Monday, 31 August 2015

Devon weekend: bot flies, squeezes, mud and formations!

August 22nd-23rd 2015

Team: SWCC: Andy Freem, Antonia Freem, Lel Davies, Duncan Hornby, Iain Miller, Claire Vivian
PCG: - Bernard Page

On the Friday we all descended upon Buckfastleigh. The traffic was appalling to get there for all concerned. The M4 had been like a carpark for the South Wales contingent and Duncan had given up for a rest at Dorchester after crawling along at an average of 10 miles an hour for most of his trip. But at least the South Wales crew had been lucky enough to drop in on fellow SWCC members Lizzy ‘chicken whisper’ Wire and Matt ‘DIY king’ Wire for a spot of lunch on the way down to Devon.

Lizzy ‘chicken whisperer’ Wire

As part of the group had campervans we stayed in separate locations. Claire and Duncan at the Devon Spelaeological Society Club Hut, whilst the Freems, Lel and Iain grabbed their campervan spots in Church Hill campsite. For us at the DSS hut we were quickly enlarged by the addition of 7 members from the Gloucester Speleological Society. Needless to say much drink was done and GSS got into a “gross out” competition of who had had the worst disease. When one member started talking about squeezing out bot fly larvae from his eyebrow I gave up and went to bed…

For those who have never stayed at the DSS hut; it is a small, clean and homely hut conveniently within town a short walk from pubs and shops. The only complaint is a fire alarm has been expertly placed above the cooker and is linked to all others in the hut so when GSS started cooking their breakfast I was awoken by a high pitch shrill 1.5m away from my head. Not a great way to start the day!

Trip 1 - Baker’s Pit

Saturday, Claire and I drove over to the campsite and met up with the others. Lel chilled out for the day (also got lumped with the car keys) whilst the rest headed off to Baker’s Pit. To my surprise the entrance really was in the next field! It is a concrete tube and gated (key can be acquired from DSS hut).

Baker’s Pit entrance guarded by Devon’s finest first line of defence!

The 5 of us entered Baker’s at the same time and followed an excellent description of the cave provided by Glenn Phleps (DSS). We managed to find the climb up to the Plymouth Extensions with only 2 very slight deviations from the correct route. I (Claire) arrived first and found myself looking up at an unlikely looking hole above my head. This was the start of the tight 5m climb to the upper series. From the ground it looked a little intimidating, but doable, so I gave it a try. There was no chance of turning around, bending my knees very much, or moving my head greatly once in the climb which made it slightly awkward finding footholds and handholds. Gravity did not help either. I didn’t need to take my helmet off to get through, and this reassured me as I knew I had been through tighter places. Once I was committed to the climb, my main concern was avoiding slipping back down and landing on someone, rather than worrying about how narrow it was.

I don’t think I climbed it in the most elegant fashion, but I got up, and waited for the others to follow. Duncan tried next. He got to the tightest part of the climb and then, finding it pressing tightly on his chest, backed out. He tried again and the same thing happened. Iain and Andy then had a go too and both decided that they could not fit. I suggested looping a couple of slings through an eyehole on my side of the climb to provide better hand and footholds. I did this and Duncan attempted the climb once again. He got through the tightest part this time, but found it very uncomfortable and was worried about getting back down through it. This made him decide to go back down right away and not follow me through. Antonia was the only person left to face the climb. Unsurprisingly, she had no problems with it. This then meant that the trip had to split in two. Antonia and I would go and explore the Plymouth Extensions for an hour (it ended up being closer to 1.5 hours) and the others would explore the lower passages.

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Duncan squeezing upwards towards the Plymouth Extensions

Looking down on Duncan as he attempts to pass the tightest part of the climb

At the top of the climb, it was only a few metres of walking and crawling before we reached Plymouth Chamber. This chamber was more wide than high and had 4 rifts across its floor. My first impression of this level of the extensions was that navigation was going to be tricky. The whole area was like a swiss cheese. There were potential ways on everywhere and the survey was already mud covered and difficult to read. According to the description, the way to the next level was to cross these rifts and head straight across the chamber. We did this and shortly came upon Jam Jar Aven. I took one look at the climb here and decided it was too terrifying for me. Antonia had a look too and whilst she thought she could probably do it, she didn’t fancy risking falling down the rift at the base of the climb. Both of us were aware at this point that if anything went wrong here, the rest of the group couldn’t get into the series and a rescue would be a nightmare. We contented ourselves by alternately exploring and getting lost in this lower level for an hour or so more, ending our exploration at Flower Pot Passage. There were some nice formations to see and I hear there are more in the rest of the Extensions. Arriving back at the climb down to the lower series, I thought it looked slightly worse from this side as we were now covered in mud and slippery. But it didn’t actually pose too much of a problem. Hopefully we will return to explore the rest of Plymouth Extensions one day, when I have the courage to face that climb. Antonia and I then continued to explore the rest of the lower series getting as far as the lake and Crystal Corridor.

