Ten years in the dark

Chapter 8 of 13

Joining the republic

A chamber in Dogleg Complex, Dollimore Series, Ogof Draenen. Flash by Tarquin, camera by Ian Wilton-Jones, setup by Tarquin.

In the summer of 2000, my long term girlfriend and I finally got married. I had not been accepted to continue at university for the next two years on a masters degree course, and instead I had to accept the bachelors course and remain for only another year. At the time I was gutted, but I quickly learned what a bonus this was. During my final year, I was noticing more and more how little the lecturers actually wanted to teach, and how much of the lecturing was done simply because they had to. Passing my degree was becoming increasingly harder to do. I was caving less and less, in the hopes that I might use the time to study. Instead, I spent more of it with my wife, and she fell pregnant with our first child in the spring of 2001.

My wife's pregnancy caused me to spend even more time away from caving, perpetually worried that she would go into labour while I was underground and she would be unable to contact me. I did no caving for a year, and it is only now that I am getting back to it again. What I did do was to produce a database of the longest and deepest caves in Britain and produce a couple of other caving websites. In case any of you are wondering, I got a 2:2 BEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. I could have done better, but I was losing interest.

While I was finishing my degree, my dad and brother were making significant finds back in Ogof Draenen. In south east Draenen, passages run approximately parallel to each other, some with water seen for a few moments, but none could be followed far. These passages include Gone In The Years, Gone With The Wind and the main passages of Wyvern Hall. At a lower level, small inlets are seen in Squirrel Rifts. The inlets must be fed by the intermittent streams seen in the Gone With The Wind and Gone In The Years, with the water crossing between them at a lower level. So far, only one such passage had been found in The Land Down Under in the Wyvern Hall extensions. These extensions themselves are quite clearly just a system of soak-aways and do not contain any major passages, except Wyvern Hall itself.

The streams in The Land Down Under were by no means big enough to account for the amount of water seen in Gone With The Wind. A junction of oxbows in the Wyvern Hall Extensions known as Isotonic Wierdways has a side passage that almost meets up with this stream, but it contains no water. At this same junction is the Digeredon't pitch down into The Land Down Under.

Before the streams were met in The Land Down Under, my dad noticed a small arch in the wall. We were all getting good at this arch spotting technique. My dad had been leading Tim Barter and his partner Pauline on a tourist trip. Pauline is the famous Pauline Rigby who, as the girlfriend of Tim Guilford, had been the first into Going Somewhere and a number of other finds.

Clearing a few rocks, Tim entered a crawling sized passage. This passed a beautiful stal column; Ice Cold In Alex, and a set of stalagmites and the passage enlarged. At a junction, they climbed up to the right to enter a large passage. Footprints showed that they were back in the main route of the Wyvern Hall extensions. How many times had cavers walked over this hole and ignored it. I remember myself looking down it and thinking 'Ooh! That looks deep, I'd better not fall down that!'. This passage had been open all the time.

Back in the new passage, they tried the other direction. Selenite flowers glistened all over the walls and junction after junction was met with short passages. At a main one, ahead led along a narrow rift covered in selenite, before becoming too tight, with a tantalising view into open passage. To the right, a mud floored oxbow has never been entered. Ahead, more selenite covered passages passed over what looked like a tiny stream and the too tight rift entered from the left before reaching a low choke. The new series was named Republican Plot due to events in the United States Of America.

Digging at the choke quickly produced a tight vertical squeeze against a solid wall. My brother's head again popped out into virgin passage. To the left, it widened before closing but some avens were noted above. Ahead, a small passage turned left, scooting a choke before branching into two narrowing rifts that became too tight. To the right the passage lowered over sand before turning left and enlarging again. The floor dropped down to a stream flowing out to the left but was too narrow to reach.

Ahead upstream, they traversed along a very awkward rift which eventually gained a solid floor. Up ahead choked below Isotonic Wierdways. Side passages to the right were all small and short while climbs up in two places entered a chamber with no other ways on. Finally, they had found the drainage stream that we had all been looking for. They left, naming the new extensions Presidential Mayhem after the confusion in Florida over the election votes.

