George Frederic Handel composed the Messiah in three days flat. I too have similarly composed the following article following a telephone command.
The history books tell us the golden age of caving, when Yorkshire's great open systems were waiting for first descents, ended in 1930. My first exploits commenced just 20 years later in 1950, and in their peculiar way now seem like a second golden age.
Summer. 1951, in the Mendips with Cambridge University Caving Club. The Mendip caving scene appeared to be ruled over firmly but kindly by Herbert. E. Balch, the pioneer of Mendip caving who had discovered Swildons and Eastwater at the beginning of the century. We paid him a courtesy call at his museum in Wells, and I proudly showed him my new helmet (that became soft and soggy when wet) complete with an electric bicycle lamp tied on to the front. He told me that electric lights were not suitable for caving as they cast treacherous shadows and candles were far better. A second telling off followed for having nailed boots (modern Vibrams had not been invented then) as they would leave scratch marks on the rocks.
We settled in at the Wessex Club hut at Beechbarrow (overnight fee 1/-) and on a hot Sunday morning cycled to Swildons, armed with some enormous Wessex rope ladders with wooden rungs. They were real good ladders, with rungs wide enough to get both feet side by side on the same rung and knobbles on each rung end.
We only needed enough tackle for the forty foot pitch (later washed away in the great 1968 flood) and the twenty foot, but it weighed a ton.
We had Priddy village, Swildons and all of Mendip to ourselves, with not another caver in sight, and that on a summer Sunday morning. I gather a crowd control officer is often necessary at Swildons on weekends nowadays.
Our only information about Swildons was a very small scale survey in Balch's classic book "Mendip, its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters". We staggered and struggled to sump 1, often having to unroll the huge ladder coils and re-roll them again as they repeatedly jammed. Surfacing again 7 hours later, we proudly wrote up our exploit in the Wessex Club log book. Nowadays, this trip, I gather is comfortably done in one hour.
On later Mendip visits, the second Wessex hut at Eastwater Cavern was used (overnight fee 6d). This was simply a converted chicken hut with bunks and primus stoves, but no luxuries like running water or toilets, but it was very central for all the major Mendip caves, particularly as bicycles were our only transport.
The bitterly cold Christmas of 1951 was spent here for a determined dig at Hunter's hole, behind the Hunter's Lodge Inn. The landlord, Ben Dors (father, I think, of the present landlord) took a friendly interest in our excavation and on several occasions staggered through the snowdrifts from the pub to the dig with pints of scrumpy cider and crisps on a tray to, as he told us, "keep up our strength". The scrumpy gave us a temporary burst of energy and warmth, rapidly followed by worse shivering and shaking. We abandoned Hunter's Hole just short of what was later found to be the breakthrough point to the present system.
Priddy Village's New Inn was then managed by the elderly brothers Sylvester and Oliver Speed, both of whom had known the lead miners who worked the mines around 1890. They were full of tales of miners entering large natural cave systems but whenever we tried to tie them down to an exact location, their memories started to fail.
Thus were held several weeklong caving expeditions covering all major systems and a few digs. Total cost, from home to Mendip and back home again around £3 per week.
At Manchester University in 1953 I tried to get a caving club started. With a few other enthusiastic students we decided some rope ladders were our first need, but money was tight. We bought the cheapest sisal rope (½p per foot) and then I found a shop selling cut fire lighting sticks that looked ideal for rungs. A half inch hole was drilled through each stick end, the sisal rope threaded through the hole and nails knocked through the rungs and ropes to secure them. The sticking out nail points were sawn off, and there we had a perfect set of ladders. We made enough to manage descents of Giant's, Oxlow, part of Nettle and the Monyash area mines.
Then to the British Speleological Association in 1954 in Settle under the control of resident recorder Eli Simpson. This was a time of much internal strife in B.S.A. and many members left to join and form other clubs. As Mr. Simpson said to me, "We have said goodbye to Butterfield, Myers, Cornes, Leach, Burgess and many others besides; they all live at Another Club in a cottage over the hill!! I soon became the only B.S.A. member regularly staying at weekends in Sett1e and Simpson would despatch me to dig at the archeological site at Cave Ha' on Buckhaw Brow. I did uncover an ancient fireplace, and also found in a tufa alcove a perfectly preserved human skull. Simpson carefully recorded, photographed and kept all of this evidence since when I think it has probably been lost as B.S.A. became B.C.R.A.