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This is how the survey looked during our visit to the Plymouth Extensions. No wonder route finding seemed tricky…

Antonia and the Judge.

Whilst Antonia and Claire explored the Plymouth extensions Andy, Iain and I continued exploring the rest of the cave. There were many well worn routes that led us around in circles. We covered all areas but one. Eventually Iain headed back to the surface whilst Andy and I explored a little more then took some photos. 

Trip Time: 5 Hours for visiting most of the cave, including Plymouth extensions.

This “Cave pearl” like formation is close to the entrance

Antonia exiting Baker’s Pit.

Watch a short film of our trip into Bakers pit

In the evening we all meet up at the local Indian restaurant and enjoyed a meal.

Saturday night at the local curry house.

Whilst the campervan team headed back to the campsite Claire and I checked out a local pub, which was bizarrely hotter than a sauna.

Trip 2 - Reed’s

A great and wise man (Homer Simpson) once said, “why bother trying it’s the first step to failure”.

Sunday, got up on time, had breakfast, paid hut fees, packed kit, got over to the campsite, kitted up, marched off towards Pengelly centre to meet Bernard with time to spare only to realise the direction we had set off in was in the exact opposite leading back into Buckfastleigh… We were 20 minutes late with poor Andy suffering terribly with his sciatica.

Mr Freem is made of the right stuff and went from hobbling around looking most unhappy to shooting up the ladder and straight into the cave! A lesser man would have fallen to the wayside.

Lel and Iain enjoyed a visit to the local Abbey.

Entrance into Reed’s

Bernard Page, a cave leader, took us on a round trip in Reed’s visiting the iconic formations of the cave and informed us of the history of the cave. We saw interesting dog tooth crystals, the quirky “little man” formation and a ginormous Androniscus dentiger (see photos below).

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Duncan admiring formations just within the entrance to Reed’s

A band of dog tooth felspar

The “Little Man” and its reflection in a pool.

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Close-up of the “Little Man”. Can you see his top hat? And those are his shoulders, he is not doing an Egyptian walk!

The surprising large Androniscus dentiger , image of caver added for scale.

After exiting Reed’s we popped into the short Joint Mitnor Cave to see an unusual set of animals bones.

Trip time (including Joint Mitnor Cave): < 3 Hours.

Watch a short film of our visit into Reeds here

Trip 3 - Bunker’s Hole

After visiting Reed’s and Joint Mitnor Cave Bernard took Claire and Duncan to Bunker’s Hole, a small cave a short drive south of Buckfastleigh. After a quick change back into our caving gear, we headed across a field to a small woodland that hid a depression. The depression was a dark and dank place. Bunker’s Hole entrance is a small opening hidden by ferns, rotting tree branches and Foster’s beer cans…

A steeply descending entrance (5m) leads to a flat out crawl (10m) to a gate. The gate was unlocked and Bernard entered the chamber quickly followed by Claire. I on the other hand came to a grinding halt. The gate hides a tight right angle bend into a narrow uphill tube. On my third attempt Claire took my caving helmet, I breathed out and forced myself up this restricted entrance. I was short enough to get round the corner and align myself with the tube. This would be an exceedingly (if not impossible) difficult squeeze for tall people or anyone larger than average size

Duncan in the squeeze in Bunker’s Hole.

Whilst the cave is very short and guarded by a tight and unpleasant squeeze the rewards are worth the effort. The low chamber (~30m long) is only big enough to crawl around in on your hands and knees and is packed full of stunning Aragonite crystals. Great care needs to be taken as in some places you really are surrounded by them.

We spent about 30 minutes marvelling at these fantastic formations and taking photos. My experience was somewhat marred by that constant voice in the back of one's head “ are going to have to go through that bloody squeeze again…”. Thankfully it was much easier going out and the last 5m out of the cave was probably the most awkward bit.

Duncan exits Bunker’s Hole

Anyone saying there are no formations in Devon caves is talking rubbish, check out these beauties!

Trip time: < 1 Hour

Aragonite formation in Bunker’s Hole, Devon.

Aragonite formations in Bunker’s Hole, Devon.

