Ten years in the dark

Chapter 1 of 13

A tiny acorn

Tarquin in Upbeat, Hexamine Highways, Ogof Draenen. Flash by Tarquin, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by both.

So it began as a family occasion. My brother, my eldest sister and myself all getting changed into grotts. First there's the first pair of trousers, then a T-shirt, then the next pair of trousers, then the sweater. Finally, something warm on top, a woolly jumper. I can assure all readers that a woolly jumper is not recommended caving gear. We had hired lights and helmets and apart from our boots, that was all we had in the way of 'proper' gear.

Along with my dad and uncle, we headed towards the entrance, the August wind feeling unusually warm. After a short trudge over the fields, we approached a ten foot tall turret, where a small stream sank at the base. I was quickly to learn that a small stream on the surface can seem many times larger underground. Looking down through the manhole in the bottom of the turret, the stream could be seen roaring across a flat floor and disappearing into an impossibly narrow crack. Being only eleven years old, I was somewhat dubious about the possibility of following the water as the crack looked much smaller than the space under my bed or the sofa, but after watching it being done by adults, I figured that a child could easily follow.

Just up ahead, a two metre drop became the first hurdle, with the water pouring over it. Crawling along the edge, a dry climb was reached, although this needed assistance for short legs. My dad and uncle helped each of us down in turn and we stood in the small chamber at the bottom, staring at each other, shivering slightly in the harsh cave air and trying to look around the next corner. None of us had yet learned how to use our lights. The lights move as you move your head, so in order to look around, you have to move your whole head, not just your eyes. The cave continued with similar small obstacles, a small waterfall here, a squeeze in the water there, and occasional walking. In my naivety, I did not notice any of the great stalactites, stalagmites or curtains, or maybe I dismissed them as being just normal.

The cave became more difficult, small but waist deep plunge pools were avoided by holding onto cracks in the walls with short fingers and slowly moving around the pools by grabbing onto the next crack. On a later trip here, I was to learn what happens when you try to climb too high above the water, as I earned myself a full dunking in a plunge pool.

At one point, looking up we could see 'The Forty', where ladders used to be used to climb down forty feet, about twelve metres. In more recent years, the ongoing process of erosion had opened up a new route leading directly to the bottom. This cave can change quite significantly due to erosion and during the 1990's, several new routes have been opened up by flooding. Only a short distance further on, we reached 'The Twenty', a twenty foot (six metre) ladder climb where no matter how the ladder was hung, it still landed under part of the waterfall. Now cold, we hurried to the next obstacle, Sump 1. At this point, the passage dipped through a short 'U tube' and filled with water. We were too new to the sport to attempt a dive through this sump. That would have to wait for another year.

Returning to the ladder, we were caught in a queue. This cave is very popular with caving novices and this drop provides a bottleneck that ensures wet cavers do not stay warm for long. Now shivering, we were each sent up the ladder, almost being pulled up by our safety rope. At the top, we hurried along to get warm again, the weight of the water having stretched our woollen jumpers to ankle length. The climbs all seemed harder on the return and traversing around the pools was almost impossible with the water weighing us down. Finally, after three surface hours - or 200 caving hours - we could smell the surface. A mixture of grass, flowers, trees and sheep droppings that seems to entice all cavers to speed up, the end of the cave is nigh. The light at the end of the tunnel grew stronger and stronger until finally, we were there. Sunshine. Cool August sunshine, but warmer than the water.

A sodden walk across the rolling hillsides brought us back to where we had started and we wearily changed back into our luxurious dry clothes. The first chalk mark was in my mental book; Swildon's Hole, Mendip Hills, August 1991.

I can quite understand why this experience would be enough to put most people off caving for life, being cold and wet is not most peoples' idea of fun but there were those things that invited me back; the challenge of the climbs, the bizarre sculpted shapes of the rock, the beauty and grace of the waterfalls but above all, the curiosity to find out what was around that next corner.