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Early DYO, beginnings of SWCC & OFD

Early Days in Dan yr Ogof, and the Beginnings of OFD and SWCC

by Peter I. W. Harvey                                                                                                                                            contents

At Easter 1946 the Welsh branch of the MES had organised a meet to which everyone was invited, centred on the Gwyn Arms.  The plan for the holiday was an exploration of Dan yr Ogof led by Gerard Platten, while the cave divers were to make an effort to pass the sump in the rising known as Ffynnon Ddu, or the Black Spring, on the east side of the valley lower down the river Tawe past Craig-y-Nos Castle.  In the evenings there were going to be meetings to discuss the future of the Welsh branch of the Mendip Exploration society, or perhaps the formation of a new Welsh caving club. A large number of cavers had arrived in the Swansea Valley to take part in this, the first meet since the end of the war.  These were mostly from the various clubs from Somerset.  Of the local members present, Arthur Hill and Ted Mason were the main instigators.  Their letter in the British Caver (Vol 14  p.72) recommended the formation of a new club, possibly called the ‘South Wales Cave Club’.  This was later backed up by a letter written by Don Lumbard. (Vol 14 p. 87).

Inscription in DYO River Cave. Photo: PIWHPermission had been gained from the owners of Dan yr Ogof for Gerard Platten to lead parties across the lakes of Dan yr Ogof to the extensive dry series of huge chambers beyond.  Dan yr Ogof was first explored by the Morgan brothers of Abercrave and their friends as early as 1912, when they managed to reach the shore of the third lake.  On a further expedition they returned with a coracle and the party of four crossed this lake, referred to as the ‘Coracle Pool’.  They climbed the cataract and saw the watery passage disappearing into the distance before they turned back.  Mr. E. E. Roberts, a well known Yorkshire climber and potholer was visiting the Swansea Valley in May 1937 and was asked by the Morgan brothers to complete the exploration.  Mr. Roberts writes in the Yorkshire Ramblers Journal (vol.VII No.23):

Mr Jeffrey Morgan came up and told us the tale of 1912, how he and his brothers had found a dry cave above the river cave (which can only be followed a painful 80 yards) and explored it up to a great pool.  A coracle had been bought and in it Mr. T. A. Morgan had voyaged 40yds across the pool and 20 yds up a tunnel, landing near the foot of a waterfall.  Pulling the coracle back with string, three others had followed, and after the leader had climbed the cataract and seen a watery tunnel beyond they had retreated.

The Morgan brothers in their 1912 exploration saw beyond the cataract above the third lake but did not go any further.  To get this far, considering they had no experience of caving must be regarded as quite a feat.  It was on a ledge in the Cauldron that they left a bottle with their names to commemorate this expedition.  It reads ‘June 1912. Jeffrey Morgan, Tommy Morgan, Edwin Morgan and Morgan Williams (Gamekeeper)’.

E. E. Roberts first entered the cave on the 23rd of May 1937 accompanied by Platten, Nelstrop and Gowing.  They took with them a rubber boat, christened ‘Red Cymru’.  There had been quite a lot of rain during the week and and when they reached the third lake there was a narrow sandy beach between that and the second lake.  The water was therefore quite high but not out of the question.  The third lake is an intimidating place, especially with scum from a recent flood still on the walls and roof.  They all used the boat to paddle round the lake and into the tunnel but did not make any attempt to approach the cascade.  The flow out of the tunnel was quite strong so further exploration was not attempted that day.                                                        back to the top

Two days later, on the 25th. May, Ashwell Morgan, Ashford Price [senior] and David Price of the Gwyn Arms, with three others, also visited the cave.  Later in the summer, T. A. Morgan, Ashford Price and Miss Coote crossed the Third Lake using a wood and canvas boat.  They climbed the cascade and reached the lip of a fourth lake.

