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Early Days

Early Days

By Peter I. W. Harvey                                                                                                                                            contents

I was born in India in 1921, where my Father was serving with the Gurkha Rifles on the North West Frontier.  Even in those far off days after the first world war, the government was making cuts and my father’s unit was cut down by the “Geddes Axe”.  We returned to England and settled in Winford, a small village to the north of the Mendip hills in Somerset.  My first experience of caves was when I was about seven years old.  My mother took me and my younger brother to Wookey Hole Cave on the south side of Mendip.  I have two memories of this expedition.  One was sitting in the sun in Burrington Combe eating oranges.  The other is, while eating a cream tea by the swimming pool after the trip through the cave, there was a pretty girl whose swimsuit when wet was see-through and who kept climbing to the high board and diving in.  My mother explained to me that she could not have been a very nice girl but omitted to tell me why; my mother was always very mysterious when I broached the subject of girls.  I had, in the end, to learn all about them in a “hands on” mode at a somewhat later date.  Of the excursion through the show cave I have no recollection.  At this period in my life caves do not appear to have interested me very much.  The year was probably 1928 when the sport of exploring caves was only just beginning.

Not long after this my family moved to Stoke Gabriel, a small village on the River Dart in Devonshire.  In the term time I was incarcerated in a boarding school in Bristol but in the holidays, as I was the proud owner of a bicycle, I  was able to move around the countryside quite freely.  Whilst exploring the lanes round my new home I found a very small cave entrance in an old disused limestone quarry.  It took a while for me to find the right position to squeeze through the tiny opening.  Inside, I could just stand up and in the light of my bicycle torch I could see that the small chamber was blocked to the roof, after about fifteen feet further in, by a pile of boulders.  Later in life I would probably have had a go at digging through this obstruction!  I have since had a look at this hole and it was so small that I wondered how on earth I managed to get in it, even though I was only about ten years old.  I had broken the first rule of caving in that I had told no-one where I was going; the only evidence of my whereabouts would have been my abandoned bicycle in the quarry.

The exploration of caves before the First World War was only of interest to a few people.  In the early days in Britain the main interest was centred on the limestone areas of the Yorkshire Dales, in Derbyshire and the Mendip Hills in Somerset.  Members of the Yorkshire Ramblers Club were exploring some of the open holes in the north.  This activity was given a boost after Martel bottomed Gaping Gill in 1895.  Meanwhile on Mendip it was at about the turn of the century that Herbert Balch started to investigate the underground rivers feeding the resurgences on the south side of the hills.  He was later joined by Ernest Baker and they published their experiences in ‘Netherworld of Mendip’.  In 1901 Balch organised the first exploratory expeditions into Swildon’s Hole.   After further exploration in Swildon’s was denied by the owner, Balch turned his attention to Eastwater Swallet, where he had to dig his way through a considerable depth of collapsed boulders.  However, the locking of Swildons did not stop them for long as they managed to find a ‘duplicate key’ and there ensued some midnight caving trips.

In the late 1940s, just after the war, when I first went into Eastwater Swallet, there were still traces of a ball of string which was used to mark the correct route through the ‘Boulder Ruckle’ as it was known.  To Mr Balch must go the credit of having been one of the first cave explorers to enter a new cave by digging.  He could also claim to be one of the first persons to be successfully rescued from a cave after falling and breaking his arm on the 60ft pitch in Lamb Lair, a cave with a huge chamber that is near the top of Harptree Hill on the North side of Mendip.                                                                            back to the top

After the First World War, interest in caving on the Mendips was mainly confined to two small groups.  One was the Mendip Nature Research Committee (MNRC) and the other was the University of Bristol Speleological Society (UBSS).  Both were carrying out mainly archaeological research in cave entrances; exploration and digging for new caves seems to have been carried out only occasionally.

