Friday, 22 December 2017

White Powder Everywhere

Team: Paul Crowsley, Si Lowis, Lesley Markie, John Roe, Samsung S7, Claire Vivian, Neil Weymouth, Tarquin Wilton-Jones.

Report and photos: Tarquin Wilton-Jones.

This was a very welcome chance to visit one of my favourite caves with some SWCC friends, and at the same time look for some newly recognised formations. The weekend had been booked long in advance by the ever-organised club meets secretary. Sadly the weather could not be booked in advance, and some snow had decided to coat the hills. Certainly beautiful, but the single track lane to the Llangattwg caves has no chance of being cleared by the council. Having grown up in these hills, snow is just a fact of life and quite fun to drive in, but several members of the teams were forced to pull out of the trip after reports of crashes blocking major roads on the Friday evening.

Still, 7 of us had braved the roads, 6 arriving on Friday, and me joining on Saturday. One had tried and failed to ascend the treacherously steep roads up from Crickhowell, but all of us eventually used the Hafod road, that runs level all the way around the mountain from Brynmawr along a former tramroad. At one point, it runs above 70 metres of slope and cliff dropping down to the Blackrock road below, with only a few little wooden posts offering very little psychological support. The view, however, is stupendous. By Saturday morning, the compacted snow had earned an icy crust, and the final section towards the Whitewalls caving hut added a little extra excitement with no grip whatsoever for a short section, where drops on both sides offered an alternative to the road as the car pretended not to understand the commands being sent by the steering wheel.

The plan was to spend two days at Whitewalls, visiting Agen Allwedd - Aggy - on Saturday, and other local caves on Sunday. The seven split into teams of four and three, visiting the Aggy Inner and Outer Circles, and The Courtesan plus Grand Circle respectively. Panoramas and Circles pictures by Tarquin, unless otherwise stated, lighting of big passages by everyone on the trip.
Si, Paul, Leslie and Tarquin

Aggy Inner and Outer Circles

Team: Tarquin Wilton-Jones, Claire Vivian, John Roe, Si Lowis

The Black Mountains from the Tramroad
Cwm Onneu Fach and the Llangattock Escarpment
This is one of the Aggy classics, taking in most of the largest passages in the system, excellent streamways, a great many grand old stal formations, a very committing tight squeeze, and one of the cave's lengthy workout passages. The 2 km walk to the cave is one of the most scenic in the national park, with a dramatic escarpment on one side, and a view over the Black Mountains ridges on the other. In conditions like this some decades before, a former clubmate of mine had accidentally tested the steepness of the slope below the tramroad, and somehow survived without any significant injury despite a very rapid trip to the trees 50 metres below.

The familiar Entrance Series is one of the best places in the UK to see lesser horseshoe bats, which adorned the walls at almost every turn. This was particularly special for Si, who had never seen so many in one place before. The junctions quickly passed, go right out, or get left in. First Choke then reached Baron's Chamber, and the splendour of the enormous Main Passage.

John, Si and Claire in Main Passage

This is where the hunt for white powder began, but sadly the only powder was the prevalent piles of spent carbide, a relic of the lack of conservation of past eras. Thankfully, carbide and its soot marks and waste piles are now banned from these caves, but the past damage still remains, and it made it much harder to search for a white powder, among the white powder.

Main Stream Passage's mix of splashing and boulder hopping provided some entertainment, and after a couple of false starts with photography of what is almost certainly just carbide (doh!), we reached the Second Boulder Choke. If you manage to spot them, there are even a few proto-shark fossil spines here, similar to those in Draenen. A short choke then a distinctive climb down into a side passage, followed by another climb down and return to the Main Stream passage, reached the grovel in the stream below the longer part of the choke. A climb up boulders then reached Keyhole Passage, my personal favourite (so why is there no photo?!), a perfect phreatic tube with a deep vadose trench meandering in the floor. We took the upper route, crossing the deep rift repeatedly on the ledges, and then dropping down the climbs to the stream at the far end.

The streamway then lost its boulders, and the increasingly slippery floor brought us to Northwest Junction. From here, we headed upstream along the longest uninterrupted streamway in Britain, Turkey Streamway, named after a rather odd shaped stalactite. The occasional formations began at The Beehive, which serve mainly as a reminder that Aggy does in fact have formations. Somewhere. The streamway is excellent, and overshadows the stal, though the stal is in fact quite attractive in its own right. Just before Turkey Pool, a small pile of crystals looked suspiciously like the white powder I had been looking for, but sadly is probably something else entirely, due to the proximity to the stream.

