It all started, as so many of these things do, as a bit of a bet!
My friends Mike, Reg and I were on a hike in the limestone hills of Somerset, on a sunny summer’s day. We’d brought a couple of beers each, and although we weren’t drunk, we were at least past the point on self-doubt!
We were walking up a steep-sided valley called Burrington Combe, famous for several quite difficult caves and for the cleft rock where the hymn “The Rock Of Ages” had been written. The caves weren’t the tourist type, with handrails, steps and electric lighting, they were as God, or water, made them and you entered them at your own risk.
This of course, became a challenge for we slightly inebriated lads, even though only Mike had ever been down “proper” caves before. Especially when we came upon the entrance to a cave called “Goatchurch”, an undistinguished little hole on the side of the cliff, just a few metres off the road. It took just moments for the dares and the bets to flow, as we tested each other’s bravery, and within another minute we were crawling through the small cave entrance, which opened at first into a surprisingly large cavern.
Luckily we carried quite powerful torches with us, because we weren’t sure whether we would finish our hike before nightfall and we flashed them around the place, admiring the caves structure and looking for the route beyond.
We soon found it, the path having been well worn by countless boots before ours, and we were presented with our first difficulty. There was a tunnel we had to traverse, which we discovered later was known as “The Drainpipe”, (with good reason). It was about twenty metres long, it was horizontal and over its whole length its diameter never exceeded about eighteen inches, before it opened out into the next cavern!
This meant you had to make a decision, before entering, whether you wanted to lead with your arms, one each side of your head, or leave them down at your side. Once you were inside the Drainpipe, there was no opportunity to change your mind; there just wasn’t room. I preferred my arms in front of me, with my torch in one hand, showing me the way. I wriggled through to the other end in about five minutes of near claustrophobia, stood up and took a deep breath!
The cave opened up again somewhat after that, so that we were even able to walk upright occasionally, our torches catching glimpses of stalactites and stalagmites, plus here and there, names carved or written on the walls, some with dates that went back a hundred years or more, early graffiti, proving it’s not just the youngsters of today who indulge in such vandalism!
If you think you have ever experienced total darkness, in a room at night for instance, do what we did – go down a cave for a few hundred metres, then turn off the torches! It really is a different kind of darkness there, something you can almost feel, as a solid entity, wrapping itself round you like a soft cloak, quite frightening.
We encountered several more hazards as we progressed deeper. As I said, this was not some tourist site, but a natural cave, just as nature had created it, and it was all the more interesting because of that!
But eventually we had to turn around and experience them all over again on the way out, a total adventure of about two hours. It had certainly been a trip into the unknown, especially for Reg and me, who had never been caving before, and it was scary in the tight spots, but a great experience in retrospect. I would not want to have missed it, even if I never go down a cave again.
Were you this brave in your youth? Have you ever taken a trip this far into the unknown?
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