By Harvey Connolly
This year, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to brave pastures new for more recently inaugurated members of the RUCC, with trips to seldom visited Derbyshire and Devon, but, with an annual tradition scheduled into the club calendar, we once again returned to our old stomping ground of Mendip, and more specifically, The Belfry, hub of the Bristol Exploration Club. Gathering on the evening of departure, our attempt to start our journey to the West Country was scuppered at the first hurdle, as we merrily piled our kit and equipment onto our hired minibus, only to find said bus completely unresponsive. A quick inspection revealed that a dysfunctional drive belt wasn’t having any our plans to leave as early as we’d hoped, but we were at least able to enjoy the university’s own Friday night firework display until our operational substitute arrived, ready to ferry us away to Somerset.
We arrived at The Belfry just after 10pm, having made remarkably good time with the drive, but upon entering, something felt…different. The Belfry, generally, is safely consistent in its atmosphere. The bunkroom, consisting of two tiered stretches of plywood serving as communal sleeping space, still had a ceiling decorated with faded beer mats and tap labels, chronicling the long history of the BEC’s pub adventures. The lounge area, complete with substantial wooden dining table, wood burning stove and dubiously acquired road and caving-related signs adorning the walls, had been altered slightly with the movement of the kitchen area into an adjacent room, freeing more space for a handful of plush sofas. But the change that struck us was how disconcertingly quiet the space seemed. The previous year’s firework celebrations had consisted of entering a room where a rabble of students were self-inflicting minor concussions with the slightly mad game ‘danger can’, before the weekend concluded with cleaning the fragmentary remains of a dozen smashed pumpkins from every conceivable surface across the hut (and the prone forms of several worse-for-wear residents on Sunday morning, too). Admittedly, it was relatively early by the standards of the average caving night, and after depositing our possessions on the crash-mats which were to serve as beds for the imminent future, we began our pilgrimage along the dark stretch of road connecting The Belfry to the well-loved local, The Hunters Lodge.
The Hunters has always been a firm favourite congregation spot for the club, and seems to provide a haven for cavers in general in the intervals between gallivanting underground. With its rustic charms and warm ambiance, it’s easy to feel at home. Sure enough, inside we discovered not only the publican’s collection of ‘confiscated’ phones (a militant advocate for face-to-face conversations over texting in his pub, Roger showed us a plywood board onto which he’d crucified several old Nokias, as a warning that, anybody neglecting the people they were physically with for a handset might find it removed with extreme prejudice), but also a far livelier scene, with cavers having traveled from across the country for the weekend’s festivities. We bundled around a table toward the back of the pub, between the bar and the fireplace, and surrounded by wall-mounted agricultural relics with an archaic charm, we enjoyed what I am informed was a particularly potent batch of the ordinarily lethal poison of choice, Farmhouse Cider.
As midnight approached, we stumbled our ways back to a literal half-way house between our accommodation and the closing tavern. The house in question belonged to the wonderful Bennetts, Henry and Hannah, long-established cavers and members of the BEC. Having been informed that they had been generous enough to allow cavers to invade on this particular evening, we worked our way up the driveway to find an entrance hall thronging with people in the midst of a house party. We mingled, spending much of the evening collected on the sofas beside a bar Hannah had established and was incredibly generously allowing people free reign of, although amidst all the chatting and socialising, an handful of personal highlights from this point of the night have to be a risky drunken handling session with some Guinea pigs, flinging glow sticks at each other under the pretext: ‘I just want to get it in your drink!’, and one particular member of our party, long hair adorned with decorative glowsticks, engaging with their caving mentality and contorting themselves through a serving hatch for expedient access to the keg of ale being stored in the adjacent kitchen. An enormous thank you to Henry and Hannah for allowing us the run of your beautiful house – you’re both very kind, and very brave for letting so many people in! As the early hours of the morning approached, we decided that, if we actually wanted to be capable of caving the next day, we should probably allow plentiful time to rest, and so made our way through the thick, almost impenetrable fog to a (hopefully) refreshing night’s sleep.
The next morning, it seemed as though ‘refreshing’ was not an adjective which could be used to describe everybody’s night, as I was woken by a brief but to-the-point exchange to my left on the top bunk: ‘Are you caving today?’ ‘Fuck no!’ Despite being roused by such a pained, probably-still-drunken cry of pessimism, we all congregated over the traditional fry up to discuss our subterranean escapades for the day, and eventually divided into three groups, each bound for a different cave. The first was headed to a personal favourite of mine, GB; a cavernous collection of flowstone formations, concluded with an epic climb up a waterfall. Another were headed to perpetually wet Swildon’s Hole, a fresher favourite, with the intention of attempting a sump trip. And the final group were headed to Eastwater Cavern. This third cave was particularly difficult to recruit people for; upon opening Mendip Underground, the biblical compendium of almost all there is to know about caves in the area, we were greeted by a description of Eastwater as ‘arduous’, and ‘with few formations to be seen, an awe-inspiring gloom adds an oppressive element to the fun’. Not particularly enthused, a more experienced member of the club attempted to sell it to a newer member: ‘It’s difficult, and….it’s not very pretty….It’s just difficult’. Despite this, we eventually composed a rag-tag composite group of intrepid cavers from Reading, Portsmouth and Orpheus Caving Club, myself included. As I’d never previously visited Eastwater, I was at the least intrigued to discover somewhere new, and after the requisite amount of faffing, we set off on our caving adventure.
