It is a good thing nobody signed up for the Saturday caving trip during the AOG in Bath. Finding the small shop in Cheddar from which Martin had arranged to hire lamps was no trivial matter. Trailing behind us looking for a shop would not have inspired the confidence of novices in our ability to find a cave, let alone to find our way to the bottom and out again. We did get the lamps eventually. Our own confidence in finding things being a little undermined, we walked over the fields to Swildon’s Hole to make sure it was still where it used to be. It was, and we were ready for the Sunday trip.
A rare thing about Swildon’s Hole is that a changing barn is provided beside the village green in Priddy. The party might have been shy about stripping off to don caving gear in the middle of the green; the villagers would certainly have been distressed. The upstairs floor of the changing barn has not collapsed yet and we moved around gently lest we otherwise precipitate the event. It was only a short walk to the entrance to Swildon’s Hole but, wrapped up in our furry undersuits and tough oversuits, the four of us were ready to escape from the August sunshine.
Martin led the way through narrow gaps between boulders, down low, sloping crawls, and into the underground streamway which we were to follow for most of the trip. I came last, dragging a bag containing a small, rolled up ladder and a safety rope. The novices were between us where we could keep an eye on them. It was not long before we came to the only place requiring a ladder – a climb down of about twenty feet beside a waterfall – or, rather, beside it for most of the way and more or less in it at the bottom. Cavers may have the porcine inclination to roll about in mud but they like getting a good wash, too, so that was all right. Novices can adopt a variety of entertaining positions on wire ladders, including dangling from their arms with their feet high above their heads, putting one leg right through the ladder, trapping fingers against the wall, and – if they are skilful entertainers – all three at once. To our disappointment, Graham and Chris descended without any such misfortunes, having been on this kind of ladder before.
We descended several waterfalls without falling into the plunge pools below them and then climbed up to a parallel passage. The climb was technically easy but you would not want to fall off from near the top. The passage is full of formations – stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone. There would once have been beautiful crystal pools – pools of water formed by natural, calcite dams and containing delicate, white crystals – but they were destroyed long ago by the feet of visitors. Times change and cavers would not enter such a passage these days. We proceeded with care, making sure we did not touch or damage the splendid formations that survive on the walls and ceiling.
The drop into the streamway at the other end of this side-loop was more or less that, but we all landed safely, and it was not long before we reached the end of this part of our trip. We had arrived at “sump one”. Here the water normally touches the ceiling of the low passage, although on this day there was a tiny air space. If you want to continue, you lie flat and pull yourself under by means of a fixed rope. Within a few feet you are through to the other side and can breath again. That was not part of our plan and after gazing at the sump for a few minutes we turned back up the streamway.
We took another climb, into a side passage at the start of a route that eventually takes you to the far side of the sump but only after an hour or so of strenuous caving. We went part way, just out of interest, before splashing, climbing, and crawling back to daylight.
As we reached the surface, we still had both novices with us, safe and happy, which we felt was a satisfactory achievement.