My Many Years of (Armchair?) Caving

The Personal Memories and Reflections of Graham Denton

Imagine, if you can, a minibus trying to ascend a vertical cliff (in fact it was probably only a steep track) somewhere in the Mendip Hills. Inevitably, the minibus ground to a halt. There was only one possibility - everybody out and push. Dutifully, we all gathered at the sides of the vehicle, knowing from experience that anyone pushing from behind would be sprayed with dirt and mud when the wheels spun. The driver revved the engine. "Now" he yelled, letting out the clutch. We all pushed, and the minibus came hurtling backwards, down the track. "Sorry", the drivers head came through the open window, "I had it in reverse!"

This, part of my introduction to caving, was in 1963 and about a year before the Croydon Caving Club was formed. Now, with the Club in its 23rd year and Pelobates having reached issue 50, things are somewhat different. And what better excuse for old hands to indulge in sheer nostalgia than the publication of this special issue. This is my sole justification for that which follows, though I live in hope that it may, perhaps, be of some interest to those who did not experience the early days.

Returning to my Mendip experience, the presence of a minibus on a caving weekend (now usual) was then the norm. This may simply reflect the fact that car ownership was less common 20 odd years ago than it is today, or perhaps indicate a greater willingness of those members to become involved in the organisation of caving weekends in advance. There were usually at least 2 drivers required for each vehicle - a necessity when it took 6 hours to reach the Mendip Hills, and 10 to South Wales! Remember, there were few motorways in 1964 and only a small section of M4 existed running from Chiswick to somewhere 'this side of Reading'. I am sorry to note the passing of 'Van Trips'. It encouraged everyone to go on weekends as organisers tried to fill the last seat on the van, thus keeping costs down, and indeed ensured that caving weekends were not cancelled (when a van was booked it simply could not be cancelled). I also believe that travelling together encouraged people to regard themselves as part of the (entire) Club, whilst groups of 3/4 in a car can so easily form cliques.

The roof of the minibus was laden with camping equipment (we usually camped in those days), old clothes and carbide lamps (what's a wet suit?), and of course communal Club equipment. I well remember descending a 3Oft. shaft using the Club ladder - not a Club ladder, THE Club ladder!! The problem was that the ladder was only 2Oft. long! Generally, I can only welcome the changes in equipment, both personal and communal. More advanced equipment should result in more advanced and safer caving, whilst our habit of camping was in itself enough to deter many a novice! My main regret in this field is that improved equipment results in increased costs, and the need to purchase more expensive personal equipment means that caving is no longer the cheap pursuit that it once was, especially in view of substantially increases transport costs - the days of a caving weekend costing 25 shillings (remember shillings?) are a very distant memory.

Equipment has always featured prominently in the Club, and its budget. This, I hope, reflects a consistently good attitude to safety throughout the Club's history. Certainly, accidents in any form have been rare, and since the Yorkshire authorities were kind enough to return our committee to us in the not too distant past the Club's record must be considered good, if not untarnished. Whilst on the subject of underground incidents, may I offer belated thanks to Eric Duggan for the invitation to his birthday party held in G.E. Cavern on 14th December 1969. If readers do not understand the veiled remarks made on this subject, I do not propose to enlighten them. (Pelobates 11 p14-15 reveals all - Ed.)

There are sufficient other incidents and events to fill volumes, though perhaps I should not tax the readers patience to that extent. However, letting the pen ramble, idly, for a few moments over other personal memories I inevitably recall making the film 'Going Down In The World' when we ran a 240v. cable through the streamway (and lived to tell the tale); Resevoir Hole (my first cave); Ladder races in Deneholes; Penning an outrageous article to encourage others to survey the Merstham Quarries (I failed); Camping in Decembers' sub-zero temperatures; and simpler things like roaring fires in Pen-Fathor, and the stars in clear skies miles from the nearest town. In recent years I recall watching countless satellites whilst drinking countless mugs of tea outside Ron Smith's caravan. But what of the Club itself during this time?

Ironically, I never joined Croydon Caving Club, but the Polyphemus Caving Club when it was just a few months old. The name was soon changed, probably because few people could spell Polyphemus, let alone pronounce it! Like many others, I laughed at the idea of having our own cottage, but changed my mind later and in due course Pen-Fathor was found and used for several years before we had to leave and moved into the barn. The Club obviously had its ups and downs, but surprisingly the loss of Pen-Fathor does not stick in my mind as a Club 'low'. Indeed, if the Club's survival has ever been threatened it was not by a cause related to caving, but by a Foot-And-Mouth epidemic which prevented access to caving areas for many months. This remains my memory of lowest club morale. The many other changes during the past 20 odd years are historical fact rather than a matter of personal reflection, and are probably documented elsewhere, so let us move (briefly) from the past and look to the future.

How will cavers of the future judge us? That type of question prompted the less-than-serious article which appeared on page 13 of Pelobates No. 7 dated February 1969 (though even the humour of the item would be difficult to understand now, 18 years after writing). But perhaps we should consider the question just a little more closely. One thing which saddens me greatly is the damage, both wilful and accidental, that has occured in many caves since my early days; and changes in attitude which mean that, for example, equipment can no longer be left unattended, secure in the knowledge that no other caver would remove or interfere with it. Is it asking too much to aim for a return to the codes of practice and higher ethical standards which all cavers once observed? Could we conserve our caving environment, above and below ground, so that it is as well preserved in 20 years time as it is today? The Club will inevitably change ( and the aquisition of a new cottage is but symbolic of this ) but we should always ensure that changes are controlled and made for the better. Even if older hands can now rest their laurels (and why not, they've done their share), newer members and the Club as a whole cannot, so controlled progress in the form of responsible and safe - but perhaps also adventurous - caving should be pursued.

I have, throughout, regarded myself as an 'old hand', but I must dispel the idea that this term indicates any excessive age (it relates only to length of service)! Indeed, other old hands may recall that I shall always be a Junior member. In closing this excessive rambling, it seems appropriate to consider the one overriding memory of 23+ years membership. Surprisingly (perhaps?) this is not of the cold and mud, or beauty and grandeur, not even the beer and cider; but the memory of people and friends. I recall, not the mud, but the people in it with me. I recall trusting the person holding my lifeline, just as he trusted me to hold his, and I recall singing in vans and pubs during the early days of the Club. I wonder how many others share these memories?

Graham Denton