The deep pool appears at first to be a sump, but a rift tucked to the left is the way on. A fun obstacle, narrow and with few holds above the chest deep water, but it is possible to get through with dry feet if you traverse well. Most of us managed, with only the odd wet foot (Claire managed to get one wet foot). The brief enormity of Turkey Chamber gave a hint of the grandure yet to come.

Claire crossing Turkey Pool on an earlier trip (using the same foothold and getting the same foot wet) Photos: Andy Freem
A short section of streamway, and we took a small side passage into the very impressive Sand Caverns, where we stopped for the first passage photo. This passage is so much bigger than it feels like it should be, a remnant of a much older drainage system. The end of Sand Caverns was as far as Claire had been in Aggy, and it is always nice to have someone enjoying a first visit to the rest of the area, since it is very dramatic indeed.

Claire and John in Sand Caverns
John, Claire and Si in Sand Caverns
Cross section through fossilised Brain Coral
 From Sand Caverns, we took the crawling-sized Selenite Needle Passage instead, with the walls soon becoming decorated with small amounts of selenite, and occasional poor helictites. The main feature, however, is the Nodular Bed that makes up the roof. Initially seeming just like limestone rocks embedded in shale, a recent visit brought the revalation that the rocks are almost certainly fossilised brain corals. Some of them are preserved well enough to see the characteristic surface texture of the corals, with the bright purple shale filling the gaps between them. In many cases, the coral has been cut open by the cave, leaving a visible cross section with large crystal rays extending outwards - the growth pattern of the coral.

At the end of the passage, the walls are decorated with extremely elaborate, pure white growths. Here, the stream is gained, and a second inlet then signifies the start of the Inner Circle. The survey of this area rather appropriately looks distinctively like a simple drawing of a turkey; the body is the Inner Circle, Midsummer Passage and Swiss Passage are the tail feathers, Selenite Needle Passage and an inlet are the legs, Disappointment Chamber and a side passage are the bottom and top of the head. We continued along Eastern Avenue, following the Inner Circle anti-clockwise, since this gets the most dramatic reveals of the passages. At Midsummer Passage, we turned left, to reach the junction with Swiss Passage.

Swiss Passage is always worth a visit, to admire the beautiful mud formations. First are the dried crystal pools hiding in the undercuts, surrounded by the untouched mud. After that is the iconic Swiss Village, a series of miniature hoodoos formed by water dripping onto the mud, with each pinnacle protected from the water by a tiny pebble.
Swiss Village

After Swiss Passage, we headed in the other direction along Scree Passage. The first and most obvious obstacle is the First Scree Slope, a steep slope of scree (in case the name didn't give it away), and the team very kindly took their places at various stages up the very awkward slope, for a picture. At the top is a distinctive chamber, with a ceiling adorned with immature helictites, and a natural dry-stone-wall of boulders that have peeled away from the roof.
Si, Claire and John on the First Scree Slope
John and Claire above the First Scree Slope
 After a great deal of searching throughout the trip, my persistance finally paid off. Scree Passage presented some white powder, that was not just another scattering of spent carbide. This was clearly going to be cryostal, exactly where I had hoped to find it. My shout of "Eureka!" was no doubt rather comical considering how meagre the dusting was, and how willing everyone else was to just walk past it. "All that excitement for that?!" "I have to admit, I wouldn't even have noticed that, I would have just stood on it." were comments heard. And this is why it has only recently been recognised.
Cryostal in Scree Passage

The Second Scree Slope once again presented another photographic opportunity, and the rest of the team kindly obliged, dodging the rocks dislodged by those further up the slope. The Dome of Saint Paul's at the top is very hard to capture without a very wide angle lens. The chamber is almost perfectly circular, with layers of shale and thin limestone making up the walls, and an extremely flat ceiling. It is also quite far above, so lighting it proved a little too challenging for the camera. Oh yes, the camera. It's not a camera, it's a phone. All of the pictures are taken with a phone. Because everyone wants to take a delicate touchscreen worth several hundred pounds underground, to take pictures of white powder, right?
Claire, John and Si on the Second Scree Slope.

