I am someone that would happily try anything once (and usually is it only once!) and one thing I have never properly tried was caving. Not the walk-down-steps,-admire-the-view-wide-caverns-show-cave type caving, but the you’ll-slip-slide-crawl-and-squeeze-yourself-into-tight-spaces caving.
So, the opportunity arose this weekend with the Phoenix Archer Explorer Scout Unit and I thought “now, rather than never“… as previously, I’ve always said never. The idea of tight spaces, chest compressing squeezing and that no-way-out feeling has never sounded fun to me. Never,never, never.
I blame The Descent as well. That movie gave me nightmares. (I was reassured that nothing more sinister than bats dwelled in this cave. No vampires either. Yay!)
The cave is approximately 750 metres (2,500 ft) long and reaches a depth of 55 m (180 ft) and an interesting passage at it’s “end”, which I will explain later.
This cave has an interesting history, the Victorians, in the early 1900s, tried to turn it into a show cave and as you enter you can see where they started to cut steps into the rock and install iron handrails but abandoned the idea for unknown reasons.
The journey from Swindon is easy and quick, only 1 hour and 20 minutes (traffic depending). When we got there we used the nearby free carpark and geared up in a boiler suit, helmet and waist belt and made our way to the entrance.
There are two entrances to this cave (which is reassuring to the oh-my-what-if-the-entrance-closes-up worrier in me) and we went via the most common (and signposted) main entrance. A quick slide down (I slid but cavers don’t usually at this point. I just like sliding down things) and we were in the first part.
The rock here is limestone and, because it’s a popular cave, is highly polished and slippery in places making traction hard at first until you adjust to foot placement (or are on a flat bit).
Our instructors took us down the Giant Stairs, where you have to slide down a bit, avoid sliding down IN A HOLE, turn yourself around and climb down (fun!) – then we went along to the “Bloody Tight/Superman Squeeze” (where you have to put one arm forward to squeeze through the short passage) where you can squeeze through or walk around it (guess what I did…).
Here’s a video of one of our Explorer Scouts squeezing himself out the end bit:
Into the Boulder Chamber area – apparently, pretty much every cave has a ‘boulder chamber’, often a large chamber with large rocks caused by a ceiling collapse; this one was fun to explore (just avoid any holes in the floor!) and look at the interesting rock formations. Cavers have found inscribed marks on the walls… “Three finely cut marks were uncovered, resembling the letter W with a patina darker than in nearby graffiti dated 1704. These have been identified as ritual protection marks, possibly dating from the period 1550 to 1750. The term ritual protection mark was preferred to the description “witch marks” Wikipedia, 2018 (possibly to stop the witches from dwelling in the caves?)
There was a lot of tighter smaller routes to squeeze down, which I did enjoy as they weren’t constricting and you had to think about your foot and hand placement – definitely a mental challenge. There’s something fun about sliding/pushing yourself down somewhere small and putting all of your limbs on any available surface!
In the complex network of dry passages of this cave, one notable passage is a thin phreatic tube known as ‘The Drainpipe’ right at the “end” of the cave. This is a long tight wriggle through 30 ft (9 m – though some say 12m) of a passageway (after a hairpin bend) that is only practically navigable whilst travelling forwards and ends up in a small blind-ending boulder chamber; the only way out is to turn around and go back through again – all on your hands and knees – easy for little ones, not so for bigger people!
Our Explorers gave it a go, but I wasn’t in the mood to squeeze through this passage, again tight spaces make me nervous. One day I might give it a go… (Nah!)
The thing about going down in a cave means you have to come up again! By this point, you’re feeling a tad tired so a chocolate break is needed and we enjoyed ours back in the wet chamber (that was dry). Well deserved, and we were going to need the energy for the next bit…
Next up was the “Coffin Lid” – this is a smoothed slope with a low roof above you; you have to grip both sides and, also using your feet, pull/push yourself up against it. It is lovingly named “Coffin Lid” as it does indeed resemble a coffin lid! I’d like to give this one a go again -both going up it and down – it was hard to do but so interesting and fun to shimmy up (James did help me this time, but next time…) Kudos to James for supporting my fat arse on this bit!
Back climbing up through the chamber, through the boulder maze, through the maze and out of the entrance – hardwearing on your knees and elbows.
This cave was a good fun couple of hours of exploration, which I imagine, will be even more fun again on the next visit as there are still more areas to explore and things to try either again, or new. I didn’t feel concerned about the darkness; I kept switching off my head torch as I like the dark and, by the time we got to the bottom my fears about blind carnivorous creatures using echolocation to hunt us was gone (there were lots of little kids in the passages, they would have been victims first…)
I only found one (two, if you include the Coffin Lid) major difficult bit for myself, which was through the maze heading up and back out, as my large hips (read: fat arse) made it difficult for me to switch feet on a foothold in a tight space and push myself up – this did take a while! Other than that, I found the sliding parts the best fun, clambering over boulders and going down into the cave was exciting, however, overall I still prefer to have ‘space’ around me (and to be attached to a rope)!
So I’m left with a nice collection of bruises on my knees and elbows (yes, my legs are as pale as a ghost and very light compared to my arms that actually get to see the sun) but I don’t feel sore at all (yet!).
I’m glad I gave this a go, I have been on previous trips to these caves with Scouts but never ventured beyond the minibus. I would happily go down this cave again and look to do another, though I won’t be rushing out to buy the kit anytime soon… I prefer seeing the sky above me. Although, Swildon’s Hole sounds interesting…