Volume 39 Number 1 Article 5
'Ignorance is Bliss' and the passage of time
1 & 15 December 2001 - 5, 12, 19 & 26 January and 16 February 2002
Team members at various times : Johnny Baker, Sam Carradice, Paul Cooper (guest), Ray Duffy, Ian Eeles, Andy Hall ('Old Andy'), Alan Kerr, Peter & Julie Mohr, Hugh St. Lawrence, Andy Whitney ('Young Andy')
Exploring the Passage of Ignorance
After the spectre of Foot & Mouth lifted from the Farm, some of us wanted a gentle trip to ease us back into Ease Gill, but where to go? Andy Whitney said he would show us a climb-up into Ignorance is Bliss Passage (IB) that he and Sam had found by chance in 1999. Northern Caves 3 has virtually nothing to say about IB, however there is a short account by Keith Wright and Jim Birchall in the RRCPC Newsletter, 1987. The usual climb into IB is near to the bottom of the Poetic Justice chimney (PJ); it has an awkward start and most people give it a miss. 'Andy's climb' is about 40 metres further down stream on the left. An alcove on a ledge above the stream, marked by an old cairn of pebbles, leads to a muddy chamber from which an easy climb-up of 3 metres reaches the abandoned, dry, high-level passages of Ignorance. Upstream, a well-travelled mud-floored passage goes back to the original climb-up near PJ. In the other direction a crawl leads to a boulder-strewn rift passage, which after about 20 metres is joined by a large passage on the left, not shown on the present survey. (Wright and Birchall stated incorrectly that it 'soon chokes up'). This leads to a well-decorated chamber with two holes in its floor, from which a crawl leads back to the main stream, halfway between Andy's climb and Platypus, thus forming a short 'round trip'. The main passage in IB continues as an easy crawl to an awkward boulder squeeze followed by a few metres of narrow, winding passage to a mud choke, where a fairly easy 3 metre climb reveals an unexpected flat-out calcite crawl, which after 25 metres joins a T-junction at Upper Pierce's Passage (UPP).
Upper Pierce's Passage runs about 20 metres above Lower Pierce's Passage; it is a dry, abandoned passage, with large boulders along the floor. The 'main' way is left (west) from the T-junction; after 20 metres the passage slopes downwards into Cotton Chamber. A window overlooks a second chamber, which is reached via a mud tube on the left, which has a choke-stone squeeze halfway down. From this lower chamber a second 3-metre mud tube lands on a slippery slope, followed by an easy climb down ledges into the stream of Lower Pierce's Passage (LPP), about 80 metres from Eureka Junction. Another way on from the lower chamber was spotted by Alan, and later Young Andy, Hugh and Ray found that this went into a separate complex rift, which again squeezed down into LPP!
What about the right-hand branch (east) of the T-junction at UPP? This has turned out to be something of a puzzle. After about 50 metres the boulder-filled passage splits into a Y junction. The left fork is partly blocked by a large boulder with the initials 'AA' and the word 'help' written above it, perhaps an oblique warning of the unexpected hole in the rift floor under the boulder! Young Andy and Julie climbed down a ladder (8 metres) to a sloping ledge where water could be heard; Andy bravely continued to climb down the 'unknown' rift and landed in Lower Pierce's Passage, near to the Trident junction! On a separate trip Andy and Johnny traversed over the boulder along UPP until it narrowed to a squeeze. What is beyond? The survey is unclear, but it appears to join the Manchester Bypass, confirmed by Chris Kinghorn, Tim Eastwood and Andy Hall who all have distant memories of it ending in Brown & Smelly chamber.
The right fork from the Y junction leads to a little-travelled winding crawl, which ends at a false floor with two pretty stalagmites, photographed by Andy. Others have been here; Young Andy noticed an old footprint on the floor, and Jim Newton produced an old slide the very same stals, but cannot remember how he got there! The exact location is uncertain, but is probably somewhere over the PJ area.