The descent into Saint Paul's Passage is one of the most dramatic in the cave, and the passage is simply enormous, rivalling the giant passages of Daren Cilau and Draenen. In the floor, I managed to find another set of probable cryostal looking like gold nuggets, while the rest of the team tried to decide if a side passage was the way on (the turkey's head). The rest of the Inner Circle passed fairly quickly, with a short low crawl regaining the brief large chamber and passage, before rejoining Eastern Avenue to close the Inner Circle loop.

Once again we followed Eastern Avenue, this time turning right at Midsummer Passage. This really looks big on the survey, and it certainly starts so, but it quickly chokes. A crawling-sized route beside the choke regains the larger passage. From here on, the survey is a little optimistic, showing a large passage. It certainly is wide in places, but it is very low, requiring two flat-out crawls and a lot of stooping. Just as the passage regained its former grand size, we instead located a silly hole dropping down behind a large boulder. This is the top of the infamous squeeze. 7 years ago, this was the squeeze where I finally lost my caving nerve, with flashbacks of a recent epic in Draenen. However, in 2017 I had passed it and proved that although it may feel intimidating, it is a lot easier than it appears at first. On that occasion, the great Clive Westlake had patiently tested the squeeze and led the rest of us through once he found the tactic that worked.

The hole descends diagonally to a very narrow rift, where rather than descending the obvious but impossibly tight slot below, you have to squeeze horizontally over a rock, keeping your body high in the widest section. At the next slot down, turn so that your feet point downwards, then descend to emerge from a seemingly impossible position in the roof of a passage. From above it looks insane. From below it looks like a piece of paper would struggle to fit through it. In the past, I would send a smaller caver through first then drop head first since it is easier - but horrifyingly committing - that way. This time, I was the first through, and it all simply worked, feet first.
Si committing to the horizontal section of the squeeze
 Si spent some time trying to work out how to get his chest through the tightest section, and no amount of guidance can make your chest smaller - let's face it, there was no guidance anyway, since I was preoccupied with videoing it. After nearly having to abandon the attempt, Si finally found the solution, forced himself through with a bruise for his trouble, and emerged from the slot with a well earned sigh of relief. Claire soon followed, backed up with Si's guidance. John seemed to take it in his stride, and soon joined us, saying that he was more familiar with tackling the squeeze upwards, since at least you can more easily back out if you fail to get through, but that also means far more cavers fail to get through, since gravity is working against them. Having backed out once while descending into the squeeze, I can say that it certainly is possible to re-ascend if you decide not to go through after all. On the way down, one tactic is to put all of your valuables, especially your car keys, into a bag and drop them down the hole first - then you are forced to complete it in order to retrieve them. No backing out.
Claire squeezing in to Coal Cellar Passage with Si's guidance
The hard work had begun. Coal Cellar Passage is about 0.5 km long, and very sporting. For a long way, there are few places where you can stand, with awkward crawls and thrutches over rocks. At one point, the passage appears to close down completely, and an earlier crawl in an undercut is needed to regain the way on. Further on, sideways walking becomes possible as the passage becomes a very narrow rift. It is rare to be able to turn around, so one leg ends up doing most of the work. In many places, it was impossible to turn your head to check on the cavers behind you, so we had to rely on the "you still with me?" checks. Sideways squeezing is sometimes the only way to make progress. Occasional jammed rocks and one memorable calcite obstruction force climbs up the slippery rift without holds of any kind, with Claire's petite stature needing a carefully placed sacrificial caver as a foothold. An inlet finally increased the passage dimensions so that regular walking became possible, at least for some of it.

Now well muddied, we reached Turkey Junction, and the Outer Circle was complete. The return journey was quite methodical, back through the familiar passages. The climb up into Keyhole Passage and the climb up between the sections of Second Boulder Choke being perhaps the only places which presented a significant challenge. We stopped to photograph Main Passage, then Si tested his memory by leading out through the entrance series. Go right out, or get left in. Over to the right. Further right. The entrance to First Boulder Choke is definitely confusing.

