“I get stuck a few times in the pipes awkward slot-like shape, at least if I do get stuck it’ll save my folks money on a burial as apparently I’ve done all the work for them”
I can totally understand why this doesn’t feature much on people’s to do lists. Crawling down a wet hole deep underground, with thousands of tons of rock balanced over your head. Darkness, total darkness, danger, claustrophobic crawls down rock holes…
For all these reasons ad more, this was the very last thing on my bucket list and the thing I always thought I’d enjoy the least. And in fact it was brilliant.
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Breakfast and a sudden commitment to self burial
It’s the day after the Pembrokeshire Coast path hike (see previous blog) and waking up in our hotel after a night in proper beds we are nice and refreshed. We’ve pitched up the tents in the hotel room to dry them out it’s probably good luck we haven’t had a visit from room service…..probably looks a bit weird….
We’ve only discussed it really briefly in the car on the way into Bristol from Pembroke but today we have a spare day. So in between stuffing my face with buffet breakfast bacon and hash browns (has to be done) I get on the phone to a caving company over breakfast who seem surprised when I say we want to do go down a cave the same day.
We meet our guide at a car park in the Mendip Hills area and start making our way down Goat church Cavern which is a limestone cave. This time it’s ‘dry caving’ which is exactly what it sounds like, no water. It’s a bit damp in fact but it’s probably better than referring to it as ‘moist caving’ I guess. We don some overalls, cheap wellies, helmets and head torches. Essentially we all now look like sewer inspectors, great look.
“Here we go, never to be seen again” our instructor jokes as we head towards the dark mouth of the cave. Clearly she has the same kind of twisted humor as me and Andy do!
The cave has two ways in, the front and what the cavers call the ‘Tradesmans entrance’ which I guess is the kind of humor you develop if you spend a lot of your time crawling down holes. The one we are going in by is the main entrance and later we will be climbing out out the back end….
I’m not what I’d consider to be claustrophobic at all, in fact unless it’s people that I’m surrounded with I actually don’t mind enclosed spaces. Remember I said that for later…
First we stop to have a look at cave spiders (Meta Menardi) around the cave entrance. This probably already Isn’t a place you’d want to be if you don’t like spiders. These critters they can grow to be several centimeters across, are repelled by light, (they actually run away from your torchlight) and tend to live where people won’t often go. I can relate.
We stop as our guide explains that the cave was a show cave before Cheddar Caves opened to the public. She explains how it would have been lit by gaslight back then (what a cool image) and we walk down whats left of the heavily worn over 100 year old steps past the remains of railings and further into the bowels of the earth.
Turns out we were really lucky getting her to guide us at short notice, but apparently we are a great excuse for a day out of the office and an adventure. I’d rather be caving than be in a office too really!
An awkward slanted passageway
I forget what this part was called but we make our way down a huge crack in the rock at a slanted angle. The rock walls pretty much press you from either side. I can imagine this would almost be the worst nightmare of someone with claustrophobia.
Our guide explains to Andy how he’s going to force himself down a crawl we have come to he jokingly replies ‘So by being the smallest, I’ve got the shortest straw” – yes you off you go mate! we won’t be crawling down here as we are too big to fit, Andy is unfortunately just the right size.
Me and the guide will be going to the same place but by the delightfully and slightly ominously named ‘Vasectomy’ instead. By the sound of it, this might be a bad time to be a guy.
The Coffin Lin
With a name like this it really inspires confidence, like literally climbing into your own grave. After a brief explanation of the geology of the part we are about to climb down our instructor ties off a rope at the top of this and we climb down here. Looking down into the darkness with the rope dangling next to me, I’m starting to really get into this.
I haven’t really found any of this scary at all until I kneel down on my hands and knees and put my head into this nine meter long Phreatic tube. And right now I’ve got to admit I get a slight panic on as I contemplate wedging myself down this water cut, rock walled pipe fifty five meters under the surface of the Mendip Hills.
The guide tells me I don’t have to do it if I don’t want as she wouldn’t attempt it herself. I take a huge breath and tell her and Andy that if I don’t do it I’ll never forgive myself for not having tried. Which is true, if I don’t do it I’ll spend the rest of the day wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t given it a go. It’s better to regret the things you have done instead of the things you haven’t done, unless of course you get wedged into a cave. So I decide to give it a go!
However this isn’t a ‘I’ll give it a go’ sort of thing once you commit to it you’ve got to do it, as you can’t back up at this stage. It’s actually pretty hard going and I have to stop a few times to turn myself sidewards. I get stuck a few times in the pipes awkward slot-like shape, at least if I do get stuck it’ll save my folks money on a burial as apparently I’ve done all the work for them!
I can see Andy’s headlight just behind me and our guides voice echoing down asking if we are alright. “Just chilling….just chilling underneath the floor” I joke.
It’s a buzz and a bit of relief when I finally fall out of the other side into a pretty small cavern and wait for Andy to follow me through. After some short time with his voice echoing behind his head pops out the hole like a chest burster in alien. Or like Gollum from lord of the rings chasing a hobbit.
Once both through, me and Andy instantly forget what our guide told us and have a bit of a panic. We decide to crawl back through which apparently was the right thing to do. What a relief. She’s still on the other side and we are not lost under the floor never to be seen again.
Darker Than Dark
The guide does what she must do with everyone she takes down here and gets us to turn off our head torches to see just how dark it is in here. It’s deadly quiet and there’s total absence of light which of course we are not used to. You can easily appreciate just how dangerous a place like this is if you run out of battery. There’s not a crack of light and barely any sound which is pretty nerve racking on the one hand, and very relaxing on the other.
Climbing back out
I have to admit I’m not used to climbing in wellingtons so I’m probably being slightly overcautious as we climb our way back out of the cavern. Using wellingtons instead of climbing shoes is a bit like swapping a scalpel for an angle grinder, but obviously climbing shoes are not very practical for all the other things you do in caves!
We stop along the way up in a cavern and discuss the alien looking flowstone which is make of calcium carbonate deposits, which looks like it is actually slowly dripping down the cave walls. If fact it sort of is dripping down and building up over thousands of years. We keep going up, usually at this stage the guide tells us they use a hand-line. We are both fine without one as we have both done a bit of climbing. Light shines down from the world above into the darkness and slowly we climb up and out of the cave. I pull myself up over flowstone that looks like a melted HR Giger alien and towards the light.
Emerging from the cave into the overcast sunlight stings the eyes and for a moment we all get a good taste of what life would be like being a mole. I can honestly say this was super fun, and next time there will be more ropes and deeper caves involved.