It was in September 1937 that the major exploration took place.  There appear to have been a large number of people present in the Swansea Valley at that time and taking part in the exploration.  These included, once again, the Morgan brothers, Miss Coote, E. E. Roberts, Ashford Price and many cavers from Mendip.  The average size of exploration parties seems to have been about fifteen.  Gerard Platten appears by now to be in charge of the exploration and sets out the early history of Dan yr Ogof in Volume II of the British Caver:

Situated below Dan y Ogof Farm, Craig y Nos, Breconshire, the Afon Llynfell issues from the cavern, its entrance being at the foot of a precipitous carboniferous limestone crag, joining the River Tawe lower down the valley.  In 1912, the three Morgan brothers of Abercrave found the entrance to a series of caverns above the river in the cave and they penetrated to a distance of about 2090 ft.  Realising its beauties, they wisely blocked up the entrance.  This year, (1937), they were able to purchase the land surrounding the cavern.  One project is the boring of a tunnel above the river entrance and the lighting of part of the cave to enable the public to see the wonders within.  It will certainly rival Cheddar Show caves.  Mr. Morgan appeals to the public not to try and enter until this has been done.  A steel door has been erected to prevent anyone entering.

In May 1937, the Yorkshire Ramblers Club were invited by Mr Morgan to explore the cavern. Under the leadership of E. E. Roberts, a team went in but were beaten by the height of the water on the lakes, which back-flood during high water.  From then onwards, all ‘club’ exploration trips were led by myself [Platten] supported by fine teams of women and men drawn from the MES, WCC, MNRC and the BSA.  On Sept. 19th, fifteen cavers made a major attack and succeeded in passing the third lake, climbing a series of waterfalls, wading deep pools and, with a small boat which we  carried with us, crossed the fourth lake reaching a remarkable series of dry, sandy, immense caverns, winding passages and everywhere brilliant with stalactite and stalagmite formations great and small.  1000 ft was added and the 1937 cave became a reality.  Again on the 20th another 2070 ft was found and still the cave went on, but we had to retreat for fear of the lakes filling up and cutting us off.

Another team explored still further on Oct 13th, finding three new vast chambers, one of which contained thousands of ‘straw’ stalactites, many over 7 ft long.  Several high avens were examined and a great many photographs were taken.

With the water level at its lowest for many years, a team of fifteen went in on Oct 23rd and succeeded in adding about 400ft to the furthest extent of the cave.  From this date onwards it rained most days and the flood waters rose higher daily, preventing all trips beyond the third lake.  Daily, until the end of the month, the 1912 cave was re-examined and two new grottoes were discovered.

The total distance in has reached the astounding figure of well over 1800 yards and yet the end is not in sight.  The full trip takes about eight hours.

Great thanks are due to Messrs J. and T. A. Morgan, who gave us every assistance in their power and who at each weekend trip supplied the hungry cavers with food and refreshment at our base, the Gwyn Arms, where we slept and were catered for excellently.

Another account appears in the Journal of the BSA (vol.2 No.3) by Don Lumbard, who actually took part in the first crossing of the third and fourth lakes.  On this occasion Platten volunteered to stay at the lakes and watch the level of the water in case it rose while they were inside the cave.  He had a revolver with which to warn the others of any increase in level; it is also reported that he had a bottle of rum to keep him warm.  When the others emerged from the dry series beyond the lakes, apparently Platten was asleep and the bottle of rum was empty.  Don’s account is as follows:

To those who are accustomed to the twists and turns of the flesh-removing Mendip caves, the prospect of exploring an extensive cave in Wales, where it is said that a carriage could be driven through the passages and where underground lakes had to be passed by using inflated rubber boats, was indeed inviting.  There was also talk of a mighty whirlpool which made one imagine that an arm waving a sword might suddenly appear as if in challenge.  However, even when the usual exaggeration of the enthusiastic caver was allowed for, the possibilities of an enjoyable trip were great.  To our surprise the statements were substantially true, for Dan-yr-Ogof has now been explored for over a mile, there two lakes to be crossed by boats and a whirlpool is formed when the water is very low.

Mr Ashwell Morgan, one of the owners of the cave, has already written of an exploration in 1912 when a party penetrated half a mile, and it is now proposed to give some description of the new half mile or so discovered this year.

Mr G. Platten undertook to organise and lead the explorations.  The first main onslaught was made on 16th September (1937) when our party was G. Platten, V. Wigmore, C. W. Harris, F. Brown, I. A. Morgan and some others.

We entered the cave at 8am on the Sunday and leisurely went through the 1912 cave until we were all assembled on the strip of sand separating the 2nd and 3rd lakes, ready to begin the serious part of the exploration.  Accordingly, two of us were despatched in the canvas boat to see whether the journey up the falls could be accomplished, and report on the possibilities.  A line was fixed to the boat and signals were agreed.