It was while I was at school in Bristol that I was introduced to my first wild cave.  During the 1937 Easter holiday I was on a canoeing expedition down the River Wye, a trip organised by one of the school masters.  We took about a week to canoe from Builth Wells to Chepstow, camping each night beside the river.  The canoes were Canadian style, hired from a firm in Oxford.  They were delivered by rail to Builth Wells and returned by rail from Chepstow, all for thirty shillings each (£1.50), including the hire charge.

We had reached Symonds Yat on about the third day.  The river becomes quite fast after the ferry and canoeing these rapids was quite exciting.  We stopped on the right bank lower down and examined some man-made openings in the hillside.  They were not very extensive and I don't remember going far out of the sight of daylight.  However, on the left bank, we could see an opening quite high up the wooded hillside.  We were soon across the river and climbing through the trees to this new entrance.  Our illumination was only a couple of candles each and a box of matches.  There were no formations and the cave was only a single passage about 400 feet long but it was during this trip that I must have caught the bug.  My memory of it is very hazy and a hand-held candle is probably the worst form of underground light there is; one’s eyes are continually blinded by the flame.  Anyway the cave turned several corners and we progressed well out of the sight of daylight.  It was probably a good introduction to caving because there were no difficult sections and the whole place was dry, giving no clue to the miseries of wet and cold I was to enjoy later on.  I believe this cave is known as Lady Mead Cave.

I was a member of a small group called “The Venturers”.  The school did not allow Scouts for some reason and this was a way of getting round the ban.  The schoolmaster who ran the group took small parties of us out on expeditions that included rambling, simple climbing, abseiling and, occasionally, caving with short trips into Goatchurch and Swildons Hole on the Mendips.  I was on one of these outings and we spent an enjoyable time being led round the upper series of Swildons Hole.  This was my first a real cave with stalactites, stalagmites and a rushing river, which disappeared over an enormous waterfall.  We were soaked to the skin and pretty cold, our garb being shorts, football shirts and sweaters with tennis shoes on our feet.  We did not suffer any ill effects and were returned to Bristol in high spirits after a fine trip.

It was at school that I met Jim Braithwaite.  He was a few years older than I was and was one of the older ones on the canoe trips which took place during the Easter holidays.  After we had left school I met up with him again, along with his two brothers John and Bernard.  They had all joined the newly formed WCC (the Wessex) and were caving on Mendip regularly.  During this period a few members of the Mendip clubs started to turn their attentions to a new area - South Wales.  Gerard Platten and a few members of the Mendip Exploration Society (MES) attracted a group of people from various clubs, which he called the Dragon Group, and the MES later formed a Welsh Group, which included some people already living in South Wales.  In 1939 the importance of South Wales as a caving area was recognised by the British Speleological Association who held their annual conference in Swansea.  This was organised by Jim Braithwaite who had taken a great interest in the caves of the Neath and Mellte Valleys.  At this time the BSA was purporting to be a national body but after the war it deteriorated into a northern pothole club.  This was mainly due to the antics of Eli Simpson, whose title I believe was ‘recorder’.  There are stories of BSA meetings taking place with strong-arm men on the doors to keep out those who opposed “Simmy” as he was known.

In 1937 I was apprenticed to the Bristol Aeroplane Company and joined Jim and his brothers exploring Baker’s Pit cave at Buckfastleigh in Devon.  This was a day’s outing from Bristol and we all went to Devon in Jim’s car.  The cave itself was dry and most of it consisted of crawling on hands and knees and struggling through even smaller places.  We were dressed in the usual garb of rugger shorts and sweater with gym shoes on our feet and of course candles and matches for illumination.  My recollections of this cave are mainly lost because although I enjoyed it at the time there was nothing special to remember it by except John asking us to say goodbye to his mother for him if he failed to get out.                                                                           back to the top

This trip was to be my last underground adventure until the latter part of the war.  It was now 1939 and in the Bristol Aeroplane Company Aero-Engine Division we were working long hours, while at the same time I was studying for my Higher National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering.  The war was soon upon us, and one day I was surprised to see Blenheim aircraft on the airfield with Finnish markings.  We were supplying these to the Finns to help them defend themselves against the Russians who were invading them.  I was working in the Aero Engine Design Stress Office, engaged on the design and stressing of reduction gearing and supercharger drives.

