Enchanted Land

Editor’s note:

In Pelobates 88 there was a request for articles featuring recollections of caving from an earlier age. I am grateful to Chris Crowley for bringing to my attention the following article. A fuller version was originally published in the November 1954 issue of The Silent World, the magazine for the National Institue for the Deaf (now the Royal National Institute for Deaf People). Although not written for a caving readership it gives an insight into caving practice ten years before Croydon Caving Club was born and, in this centenary year of the RNID, an account of the special experience of the underground world for someone who is deaf.

With a feeling akin to that of a pea in a peashooter, I was lying stretched out flat in a narrow tunnel, so narrow that it was impossible to change the position of my arms, one of which was pressed tight against my side, while the other was stretched out in front. The roof was so low that I could raise my head only an inch or two. The floor of the tunnel was covered to a depth of a couple of inches with a mixture of slimy mud and icy water, which had soaked through my clothes, giving me shivering fits. I was lying still, taking a badly needed rest. The tunnel was known to be sixty feet long, and I estimated that we had done about forty feet, squeezing through, an inch at a time. The particular situation was perhaps not the best place to stop and rest, but I wanted to give my heart a chance to ease up, and anyway the way ahead was temporarily blocked by a pair of boots containing the feet of my companion, who had also stopped, doubtless to admire the patterns of the ripple-marks on the walls.

This is not an account of one of the more uncomfortable escapes of the war, but only a typical situation in which the author finds himself during one of his ‘caving’ week-ends, which, incidentally, he enjoys!

South Wales is where I do most of my week-end caving, with occasional trips to the Mendips, which are only just across the water from Cardiff, where I live, and jaunts further afield whenever I have the time (and the wherewithal for the fare) to Yorkshire, Ireland and the French Pyrenees. On my week-end caving trips, I usually go with a small group of other deaf boys and girls, though I often go with hearing friends.

Almost everyone knows what a cave is, and many have doubtless been to one or another of the numerous show caves open to the public in this country, Kent’s Cavern, Cheddar Caves, Wookey Hole, to mention a few. But what not many people know is that for every show cave open to the public, fitted with electric light and clean gravel paths, there are hundreds of others, some of them stretching underground for several miles, where the only fee required for admittance is the ability (and desire) to wriggle along on one’s stomach, and a total disregard for discomfort.

Openings in the ground that lead forward horizontally or almost horizontally are termed ‘caves’, while those that lead vertically vertically or almost vertically downwards are ‘potholes’. Some authorities would limit the designation ‘cave’ or ‘pothole’ only to those openings which are of sufficient size to permit the insertion of the human body, but this is not the place for such fine distinctions, and anyway, as the size of human bodies varies considerably, what may be a cave to one man may be a mere hole in the ground to another.

To explore caves one needs only the most elementary equipment, but a lot of toughness and experience. Potholes, however, are a different kettle of fish, and many need a colossal quantity of ropes and rope-ladders for complete exploration. My personal equipment, besides the ropes and ropeladders belonging to the party, consists of a boiler suit over a miscellaneous collection of rags and tatters (for no article of clothing is of any use for anything but caving once it has been worn in a cave), nailed climbing boots (some authorities favour the drilling of holes in the soles of the boots to let the water out, since it is almost impossible to stop it from getting in, but my boots are new, and I lack the necessary courage to start drilling holes in a perfectly good pair of boots), a light-weight helmet with an acetylene lamp mounted in front, a waterproof torch, a pocketful of candles, and, of course, matches in a waterproof case.

The length of a cave may be anything from a few feet to several miles, and potholes also vary enormously in depth. The deepest known pothole in England is Penyghent Pot, in Yorkshire, which is 527 feet deep, but on the Continent, where things are on a grander scale, the potholes sometimes go down 2,000 feet or more.

Cave passages and tunnels often constrict suddenly then widen out again, these narrow parts being formed by bands of harder rock which have resisted erosion better than the limestone. The frequent appearance in caving literature of references to ‘squeezes’, ‘slots’, letter-boxes’, ‘tie-presses’, and the like, give graphical indications of the narrowness of many of these hazards, and also why the sport of cavin is restricted to the most part to those of modest girth. Some malevolent providence frequently allows pools of icy water to accumulate at these points, and it is advantageous then to be the last man in a party, as the amount of water in the pool is appreciably diminished by the amount one’s predecessors have successively mopped up!