The Entrance Series was over pretty quickly, and we soon passed the large collection of peppered moths, herald moths and cave spiders to emerge onto the snow-covered tramway. "White powder? Whatever you do, don't look down." A speedy trip, 6 hrs 45 minutes. A frosty walk back, where Claire decided not to race through Eglwys Faen - next time, maybe - and the white-roofed Whitewalls appeared as a welcome sight. Hot showers, a gratefully received cup of tea, chocolate biscuits, and even the offer of pizza! Sadly, our hopes of a curry in Crickhowell had been dashed by the ice on the steep Crickhowell road.

While waiting for the other team to complete their unexpectedly long Courtesan trip, we checked the mountain weather forecast, and it had become much worse. Icy temperatures, blizard conditions, gale force winds, sleet causing rapid snowmelt and flash flooding, then more snow. None of us wanted to risk caving or driving the next day, so we decided to back out early and head home. The road back was safer with the ice melting, but would be absolutely treacherous the next morning. By Sunday, most of the Valleys were thickly covered in snow, and more was arriving. A good decision.
As always, I would like to thank my team mates for the excellent company and patient photographic modelling during the trip, and especially to Claire for making all the arrangements. Even if you couldn't arrange the weather.

Aggy Courtesan and Grand Circle

Team: Paul Crowley, Leslie Markie and Neil Weymouth.

This was originally proposed as a Courtesan trip, but by the time the logbook got filled in, it had become a Grand Circle trip too, presumably to avoid having to do Southern Stream Passage twice.
Up to Main Passage, the trip is the same as the Circles trip. From there, it stays with the Main Passage for longer, mostly walking along a large, mud-floored phreatic tube. At the giant portals of Southern Stream Passage, the large passage with selenite-covered walls is short-lived, and a hole down in the floor is the start of the real Southern Stream. At first, it is possible to walk for about 500 metres, but after first and second inlets, it lowers to stooping height, with several crawls forced by boulders. This gruelling section lasts for 600 metres, ending at a climb down at Waterfall Chamber. The walking sized passage returns, until a larger tube in the roof signifies Gothic Passage.

Climbing into Gothic, a crawl leads to the choice between the Priory Road and Maytime routes. Priory Road starts small but soon enters a much wider passage. The Iles Inlet side passage then reaches The Courtesan, one of South Wales' finest helictite formations, described as "much larger than you expect it to be".
The Courtesan (photographed on a previous trip). Photo: Duncan Hornby
Returning to Southern Stream Passage, the tall rift passage continues a great deal further, eventually forcing a traverse on slippery ledges, to reach the wide river of Lower Main Stream Passage. The pools here force a 50% soaking, as you try to make your way upstream. The biggest challenge, however, is the floor, which can be incredibly slippery, depending on the season, sometimes as bad as ice. The passage is enormous, but you spend so much effort concentrating on staying on your feet that it is hard to appreciate the space above you. Two tricky cascades which often result in a complete soaking then precede the abrupt Fifth Choke.

A climb up a knotted rope leads high into the roof, into Biza Passage, and a complete change in character. A phreatic tube with heavy scalloping, and an occasional vadose trench, normally walking or crawling sized, with a couple of climbs. Finally, a lengthy descent through the substantial Fourth Choke regains the dark and muddy Main Stream Passage. This soon leads to Third Choke, where the way on is not at all obvious, starting by dropping down on the right into the stream, and randomly heading through the choke without any solid walls, roof or floor. It emerges in another muddy part of the stream, the end of the longest uninterrupted streamway (combined with Turkey Streamway).

The Narrows usually require a chest-deep dunking at each end. It is possible to traverse most of the narrow section either fully out of the water, or at various levels partly in the water. It is deep enough to be completely submerged if you lose your grip. Pools called Deep Water can be passed with care with only a waist-deep wade. The slippery floor soon returns, for a very long way until Cascade Inlet, where the floor suddenly becomes quite grippy at last. A short distance on, and it reaches Northwest Junction, where the way out matches the Circles route.

10 hrs 45 mins, arriving back substantially before the callout time. All's good.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

OFD1 in an evening

Team: Andrea Jessup, Matt Jones, Paul Tarrant, Claire Vivian

This was a quick evening trip to introduce Andrea to OFD1 and let Matt have a chance to practice his routefinding skills on his second visit to this part of the system. Fun was had, including traversing Pluto's Bath without getting wet. A good couple of hours caving on a miserable and wet evening.