We students were not allowed by the factory inspectors to work seven days a week so we generally chose to have Saturdays off and so were able to meet for coffee at the Berkley Cafe at the top of Park Street, opposite the University.  There were two reasons for taking Saturday off: we were paid double on Sunday and nothing was open on Saturday.  I eventually obtained my HNC and a small gang of us seemed to have developed a thirst for knowledge so we carried on through courses for Higher Mathematics, Advanced Stress Analysis and a course on Vibrations.  By this time I had had enough and failed to enter for the most important exam, which was part C for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Considering the hours we worked and the lack of exercise we were remarkably fit.  Most nights we consumed quantities of watery beer at whatever pubs were open, to make it easier to sleep through the minor air raids.  One night a week was spent on Home Guard duty.  Towards the end of the war the Home Guard started manning anti-aircraft gunsites; half the guns manned by the regulars and the rest by the Home Guard, thus releasing army personnel for overseas.  Getting enough sleep was therefore something to be kept in mind.  So was food.  I had supper in my digs [lodgings] before going on duty and then had another one at the site.  In the morning I had breakfast on the site and went back to my digs for another breakfast.  I had about ten different digs during my war years in Bristol.  It was at one these that I had some “hands on” instruction from the landlady on the subject upon which my mother had failed to advise me.

Towards the end of the war things were getting a little easier.  It began to seem that we were going to win.  The Aero-engine Design Office, which during the war was housed in Fry’s Chocolate factory at Keynsham, had returned to its home at Patchway.  It was here I met Colin Low, who introduced me to his friend John Lander.  They were friends of Paul Dolphin, who was still in the Royal Air Force.  Before the war he was caving on Mendip with the MES and, in South Wales, had started a dig at a swallet above Dan yr Ogof called Waun Fignen Felen.  They, together with Norman Paddock, came to be loosely referred to as the Dolphin Gang.  Paul was also a member of the Dragon Group and later on, after the demise of the MES, the WCC.  These two, with John’s and Paul’s wives dragged me off to the Mendips and took me into GB cave.  This was discovered by UBSS members Francis Goddard and Charles Barker a few weeks after the start of the war and was still in pristine condition.  At the foot of the entrance passage one arrived at the grottoes, an upper and lower grotto whose walls were covered in pure white helictites sometimes referred to as erratics on account of their growth being anything but vertical.  Most of these have now, sadly, been destroyed.  Following the original route past places with picturesque names such as “The Elephant’s Arsehole” and “The Devil’s Elbow” one eventually arrived in the main gorge.  The Devil’s Elbow was very constricted and usually half-full of water, which meant that th ere was no escape from a soaking.  The Gorge is one of the two largest chambers on Mendip, the other being in Lamb Lair.  This chamber is about 80ft high, 80ft wide and something like 200ft long.  High in the roof were magnificent stalactites up to 18ft long, which were only just visible in the beams of our poor lights.

I was living at this time in what can only be described as ‘Superdigs’.  There were over 60 guests of both sexes.  The girls were kept under the wing of Madam in the main house while the men had rooms in one of the two annexes.  The intention here was to encourage a “hands off” situation, a goal which was not always successful.  We all had our own seats at table where we had a saucer with our weekly ration of 2oz. butter and a small jar for the sugar ration.  I remember that the hot taps on the baths were spring loaded and a secondary overflow had been cut in the end about six inches from the bottom.  Apart from these wartime inconveniences, the place was very comfortable.  There were several lounges, one with a television and a snooker room.  I found that one of the inmates was John Parkes who had done some potholing in the North of England with the BSA and had moved down to the south because of his job.  He had joined the UBSS as an outside member.  We were soon caving regularly from the UBSS hut above Burrington Combe, where I met Bill Weaver.  I learned that he was working in the same place as I was, the Bristol Aeroplane Co. at Patchway.  It was John Parkes and Bill Weaver who first explored Longwood Swallet after the Sidcot School club led by R. Stride opened up the entrance in April 1945.

