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.