Ten years in the dark

Chapter 7 of 13

Filling in the blanks

Tarquin in Powel's Lode, Milwr Mine, Halkin Mine Complex. Flash and camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin and Ian Wilton-Jones.

Heading west from Ogof Carno, several dye traces indicated the large resurgence in the valley three kilometres over was supplied by caves over a six kilometre stretch. Just beyond the end of Carno lay the 500 metre long Chartists Cave, made famous by some outlaws who had lived there during a rebellion. The resurgence was just over three kilometres to the south. Chartists was dug by the Brynmawr Caving Club for a while, but it appeared to be a complex of large passages formed on the contact between the limestone and the millstone grit cap rock. There were no passages found that gave any real promise.

Just under two kilometres to the south west was the valley, while just over three to the south west was Ogof Ap Robert. This cave was just over a kilometre long, resurging in the same place as Chartists Cave. Nearly two kilometres to the west was the two kilometre long Ogof Tarddiad Rhymney which resurged in the next valley over. These last two caves were found by the same group that had found Ogof Craig A Ffynnon.

In between Ogof Ap Robert and Chartists Cave there was huge potential for long cave, but as yet, none had been found.

My dad and I were invited by some other members of the Brynmawr Caving Club to dig in Crescent Cave. A large stream sank in a shakehole on the Trefil Las moor, 200 metres south of Chartists Cave. Nearby a smaller stream fell down a two metre cliff and disappeared into a cave entrance. Just inside was a chamber and the stream sank in the floor. That was it. Against the only solid wall of the chamber was a dig. This looked to me like someone was just pulling rocks out of a boulder pile without following anything solid. It headed under the wall, which from the underside looks more like a large boulder held in by mud. They had dug a few metres down, propping boulders up with scaffolding as they went. We left without the dig looking much different.

Over their successive trips, a 'solid' roof was gained and dug under, where rocks were cleared to reveal a chamber. Well, not really a chamber, but bigger than the squeeze that preceded it. On the other side of the chamber, a slope down was excavated. This finally reached the limestone and a drop was excavated, shored up with large heating system pipes. At the bottom, rocks were pulled out revealing a clean drop in a large rift. The First Pitch landed in a passage heading in both directions. Back under the way in, the passage split and both branches became far too tight, with small streams emerging. Maybe these were from Chartists Cave.

In the other direction, the main stream fell from rocks wedged in the roof, sinking into the floor and the passage ahead choked. At head height, a route was excavated but had little promise. This choke was loose, lying directly below the entrance, and rocks would move and fall when touched. The solution was to undercut the choke and shore it up with scaffolding. They followed the left wall which swung right then left through the Z-Bend and suddenly emerged in the floor at the start of a very tall rift.

Above, the choke was reached again, but in the other direction, an aven had several high level passages and there was a pit in the floor ahead. Over the pit, a further aven had passages connecting back to the high level passages in the last one and one heading the other way. A crawl at the bottom was pushed until it became too narrow and filled with thick mud. Climbing and bolting would later show that the passage at the top ended at a choke after about 15 metres, where a small inlet came from the main sink on the surface.

At the pit in the floor, a hole about two metres up dropped two metres immediately into a continuation. Directly ahead choked with wet boulders while to the left, rocks would fall quite a long way down a narrow rift. To the right, they excavated a hole which dropped down to the head of a very tight pitch. This Second Pitch was to prove awkward whether freeclimbed, laddered or roped. At the bottom, several avens rose quite high above but the floor was choked solid. A hole was excavated, supported by scaffolding leading to a slope to the head of another pitch. At the foot, rocks were removed to give access directly onto the Fourth Pitch.

I am unsure what was explored on that first trip down the forth pitch, or even if there was one before the trip I was on. The whole club was invited to look at the new discoveries, and 50 cavers descended on the poor cave. Below the pitch, a slope down reached a rift and a funnel of rocks in the floor. This dropped down to the stream, which flowed in through a blind aven to the right, accessed by lying in the stream. Ahead, the stream flowed out along a very low passage. As I had a wetsuit on, I was fed into this hole which I wriggled along until it got too tight. Ahead looked like it got slightly larger. This was the first part of the Lower Streamways.