I was soon familiar with all the caves round the Burrington area, which included Goatchurch, Rod’s Pot, Sidcot and Read’s Cavern.  I made many trips to GB and to Longwood, where I helped John and Bill with a dig near the Main Chamber.  This was a pretty horrible dig.  We were excavating a slot in the floor on the right-hand side of the passage with a small stream going down.  We took it in turn to lie in this water and, with a hammer and chisel, remove bits of rock from the bottom of the hole.  There was no fancy modern cave-wear such as wetsuits or furry suits, just old sweaters and clothes which were too old or shabby to be worn above ground.  They just soaked up the water as it flowed over you head down in the hole.  After the unpleasantness of the actual dig there was always the struggle out through the tight entrance series and then the walk back to the UBSS hut the other side of Blackdown, usually in the dark.  There was at least one member of the team who was extremely pleased when the decision was made to abandon the dig because it was not showing any signs of going anywhere.                                                                           back to the top

I was now caving regularly with the UBSS and was invited to join as an outside member, which I accepted.  I teamed up with Ian Nixon and started a dig in the Bath Swallet, which was the nearest one of a line of swallets outside the UBSS hut above Burrington Combe.  This must have been a kind of apprenticeship, as I believe many members had dug in this swallet before and after us without much success.  It was during this period that I met a number of early UBSS members, among them Bertie Crook and, later on, when he returned from prisoner of war camp at Singapore, E. K.Tratman or ‘Tratty’.  Another person who was a member for a while at the time was Beppo Occhialini, who was doing some research at Bristol University.  His name was to appear again later on in France during the exploration of the 1000ft pothole Pierre Saint-Martin which, through poor engineering, claimed the life of Marcel Loubens.

Peter & Phyllis Harvey, Arthur Hill & Gwyn TudorIt was in the Autumn of 1945 that I made my first visit to Wales.  I now had a motorcycle and there was also a small ration of petrol for personal use.  The party consisted of John Parkes, Bill Weaver, Anne whom John was to marry later, and one other whose name I forget.  Our intention was to explore a cave called Pwll Swnd, which was on Foel Fraith, a limestone mountainside more than a mile east of Herbert’s Quarry, on the Brynamman mountain road.  Pwll Swnd had been found by Arthur Hill and Gwyn Tudor (later to become Mrs. Hill) while walking on the mountain at the beginning of the war.  Not many visits had been made since then.  The cave consisted of a small entrance series to a 30ft. pitch, the top of which was exceedingly tight.  Arthur had failed to negotiate this constriction and I believe that some years later I enlarged it with explosive for his benefit.  I don’t remember doing this but I see that it is recorded in my diary.  The discovery is recorded in the British Caver Vol 4 p69:

The entrance was discovered just before Easter 1939 by A. Hill and Miss Tudor.  They reported a small cave, on the eastern slope of Foel Fraith, with a promising fissure in the floor.  Accordingly, on April 9th, Hill, Miss Tudor and G. Platten went up to the cave with 25ft of rope ladder etc.  The cave is situated on a major fault and is on the junction of the grits and limestones.  We entered by a small hole in the rock.  The cave extends for some 60 ft and in a side passage was the rift.  We spent some hours trying to force our bodies down it without success, only succeeding in losing our ladder down the rift.  The next day the same party, plus Carhill, armed with a ladder, sledgehammer and a steel wedge again attacked the rift and eventually made the descent which proved to be 40ft and ended in a dry sump.  Some 9ft up on one side was a low tunnel, about 15ft long.  This we wormed through, not expecting much, so unpromising did it look.  On wriggling out we discovered to our amazement, that we stood at the head of what turned out to be a tremendous ‘Master Cavern’!  Our small party was obviously inadequate to fully explore the ramifications of this vast place.  Side passages frequently branched off, as we clambered down the ever bigger main passage.  Stalagmite wonders abounded everywhere.  Huge rocks strewed the floor and to judge by the stalagmite pillars formed on them, in some places, must have fallen many, many years ago!  The roof, where we could see it, appeared secure.  Several large avens were passed and one very large chamber, out of which led two yawning black voids awaiting exploration.  The whole place was completely dry and numerous bats were flying around.  We halted, at last, at 450 paces from the tunnel-crawl.  The Dragons have been called up for the first major exploration on May 28th.  Will it connect with Dan y Ogof, 12 miles away as the crow flies or at the water issue of Ffrydiau Twrch, 2 miles away?

