Rediscovering the pleasures of old caves

Eric Downer revisits sites of his caving past

I have now been caving for some 45 years and in that time I have been down many many caves. Some are so long ago I have probably forgotten them entirely, others I remember the name but little else.

In my early days we actively sought out caves that we had never been down even if they weren't very large. In those days equipment was much more basic, often consisting of a cotton boiler suit over old clothes. These were soon replaced with wetsuits (even for dry caves!) and then fibre pile `furry' suits and plastic Troll suits.

Lights were basic and they often failed. In my earliest days we would be equipped with ex-Coal Board Lead Acid cells that frequently failed before the end of the trip. These were subsequently augmented with Carbide Cap Lamps and eventually the FX2s. In those days a group of 6 might exit the cave with only 3 lights working. On one occasion we had a light failure before even getting underground so one member of the group went down Rods Pot holding a candle.

These days soon gave way to much harder trips as we actively sought out challenging trips around the country: Juniper Gulf in Yorkshire, Smith's Armoury in OFD or the Long Round Trip in Swildons.

As both I and the club have got older times have changed again and we now seem to have got very much into a rut. While there are some exceptions most of the club now seem content to go to OFD pretty much every time they visit the cottage. Maybe now is the time to start revisiting some of the smaller caves that gave us so much pleasure years ago. With that in mind, over the past year or so I have been actively seeking out such caves and have three to report on.

Ogof Fynnon

This is situated not far from the cottage and is hydrologiclly of interest as the water has been traced into Porth Yr Ogof. Back in the 1980s Martyn Pickering and myself made it a project to survey it to a greater degree of accuracy than had been done previously. This eventually resulted in the infamous roof fall that left me trapped by the leg for a couple of hours. This is well documented in previous editions of Pelobates. Prior to 2022 I had not been back beyond the entrance series since. This seemed to be a good place to start my revisiting programme.

One nice sunny day I persuaded Chris Crowley and Catriona to accompany me. As it was a bank holiday weekend and we expected there to be lots of visitors turning up to do the waterfall walks we decided to walk from the cottage and to change at the entrance. Caves of South Wales suggested that the best approach was from Cwm Porth so off we went. The footpath leading up the hill was extremely overgrown and Chris and Catriona were both soon regretting wearing shorts. We eventually reached the forestry commission area and hit a decent track. Unfortunately the paths on the ground bore little resemblance to the OS map. Much flogging through the under brush and investigating sinkholes failed to reveal the cave entrance. Eventually we decided to regroup at the (extremely full) car park and try approaching from the other direction.

This did eventually prove to be more successful. If anyone else wants to find the cave then follow the main track out of the car park for few hundred metres. There is then another fairly good track off on the right. We eventually discovered the correct shake-hole by following a dry drainage gully off to the left. The shake-hole was completely surrounded by dense shoulder high bracken and there was no obvious way down to the bottom. I eventually fought my way around to the far side and was able to follow what would be a small stream in wet weather down to the bottom and to the now obvious cave entrance.

It was apparent that the terrain is now very different to 30 years ago and that nobody else had visited the cave for some considerable time.

Because of the vegetation there wasn't much room to change but we did eventually get underground. The cave was much tighter and more awkward than I remembered but we eventually found our way down to the chamber. At this point Chris decided that he did not want to go any further but Catriona and I attempted to find the way on to the stream way. We took turns going down holes without success until eventually Catriona thought she might have found the correct route. It gradually got tighter until even Catriona decided it was too tight and decided to climb out. Unfortunately one of her wellies started slipping of her foot and due to the confined space she was unable to retrieve it. At this point we decided to call it a day and exit.

We retraced our steps to the car park and decided to take the easy route back to the cottage via the road.