We headed back to the rift before the funnel, and we followed this past some delicate rock bridges to enter a larger passage. This never got named but was referred to as the Main Level. Those of us who were there were told that everyone else was going to the right and so not to create a bottleneck, myself and one other team member headed to the left. Disturbances in the sand and gravel clearly showed that this passage had been visited before. We crawled over rocks and popped out in a very large chamber, noting a continuation of our crawl ahead.

To our left, a huge bank of rocks and black sand rose into a large passage while over our heads, a large round passage turned a corner. We climbed the slope where it had been climbed before. Ahead, we followed the low, wide passage around the edge of a long choke to where it moved away from the choke and became too narrow to follow. Digging here would require a lot of work but would probably be worth it.

We turned back and following scuff marks, headed into the round passage. This passed great sand banks and entered a chamber. Ahead, a rift disappeared into the distance and to the right, another could be seen to be only a few metres long. A single red helictite crossed this narrow rift and I cautiously climbed over it and proved that the passage did not go anywhere. We put some tape across the passage by the helictite to stop cavers damaging it unnecessarily.

The other rift was inviting. Careful to ensure that we did not steel any virgin passage, we looked for scuff marks on the rock. Clearly, a caver had been into this passage before, so we stood where they had and climbed into the passage. To the right, a passage dropped into the other rift. We continued ahead, looking at a crawl on the left that went back to the chamber. Beyond this, there were a few boulder obstacles and I believe it was here that the original explorers had stopped. Not thinking to check, we continued, not expecting them to have stopped. Ahead, a beautiful set of stalactites and stalagmites spread out blocking the path. I passed this with an elaborate 'stand here and jump there like that'. Beyond, the passage continued and the floor suddenly dropped several metres into a chamber below.

I could see no sign of any ladder and was excited at the prospect of coming back here to drop this pitch with the rest of the team. At that moment another club member appeared at the bottom and, irritated, informed me that the whole club were supposed to find all of the new passage together. I had no idea that I was the first person to stand there. Apologetic, we returned to the passage with the delicate bridges and headed the other way, having taped off the passage at the formation to prevent people unnecessarily passing it and damaging it.

In the main level, the passage meandered gently before passing an alcove on the right and a hole up on the left. Just beyond, water flowed in and back out again, making a lot of noise. Small avens were noted and then the passage choked. Holes up entered the chamber that I had seen from above. Now at the bottom, I could see several more passages. Back over the way in were three passages. The one to the left was an aven that I would later find would lead to a ledge connected to the rift that I had found above. The middle passage was short, but contained some poor quality cave pearls. To the right was a small passage that wound its way back to the hole up in the main level, opposite the alcove. I was later to find a low bedding in the floor of this passage that connected back to the avens I had noted in the roof.

Directly above the way into the chamber was the rift I had found. Directly opposite this was another rift, while in the roof high above was an aven. Ahead was a passage that seemed to be the way on, while in the floor ahead, a hole dropped to a dead-end chamber. We followed the way on, emerging in another chamber filled with about thirty cavers. After being told not to steel any more passages - I didn't mean to, honest - we looked around. This was a complete waste. Thirty cavers in a small cave, all holding each other up. It was an honorable idea to have everybody take part in the original exploration, but it would be better to just scatter cavers throughout the cave and have them all search for passages instead of hanging around waiting for each other and getting cold.

In the floor was a large boulder covered in gypsum crystals, above was a climb, and across the other side was another climb. No-one seemed foolish or balanced enough to climb above so I volunteered. A ladder had been placed but the next move required leaning around a corner. I leant backwards, pretending that my holds were fine, with my arms and legs in unusual angles. I placed a new anchor and attached a ladder. Pulling myself up, I looked around. The chamber was small, with several red mini-stalagmites on the floor. Above, a rift soared up to what looked like high level passage. Ahead, a passage to the left was the high level passage I had seen in the chamber before. The next person to climb the ladder was one of the people who had dug into the cave. Not looking at his feet, he had trodden on two of the stalagmites before I realized and shouted for him to stop.

It was an uncautious attitude like this that caused the helictite in the rift we had taped before to be destroyed. Did they think I had taped the passage for fun? Did they think that there was actually some passage beyond and that I simply taped it off to be spiteful? I will never know, but my only assumption can be that my experience in finding new cave had taught me how to be more cautious. I taped the formations.

