, Sarah Gian, Tanguy Racine
Slovenian folk-jazz is my best attempt at describing the music thudding from the speakers at the back of the bus, but, along with the buzz from going on my first caving trip, it kept me awake all the way to Wales. We arrived quite late at the Chelsea Speleogical Society’s cottage above Llangattock, and Tanguy immediately leapt into action cooking up a feast of pasta. The evening was a bit of a blur of unpacking, cooking, washing up and bagging a bunk, but the cottage was very quiet and peaceful when I awoke the next morning, very excited to leave the autumn sunshine above and descend into the muddy ground.
Getting ready seemed to take forever - does the fleece fluffy go under the wetsocks, or on top? Is this a left welly or a right welly? The answer to most questions was that it didn’t matter - caving wasn’t about comfort or staying dry, and so I resigned myself to wearing two left gloves, one inside out.
The walk to the cave was beautiful - glorious views over the valley below, and the sunshine played across the green fields. I asked myself again why I wasn’t just going for a hike above ground, and certainly we made an odd sight tramping along the mud track in PVC suits and caving helmets. The door to the cave was a bit anti-climatic. I don’t know what I was expecting, but probably an Elvish inscription carved above the door and a stout wooden bar. Instead we had a small metal plate barely knee height set in a brown puddle. I was second into the cave behind Javier, and my waterproof camera was constantly snapping shots of him disappearing under a low ceiling or crawling over a lump of rock.
I hadn’t expected us to be able to move as quickly as we did - there was less crawling and climbing than I’d thought, which gave plenty of time to work on my caving photography. I didn’t use the flash and instead bullied other cavers into illuminating specific points with their headlights whilst I took picture after picture, hoping my hands weren’t shaking too much to capture a 1/4s exposure. After the trip I found about a fifth looked any good.
Different passages passed in quick succession. Particularly memorable was a crawl through a stream in which my wellies finally filled with water. I still can’t work out how the leaders navigated, and we did sometimes spend half an hour finding the correct exit from a chamber. Tanguy and I were briefly separated from the rest of the group, giving us a chance to practice our navigation skills trying to retrace our steps. Eventually we rejoined the group, and we emerged into the dark evening with the rain lamping down.
Back at the cottage we cooked up a huge curry using the ICCC’s eclectic bag of spices and sauces. Several caving games were played, though I’m not I’m sufficiently competitive enough to be a professional after-caving athlete. Still, there was some impressive cooperation and flexibility.
People: Oli, Sam, Fiona, Jack Hare, Kelvin Choi, Tanguy Racine, Mel Singh, Ben Z
The next day many of the group were feeling rather the worse for wear from the caving or the after-caving fun, so a rather smaller group set off to explore a smaller cave. None of us had been there before, so the day was a bit different in style - rather than blasting through at high speed, we methodically explored every little passage we could find, retracing our steps frequently after a dead end to find an alternate route through. This was extremely fun - it felt like we were actually discovering something, and I had a great time scouting off ahead of the main group, shouting back my findings. Several passages were deemed just a bit too hardcore for us, as no one really felt up to crawling through a streambed after the previous day, so we eventually returned back out the way we came, and cleaned up the cottage before driving back to London.
Caving is tiring, uncomfortable and its charms are hard to pin down. But the thrill of exploration, the freeform, playground nature of the passages and the brilliant people you have as company go some way to explaining why I’ll be back in a cave with ICCC as soon as possible.