Volume 33 Number 2 Article 9
An Everyday Story About Everyday Forest Folk
Neil & Angela, Andy Pringle, Slug, Swany, Terry & Rowena, Jason Pitman, Jim Stevenson & mate & families, Dalek & brain (Mike Cooper)
It was 2 o'clock in the morning, Neil and I were sat at the bar, the beer was refreshing, reasonably priced, and there was no indication of last orders being called. The locals were friendly (although we couldn't understand much of what they were saying.) The main subject of our conversation was the day's (yesterday's by 2 am for the pedantic), caving trip.
"Excellent day out Andy." 'Yeah, that upper level stuff was good, stomping passage up to flowstone choke, 30 metre survey legs, dry, sandy, there's got to be more beyond that choke.'" "Oh got to be, 10k draft! Can't believe no fucker's been over the top of the bastard."
Memories of leaving the bar are somewhat hazy. I had a horrible feeling that my whole control system was out to lunch, suffering from a phase shift likely to send the whole world unstable. Once I had located my tent and re-introduced my head to the finest Famous Army Stores pillow, I attempted to look for the missing time which threatened to send the whole of Disc World spiralling off with our collective brain cells towards the ferry crossing that appeared to have occurred in another domain. I remembered being in Birmingham. Yes I met Pete Hall. Surely Gargoyle bitter and a large kebab could not eradicate all need for ferries. Had I travelled by Laplace Air? Was there a new inverse route just opened in competition to the channel tunnel. Was I off my S plane, without a Z transform to get back again?
Hang on that's it. Eureka! The channel tunnel that was the clue. I was still in England. Let me explain; The Chunnel is a passage in Slaughter Stream Cave Wet Sink. Neil, Angela and myself had spent the last two days exploring this cave in the Royal Forest of Dean.
From my interview (unsuccessful of course) in Birmingham I travelled to the village of Sling. It was late Wednesday afternoon when I arrived at the Miner's Arms. I was not expecting Neil and Angela to arrive until the next day. Hence I was some what surprised to hear that familiar Irish accent amidst the scrumpy dialects that issued form the bar. "You're here at last Andy", exclaimed Angela. "Thought we'd been Pringled!" added Neil. The village is not on the map, and we end up camping behind the Fighting Cock at the back of a council estate. "You got here Okay then, what about a beer.'"
Whilst sampling the products of the Free Miner brewery the three of us planned our itinerary for the next few days. The next day (Thursday) we would go off to Slaughter Stream Cave. How much of this 12 km long cave we saw, and the weather would help us to decide what to do on the Friday. That would leave Saturday to recover from Neil's official birthday party and to prepare for an early start for Otter Hole on the Sunday.
The plan for Thursday's trip was to follow the streamway (bypassing the first two sumps) as far as the terminal sump, then look up Kuwait passage before finding the round trip and looking up Flowstone Choke passage on the way out. (For those of you not familiar with the cave, a survey was purchased whist we were in the forest and is now in the club library, as is one of Red House Swallet.) All was going well until just after the first sump bypass when my light went out. Neil being the electrical engineer took charge. Now I don't know what they teach at Bradford about fault finding, but Neil's method consisted of dropping the offending item in a deep pool, banging it against big rocks and shouting, "Just like fucking Beardy's."'
When Neil gave up I tried more conventional electrical methods, tweak the wire, try the switch, then bang it on a large rock, but all to no avail. By this time Angela had caught up with us. We managed to get down to the sump 3 and out via the round trip with two lights between us.
That night we went off watching a superb Jazz band. We agreed to collect a key for Red House the next morning and check on the weather before deciding what to do with the rest of the day. Hence on the Friday the three of us visited 'Bottom Cottage' in a neighbouring village. This is the home of Sparks, a local caver / digger / eccentric, deep in hillbilly Gloustershire. After being invited in we enquired about the cave and the danger of flooding which we had heard so much about, due to the long low ducks. The heady mix of Freeminer beers and local cider played havoc with the reception from the bable fish. We were shown a copy of the survey. Our local contact then pointed out the ducks. These seemed to account for over half the length of the cave. There were also a few short sections where we were informed that we could stand up. Neil's bable fish must have suffered terminal Freeminer overload at this stage as he just kept nodding. Angela and I were still receiving messages containing words like flat-out, streamway, duck, light, rain, sump, and rescue.