Aragonite formation in Bunker’s Hole, Devon.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Brown’s Caving Tours. Part 1: Llygad Llwchwr, 25.08.2015

Team: Adrian Brown, Steve Hepple, Carl Rickard, Tabitha, Paul Tarrant, Claire Vivian

What better way to round off a work day than having a caving trip in the evening? Particularly when that trip is with the first rate company of Adrian Brown, Carl Rickard and Paul Tarrant, includes a leap in to cold water and some swimming to wake you up. Yet, this was not all. Tonight’s visit to Llygad Llwchwr was also going to be an introduction to SWCC caving for new provisional member, Steve Hepple, and potential provisional member, Tabitha, as well as a chance for Paul to try out his new camera.
Steve, Tabitha, Paul, Adrian and Carl ready to go.
Adrian has spent a lot of time in Llygad and knows it extremely well, so he was in charge tonight. He had a sporting round trip in mind that would exhilarate us and have us laughing at the same time. We met at 7pm on the roadside near the cave and after introductions and only minimal faffing, we headed to the cave.

Warning sign near the entrance to Llygad Llwchwr.

Steve had been to Llygad before and so partially knew what to expect. Tabitha, on the other hand, had not been here before and so found the entrance and some of the crawls a little exciting. To begin with, all the usual places were visited: First River Chamber, the Calcite Pool, the Column, Boulder Chamber, the Parting of the Ways and River Chambers 3 and 4. Then we went a little off piste by jumping off the Balcony into the Second River Chamber. NB. The water is shallow below the Balcony and only deep enough to jump in safely if you jump outwards and land in a hole under the water. At that point it is enough for a complete submersion (water levels depending). 

Tabitha in River Chamber 1
Adrian knew what he was doing. He rigged a ladder for those who didn’t fancy the jump tonight and also for us to climb out afterwards (avoiding the awkward 4m climb up the Balcony). He then jumped first and stood there with his light pointing at the hole, showing everyone else where to aim for. Tabitha was keen to go next and had no trouble. She was quickly followed by Claire and Carl. We then all waded/swam down river, hanging on to the muddy walls where possible. There was plenty of screaming and laughing as the cold water gradually went down necks, or over heads in some cases, when underwater holes were not spotted in time. We then climbed up in to the Roof Series. There was a slightly awkward move on a climb around a corner above the river that made some members of the group nervous, but everyone managed it without a hitch. 

Adrian, happy as ever. (Photo: Paul Tarrant)

After drying off a bit, it was now time to enter the river again (!) and we waded/swam back to the ladder in the Second River Chamber. Some slight drama and acrobatics ensued here when Adrian's carabiner almost got dropped in the river twice. Then there were more crawls on the way out and some spider spotting near the entrance (‘Eugh! Look at the giant egg sac above your head!!’). Then it was time to exit. This was done in several different styles and degrees of safety including some methods termed by Tabitha as the ’breached birth’ and ‘floppy pretzel’. The trip time was around 2¼ hours by the time we arrived back at the cars, and it was fully dark as we got changed. 

If anyone fancies joining in with evening trips contact:
Tabitha squeezing through

Stopping for a breather (Photo: Paul Tarrant)

Adrian and Steve admire formations (Photo: Paul Tarrant)

Claire emerging from a crawl (Photo: Paul Tarrant)

Historical survey of Llygad Llwchwr (Source:

Friday, 28 August 2015

Climbs, Castles and Tunnels. North Wales 15-16 Aug. 2015

Vince Allkins, Kim Allkins, Pete Francis, Andy Freem, Antonia Freem,  Harvey Lomas, Paul Tarrant and Claire Vivian

The last time I had camped in North Wales with the club, we could have made more use of a dinghy than a tent. The rain rarely stopped for more than a few minutes and the poor weather ensured a failed attempt at summitting Snowdon by 2 of the group, thanks to the gusts of wind which were periodically knocking them off their feet. That had been two years ago in August. It was August now. So it was with this in mind that I packed my tent, waterproofs, shorts, sun cream and wellies. Afterall, summer time in North Wales, who knows which way it will go?

Following an uneventful drive up we found the campsite, Corn Bwch, near St. Asaph and Andy, Antonia and myself set up camp. It wasn’t raining, the tent didn’t fly away like a kite when I put it up and the site was not a mud bath. This certainly boded well for the weekend. Saturday dawned bright and clear, if a little chilly, but no rain!! So off we set to sample some climbs of the area. The Dyserth Castle slab was the closest and therefore our first port of call.

 Andy on Tegengle, 6a

Andy and Antonia are much better climbers than I am so they shot off leading up 6a routes, just to warm up. I followed on a top rope. We did 4 routes each in the quarry, the hardest being a 6b+ which even I managed to get up somehow and without too much swearing, though I doubt it looked anywhere near as elegant as Andy and Antonia’s smooth climbing style.


