By Harvey Connolly
After the bombast, Brexit costumes and bitter cold of last year’s CHECC in Yorkshire, we recently gallivanted over to the event’s southern subsidiary, excitingly named…..Southern CHECC. Our journey to the South Wales Caving Club began with us squeezing ourselves and our kit into a single car, inducing a sense of artificial claustrophobia which would serve as a great warm-up for the coming caving, and began bombing toward the Welsh border, discussing en route how SCHECC would compare to its big brother event, speculating that it would seem more subdued for the smaller scale, more reminiscent of a busy regular caving weekend than the out-and-out chaos of CHECC proper. Although, given the latter arguably peaked with a mass of semi-naked spelunkers dissolving into an intoxicated vortex of moshing, seeming more ‘subdued’ wouldn’t be particularly difficult.
After crossing into Wales, passing the remnants of partially melted snowdrifts and trying our best to pronounce the script on road signs without utterly butchering the local language, we eventually pulled up beside an old slate quarry, and the row of adapted miners’ cottages which now served as the headquarters of the SWCC. Squelching our way through the mud and finding ourselves greeted by a suspicious smell of burning (even for an impaired caver, indulging their pyromaniac tendencies by 11pm on a Friday would have been an impressively forward feat), we lugged our belongings into the hut, and to the space which would serve as our home for the weekend. All of us had been designated honorary women for the weekend, as we found ourselves allocated four bunks in the ‘Ladies’ half of the hut – although I’d previously been completely unaware of this supposed segregation on previous trips, and had always found myself sleeping in this portion of the building, make of it what you will. The pressing issue of resting five people on four bunks was resolved rapidly, with one particularly generous volunteer nominating themselves to squeeze under the bottom bunk and sleep in the incredibly enclosed space beneath, keeping in the true spirit of caving. Bags on beds, we cracked open the first drinks of the night and went for a gander through the kitchen and dining area of the hut, catching up with familiar faces and meeting a myriad of new cavers from other clubs and areas of the country. The whole affair seemed relatively tame at this point, but as I turned in at around 2am, the festivities seemed to crank up a few gears, a raucous rendition of The Killer’s ‘Mr Brightside’ and fragmented bellowing over The Fratellis’ ‘Chelsea Dagger’ being just some of the musical endeavours echoing throughout the building. Lying awake in the early hours of the morning, there was a strange transitory period in which it was hard to determine whether the early risers were up and about, or whether the most enduring revellers had powered through to the dawn, sober talk of breakfast punctuated by burst of music and loud laughter. We’d seemingly settled down in a hut which never slept, and had no intention of doing so over the following days and night.
Suitably nourished by the obligatory fry-up and after spending some time examining the vast survey of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu spread across the wall of the far lounge (with its floor coated in congealed alcohol and the seats now unpleasantly sticky from spilled drink), we planned our route through the top portion of the labyrinthine cave system, and suited and wellie booted, set off. In daylight, the rural expanses stretching out around us were softened by the sheets of driving drizzle, but it was still possible to appreciate the rugged terrain, the coarse grasses and lichen clinging to rocks in a weather-blasted landscape, bleak and beautiful in equal measure. After braving the elements on a trek up a waterlogged path behind the hut, past the bare branches of squat trees and exposed limestone, we arrived at a small metallic door set into the hillside, partially concealed behind a block of grey snow, behind which the entrance led us into OFD.
From our start point, we ventured through Brick Lane (so named after the angular bricks of limestone which litter the floor, partially caked in mud and silt) and a series chambers to reach Gnome Passage, a stretch of tunnel in which a series of limestone formations vaguely resembled the eponymous garden ornamentation, before proceeding through a window shaped aperture and along to The Corkscrew, an awkward decent down between several wedged boulders. Eventually, we reached Arete Chamber, a hallway stretching out before us, with a number of waterfalls cascading downward to the level where we stood. A passageway to our right looped round into the approach to The Chasm, but before we reached it, we detoured further to Poached Egg, where we rigged a handline for stability and safety as we swung across the climb and down to the ground, before proceeding through the twists and turns of a deep rift, the silted floor reminiscent of coalesced sand in places, and creating the impression of wandering through a gorge in a subterranean desert. A right turn at Bhowani Junction eventually led us to our destination, The Crevasse, where we rested briefly and reflected, with only an inkling of the fate we must be tempting, that it was amazing that we were yet to become lost.