"What's the weather forecast for today?" enquired Angela. "Oh we don't believe in'em round here." We were told. "You sees we get some of the Welsh rain and some of the English. So it can work out a lot wetter than anywhere else you sees." The logic became somewhat less clear when we were told that the wild garlic was smelling strong, the hedgehogs had not eaten the carrot tops the night before and so we should be all right!
We enquired about being flooded in. "Oh you should be all right if you are here, here, or here" said our local pointing at the car park, the entrance and the very end of the cave. "If you are here, well that could be a problem" we were informed as he ran a pencil along most of the survey. The overcast weather helped us to make the decision to revisit Slaughter Stream that day.
We have now seen most of this cave. The streamway is very jolly. The higher level passages on the way to the dog's skeleton and Flowstone Choke are large, dry and sandy, hence the confusion with Spanish caving. I understand that a recently found Pirate's Passage is more for the connoisseur. As already stated the cave is over 12 km long. The locals are working at several sights to extend this and break into the forest master cave. I look forward to my next visit.
That night was Neil's official birthday so we volunteered to keep the bar open for those arriving later on. This meant that we had to politely decline an invitation to join some of the locals at an away darts match. A superb night was enjoyed in the Miners. The memory is somewhat hazy but the memorable highlights include: Slug arriving in a suit, Dalek not arguing with his brain, Rowena attempting to drain the EEC scrumpy lake, Jim & family not understanding the juke box (album number then track number!) and Angela being introduced to alcoholic lemonade. The evening ended at five-ish when the last Rhodesian Port was emptied and all the classical music on the duke box had been played, (several times very loudly.)
The next day Neil, Angela and myself went to Symmond's Yet. The idea was to go for a walk looking at sinks, digs, resurgences etc. as well as the more general features of this very picturesque area. While Angela slept off the excess of the previous evening Neil and I visited points of interest identified from an article in Cave Science. We also watched the peregrine falcons from the RSPB observation point. After a cup of tea from the National Trust we returned to the Miner's to get the evening meal on the go.
The others soon returned to the pub, and were keen to tell us what a great day they had enjoyed in Slaughter. When I say the others I mean most of them. Apparently all those on the trip went to a pub in the nearby town of Coleford on their way back to the Miner's. (Nothing wrong with that.) Swany however meet a group of local rugby players and joined their pub crawl, insisting that he would make his own way back to Sling. The rest of us had supper and retired to the bar to sort out the logistics of the following day's visit to Otter Hole.
The first point to consider was the early start required because of the unsociable time of the tide that would allow us through the tidal sump. It was decided that we would have to be getting up at 5 am the following morning. Neil volunteered to take charge of the alarm clock and we all agreed upon an early night. The next task was to divide those going into two groups. The reasons for this was, that in addition to our permit trip I had arranged for a second team to visit the cave. This was allowed because the year had been designated as a conservation year for Otter Hole. So in return for helping with the conservation work we could have more people visiting the cave. Very fair I thought. The ordinary permit trips were also expected to assist with the work of cleaning formations. The second group were to join up with Arthur Venning of Valkyries Caving Club to help him with the repair of some stals and taping. It was decided that the first team should consist of myself, Neil, Angela and Terry. We would go on the ordinary trip and help with the cleaning. The others :Slug, Swany, Dalek, Mike and Jason would go with Arthur. There then followed a discussion about what to wear. With talk of sumps, eyeholes and a squalid entrance series I opted for the wetsuit. With the early start in mind we had a few beers and left the bar at 11:.30ish. There was still no sign off Swany.
Neil and the alarm clock performed brilliantly, brew as well! Breakfast consisted of pies, scotch eggs and cakes. As I bit into a scotch egg I heard a horrendous sound and the vilest odour attacked my nostrils. Fucking Hell!, my eyes watered and my body rejected the slimy egg. As I was trying to hold on to the rest of my stomach contents I was thudded on the back as greeting from Swany. "Smell that!" The egg wasn't off, this bastard had just dropped his guts in my breakfast! Swany had only just got back to the campsite after drinking for most of the night and sleeping for none of it. "Will you be alight for this trip?" "Oh eye." "Would you like any breakfast or a brew?" "'No thanks I've had enough beer. I might have a bit of kebab left." Swany reached into his trouser pocket. Not wishing to be introduced to the putrid leftovers from his last meal I made my excuses and made for the car.