In the distance we could hear the roar of water and as we paddled slowly on with our candles giving all too little light, the current became stronger until, when our sense of awe had reached its maximum, we saw the falls or rapids as they really are.  The spell was broken and our immediate desire was to leave the boat as soon as possible and get onto something firm. We therefore moored the boat and negotiated the falls by climbing around the edge of the passage for a distance of about 20ft until we came to a still pool which disappeared to the right.  We clambered round the right hand side for a few yards but found that, if we were to continue, we should get fairly wet, which seemed unnecessary as there was a rubber boat with the main party.  So back we went with the news that the falls could easily be passed but that the other boat would be needed.

The exploration of the 1937 cave then began with ‘Digger Harris’ as leader, Gerard Platten generously staying behind to be sure of communication.  On this particular trip he carried a revolver which was to warn us if the water suddenly rose.  It must be said that on these trips there was a very fine team spirit which was a little return for the self sacrifice of Platten who laboured endlessly to make the show a success.                                                        back to the top

Rubber Dinghy in Dan yr Ogof LakeThere has never been any repetition of the feelings experienced on that first crossing of the Third Lake.  It was now routine work with a candle light welcoming one at the end, and so on to the still pool which was now circumvented by wading round the left hand side until some more rapids, which came from the Fourth Lake, were reached.  At a rough guess the lake is about 15yds across.  On the left side, Bill Weaver fell out of the rubber boat into deep water while investigating water flowing into the lake.

The rest of Lumbard’s article goes on to describe the cave beyond the lakes, which remained much the same until the major break-through in 1966.  Some modern cave explorers have been known to belittle their forebears for lack of push and courage, but it must be remembered that in those days they had no great experience or knowledge of caves to draw on.  Attempting to cross the Third Lake in a coracle using a poor light must have been an awe-inspiring experience especially as the sound of the cataract round the corner could have been the river pouring down a hole in the floor ready to engulf both coracle and passenger, and so it was not until the late nineteen thirties that the lake was finally crossed.

The entrance during the early years was in via the river exit and a climb up into what is now the show cave.  When the show cave was opened for a short while in 1939, a new entrance had been blasted at a higher level, making an easy walk in.  Also, a water turbine was installed outside the cave to generate electricity for the cave lighting.  The onset of the Second World War brought all this to a halt.  During the war the cave was used as a safe storage area by one of the Ministries and was therefore not available for exploration.  After the war, permission was again obtained to explore the cave, which led to the Easter meet of 1946.

The main excitement in Dan yr Ogof was, of course, the crossing of the series of four large lakes joined by cataracts which were reached after the end of the showcave.  Few people had ever seen these lakes and this fact alone increased the awe in which they were held.  The first two lakes were quite shallow, being not more than about two feet deep.  Splashing through these tended to give newcomers the impression that all the stories they were told were exaggerated.  However on reaching the edge of the third lake, with the thunder of the cataract round the corner, it was obvious that those stories were right.  In low water the third lake was usually over waist deep.  The fourth lake is about the same depth, but by now everyone is pretty wet anyway.

In flood conditions the lakes are impassable.  Under these conditions, the noise from the cataracts is muffled.  The first two lakes would now be quite deep and would both be joined with the Third Lake, which would be up to the roof of the passage blocking off the tunnel to the cataracts.  If you were unlucky to be caught on the wrong side you would have to wait until the level of the water subsided.  Nowadays there is a store of food and other comforts kept on the far side for emergency use.  

Past the lakes there are several large chambers containing fine formations, especially straws, some over 6ft long.  Beyond those is a very tight and tortuous passage now known as the ‘Long Crawl’. This had never been passed, although Bill Weaver and Don Lumbard had spent a lot of time examining it before the war.  At the end of one long exploration, after climbing a 30ft aven they reached a small chamber after a crawl along a tight passage and left their initials scratched in the mud: P. W. and D. L.  These were found a long time later in the 1980s, revealing that they were not a long way off from getting to Dan yr Ogof II via the ‘Longer Crawl’, an even longer route through the maze of tight passages.

Before the days of wetsuits [or furry suits], Dan yr Ogof was a cold cave.  After wading through the lakes, which usually meant getting soaked up to the armpits or higher, one tended to get rather cold after spending several hours in the dry chambers on the other side in wet clothes.  As this series consisted in the main of large chambers, the caving was not energetic enough to generate much heat.  Also there was a considerable draught in the cave which contributed to the general chill.  Some of the old hands such as Platten used to cover their bodies with about half an inch thick of lanolin grease before putting on their caving gear.  This operation could generally be viewed on the roadside outside the Gwyn Arms.  Charles Freeman writes in the British Caver (Vol VI pp 27.)