I complained to Simpson that excavating through layers of tufa was back-breaking work and he said he would put a blast on it, to speed things up. One Sunday morning he set off on the bus with his polished leather attache case full of dynamite and detonators. He was then quite elderly and frail and I pulled and heaved him, and the attache case from the Buckhaw Brow bus stop up the steep bank to the cave site. He wouldn't trust me to do the bang on my own. An enormous multiple charge was laid along the length of the cliff, and with a resounding crash boulders and tufa lumps flew high into the air and landed all over the main road. Luckily in those days traffic was very light (it was Suez time and petrol rationing - Ed.) and no cars were hit by crashing rocks. I was hastily sent back to the road to clear the debris.
1956, and being very disillusioned with B.S.A. I wondered which club to join next. Dr. Gordon Warwick, then the secretary of the Cave Research Group (newly formed and later joined with B.S.A. to become the present B.C.R.A.) suggested I should apply to the N.P.C. He explained that N.P.C. had many learned and scientific members and was most elite - the caving world's equivalent of the Alpine Club or Himalayan Committee in climbing circles. So, wishing to make a good impression from the start, I purchased a pad of best quality Basildon Bond Vellum note-paper with matching envelopes and penned . . . "Dear Mr. Burgess (Budge Senior, then the hon. sec. of N.P.C.) "I wish to apply for membership of N.P.C. I have done Sell Gill and Long Churn (this was true) and Simpson's and Swinsto (this was naughty lies). I was duly invited to Green Close and arrived one Saturday evening about 9.pm. Not a sound could be heard from anywhere but there were lots of parked vehicles in the car-park. Maybe, I thought, the members are in strict training with an early to bed and early to rise routine. I tried to be as quiet as possible but the place was deserted; so I went to bed at 11.50 pm. Soon afterwards the crowd returned from the Flying Horse Shoes. Late night entertainment was then provided by fighting with ice axes and flinging pint tea mugs through the downstairs window panes. In terror I tried to hide in my sleeping bag and wondered whether to get up fast and run away into the night. Sunday was spent in restoring the cottage fabric back to the condition it had been 24 hrs previously. Such was my introduction to the learned and scientific N.P.C.
Then came my introduction to the never ending problem of the missing Fountains Fell master cave. I was in Fornah Gill valley with Brian Hudson, just below Magnetometer Pot, which at that time had not been discovered. George Cornes arrived on the scene and spotted the stream partially sinking in the valley side. "Dig here," commanded George, "and great caverns you will enter." Now I had read much about George's discoveries in the caving literature, so his words were not to be taken lightly. Further, Brian and I, now both probationary members, were under the impression that full N.P.C. membership was only granted to those who had discovered a new, good-sized cave system. So started a long hard winter of digging weekends at Fornah Gill. Transport was difficult as the Suez crisis had caused petrol rationing. Petrol coupons were given according to the number of vehicles one owned. So members acquired as many motor bikes as possible to get maximum coupons. Greenclose car park looked like a motor bike scrap yard. Gordon Batty had a machine with a hand change gear lever on the side of the tank. It would be a rare and valuable machine now.
Henry Caton at Neal's Ing Farm kindly let Brian and I make Fornah a permanent base for the dig. As the shaft deepened we used ramshackle old shoring until it finally broke through to the present small cave. One Saturday night we were so cold in the barn we decided on a 2 am fell walk by moon light. We came across an interesting sink nearby, dug it a little, noted and reported it. This was the start of Hammer Pot. We were elected full members.
As all the obvious leads in Magnetometer and Hammer became exhausted we moved across to Silverdale Gill Pot. This major sink in the Fountains to Brantsgill-Douk Gill system had earlier given a fast positive dye test result. Some earlier digging had been done here by N.P.C., so we erected a bucket, rope, tripod and pulley. As the shaft deepened, this became hard work so a J.A.P. petrol engined winding winch was installed on a large concrete block base. This worked fine except the diggers in the shaft base kept falling asleep with splitting headaches. Exhaust fumes were being sucked in with the down draught going into the shaft. The fitting of a magnificent 6 foot high exhaust pipe soon cured this.
