Reading University Caving Club

The Belfry, 21st – 23rd October 2016

For our second weekend trip of the autumn term and hot on the tail of our day trip to the Mendips, we piled into our minibus and headed back to the West Country to once again visit The Belfry. We kick-started our weekend with a traditional trip to the nearby Hunter’s Lodge for a pint or several of the deceptively potent Farmhouse Cider, before breaking out the playing cards and launching into a game of Ring of Fire – this one with an ingenious new ‘sniper!’ rule which had people under the hut’s table long before alcohol consumption made this an inevitability rather than a choice. Despite bowing out from the drunken shenanigans in the early hours of the morning, leaving the remainder of the club to practice contorting their way around a broom, I was able to gage the rest of the night from the pained grunts and bleary eyed, thousand-yard-stares the next morning; thankfully Ben, our resident cooking wizard, was on hand to serve up a magnificent fry-up breakfast to serve as pre-caving damage control.

We decided to divide into two groups for Saturday’s caving exploits; the first were headed for old club favourite Swildon’s Hole, while the second headed for the caverns of GB Cave (we spent some time discussing the origin of this cave’s name, and it turns out it was named after two cavers, Goddard and Barker, who were responsible for exploring and mapping great swathes of the caverns in the 1930s; it was not, as we speculated, discovered by ‘Great Britain’ in some surrealist story of self-aware landmasses. The more you know!) After a worryingly long time spent discussing how we’d reach our destinations, we piled into the minibus and set off for our respective cave entrances.

This was my first trip to GB, despite having heard plentiful stories about previous trips into its chambers and tunnels, and I was excited to discover the system for myself. While passing the old, now collapsed entrance didn’t kindle much confidence (‘The rest of the cave is more stable, right?’), we eventually came to a shed-like structure, hidden in a depression in a nearby field and shielded by a grove of trees. Through this door, we descended into a vast, gaping opening in the ground which led us down into the first twisting tunnels of the cave proper. Eventually we emerged into the vast main chamber of the cave, where we rested on an overhanging ledge and took in the sweeping underground space we found ourselves in. It was staggering to explore a cave with such grand open spaces, especially after the comparative squeeziness of OFD and Cwm Dwr, which we explored on our previous club weekend. With this increased space came a greater view of the formations surrounding us from the outset; in traversing floors of flowstone, we spotted features which resembled calcite coral topped with minute quartz crystals, and icy-white cascades of calcite frozen on the expansive walls of this first sprawling chamber.

We continued our journey through a roundabout route of tight crawls and squeezes, eventually reaching the now mostly-dry sump and the ladder pitch, where another passing collection of cavers generously helped us set up our equipment for an ascent into an optional but stunning area of GB. After contorting our way through a particularly damp (read: saturating) crawlspace, we found ourselves in Bat Passage, flanked by calcite in curtains and ice-cream-esque globules, before backtracking into the Great Chamber. This stunning open cavern contained an array of stalagmites and ‘tites, some of which had merged into columns (and one which displayed a clean break through its centre, indicative of the earth’s movement sometime in its lifetime), and flowstone like frozen waterfalls, stretching up into the blackness of the vast, inclining chamber. We were able to spend a good half an hour admiring the view atop the boulders like from the peak of a subterranean mountain, before detouring back into ‘Disappointment Chamber’. This was apparently the space where some of the best-laid trips grind to a halt, as parties find themselves here in search of the Great Chamber and don’t know how best to continue. Even though we’d already discovered the main cavern, we decided to poke our heads into this space anyway – there’s always time for some disappointment.

On our return journey, we shortened the trip considerably by scaling the waterfall in the main chamber, admiring the millennia of preserved creatures embedded in the rock as we went, before taking another detour to the top of the Gorge, climbing, slipping and sliding through the mud. This route took us to the space just below the collapsed former entrance, where the cave’s previous owners, Bristol Waterworks, had dumped all manner of artificial debitage in the late 60’s in an attempt to seal the breach. This malaise of items happened to include old cars, and as we reached the summit of our climb, we began to discover more and more fragmented pieces of bumper and bodywork. We also discovered a mud-coated glass bottle containing a mysterious, carbonated clear liquid, and the nature of this liquid became to source of much speculation. The bottle made it out of the cave with us, as we emerged into the rural twilight. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing it in The Belfry later on that evening, too, but beyond then, I’m not sure what the mystery bottle’s final fate was. Part of me isn’t sure if it wants to know, either.

That evening we caught up with the second group, who had explored the waterlogged Swildon’s Hole as far as the second sump, before settling down for a few hours rest before the night’s madness. I made the mistake of taking a power-nap at around 10pm, which overran…by about thirteen hours. Having said that, I was woken later by screams of ‘DANGER CAN!’, and was filled in on a drunken midnight escapade to the nearby trampolines, so it sounds like the evening still managed to meet our usual standard of chaos! (To whoever convinced the others not to scrawl all over my unconscious husk in permanent marker, thank you – you’re my new favourite person….)

The following day, we decided to spend the remainder of our weekend above ground, and so set out for Ebbor Gorge with a view to reach the ice-cream parlour outside Wookey Hole – a trip which we tried to convince our newer members was entirely worthwhile. After a few impromptu detours, a man we’d never met before directed us into the nearby woods, so flying in the face of everything horror movies have ever taught us, we followed his lead. Just as we were beginning to discuss whether this parlour was actually non-tangible and in fact a metaphor for the feeling of self-fulfilment we’d gain from walking miles and miles, we finally arrived outside the show caves and spent our Sunday afternoon enjoying almost every ice cream flavour imaginable. We wrapped up our time in the Mendips with a stop atop Ebbor Gorge itself, taking in the perfectly clear view over the Somerset levels, with Glastobury Tor rising out of the flatlands in the distance like a great beacon.

Overall, I’d say we had a cracking weekend – I hope those of you who are old hands enjoyed revisiting some old favourites, those of you who are new to caving found something new and exciting!

A special thanks to Harvey, who wrote this

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