Beginning our return through the route we had just taken, with a brief detour to view the beautiful collection of fragile stalactites suspended from the ceiling of the Straw Gallery and a foray into the Nyth Bran series, we ascended Poached Egg, and from The Chasm, entered a series of winding and interconnected tunnels which should, in theory, return us to Arete Chamber. In practice, navigating these passages proved far more challenging than anticipated; we were perhaps beginning to tire when, with a wonderful sense of serendipity, we popped out beside The Corkscrew.
Eventually, we emerged through the same metal door which had permitted us entry into the cave to find the snow gone, but brilliant bands of orange and pink painting the sky. Walking to the crest of the hill directly in front of us, we were met by a sight to behold: the nearby valleys were lost in fog, only the silhouetted outlines of the distant mountains visible in the evening light, and above them, softened but well-defined, was the glorious setting sun, a golden disk graduating from orange to grey as it sank below the horizon.
Perhaps sundown served as a signal for the party to recommence in the SWCC, for after enjoying a warm shower, we returned to the main body of the hut to find the speakers delivering a playlist of noughties dance ‘classics’ at full capacity, and the caving penchant for nakedness which had seemed stifled to this point came into full effect, as chilli and jacket potatoes were ladled into Styrofoam containers by several topless male servers (by the washing up stage, one of these individuals had inexplicable decided that the task of cleaning would be far more manageable by stripping to their underwear, much to the amusement and awkward laughter of passers-by). After food came a division in the evening antics; the dining area became a beer pong arena, a source of animalistic chanting and heightening emotions as each competing team attempted to force their opponents into drunken submission. Meanwhile, in the far lounge, a bizarre relay race began. Each club was asked to nominate three members, who were tasked with completing several activities: apple bobbing, retrieving jelly babies from a heaped mound of flour using, naturally, their faces, several squeezes under a bench, and finally, eating a single slice of chocolate, cut from a bar using an impotent set of plastic cutlery. I unfortunately didn’t witness the full extent of the descent into debauchery, but before bowing out did briefly become embroiled in a particularly colourful game of Jenga, each removed block bearing a set of specific instructions for players to follow, graduating from the uncomfortably entertaining to the downright deranged.
Once again, the party raged throughout the night, with little to no lull in energy. The following morning, we were woken at an obnoxiously early time for a Sunday with the same playlist still circulating, each of us drawn from slumber by the clattering of breakfast criers and the thundering climax of the Faithless classic ‘Insomnia’, complete with iconic and somewhat ironic refrain: ‘I can’t get no sleep’. Still, after breakfast and sourcing various pieces of kit and personal effects which had gone walkabouts over the previous few hours, we decided to make good of the day and wrap up our weekend with another cave. We suited up, and made our way…..a strenuous few hundred feet, to the entrance of Cwm Dwr.
As with the higher entrance to the OFD system, this central portion of the cave was accessed via a metallic door, this one set into an alcove in the angular limestone of the disused quarry behind the hut. Unlike the previous entrance, which had opened onto a slight squeeze, this door opened onto a sheer vertical concrete pipe inlaid into the natural geology, which we shuffled down with varying degrees of grace to a series of stepped descents reinforced with wooden beams.
Wedging ourselves between the curved walls and descending onto a sloping beam placed for ease of movement, we finally came face to face with the first stretch of Dim Dwr, an infamous length of crawl. Beginning on our hands and knees, we gradually became more and more prone as the tunnel constricted around us, and were greeted part way by an ominous warning sign, declaring from above a narrowing of the passage: ‘Category 2 constricted space’. I’m still unsure of the exact definition of this category, and it may have been more informative to instead display: ‘obnoxiously tight squeeze through jagged debitage’. My decision to purchase kneepads just the day before felt more and more fortuitous with every foot we crawled.