As we waited for the others Terry offered me the use of one of his super duper waterproof suits to wear as far as the other side of the sump. It was a kind offer but a little over the top, so I declined.
We got to the lay-by in good time and met Mike Green, our guide for the day. Once we had changed we said farewell to the other team as they waited for Arthur, and set off.
Otter Hole is brilliant! The stunning formations made the muddy entrance crawls well worth doing. We had an over tides trip. This means that we had plenty of time. On such trips there is little need to swim through the eyehole above the sump or get totally soaked going through the sump before it drains. The rest of the cave, particularly the extensions where the pretties are can be very hot. In a wetsuit you will sweat cobs, we know as we did!
To help protect the formations we were asked to clean our suits at the point where we climbed out of the streamway. This we did. Just as the water fights were getting boring the other group caught up with us. They had waited at the car park for Arthur. When he did not show up Dalek took charge and led them into the cave. Slug complained about having to go caving with a flatulent brewery. Swany just grinned and dropped another one. The first team then handed over the brushes provided and hightailed it way from the pungent aroma now filling the passage.
Having just cleaned our suits we expected that we were past the worst of the mud. How wrong could we be? Within five minutes we were forcing ourselves like vindaloo supercharged turds through limestone alimentary canals. This did not last long and we were soon at the start of what must be the best decorated passages yet discovered in this country. For those of you who have not been I can only recommend that you jump at any chance. I fear that any description here would not do justice to this amazing cave. A system had been established whereby each party visiting the cave left the cleaning equipment such as scrubbing brushes garden spray and tape at the limit of their cleaning. Water containers were left under drips at the camp so that they were full for the next party. We were soon at work, some of us cleaning, the others collecting water. With a good rapport two hours of work soon passed. It was highly pleasing to see the benefits of our labours. Our guide seemed to enjoy the concord within the group, jokes, anecdotes etc. but not the farting.
Talking of Swany, he felt that cleaning stal was unbecoming of the N.C.C. so restricted his activities to fetching water from the camp and sleeping. When Dalek's team returned, they took over the cleaning and we went up to Long Straw Chamber. Fantastic place, fantastic cave, must go back and take some photos.
On the way out Slug, Swany, Dalek and Mike shot off in front. Terry was the first of the remainder to reach the sump, (now at low tide level again.) When we reached him he was talking profusely and was obviously quite irate. Apparently on the way in he had left his super duper suit, with £40 worth of torch in the pocket, on a ledge above the sump. Now it was missing. The group in front must have played a practical joke on him. Could they have filled the suit with mud to make a model caver. No terracotta troglodyte could be found. Perhaps they had just hidden the suit. The search was fruitless. One of them must have taken it out. Who would do such a thing. Dalek would never think of it, his brain is not malicious enough. Swany, "Yes, hang on now, I'm giving him a lift home, surly he wouldn't be that stupid!'" mused Terry as he completed the jobs of judge and jury. "Slug! I'll have him." Terry was now in executioner mode and set off up the passage as if his legs were powered directly from his vocal cords.
The rest of us stopped for a bite to eat before setting off up a climb. Now all weekend Angela had been developing a complex about the proportions of her derriere. I can't see why, I mean it's not that big... grovel grovel. Anyway Angela set off bridging up the muddy rock. "Just one little foot on that wall", she said as she located a hold. As she sat back I just had to add, "And a fucking great arse on that one!" Angela's alacrity assumed absence, (there's some alliteration for Hugh.) Thud, splash, splutter! (and there's some onomatopoeia for Dave Edland) as she fell into the Wye-bound flotsam & jetsam. No damage was done and the second attempt was successful. The rest of the journey to the surface was uneventful.