Shakespeare's Cave

Fiona, Catriona and myself didn't arrive at Cave Fest until Saturday night this year as Catriona had a late afternoon bungee jump in Bristol. This meant that we missed the hard caving Saturday trips. Sunday dawned as another glorious summers. Following the rigours of the late night at the Zombie themed disco it was generally agreed that an easier trip was in order and I proposed Shakespeare's Cave in the Clydach Gorger, a trip that I had last done more than 30 years ago. We had a grid reference and a description of where to find the entrance so all seemed well. A mixed group of Cateralls, Downers, Gibbs plus Dave set off in Carl's big bus. We parked at what seemed to be an appropriate place on the south side of the river and set off in what we hoped to be the right direction. It soon became obvious that we were far too high and there was no direct way down the gorge. We retraced our steps and found an alternative route to the Devil's Bridge which was mentioned in the directions. The instructions then read "From the bridge follow the track above the steep-sided gully" - unfortunately the only path petered out and became impassable after only a few feet leaving us to work out an alternative route.

We eventually walked up quite a good quality footpath on the north side of the gorge up to the new dual carriageway before hopping over a fence to walk along the north of the gorge in an attempt to find a way down. A succession of dodgy paths through overgrown woods led us to a rocky outcrop with an iron ladder leading up to a cave entrance. This is obviously a known site but is not mentioned in the guidebook.

From here it was possible to work our way down to river level and quickly find the correct entrance. Having been out in the sun in inappropriately warm caving kit it was a pleasure to be able to enter the cool wet cave. I didn't take us long to get to deep water with a dive line which Carl confidently announced was the end of the cave. Some of us went in as far as the first corner where is was possible to see that the cave continued. Most of the party then exited but Ian and Dave continued and established that this was not the end but merely a long canal/ duck which they were able to follow for quite a distance before eventually reaching the final sump.

All in all it was a convivial afternoon but more time was spent walking rather than caving.

Should anyone be inspired to attempt the cave for themselves it would be much easier to park at Blackrock on "Main Road" north of the dual carriageway. It is then easy to cross over the foot bridge before turning left and finding your way though the woods and down the gorge.

St Cuthbert's Swallet

St Cuthbert's is gated and can only be entered if you have a local guide. Until recently I had only been down once, sometime in the mid-eighties. On this occasion there was a major attempt to pump out the sump in order to explore beyond. This was done by parking a compressor trailer outside the Belfry and running hundreds of feet of fire-hose down to a pneumatic pump in the stream way.

For the recent club trip to the Mendips (staying at the Wessex) I had persuaded Carl to make the necessary arrangements. Myself, Carl and Henry turned up at the Belfry at the appointed time on Saturday morning to meet our guide Stuart McManus (or Mac as he prefers to be known), a spritely 73 year old. The cave has a total length of almost 7km, so suffice it to say that we were only going to get a taster The entrance to the cave is only a short stroll from the Belfry and is entered via a locked manhole in an open topped block house. The entrance is naturally wet but is is now possible to prevent most of the water going down the entrance shaft by inserting planks in pre-constructed dams in the stream way.

The cave is entered via a fixed ladder build into a concrete tube and quickly leads to a tight rift of about 30 feet. We used an electron ladder but on the way out in particular it wa s of little use, the rift being too tight to bend your legs at the knee. Fortunately there are plenty of natural holds. Shortly after this you enter Arrete Chamber via an impressive fixed ladder that is almost a staircase. This is one of the locations I particularly remember although it was not quite as impressive as I recalled. At this point I shared my recollections of my last visit. It transpired that Mac was the organiser of the sump pumping attempt and had been present of the same trip as me! We also established that it was actually 37 years earlier in 1985.

St Cuthbert's is a complex cave and we were glad of a guide. It was quite a short trip of only around 3 hours but in that time we got down to the stream way and the sump, the site of the abortive pumping attempt so many years early. We were also given a whistle-stop tour of some of the `sights'. We generally moved fairly swiftly so although it was a short trip I definitely felt well exercised by the end. I certainly found it a lot more tiring than the first time round. The climb back up the rift was particularly arduous.

As the last one up it was my job to coil the ladder up and bring up to the en trance shaft. As I climbed out, as is typical, the rest of the party decided it would be a good idea to remove the boards from the dam and let the water back down the entrance shaft!

In conclusion then, next time you are looking for a trip don't just consider the usual options.

Eric Downer