Then there are the ladders. A black and apparently bottomless gulf yawns in the floor. One end of a rope-ladder is fixed to a dubious-looking flake of rock and the other end tossed into the void. One then descends. The darkness is in some ways a blessing, since it hides the distance there is to fall. The ladder sways alarmingly as weight is transferred from one foot to the other, and from arm to arm, giving the climber the sensation of falling over backwards, falling over forwards, slipping through the rungs, and of being pitched off sideways. After a seeming eternity, or several eternities if the climb is a long one, boots grate on rock at the bottom. The lifeline is then disengaged, ready for the next man. Often a ‘pitch’, or vertical drop, is ‘wet’, which means that the climber is accompanied on the way down by a waterfall, which besides giving him a thorough wetting, freezing him to the marrow, and threatening to knock him off the ladder, also extinguishes his lamp, leaving him to complete the descent in pitch darkness. This is where the taught feeling of the lifeline round the waist is particularly comforting. Climbing up a swaying rope-ladder is one of the most arduous forms of physical activity I know.

And all this for what?

The exploration of caves and potholes is a filthily dirty, wet and uncomfortable sport. It can also be extremely arduous, and sometimes dangerous, but it leads the resolute caver to an enchanted land. The fairylands and grottoes of childhood come to life in the flare of the lamps. Every colour of the rainbow is represented in a series of fantastic and gorgeous shapes, stalactites and stalagmites, hanging curtains, marble steps, pillars, petrified cascades, and gypsum flowers of a variety and profusion that leave the beholder spellbound. Still, clear, silent pools that have never known the light of day, with surfaces glassy-smooth, and of horrifying depth; the beauty of water-carved rock and the patterns of ripple-marks of long-vanished streams; all this and more is the reward of those who are willing to brave discomfort and difficulties in pursuit of beauty which is rarely seen. There are other things also. Besides the actual thrills and feelings of accomplishment, the arduousness and perhaps the danger of the underground journey leave the caver with a peculiar feeling of sensitiveness and mental exultation, which in other spheres, perhaps only the mountaineer knows.

My hearing friends tell me that there are other things too, that I miss by reason of my deafness, the chief being the silence. It seems strange to tell a deaf person that he misses the silence, but I think I understand. There is a velvety blackness of cave darkness, thickened and intensified by the lamplight, so that it becomes the sort of darkness unimaginable except by those who know. In the same way, I am told, the cave silence is not like any other silence. It is not absolute. There is the steady drip, drip, drip, of water-drops from the roof; the tiny gurgle of a miniature stream; perhaps the faint, distant booming of some underground waterfall; besides this, the movements and breathing of companions; but behind all this one senses the darkness and the silence – how shall I put it? – waiting to pounce.

There are practical difficulties of deafness too, but these mostly crop up when I am out with hearing friends. When it is a common disability, as it is when I am out with other deaf people, it cannot really be called a difficulty at all, since by common, unexpressed consent, we all make allowances for the fact that none of us can hear. The normal method of communication between members of a caving or potholing party is by means of whistles; a particularly highpitched kind is favoured, as the sound carries better, I am assured, in the difficult acoustical conditions of a cave. Usually someone has always to be close to me to make sure that I am receiving the signals, but with my deaf friends this need does not arise, since we depend on visual methods of communication, and we take care not to let any member of our party go out of signal range. ‘When I get to the top of the ladder I will throw a piece of burning paper down to let you know that you can come up’ … ‘If I put my lamp out when I am half-way down the ladder, it means I am in difficulties, so please haul me up’ … These are typical examples of the sort of arrangement we make amongst ourselves.

When the weather is too bad for caving (which may not mean that it is raining, but that it has been raining, though the sun be shining bright), the enthusiast can go cave-hunting. Many hundreds of caves are known, and there is little doubt that many more await discovery. Many caves have neither exits nor entrances, the water forming them having seeped through the ground, running away in an underground stream to rise in the bed of a river or under the sea; others have natural entrances or exits which have long since collapsed; entrance to others may be a narrow insignificant crack between boulders or on the bank of a stream, or the place where the volume of water in a river suddenly diminishes for no apparent reason.

A knowledge of geology has led cavers to dig in certain places, sometimes with most fruitful results, the diggers breaking through into huge cave-systems hitherto unknown. So if any of you ever spend a holiday in one of Britain’s limestone regions and come across young men digging holes in the middle of the moor, or crawling about in a prone position examining cracks in the ground, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are not only mad, as you first supposed, but also cavers, cave-hunting!

Peter Dalladay (1922 - 1990) was born in Welling, Kent, the son of a boot repairer. At the age of 7 he lost his hearing as a result of illness. During the Second World War he worked in a munitions factory near London. Finding himself out of a job after the factory was destroyed by enemy action he decided to look for employment in South Wales. He subsequently worked on The Western Mail for a number of years as a printer, before moving to Glamorgan County Council where he spent 30 years as a social worker. Peter lived in Gwaelod-y-Garth, near Cardiff, with his wife Rosalind and their two children, Susan and Michael.

Peter Dalladay