It was at about this time that we heard some potentially bad news. Someone had not been careful enough while passing the Z-Bend and had collapsed it on themselves, only just managing to wriggle free. We were unconcerned as with the manpower available, this could easily be cleared. This was done quickly, probably even before we got the message that it had collapsed. The choke was later re-shored with scaffolding to prevent this ever happening again.

The other climb was quickly ascended and we all walked down a short section of passage adorned with several red and white stalactites. At the end were two avens. The second would require bolts, but the first looked possible. A couple of us headed up this aven. There were some good holds, but all were slippery, making the climb 'interesting'. At the top, a rift ahead closed down, but one to our left was open, if a little difficult. This quickly dropped to the head of the other aven. So it would not need bolting after all. A rope was hung and the others climbed up. Together we explored a short section of passage which meandered to a little grotto, with a ridiculously tight passage in the floor.

That was where we left it, except for the continuation of the flat out crawl we had noticed near the start of the trip. I was determined that this should be followed and ended up climbing a series of small avens with a short passage at the top. Back in the pub afterwards, I drew a sketch map of the cave which was gratefully received, helping to relieve the tension caused by the finds I had unwittingly made. Then came the thing that I wanted to hear. 'We need someone to do the survey'. I had coordinated some of the surveying of Hexamine Highways, and knew what I was doing. Phil Jane had already surveyed to the first pitch but, although I knew from a survey that he had produced of Ogof Pen Maelor that he could produce good surveys, I believed that I could produce one better and faster.

I volunteered and we began the survey. Someone had pushed the ridiculously tight passage in the floor near the end to connect with the soaring rift seen earlier. On the first surveying trip, we surveyed everything from the start of the Main Level to complete this new loop. Unfortunately, when we plotted the survey, we noticed that the error was quite bad, and my dad and I, realising that my brother had unwittingly affected readings with his light, redid them all. We had almost completed the survey when someone broke into new passage.

The passage that I would not fit down in the Lower Streamways had been pushed through twenty metres of far tighter passage into an aven. An inlet entered and a passage back over the way in reached an aven; the Fifth Pitch. A passage at the top was connected with the alcove in the Main Level, carrying the stream from the inlet near there. This was good for me, as there was no way I could fit in through the other route. Further extensions were made into a continuation at the bottom, where a drop down entered a fine tall rift that suddenly closed down.

The constraints of university and lack of transport would make it almost two years before I got back to complete the survey of the cave. In two trips, we surveyed the streamways and a new level, found in the other direction along the soaring rift. This was unexpected. I had always thought that there would be a passage there but not like it was. Quickly it split into a tight rift and small crawl. The crawl was well decorated and quickly developed a deep trench in the floor. At the start of the trench, a hole down dropped twenty metres into the chamber that joined so many of the other levels. Ahead, the routes joined again and we were faced with another junction.

I followed the rift ahead over a blind pitch down which water flowed. Following the water upstream, I came to a chamber with the way on too tight. It may be possible to squeeze along up in the roof but I did not attempt this. Heading the other way from the junction, a slope up entered a chamber with several passages leading off. Back over the way in, we entered a short virgin passage. Ahead, a passage went to a wide choke. Up above, several rifts looked too tight but an aven up to the left looked big enough.

My brother, finally persuaded back through the loose looking entrance, climbed the slippery aven and rigged a rope for us to follow. We dug through a choke at the top, entering a passage that closed down in a very wet choke. It looked loose so we left it, having almost managed to connect to the passage at the top of the aven before the second pitch. In the floor, a drop down had an extremely tight passage that my brother followed emerging in the passage with the wide choke.

Despite the finds in Carno Adit, this was probably the best find that the Brynmawr Caving Club had ever made. At only 675 metres long, the cave would not make it onto the list of longest British caves, but with a respectable depth of 81 metres, gained in five pitches, this rare Welsh pothole would find a place in the deepest British caves list.

The three page survey that I conducted and drew up and four page description that I produced of this very complex little cave appeared in the 1999 - 2000 edition of the Brynmawr Caving Club Journal. This journal also pays further tribute to the Coldfinger stalactite that we found in Ogof Draenen, proudly displaying a picture of it on the cover.

The three pages of the Crescent Cave survey; left: plan view with overlapping levels separated, centre: plan view, right: profile. Survey by M W-J, I W-J, P W-J, MR. Drawn by M W-J. (c) 2000; Brynmawr Caving Club and Mark Wilton-Jones.