Andrea about to experience her first crawl

Matt at Pluto's Bath

Matt near the start of the Escape Route

Paul and Andrea

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

More trips than you can shake a stick at!

Team: Andrew McLeod, Bob Hall, Duncan Hornby, Helen Stewart, Jo White, Malcolm Stewart, Mason Davis, Morgan Specht,Trevor Rogers, Richard Sore, Tarquin Wilton-Jones

Date 18th November - 19th November

A few of us arrived at the Shepton on Friday, unusually most of the team turned up on the Saturday morning. Claire [trip secretary] had done her magic and arranged multiple trips and even managed to get leaders for both Upper Flood and St Cuthberts. The people interested in SRT had planned to tackle Thrupe Lane Swallet but heavy rain came in earlier than expected so plan “B” was Rhino rift.

One downside of this weekend was 11 people turned up to cave but only 5 stayed the full weekend, with the others scattering after their trips. So those 6 missed out on drunken shenanigans and having embarrassing photos immortalised on the internet… :)


The 11 strong team split into 3 groups and below are their individual trip reports.

Rhino Rift - Duncan

Arriving at the spot where one parks up we changed and duly walked off in the wrong direction. Fortunately another caver pointed us in the correct direction and with the GPS we found the entrance of Rhino rift!

Duncan, Morgan and Bob at the entrance of Rhino

Having warned Helen that the St Cuthbert's entrance was a bit of a challenge getting out she warned us that the right hand route, a route using spits, was impossible to find and follow.

Morgan was keen to lead and build upon his existing rigging experience. At the top of the first pitch he found the first spit started out and then could find no more! So he had to de-rig and follow the p-bolts on the left hand wall. Helen was right… humph…..

Morgan abandoning the right-hand side of the first pitch as the spits mysteriously disappeared! You can see the p-bolts on the left wall.

As with many SRT trips it is a lonely pursuit with each of us keeping a safe distance. We eventually congregated at the top of the third and final pitch. An exposed traverse out to a Y-hang. The ropes had been packed in order for the right hand route so Morgan ran out of rope on the final pitch and had to set up a mid-rope knot pass. Bob passed this and then it was my turn. I was at the Y-hang on the final 20m. I could see the mid-rope knot. In all the years of caving I had never actually done a mid-rope knot pass and although I should have enough skills to “work it out” I did not feel confident and felt hanging around 20m above the ground was not the time or place to “have a go”. So I bailed out on the final bit and did not join the others at the bottom of the cave. So I (Duncan) have damn good reason to improve my SRT skills and visit Rhino again!

Bob descending the third and final pitch.

The ascent out was trouble free and we exited the cave into miserable cold and wet weather.

St.Cuthbert’s Swallet - Helen

Malcolm and I (Helen) travelled up from Cardiff on the Saturday morning arriving at the Shepton Mallet hut to find out that our original plan – Thrupe Lane Swallet - was cancelled due to heavy rain forecasted later that day. So we hopped onto the St Cuthbert’s Swallet guided trip with Richard, Mason and Trevor, thinking this would be a nice, easy option... Duncan’s passing comment as we left the hut was “great trip! But the entrance series is a beast…” humph…..

Mason and Trevor at the Belfry
We walked across to the BEC (just a few meters away) to be met by the smell of a huge fry up and a tonne of excited “new to caving” students from Nottingham about to be initiated by Swildons. Our guide for the day Estelle arrived with James, who was going to lead us as part of his training to become a leader. Our plan was to do one of the many round trips.

We walked to the manhole entrance which is in the scruffy ground only a few meters away from the Belfry. One by one we slid down the drainpipe and the following tight rift, which is part of the entrance series. Estelle warned us to save some energy for the rift on the way out. We carried on down through the entrance series via Wire Rift and fixed ladders.

Richard at the Railway Tunnel Curtain

Once on the main part of the round trip we negotiated a number of obstacles and mini challenges. There was plenty of fine stal such as the famous “Fingers” and fine curtains.

We noted the big slabs of rock of Everest and K2 and turned around at Gour Hall short of the downstream sump.

Mason nearly at the top of Everest
On the way back up the cave we visited passages such Plantation Passage and Harem Passage, remembered by two Madonna like breasts…the Railway Tunnel, a bold step in the Rabbit Warren, the Cascade and the Water Chute.