After several minutes of less-than-elegant contortion, we suddenly emerged into the enormous tunnel of Cwm Dwr Jama, the ceiling barely visible above us in the gloom. We took a moment to collect ourselves before pressing forward, adjusting to the sudden transition from tight crawl to vast cavern; Cwm Dwr is seemingly not a cave of half-measured. Following the open space, we eventually arrived at what appeared to be a fork in our path, two potential routes leading to the left and right. We were due to arrive at a boulder choke through which we would have to traverse to continue our journey; to the left, a gentle but wide rivulet of water flowed to an imminent dead end, and so we decided by process of elimination to go right, where, sure enough, we found a boulder choke. However, here we slowed to a stop, as we struggled to find an optimal onward path. The first route we explored looped back on itself, bringing us out through an opening just above the one we had first entered, while the second seemed discouragingly tight. An intrepid member of our group shuffled forward into the darkness, before reporting on their return that while the space certainly seemed feasible, the high water level had inundated part it further along its length and transformed it into a particularly nasty looking sump. As we were pondering our best course of action, the third member of our group returned with some news. While we’d been pondering the relatively micro issue of the best crawlspace through the boulders, we’d had a significantly more macro issue: we weren’t even at the right choke. A quick glance at the survey revealed that we had indeed taken a wrong turning, and now we could see the choke for the boulders, we doubled back on ourselves to the previous fork, where we realised we had missed perhaps the most obvious route: a path leading straight on, beneath a cascade of gleaming calcite curtains and stalactites, the brilliant white of an ice far purer than the actual slush we had encountered on the surface the previous day.
Eventually, this meandering passage led us to the entrance of the boulder choke we had been seeking. While the squeezes here were more obvious than they had been at the previous choke, the optimal route was sometimes counterintuitive, paths leading downward, twisting and inclining upwards unexpectedly. However, after a degree of trial and error, we popped out into The Big Shacks, another vast space where we found ourselves clambering over limestone cuboids the size of cars, before shimming our way down a series of muddy rifts.
Soon, we came to another apparent branch in our path, but discovering one path ended in a silted barrier, we scrambled our way up a wall of rough rock to find ourselves in The Smithy. A sheer fall prevented us from exploring to our right, and so we followed the survey in the opposite direction along silted earth and past offshoot passages toward the sound of running water. In due time, we came upon the streamway, and progressed along it by wedging and shimmying between the smooth black walls of the stream channel, until we inevitably slipped and saturated our boots and socks, at which point we shamelessly waded forward until limited time scuppered our further exploration plans. We decided it would be most expedient to return via the route we had used to enter, meeting a handful of Aberystwyth’s caving contingent as we passed through The Big Shacks.
Safely on the surface, we decided to maximise efficiency by hosing our suits down whilst still wearing them, and after laughing hysterically at the unpredictably bizarre design of the ‘pressure’ washer, we set about blasting and scrubbing our suits with the freezing water. If you happen to be the passer-by who witnessed three suited men appearing to lovingly shower and groom each other, this is our officially sanctioned, committed-to-writing explanation.
Showered and changed, we had a speedy inventory check and gathered our personal belonging, before setting off on the long journey home, exhausted but extremely satisfied. As a CHECC event, the weekend was arguably not more subdued than its fully fledged counterpart, but instead the same quantity of chaos compressed into a more compact space, perhaps to be expected when ten caving clubs are thrown together in a former mining cottage on a barren Welsh hillside. But for all the meeting of new faces and mingling with other speleological societies, this weekend was as much about spending time with the wonderful, far closer knit group I’ve had the privilege of meeting through RUCC, and exploring old caves in a new light, discovering new routes and passages for exploration, and refreshing our memories and experiencing the joy of discovery along the way!