This was the extent of our knowledge of the cave when we set out from Bristol fairly early on the Saturday morning, John Parkes in his Morris Minor with the others, and me on motorcycle.  It was raining!  We arrived at Herbert’s Quarry before midday after driving round via Gloucester; this was in the days before the Severn Bridge.  The other alternative was to cross the River Severn by the ferry but there was not much to choose between waiting in the queue for the ferry, which usually meant an hour’s delay, or driving round via Gloucester.

We changed into caving clothes in the quarry and started walking towards Foel Fraith, about a mile and a half over the mountain.  It was now raining harder than ever and it was so cold that I was surprised that it was not snowing.  Bill said he knew where the entrance was.  Three hours later we were still walking up and down the mountain in the wind and rain following Bill looking for Pwll Swnd; some of us by now were praying that he would not find it.  Even in fine weather this cave is very difficult to locate, so our chances of finding it in the wind and rain with the clouds down was pretty small.  As we had never been there before we could have walked right past it several times without noticing it.  In the end he had to admit defeat and we returned to Herbert’s Quarry, where we explored a small cave high up in the quarry face known as Ogof Pasg or Easter Cave.  It was a great relief to escape the weather and get into the warmth of the cave.  Inside the tight entrance, the main passages were large enough to walk about in.  Off these we found a system of small tunnels with mud floors just large enough to crawl in flat out.  One of these was completely blocked by a stalactite.  I am sorry to record that this was removed in the interests of further exploration.  Unfortunately this ‘rabbit hole’ closed down round the next corner.  On our way out we met another caver.  He was a local collier called Eddie Morgan who informed us that we were caving on his patch!  As he did not own the derelict quarry we did not take a lot of notice.  Later I discovered that he became known as Eddie Greaseproof because he had left the pit and was a traveller in greaseproof paper.                                                                           back to the top

We spent a very pleasant night in the Red Lion at Llangadog.  In the morning it was still raining so we packed up and returned to Bristol.  We took the road back over the Brynamman pass to the Swansea Valley were I was to spend so much of my time in the future.  I did not realise this as I drove past Dan yr Ogof and the Gwyn Arms in the pouring rain; cavers were to enjoy the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. David Price at the Gwyn for many years to come but, with about 120 miles still to go before I reached home, I was not all that interested.  It never occurred to me that it would be interesting to see Dan yr Ogof in flood as some of the roads were in flood anyway.  This weekend was my first to Wales and, so I understand, it rains for everyone on their first visit to these mountains.

Back on Mendip I spent many weekends helping John Parkes and Bill Weaver with their dig at Plantation Swallet, near the St. Cuthbert’s Mineries, Priddy.  We spent days digging sand out of a very narrow tunnel which seemed to go on for ever and in which the air at the end was none too good during the last few visits.  This dig is somewhere near the site of the present BEC hut and St Cuthbert’s Swallet, which was found much later.  We gave up in the end, probably because we found another site which appeared to have a greater promise of success and perhaps have a draught of fresh air.  Anyway, it was a long way from our base at Burrington.  Digs then always seemed to go on until something more promising turned up or further progress became impossible, but that was going to change…

Edited by Jem Rowland,                                                        back to the top
March 2009