At the car park we enquired about Terry's suit. Apparently all the others were innocent. The suit had been washed into the river by an unusually high tide. If he had left the torch on we could have followed the river after dark and claimed the reward!
The high tide added spice to another small drama. Rowena had somehow confused the time that the sump was due to unroof with our ETA back at the pub. When we were over an hour late by her reckoning she contacted the local authorities. We were very late, the tide had been very high, were we okay? Of course we were, just very thirsty, to the pub then!
I stayed one more night at the Miners. The next morning I had my last instalment of an everyday story about everyday forest folk. I was in the bar saying my farewells when a couple of Dutch cyclists came in. The conversation soon turned to caves. It was then that one of the locals told me about the nearby Clearwell Caves. "They're all made in limestone. It goes from 'ere tar Devon. That's why we gets fury kettles see.'" I couldn't fault the statement. Reluctantly I finished my good-byes and ordered a last pint of Freeminers. When the glass was empty I saddled up Shank's pony and set off for Church Cutting, Chimmes.
Part 2 - Bank holiday end of May 1996
Dalek, Dave Edland, Andy Pringle, Toby & Jane, Ray Duffy, Pete Hall, Dangerous Dennis, Angela.
This years weekend in the forest was very similar to last years. I do not intend to give you a blow by blow account. I'll just highlight the caving trips that took place, compare the two years, and pose a few questions?
Saturday - Otter Hole
Once again I arranged for more than the usual trip to visit the cave. This year Mike Green was to be our leader again. In addition to this we were to assist Clinton Small with some videoing. Arthur Venning had asked me to take some slides of the cleaning work. Ray of course wanted to take photos. Mike must have heard about all this photography, because he managed to arrange a damaged leg and associated sick note.
We arrived at the car park at a slightly more civilised time than last year. We said fairwell to Toby whose back dictated that he should spend the day fishing. The entrance series was very much as I remembered it. One slight difference was that this time we had to swim through the eyehole. What this in fact means is swim across the sump pool, thrutch up into the eyehole, turn on to your side and jam along the rift shaped passage above the incoming tide. l waited while Dalek, Dennis & Pete went through so that I could see how it was done. I had got into the eyehole when Pete shouted, "Hurry up it's about to sump!" I pushed my way along the passage. Unfortunately my feet stayed where they were behind a constriction. The result of this was that my whole body pivoted about my ankles. Feet up two inches, head down eighteen inches - underwater! Dalek earned himself a complementary pint by coming to my rescue. The rest of the party got through in the nick of time.
Jane decided that there are in fact three classic types of cave passage. These are phreatic, vadose and squiggley. Furthermore the entrance series is made entirely of the latter. Jane, Dennis and Dave were on there first trip into the cave and all agreed that the fantastic formations in the extensions made it all worth while.
This year we did more photography than cleaning. Yours truly had his knuckles wrapped for this, but that's another story. On the way out we had to wait for the sump to open. Pete assured us that he much prefers watching water levels fall, than rise. When the sump opened Dennis was the first through. The rest followed when our own preferred amount of airspace was available. Back on the surface we met Toby and the fish he had caught.
The next morning Toby's back was no better and the weather forecast was wet. Hence Toby and Jane decided to head for home. Ray went with them. Was the reason for this:
a) couldn't face returning with Dalek?
b) the pub shut at 11 pm?
c) waiting for the pub to open to have his morning dump?
d) he saw the damage the pub garden furniture can do to lower limbs, and can't jump as high as Pete Hall anyway.
A walk round the Symond's Yet area. Followed by drinking into the early hours.
Wet Sink / Slaughter Stream Cave - Dalek, Pete, Angela, Dave, Andy. The five of us went straight to Kuwait Passage. We followed this as far as Lights Out Chamber, before returning to the surface via the round trip.
Over the weekend of 14th to 16th of June, I attended the second Royal Forest of Dean Caving Symposium. During the weekend I learnt a great deal about the area, the exploration currently taking place, and the prospects for future discoveries. The organisers are to be congratulated for such an enjoyable and well run event. A similar event is planned for the year 2000.
Red House is a fine trip. May be I will write more when time & space permits. In the mean time if you are that interested approach me on licensed premises with a loaded glass I will be glad to tell you more.