I was only about sixteen at the time, but I remember it almost as if it was yesterday. It was the first time I had ever been caving, a sport that requires a complete lack of claustrophobia!
I went with two friends, about the same age as me, one of whom had previous experience in the sport and was familiar with the particular caves we were going to attack. I should point out here that “going caving” has nothing to do with buying a ticket for a guided tour in one of the caves that dot not only Australia, but the whole world, like Cheddar in England and Buchan in Victoria. Where I was going there was no large entrance, no concreted path through the site, and no electric lighting. No, we were going into a couple of ordinary caves in Burrington Comb, a valley in Somerset, England, well known for the systems to be found there, just holes in the ground.
Burrington is about twenty miles south of Bristol and we travelled there by bus, early one Saturday morning, the three of us carrying ropes (not for the caves – we were going to do a bit of cliff climbing first), sandwiches, drinks, hard hats fitted with lights and some spare clothing in case we got wet while in the caves.
We had a look at ‘The Rock of Ages’ on our way up the valley – yes, it’s the actual cleft rock where the writer of the famous hymn sheltered from a thunder storm, which inspired him, a very long time ago. There’s even a carved inscription there giving all the details!
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Anyway, as I said, we first did a bit of rock climbing; nothing too exciting, the cliffs there are only about a hundred feet high and we didn’t even need to use our ropes for it. But then we moved further up the valley to our first objective, Goatchurch Cave. If you didn’t know where to look for it, it’s unlikely that you’d find it – it has a tiny opening, about four feet high almost completely obscured by undergrowth and we had to scramble a bit just to get in there. Once inside, we had to stoop quite severely as we clambered over the various rocks and crevasses in our way, with the ‘roof’ just inches above our heads.
Then my experienced friend stopped, pointed, and said, “Right, we go through there”, indicating a small hole down near the floor of the cave. It was literally like a drain pipe, almost perfectly round, about eighteen inches in diameter and, as I was to discover, about thirty feet long. I wasn’t surprised to hear that this testing little problem was, in fact called the “Drainpipe”, and because of its narrow dimensions, we had to decide before entering it whether we wanted our arms stretched out in front, or held down alongside our bodies. There was no way of changing from one position to the other once inside!
It was quite a frightening experience for a newcomer to the sport, the first of several that day in Goatchurch Cave and its partner Sidcott a little further up the road. I’m glad to say the cave opened up somewhat after that ‘pipe’, though it was hard to forget that I had to wriggle through it again on our way back out!
The other cave we visited that day, Sidcott, was very similar to Goatchurch, except that there was no ‘Drainpipe’ to negotiate. The difficult part here was the ‘Tie-press’! This little marvel consisted of two mighty slabs of rock with a horizontal gap between the upper and lower slab, a gap of just twenty-three centimetres, so small that we had to remove our helmets to squeeze through, luckily I was a slim young lad then – I’d have no chance getting through there now! In both caves, even the ‘easy’ parts were a bit of a tight fit, not at all like the commercial caverns I had visited before, and don’t forget there were no nice smooth concrete floors either, it was all boulders and mud wherever we went!
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I really enjoyed that day out with my friends (or should I say day ‘in’?), but I never developed an urge to try it again; I’m more of an open air type of person myself, which I guess is why I eventually took up gliding as my hobby, about as far as you can get from the spatial restrictions of caving!
What unusual sports or activities did you do when you were younger? Or even now?