Turning right as we exited the driveway from The Belfry, our journey started with a fifteen minute walk along country roads to Eastwater Farm, where we informed the landowners of our intentions, before crossing into a neighbouring field and descending into a deep, grassy ditch. Here, we found the unassuming cave entrance, a square, girder-supported chimney accessed via a crouch. After maneuvering downwards several meters, using the supporting metalwork as foot and handhold, the artificial shaft fell away to the natural chaos of a sizable boulder choke. Angular black chunks of stone, coated in a glimmering layer of moisture and sporadic streaks of mud, stretched out in all directions, but thankfully a length of string had been laid out to guide us downward through this ruckle, directing us along the path of least structural instability. After several minutes of bouldering, the cave opened out into a narrow rift, winding further downwards still. Our printed direction from Mendip Underground were directing us toward the ‘Breakfast Bar’, a noticeable man-made concrete platform, but we managed to overlook this feature on our initial route, instead following the path to our left and finding ourselves at a particularly tricky-looking traverse. Our onward journey would require us to cross a steeply angled plane of rock, but with no clear indication of where to continue should we reach the other side, we were initially apprehensive as to whether this was in fact the true route. Eventually, we crossed this plane by lying on our backs, and while there were no distinctive hand or footholds to be found in the smooth rock, we proceeded by wedging our knees and hands into the low sloping ceiling, and shuffling gracelessly across the gap by contorting our core muscles, careful not to slide down to a lower level of the cave. Eventually, we twisted ourselves through a gap at the far side of this awkward shuffle, and flopping through into the Upper Traverse, continued our journey along the rift toward Hallelujah Hole. Here, we took a brief break as a group of Portsmouth and Southampton based military reserves passed us in the opposite direction, the harrowed look in their eyes and their soaking suits offering a fearful glimpse of what may have been in store for us as we proceeded deeper.
After a period of shuffling and crawling, we reached a drop of several meters into a trench which marked the entrance to First Rift Chamber. Wedging our backs and legs across the walls of this trench and proceeding to shimmy downward, we began to loop back toward the entrance via the S-bend (as the name implies, a meandering stretch of rift which is just tight enough to funnel you through a particularly unfortunately placed puddle of freezing water), before cutting through Kentish Cairn back into the Upper Traverse, informing a bunch of cavers from Cardiff what delights they had in store and finally discovering the ‘Breakfast Bar’ en route, before ascending through the boulder choke. Climbing back out through the chimney and emerging back into daylight had a particularly special quality for me, considering my other recent underground jaunts had involved me returning to the surface after the sun had set; emerging into open space, to colour, to the smell of vegetation and the feeling of the breeze, is always one of the most satisfying parts of any caving trip, even if this particular emergence was tarnished by the smell of vegetation being masked by the less romantic odour of manure. Overall, our attempt at the Upper Series Round Trip had taken us just over two hours, a relatively short time, although what the route lacked in length was made up in intensity. I have mixed feeling towards Eastwater….It’s perhaps boring to read about, and in many ways, it’s boring to write about, due to the fact that there’s little in the way of distinctive features and formations to describe. There’s nothing like, say, the grandeur of GB’s cascading flowstone and cavernous chambers. Having said that, as an exercise in sheer physicality and a chance to hone raw caving technique, it’s still a space I’d very much recommend for sporting cavers or anybody seeking to challenge themselves!
One benefit of a short trip was being first to the showers on returning to the hut (I always feel more like a human being after being reminded that water comes in forms other than ‘muddy’ and ‘frigid’), and suitably refreshed, we arranged the plentiful chairs and sofas in the lounge area into a mini lecture space in preparation for a presentation on the BECs recent overseas exploits. True to their mantra of: ‘The BEC get everywhere!’, for time immemorial, members of the Bristol Exploration Club have traveled across the globe in the search for new caves to explore, most recently spending a run of several years in the Philippines. After a stellar evening meal of noodles and chicken, prepared by the wonderful Hannah Bennet, we listened intently to the tales of the BECs most recent trip to the northernmost islands, and their time spent exploring and prospecting, among others, the breathtaking White Lightening and Blue Water Cave, personal anecdotes punctuated by photos of blindingly white calcite formations and underwater stores of clean blue water, alongside stunning drone footage of the surrounding jungle-dense area. It’s a testament to just how far caving experience and connections can take you in a quest for discovery!