On the way out, they climbed the aven near the start of Presidential Mayhem. Several metres up, the top was obtained with passages heading in both directions. Back over Presidential Mayhem had clearly been explored but was not followed. In the other direction, a traverse was reached over a deep hole, dropping presumably near to the end of Presidential Mayhem. Further on, after an awkward wriggle, this entered a chamber. Directly opposite was a way into the main route of Wyvern Hall, and a passage to the left turned a few corners and did the same. In the floor to the right, a tiny rift dropped to a passage that led all the way back to The Land Down Under, very close to the arch that my dad had found. This set of passages had been found and surveyed by the Chelsea Spelaeological Society, but they had ignored the holes in the floor. Again, the new passages had been open all of the time, just no-one had bothered to look.

The next trip brought with it the most impressive find any of us had made so far. My dad and two other cavers headed to the end of Presidential Mayhem through what was now the only route in, as they had blocked off the original route to protect Ice Cold In Alex. In the floor to the left, a sandy crawl reached a draughting choke and a large passage heading into the distance. This was as big as the largest passage we had ever found in Hexamine Highways. In the floor, a stream entered. The largest so far. This flowed off down the passage and they followed it, passing three more side passages to the right. Ahead, the passage got smaller and the stream flowed off to the left. A short traverse led to a crawl through old stal to the hardest traverse yet.

None of the traverses were high, they just funneled down very slowly and had very few holds. A crawl bypassed where the stream took a lower route. In the lower route, an inlet entered with the water from the first traverse in Presidential Mayhem. The traverse ended and the passage got larger, passing some passages to the left at a corner. Ahead, several oxbows were passed and the passage entered the largest chamber yet. Across the chamber, the outflow was too tight.

I joined them on a trip to survey their finds. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. This was far better than anything I had found before, with the possible exception of the Coldfinger. They had already mapped the first part of Republican Plot that they had found and we continued from there. Surveying traverses was harder than it seems. You have to keep your hands free for the surveying gear, or in my case, the notebook and pencil. Jamming yourself in with your legs can make them ache.

When we reached the final chamber, they told me about a passage that they had explored in the roof, which had passed two chambers before becoming too tight. We did not survey this, but I pushed the stream outlet. This was very tight and after two metres turned a sharp corner and became far too small. Later, a bypass to this tight section was to be found, but the continuation again became impassable.

A passage above the stream inlet was followed around a couple of corners to a dead-end grotto. The passage ahead where the stream turned left into the difficult traverse closed down, with an aven containing a short passage. To the right, the passages had been followed by a midget. The first passage, hidden above a natural rock bridge, got very small and went for thirty metres. The second split into several rifts, one of which connected with the first passage, and the other to the third passage. The third passage also got very small and had a passage crossing over through an extremely tight squeeze into the first passage. We ignored all of these passages and just surveyed the main route.

When we plotted up the survey, we could see that it completely crossed a blank area, almost connecting to squirrel rifts and almost certainly solving all of the puzzles of the drainage in the area. The new finds were named Gore Blimey.

Just before Isotonic Wierdways, a side passage dropped into a blind chamber, now known as The Garden. It was named this by my dad and brother as they dug like gardeners to find an easy route down into the sandy tube in Gore Blimey. Whilst in this 'dead-end' chamber, my brother thought he could hear a roaring sound. Telling my dad to shut up, he listened carefully and located the sound as coming through a very narrow rift at one end of the chamber. He squeezed through. An upper level climbed above but he continued towards the roaring sound. He was greeted with an awesome sight. Below, he could see a spray lashed floor and high above, an inlet came crashing down a fine fluted shaft. Fluted shafts are rare enough in Draenen, but this was majestic. The floor was 13 metres below, and the inlet at the top was over 25 metres above, making this nearly twice the size of anything else found in Draenen.

My dad was too big to fit along the narrow rift and just had to hear the story. The looming problems of foot and mouth disease were slowing progress but a sandy crawl was pushed in Gore Blimey to where the floor suddenly dropped. A tight rift ahead looped around to enter the inlet in the main part of Gore Blimey. To the right, the passage entered a muddy area with several very short side passages. One of the side passages enlarged and a stream flowed into it, then out through a passage that became too tight. This is almost certainly the stream that becomes the inlet in Gore Blimey.

Ahead was the source of the water; Awe Chasm, the pitch my brother had seen. The base was over four metres by eight metres across and the pitch looked exactly like the pitches found in the limestones of the Yorkshire Dales; very unusual for Draenen. Ahead, a rock slope rose to a passage that could not be followed far and a large undercut on the right was similar. On the left, a passage headed off at stooping height with a beautiful, pristine mud floor. This was to become known as Blessed Pork Scratchings. Stal decorated many sections before the passage lowered. A side passage filled with silt and the passage ahead choked in a way that suggested there may be a passage above the choke. On the floor lay a partial bat skeleton and the bones of many bats could be seen in small undercuts. The passage was carefully taped to prevent damage to the mud and stal.