Antonia powering up Llewelyn ap Gruffydd to Neil Crud 6b-                             Claire leading Jason and the Aga Nuts, 5.

Contrary to my first suspicions, the smooth slab that looked totally hand and foothold free from the ground did actually have some friction when you were on it. I also managed to do my first outdoor lead climb on the slab here. It was only a 5 (Jason and the Aga Nuts), and I didn’t kill myself or anyone else in the process, so we shall judge it a success. We climbed at Dyserth for around 3 hours then had a quick lunch. With a whole afternoon still to go we headed to Castle Inn quarry for more climbing routes, passing the pretty Rhuddlan Castle on the way.
Antonia walking near Dyserth
Rhuddlan Castle
With the shortest possible walk in (the car park is at the base of the climb), more routes were accomplished at Castle Inn. Where we had been the only climbers at Dyserth, Castle Inn was packed with people, including a group from Plas y Brenin. Andy and Antonia completed even harder, longer, routes here with the most difficult being a 6c. They were only stopped by Andy’s new climbing shoes which were attempting to amputate his toe. I was content with top roping a 5, leading a 4+, belaying and then playing with a dog in the car park. When we returned to the campsite Harvey had just arrived and Pete was only a few minutes away. We had dinner out at the nearby Farmer’s Arms, which was in the middle of nowhere yet had some of the best pub food I’ve had in a long while. With the temperature getting cooler and cooler the 5 of us headed back to the campsite. The skies were clear; it was going to be a chilly night! I started out in basic pyjamas, yet, after waking up shivering at 3am, by the end of the night I also wore my thermal base layers, caving undersuit and walking socks. But at least it still wasn’t raining...

                                                                                                                              Andy and Antonia at Castle Inn Quarry                                               Antonia reaching some flowstone               
The team kitted up and ready to visit the Milwr Tunnel

Harvey, Claire, Pete, Andy and Antonia at the Farmer's Arms
We had arranged to meet our Milwr Tunnel leaders, Nick and Graham, at 10am at a quarry a short drive away. Unusually, we ended up arriving early and being ready with plenty of time to spare. We were also met by the rest of the SWCC clan. Vince, Kim and Paul had decided to drive up from South Wales for the day, instead of camping. They has set out at the ungodly hour of 6am, and spotted a drunk driver swerving from side to side of the road on the way up, they called the police and waited while they arrived to arrest him. So they had already had an exciting day and all I’d done so far was have breakfast. Yet, the trip itself would soon make all their excitement from the early morning drive pale in to insignificance. For those unfamiliar with the area, Milwr Tunnel is a 10 mile long drainage tunnel that runs from sea level at Bagillt, through the Halkyn Mountain to Cadole, near Mold. The tunnelling began in 1897 and the tunnel was completed by 1957. Milwr drains over 50 lead veins above and has a labyrinth of over 60 miles of interconnected passageways. It is an impressive place with an equally impressive history (check out Cris Ebbs’ book) and access is controlled by the friendly and enthusiastic Grosvenor Caving Club.  
Nick providing the group with some history of the tunnel (Photo: Andy and Antonia Freem)

The original point of entry to the Milwr Tunnel, was the Olwyn Goch shaft. This was 400 ft deep laddered shaft. However, in recent years it had become unstable but, thanks to considerable effort on the part of Grosvenor CC, a new entrance was uncovered and dug out nearby. Following a short crawl inside the entrance we began our descent of the 23 ladders. Echoes of ‘ladder free’ resounded around the shaft and there were platforms and walking sections in between the ladders which made them easier to handle, with the longest ladder being around 30m. Down and down we descended, our guides sharing their knowledge of the tunnel and surrounding lead mine as we went. We finally reached the bottom of the entry shaft, turned left and began to walk on the tracks heading down the Milwr Tunnel itself towards the Powell’s Lode Cavern. There is a drainage channel running down the left-hand side of the tunnel and this contains fast flowing, yet incredibly clear, water. The line is laid on timbers and at times the water covers the tracks. We turned right at a branch line and headed towards Powell’s Lode Cavern. The massive lake that exists in this chamber is incredible. The water is clear – apparently there are freshwater eels in there, but we did not see any on the day – and the lake is very DEEP, reportedly diveable and around 200ft deep. Nick told us that for many years spoil had been tipped in to the lake and this had no affect whatsoever on the water level! The chamber was lit up for us with the aid of a generator and it looked amazing! It proved to be a great place to stop for lunch.