Malcolm at the Water Chute near Arete
The exit, although quick was in my opinion jolly hard work. We each took it in turns to head up the rift and when it was my turn I huffed, heaved and panted, bruising my knees and elbows, blaming my lack of upper body strength. Little sounds of encouragement by Richard at the top of rift finally ensured I was up and out.

Out to a damp, dank day, but duly rewarded by a welcome pint in the Hunters. Many thanks to Estelle and James our guides for the day.

Up and out… Malcolm, Richard, Trevor, James, Estelle and Helen
Saturday evening Richard, Tarquin, Duncan, Jo and Andrew headed over to the Queen Vic for some pub grub and Liz dropped in to say hello and update us on her chickens.

Back at the Shepton, Wealden members had arrived to bolster numbers; the evening passed with drinks and challenges set by Tarquin to get through that damn table!

Upper Flood- Jo

On Saturday morning Tarquin, Andrew and I met our guides Richard and Andy at the MCG hut. Usually there is only one leader but there were some ladders that needed checking so we had one extra. Once changed we headed to the cave, which soon diminishes to a mixture of hands and knees crawling and stooping, interspersed with the occasional damp bit (I was glad I’d brought my wetsuit!). This is soon followed by the boulder choke and then the canal (more wet crawling).

After this the streamway is followed for a while (with only occasional wet crawling) until Neverland is reached. The journey up to here took around 2 hours and was very pretty with lots of interesting features to look at along the way (despite it not being the 'pretty' bit)

Not the pretty bit…
Once you reach Neverland you have to take your oversuits off and wash your wellies to protect the formations. The passage up to the pork pie formations is covered from top to bottom in calcite is very stunning. Those in furry suits were feeling the chill so there wasn't chance to get many photos on this trip.

Morgan admiring the ‘Pork Pie’ formations with Richard supervising.

Next we headed to check the in situ ladders to see how they were faring. The first ladder was looking a bit worse for wear and plans were being made for its replacement. The second was faring much better. The formations in this section of cave, which I understand is rarely visited, were absolutely stunning and must be very old.

It was then time to make the return journey back out of the cave (back to wet crawling...) By the time we were nearing the exit my knees were feeling very sore, despite 3 layers of Neoprene! I was glad to finally reach the end by which time I was looking forward to a shower and a good pub meal.

The trip took us about 6 hours, much of which was wet crawling (in case I hadn't mentioned), but the formations we saw were amazing. Upper Flood is one of the most (if not the most) well decorated cave I've been in and was well worth the aches the following morning!

Thanks to our leaders Richard and Andy for a brilliant trip into a stunning cave.


The remaining people split into two groups: Tarquin hooking up with Wealden club members to visit Fairy Quarry, the rest visiting GB cave.

GB Cave - Duncan

Sunday was a lazy start with Jo and Andrew rolling up at 11am. Whilst Jo and I have visited GB Cave before Andrew had not and with none of us desperate for a mega trip we opted for a short round trip in GB.

After picking up the key at the BEC, we headed over to Charterhouse area and parked up in the official parking spot. Changed, we stomped over to the cave entrance bathed in sunshine.

Duncan, Jo and Andrew wondering why they are going underground on such a gloriously sunny day!
Andrew took the lead and navigated the system with little intervention from me. Jo and I took several photos and below are a couple of the ones that came out.

We bumped into Clive Westlake and his team who were enjoying the system and I think getting roped into some photography… ;)

Jo and Andrew in the White Passage.
The round trip requires us to do an easy but exposed climb up the right hand side of the waterfall. Under these low flow conditions you just get a quick soaking as you cross over at the top of the waterfall. Under high flow conditions, probably not so easy [or smart]...

Climbing the waterfall allows for a round trip.

2½ hours later and we were out! Back at the hut, a quick cuppa then the inevitable soul sucking travel home.

Fairy Quarry - Tarquin

The caves in Fairy Cave Quarry have a special place in British caving history; some of the best decorated caves in Britain, found by quarrying, then progressively destroyed by the quarrying, with the quarry master torn between protecting the caves, and maintaining the quarry's output. (See the film A Rock and a Hard Place for more on that
story.) But while taking away, the quarry also exposed further caves, including ones with even better decorations. And so far, a set of caves on my wishlist that I had never visited, despite a long history of Mendip caving.