A water diversion trench was urgently needed to keep the stream away from the dig. Spare probationary members were hastily press ganged up to the site and told to keep trench digging fast, if they wanted to become full members. An internal rock debris railway 50 feet down and dozens of wartime sandbags for storing earth in every possible alcove were used as this difficult dig deepened. Work continued for several years, and in desperation we drove a long huge quarry drill into the floor at the dig bottom to try to open a new fissure for the flooded dig to drain away. Ihe same drill was hammered into the surface valley floor to try and create new stream sink points, but with no success.
Finally, at a depth of 72 ft we gave up. I think I was the last person to go to this depth, and in the very bottom, along a wide but impossibly low clean washed bedding I could hear, but not see, strongly flowing water. Just after I had climbed up the bottom section of shaft it all fell in with a resounding crash.
So back to Gingling Hole. The saga of the extension beyond the old final chamber startsd in the Helwith Bridge hotel. In one corner of the bar sat the N.P.C. in a close huddle. In the opposite corner was the Red Rose Club, including Jim Eyre, then the Red Rose President. Suddenly we N.P.C. members picked up whispers coming from Jim about a recently opened up rift in the final chamber of Gingling. This called for instant action. After all, Gingling and all of Fountains Fell were N.P.C. property and other clubs were just not allowed on our preserve. A quick trip soon found Jim's rift and a 13 hr marathon dig opened it out. Bob Hart was first into Fool's Paradise, so called because we really thought at long last we were on the grand underground march to Brantsgill Head. We were soon to be disappointed yet again as a series of muddy pitches led to a final sump. From our survey we clamed the British depth record at that time. Whilst this route was being explored, I spent days hammering away at a short constriction that when opened led to the 200 ft pitch. Gordon Batty was first down. I, not being very good on big pitches, hid in the shadows when a 200 ft depth was announced, but was voted next to go down having been one of the founder members of the place. The climb was surprisingly easy and I was soon followed by Brian Heys. The inevitable sump was reached and just before the reascent of the 200 ft, Brian produced a hip flask which must only ever be offered to ageing N.P.C. members, which all three of us were when faced with a 200 ft ladder climb.
So now our hopes lay in the "secret shaft" entrance to Gingling Wet Sinks. Many a long evening was spent sinking this safe way into the system. Age again was telling. A wooden resting platform was fixed halfway up the 80 ft pitch and plans were made to rigidly tension the bottom of the ladder to bolts in the floor of the pitch.
Secrecy in this enterprise was the key word. I was always last down the entrance shaft and walked the final distance to the entrance bockivards, so that my bootmarks gave the impression of someone leaving the site, not going to it. Then I would clear away the usual N.P.C. litter, left by those already underground of fag packets, used bog paper, Dandy and Beano comics etc; and finally slide the camouflaged lid back into position.
At the previous end of the system, reached through the wet entrance, digging was started, but soon stopped when chemical persuasion was required for a very narrow rift. This was nearly impossible to obtain locally, but freely available in Mendip. Thus we had a good excuse for a Mendip meet and renewing old aquaintances with Wessex Club members. A good supply was given to us in return for helping them with a ridiculous dig. The precious stuff was hastily conveyed back up the M5 and M6 motorways to Yorkshire. The offending rift in the Wet Sinks was soon enlarged and Bob Hart threaded into it. Again disappointment; just a short, complex series beyond with massive faulting.
The Fountain's Fell Master Cave remains missing despite many years hard work in the area that is still continuing. The answer?? - I do hope you divers will continue work at Brantsgill Head. Perhaps a second Wookey Hole is waiting to be discovered there?
(Editors Note: There is more accumulated knowledge of Fountains Fell contained in N.P.C. noddles than anywhere else on earth. What a pity that Gordon Batty doesn't learn to do proper joined up writing and produce a best seller).