Johnny Baker at the "Two Stals"
Of course all this is ancient history Jim Eyre, in The Ease Gill System (1989), has described how Ron Bliss, Bill Leyland, Tom Sykes and Bill Leeks discovered IB on 28th October 1950. The story is that Ron explored the high level passage and at first thought it was the missing link to the Far Series of Ease Gill, however after hours of 'seemingly interminable roof crawls', they discovered they had just gone around in circles (the 'round trip' described above), ending up near Platypus. The route was named 'Ignorance is Bliss' to commemorate the ignominy of that day! Everyone knows of course, that Ron had his revenge the following day when he and Bill Leeks discovered the PJ chimney climb the missing link through to Pierce's Passage and Stop Pot it was indeed Poetic Justice! The surprising thing is the paucity of any original documentation about these discoveries; fortunately we can still subject Ron and Tom to the 'third degree' to get at the truth of these events! There were no logbooks or Newsletters in the 1950s and recording these important finds was not seen as a priority. The official journal for Red Rose was the British Caver, a national caving journal started in 1936, which published articles for a number of clubs, however there is little mention of Red Rose during the period 1948-56. An article by Ron entitled 'Explorations at Ease Gill', published in 1951, describes explorations in Wretched Rabbit, Thackery Passage and Slit Sink, but makes no mention of IB or PJ, so was probably written a few months before their discovery.
Tom remembers that Ron, Bill Leyland and Bill Leeks, (a 'school pal'), got into Lower Pierce's Passage and Eureka Junction on 5th November 1950. This was the first opportunity they had had to get a rope ladder up the PJ Chimney and across the crawl to get down the PJ pitch. When they reached Trident Junction a huge 'grand piano' boulder slipped and nearly got Ron! An interview with Wilf Taylor in the Lancashire Evening News (20th November 1950) gave a confused account of the discovery, describing it as 'potholing history... the largest known system of caverns in the world... estimated at six miles'. We are grateful to Tom for this article - he claims his 'memory clouds things 50 years on', but his account seems more or less spot on. Unfortunately after June 1951 his part in the exploration of Ease Gill was curtailed by his National Service in Cyprus and North Africa.
It must have been some time during 1951 (after Tom had left?) that Ron and others found the way from IB across to UPP and down to LPP via Cotton Chamber. Ron revealed that they called it 'Cotton Chamber' because they used a cotton rope to climb down to the lower chamber. Apparently cotton ropes were considered de rigueur in the 1950s they were not only strong, they floated, and could actually be eaten in an emergency! If Ron had not discovered PJ, the IB route would probably have become the main connection to the Far Series. When Wright and Birchall reached Cotton Chamber in 1987 they found an old rope ladder and 'R Bliss' on the wall, and stated (incorrectly) 'this was the original route into the far series'.
Much of this part of Ease Gill was originally surveyed by Pete Ashmead and incorporated into the surveys of 1967 and 1983. They both show Andy's climb-up; the main passage of IB; the left branch of UPP, and the route through Cotton Chamber to LPP fairly accurately. The decorated chamber and the short circular crawl from IB back to the main stream are omitted this area is just a short thin line, as if the data had been lost. The right-hand branch of UPP is the most confusing: the 1967 version ends vaguely in PJ area, and the 1983 survey joins the Manchester Bypass in Brown & Smelly chamber.
1983 Survey of Ignorance is Bliss
The IB passages were re-surveyed in 1983 by Frank Addiss and Julie Mundy (they fell in love during these survey trips and later ran off to Spain!). Their data in the RRCPC Library clearly shows that the right hand passage of UPP splits at the Y-junction with the left fork continuing through a squeeze to a climb-up into Brown & Smelly, and the right fork ending in a blind chamber with a false floor and the two stalagmites that Andy has photographed. All this needs some further study and of course another survey for Ray!
It is a fascination of these passages that after all these years they can still intrigue and baffle. The passages have not changed of course, but memories and the 'oral wisdom' has perhaps faded a little after 50 years, but we are grateful to Ron and Tom for their fascinating recollections even if it is not exactly total recall. Wright and Birchall ended their article with the words: 'history is re-explored' and so it continues again and again!
Peter and Julie Mohr
Jim Eyre, The Ease Gill System, BCRA, 1989
Keith Wright & Jim Birchall, 'Ignorance is Bliss', RRCPC Newsletter, 1987, p.13.
Ron Bliss, 'Explorations at Ease Gill', British Caver, 1951, p.88-91.
Northern Caves 3, p.129 & 144.
Frank Addiss & Julie Mundy, Survey of IB, Sept. & Oct. 1983 in RRCPC Library.
Personal accounts from Ron Bliss and Tom Sykes, and helpful comments from Andy Hall, Tim Eastwood and Chris Kinghorn.
'People and Places', Lancashire Evening News, 20 November 1950. Thanks to Tom Sykes for this article.