It wasn't on the SWCC plan, but there were not enough SRTers of us left on the Sunday for a Rhino Rift bag retrieval trip, and I was offered the chance to join another club's led trip to Fairy Cave Quarry. Scheduling restrictions meant the trip could not start until midday, which left little time for caving, with us all needing to get away before evening. The main destination was Shatter Cave, one of the finest in the quarry. A photographic trip would take forever here, as there is simply so much to attract the camera, so we intentionally left them behind.

After a fight with the padlocks, we gained access to the cave and its collection of cave spiders and peppered moths. The early passage is full of recent breakdown, caused by the quarry works. Remnants of stal were scattered everywhere, with deep scratches on the flowstone caused by the falling rocks. The blasting damage abruptly ended, and the formations returned in their glory, chamber after chamber of stunning decorations, more like a conceptual painting than a real cave. The most memorable sets are Tor Hall, with its helictites, curtains, and a large stalagmite boss reminiscent of Glastonbury Tor, and the Leaning Tower of Piza, a leaning stalagmite surrounded by helictites.

An awkward squeeze then brought us to a final chamber, with ludicrously large crystals growing from a dried crystal pool, and immaculate calcite pillars. At this point, a short loop returned us to the Leaning Tower. A chance sighting of a rather special formation mandated the use of a camera, so I left the party and sped (carefully - the cave is precious) back to the gate. Several minutes fighting with the padlock, I returned to the car, collected my phone, and sped back to the cave. Returning through the system, I reached the formation and took out the phone, snapped my pictures, and hurried back to the others, who had just reached the old gate part way into the cave.

We were hoping to visit W/L cave as well, but the padlocks were determined not to open. Despite several attempts by a few of the team members, proper use of the keys (which is rather more difficult than might be expected) resulted in the padlocks remaining firmly shut. They won this fight.

We resorted to exploring some of the remaining fragments of Balch cave, whose interconnecting decorated chambers were lost to the quarry.
Avoiding the fragments that are used by greater horseshoe bats, there were still enough hints to show what the formations would have been like in the chambers, but without much left to actually admire. Several parts had obvious tar infiltration from the quarry, and odd dry rot branches sprawling through the cave. The greater horseshoes, which hang together in clusters with their wings only partly covering them, apparently use certain parts of the cave, now it has been opened to the surface, but seem not to mind the tar pollution.

Then a visit to Hilliers (again, there are parts of the system used by the bats, and these parts are simply avoided, treated as "closed"). This was a complete contrast to Shatter. Dropping down below the quarry floor, we entered a flood-prone passage with a very clear mud tidemark above our heads. This led for a considerable distance to its junction with Fairy Cave. Beyond here, the passage became well decorated, sadly marred by the occasional piles of spent carbide, dumped liberally over the formations. Occasional crawls and chokes increased in frequency, until a squeeze spelled the start of the lengthy choke. This terminated in the Red Room, where red and orange stained stal gave the impression of standing inside a surgical procedure.

On our return, we paid a visit to the non-bat-colonised parts of Fairy Cave, passing through a duck (half way up your face when crawling through), with me trying to keep my poor phone dry in my hand. A few oddly placed signs (eg. "Straw stalactite") gave hints that this was once a show cave of sorts, though the crawls made it far less of a show cave than one might imagine. Tree roots spelled the start of the bat area, so our trip ended there, with a sight of the lesser horseshoe bats hanging on to the tree roots like clothes on a washing line.

3 caves, 4 trips. Stunning place, and definitely deserving of return visits. Thanks to our trip leader for showing us around, and my hosts for allowing me to join their trip.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Provisionals' Weekend

24 people chose to come and try caving with SWCC this Bonfire Weekend. This wasn't quite a record for us - the highest number I remember during my time running these weekends has been 28 - but it was still incredibly high and excellent to see. The club was the busiest it has been in recent memory with all beds taken on the Friday night, plus people camping outside and sleeping in vans. This made for a highly sociable weekend and a bumper firework display as people were encouraged to bring one large firework with them. It was amazing!

Those totally new to caving had a great time and a large number of them have already chosen to continue caving with us! This is excellent news and we welcome them to the club. Here are some photos from the weekend.

Sian, Ed, Dave, Matt and Fred

Josh and Malcolm

Bob,Edd, Rich and Phil

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