Above the rift my brother had first entered, another rift could be seen. The upper route in the original rift was climbed and a route was bolted from there into the upper rift. The process was slow, and at one point, a large boulder was accidentally detached from the wall and sent hurtling down the shaft, very nearly causing serious injury to a caver below. Once reached, the slope of the rift proved awkward and my brother began the slippery ascent to a choke. Never being one to give up, he pushed some boulders aside and slid through into a chamber. Small stal formations lay dotted everywhere.

My brother had rigged the twenty metre pitch to the floor and my dad had followed. Three other passages led off from the chamber. To the left my brother followed an exceedingly tight rift that emerged in the other wall of Awe Chasm. He tried climbing down a little but realizing it was to difficult, he climbed back up again. A passage to the right in the chamber dropped as a narrow pitch nearly ten meters to the floor of the main route of the Wyvern Hall extensions, close to The Garden.

Diagonally across the chamber a passage was entered by stepping around some badly placed formations. Mother Nature had obviously not learned as well as we had where the best place was to put them. The passage had some loose stones on the floor accompanied by some holes which dropped about five meters. This was very similar to the place in the Literal Zone where I had dropped the rock near Martyn Farr's feet many years before. Thankfully no-one was standing below here as they cautiously crossed the holes and continued along the passage.

Ahead they reached a very loose slope of boulders which was threatening to collapse but in fact did not move as they descended to a choice of two further bolder slopes. These reunited in a passage that headed to the left. This eventually became excessively narrow but my brother squeezed on to reach a small chamber and oxbow with several silted side passages.

Back at the holes down my brother stabilized the rocks, creating a single hole, and climbed down. Almost immediately he recognized this as Isotonic Wierdways. Once again they had found passage that had been sitting open for nearly five years! Once again the Chelsea Spelaeological Society had surveyed the passages beneath but had ignored the hole into the open passage. At the bottom of the second bolder slope a side passage was pushed to the right, through some rocks to emerge in the main chamber of Isotonic Wierdways. A small sprinkling of bat guano fell into the hole as they realized they where now behind a tape that was meant to be protecting the guano.

Now with about one and a half kilometres of passage, they had almost run out of easy leads, but the prospect of a connection with Fault Rifts was enticing. The route in through the Wyvern Hall extensions is not the easiest in the world. The survey showed that the end of Blessed Pork Scratchings was directly beneath it. My dad, my brother, Peter Morphy and I all set out once the foot and mouth restrictions had been lifted, to dig the choke. We started digging using the 'buddy-buddy' technique that my dad and brother had developed so many years before. Rocks were being removed very quickly and I built up two dry stone walls in the low passage to contain them behind. The dig became known as The Rockery, along a similar line to The Garden.

We started some cooking. Fortunately the draught was being blown in by the waterfall in Awe Chasm so the fumes did not disturb a bat who was sleeping further up the passage. Unfortunately, the draught was so strong that Peter Morphy and I were both getting too cold and we left to warm up with some caving. We went all of the way out of Republican Plot through the climb at the end of Presidential Mayhem. We then spent what felt like as much as half of an hour with me trying to remember the way out. Oh, the shame! I wrote the description, and I could not remember the way out. Having found it, I kicked myself for being so stupid and we met my dad and brother at The Garden and headed out of the cave. They had not managed to pass the choke.

Stopping to drink at 'The Drinking Pool' in Fault Chambers, I was suffering from lack of energy because of my being out of practice. 'Food, food, blood sugar low, need food'. I ate like someone who was starving, holding to food up to my mouth and stuffing it in as soon as I had finished with the last mouthful, almost as if I was worried that if I did not eat fast enough, someone would take it away from me.

On the way out, the water level in the cave had fallen since we went in as on the way in, some normally ankle deep sections of streamway were waist deep and flowing gently, but on the way out they had almost returned to normal. The water in the entrance, however, was higher than it had been on the way in, suggesting a recent rainfall. This does not create any danger, but it can be unpleasant. When we got to the hole up between the solid wall and large rocks, I told Peter to leave the bag he was carrying at the bottom, and I would pass it up to him. Once he was up, I had to stand in the rift facing the stream, with large amounts of water pouring down my oversuit. I passed him the bag and he started out, inadvertently diverting all of the water directly into my face. Gasping for breath, I scrambled up the hole, happy to be leaving the cave.