Presentation complete, we stepped outside for the main event: the annual BEC firework show. After being offered a sparkler as I exited through the kitchen, things escalated very quickly. If I were to describe the event, I’d say that the display was as close as I’d ever want to come to an active (albeit colourful) war zone. I spent the start of the festivities sheltered behind a metal storage crate as rockets ricocheted from trees, bounced from surfaces, and in several instances, larger fireworks were inadvertently detonated on their sides, sending showers of sparks either into the grass across from us or into the wall and congregated crowd besides the hut. I’d firmly believed that ‘health and safety’ wasn’t a phrase that entered the BEC’s vocabulary, until I was told that there was indeed a designated member present responsible for the safe running of the event. In fact, he was pointed out to me as he emerged from the crowd with a frying pan duct-taped over his crotch, and upon the frying pan, a collection of miniature rockets which he proceeded to volley out across the lawn.
Feeling exhilarated at having survived this spectacle, we returned indoor for an evening of getting our socialite on, and of course, caving games. We began in the member’s bunkroom (what’s that? We weren’t supposed to be there? I won’t say anything if you don’t….), playing a variant on Reading’s Squeeze Machine, a game in which participants must squeeze through increasing tight spaces to prove their caving prowess. With the aforementioned Machine sadly back in Reading, we compromised by attempting to squeeze through the increasingly tight gaps between the banisters at the head of the stairs. As always, once competitive streaks were kindled, we each resorted to removing belts and bulky items of clothing in a bid to prove ourselves capable of fitting through even the smallest of gaps, although I was eventually scuppered by the frustrating but very human trait of not having a collapsible rib cage, and having no desire to torture myself further by attempting to brute force it through a space clearly not designed with it in mind. From there, we proceeded onto the classic ‘broom game’, an exercise in dexterity and flexibility in which the players must manoeuvre themselves around said broom in an increasingly complex series of motions, followed by some table traversing as plenty of people tried (and mostly failed) to shuffle around the entirety of the tabletop’s surface without touching the floor.
While catching some much needed rest on a comfortable leather sofa, we found ourselves suddenly being evicted from it. The reason? It had apparently been nominated for the honour of being used in a game of ‘sofa rugby’. This was a new game to me, and intrigued, I stayed to one side of the lounge to spectate. As it turns out, sofa rugby is exactly what you’d expect: two teams form a scrum and attempt, by almost any means necessary, to touch the sofa against the wall on the side of the room occupied by the opposing team to score points. Watching the game unfold, you couldn’t help but feel this sofa had personally offended the players in some way, as it was mercilessly brutalised in tangle of flailing limbs and visceral chaos. At one point, the sofa was flipped to reveal the base had completely detached from the rest of its body. Thankfully, there was enough intact to restore it to some semblance of use after the game; some sofas are too comfortable to waste!
Taking a break from the furniture murdering occurring inside the hut, a group of us ventured outside. Moving away from the glow of The Belfry’s, the cloudless night offered a beautiful view of the winter constellations stretching almost from horizon to horizon, from Orion and his hunter’s belt to the binary blue and orange stars Alcor and Mizar in the tail of Ursa Major, ‘The Plough’. We continued our evening under the night sky, before returning to the hut soon after for a rave atop the dining table to a selection of absolutely timeless nineties dance classics.
As our final morning in Somerset dawned, we floated various ideas as to how best to enjoy the day. Despite contemplating caving, we decided that, having spent time exploring underground, we would take some time to explore the surface, and soon after set off on a journey to Wookey Hole via Ebbor Gorge. Crossing fields in the early afternoon sun, traversing styles (and squeezing through some of them) and eventually arriving at a wooded space, we began to wind our way down into the Gorge proper, the uneven surfaces and slippery rocks leading us to dub the area as a ‘surface cave’, which we defined as an area which, despite not being subterranean, still seemed to require some caving skills to safely pass! Squelching our way through the muddy pathways between the trees, we eventually arrived at tarmacked roads leading to the entrance to Wookey Hole. As always, though, our interest lay not with the garish show cave, but with the legendary ice cream shop opposite. Continuing our recently emerging trend of buying ice cream in completely inappropriate conditions, we each picked our preferred flavours and enjoyed them on an outside picnic bench, coats drawn tight against the cold and hoods up to protect against the November rain. From there, we continued along the road to the cosy Wookey Hole Inn, where we waited out the rest of the afternoon baffling ourselves with crossword puzzles, and enjoying each other’s wonderful company.
Overall, I feel this particular trip is certainly one of the most eventful I’ve attended in recent memory; I feel my memories are predominantly related to the social aspects of the weekend, rather than the caving itself. But in that, I feel it captures the true essence of caving; the wonderful community it connects you with, the opportunities it creates to meet and share experiences with like-minded people, and the chance to forge unforgettable memories with amazing friends!