Kim at the lake in Powell's Lode cavern (Photo: Andy and Antonia Freem)

Following our short rest break we headed back to the base of the shaft. I, for one, thought this was going to be the end of our trip. I was pleasantly surprised to find, that this was only the end of the first half of the trip! We would now go on to view the very impressive chambers where Pilkington Glass quarried limestone. Our first stop was to see an immense chamber that had only recently been discovered in the limestone workings and had been lit up specially for our visit. We climbed up on to a balcony to take in the full size of the chamber and then walked to look at some drip pits nearby. An extended exploration of the limestone workings then took place and included a chance to walk across the famous limestone bridge there. At the end of the limestone workings is a scramble up backfill. We climbed up this to look back down the tunnel and it was only really here that the scale of the place became truly apparent.

The bridge in the limestone workings
The return journey up the ladders seemed to pass quicker than the trip down. Naturally, Nick, our guide, sped up each of the ladders leaving the rest of us to trudge up at our own pace. Our total trip time had been 7.5 hours. Yet the time had passed quickly and it did not seem anywhere near that long. It had been an excellent trip. I usually prefer mines to caves, but this trip has definitely made it in to my top 10 underground trips and I highly recommend it. Thank you Grosvenor Caving Club!

View down the tunnel from the backfill slope (both photos by Brendan Marris)

An old mine train still in situ (Photo: Pete Francis)

Old limestone workings (Photo: Pete Francis)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Sod Caving - this is much more fun!

The team were all prepared for a day of underground adventure but . . . . . . the water was just too tempting.
Keith Edwards
Brendan Marris
Mark Burkey

Filmed at Llygad Llwchwr on Sunday 23rd August 2015.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Draenen Round.....Take 2

I'm not quite sure how, but for Saturday's trip I managed to talk Brendan in to having another crack at the Draenen round trip.

We had attempted this a few weeks before, but amusingly Brendan had been time keeper that day and nearing the half way point declared it 5pm and that we had spent too long route finding and would need to head back to be sure of making our call out time. It wasn't till back and changing at the car that we realised that Brendan's watch has a duel clock function and that we had actually been fine to have continued!

We had reached Haggis Basher Number 1, and I must say I hadn't been too gutted to turn around at this intimidating looking rift.
To calm my nerves I did a little research in to the trip and came across a trip report by Paul Fairman who is of similar chest size. Unfortunately this did little to ease my nerves, saying that the Haggis Basher was snug, but there was worse to come in the last boulder choke before Tea Junction. I put this to the back of my mind and figured I'd worry about it when I got there.

Brendan, Jess and I were travelling to South Wales together so there was no rush and after a leisurely start to the day we made our way in at around 11am. We paused for a quick photo in the phreatic entrance rift before continuing on to sign in at Cairn Junction. At the junction with Wonderbra  Bypass, Brendan and I dumped the camera gear.

We had no problem retracing the route we had picked a few weeks before and made our way to Lamb and Fox Chamber and up through Indiana Highway. Megadrive seemed to take less time than I remembered, but the next section through The Nunnery and Perserverance to Saint David's Hall seemed to take longer. We had no issues going through Squirrel Rifts and were soon dropping down to the tight passage to Haggis Basher Number One. I knew from previous experience that the only way to deal with these things is not to think about it and dived in first. It turned out that this crawl looks more intimidating than it really is and is only cozy at the very end and then not an actual squeeze.
Once all through we thought we'd have a look at an area described as having good formations and it did indeed (will have to take the camera all the way round next time!)
Next was Far Agent Blorenge, this large meandering stream passage is very impressive and again I wished I'd brought the camera all the way. At the connection to the Sewer we wasted a few minutes before Brendan spotted the climb up. The Sewer didn't disappoint and was both cold and very wet. The awkward climb again lived up to it's name. We missed the chimney up to bypass the 2nd sewer and were completely soaked making our way through.
As we made our way on to Tea junction we reached an awkward squeeze through boulders that I instantly recognised from Paul's trip report. There are a couple of boulders that dig in the ribs and no matter how you rotate there just doesn't seem to be a comfortable way through for the larger caver. Although tight and awkward it is only a pinch point and as long as you don't mind a light scrape of the ribs it's all over quickly.
At Tea Junction Jess waited whilst Brendan and I popped up Wonderbra to grab our camera gear.
Here we spent a little time grabbing a few shots before heading out for a good meal in Crickhowell before continuing on to the SWCC.

Jess in the entrance series

Jess at Tea Junction

Present: Brendan Marris, Jess Burkey & Brendan Marris