Also a wonderful difference can be made by greasing the body all over, when changing into caving rags, with commercial vaseline.  A handful should be taken up and rubbed well into the skin , not just smeared on.  …  Its use certainly transforms one into a hero in the eyes of those who have scorned to annoint themselves.

I never fancied this and later on I adopted the different ruse of undressing completely on the edge of the third lake.  I waded through the lakes naked, carrying my clothes in a rucksack on my neck, and dressed on the other side.  One is rewarded with a lovely warm feeling when dressed again in dry clothes.  I did not bother with this on the way out as we would not be hanging about in wet clothes for long and it also ensured that one’s caving outfit was quite clean when emerging from the depths.

I had been looking forward for some time to the Easter Holiday (1946) and the chance to see Dan Yr Ogof.  I had heard so much from Bill Weaver about the huge chambers beyond the lakes. that I had constructed a special lamp to be able to see them properly.  I had soldered together twenty four cycle batteries which were to be used to drive a motorcycle headlamp for an hour or so.  This worked very well but it was bulky and the batteries were so heavy they had to be carried in a gasmask case which I carried on my chest.

I left my work in Bristol on my heavily loaded motorcycle on the Thursday evening before the Easter Holiday and arrived at the Gwyn Arms at about 8:00pm.  The place already sounded pretty full and as I was leaning the bike against the wall a scruffy, hairy character came out of the pub and said “I am the leader.  Who are you?”.  Although I had never met him, I realised this was Gerard Platten.  While he was telling me all about the coming weekend, I was mesmerised by the green snot that hung down from one of his nostrils, going up and down as he breathed.  Eventually after getting longer and longer, it caught on his bristly moustache.  This must have been the end of the cycle for at this stage he wiped it off on his sleeve and the whole process started again.  After being briefed for the weekend I went into the Gwyn.  All my friends were there, as well as about 40 people I did not know.  Ian Nixon, John Parkes and Bill Weaver were already inside consuming beer.  The more the beer flowed, the more people I got to know.  It did not seem long before our host,  David Price called time - in those days it was 10 pm - and  it was not long before I was in the barn unconcious in my fleebag.

Next morning we were all up early.  This was my second visit to Wales and the weather was perfect.  At about mid-morning everybody assembled outside the entrance to Dan yr Ogof,  20 or 30 people in all.  The steel doors were unlocked and we were ushered in by the leader.                                                        back to the top

The old show cave section was relatively uninteresting, with its wiring and concrete paths, but towards the end the dull roar of the river section could be heard.  We came to a steel fence and some steps going down and there was the First Lake.  As expected, this was a bit of an anti-climax because it was not very deep and we all splashed through.  It was the same for Lake 2.  As we stood on the edge of Lake 3 we realised this was a different proposition.  There was scum on the water and on the walls and roof, evidence that in the recent rains the cave had flooded up to the roof;  the sound of the cataract beyond was very loud.  The lake curved round to the left so the cataract could not be seen.  Some people made use of a rubber boat and line to cross but most, including me, waded across using the left-hand wall.  With a bit of luck with one’s footholds it was possible to cross just less than chest deep.  On crossing this lake, we were at the cataract between the third and fourth lakes where the underground river thunders down at an angle of about 30 degrees.  At the head of the cataract there was a section not more than 4ft deep before we came to the lip of the Fourth Lake.  This was crossed on the right hand side and was no problem and was not much above waist deep except for the final step, which was about the same as lake three.

 After the fourth lake and a short climb into a black tube about five feet diameter we were in the dry part of the cave.  We were in Sand Chamber and were able to look down into the final sump.  This could be reached from the Fourth Lake in very low water conditions.  These chambers were not as large as I had been expecting and my motorcycle headlamp gave a magnificent light.  The straws in Straw Chamber were very fine.  This was the last time that this light was used because I dropped the headlamp into the cataract on the way out and was unable to retrieve it!

Outside in the sunshine we changed into dry clothes and most of us made our way round to the spring called Ffynnon Ddu, the resurgence on the east side of the valley just south of Craig y Nos Castle, Madame Patti’s old home.  It was here that the divers were operating.  The stream that comes out here is much smaller than at Dan yr Ogof.  The water was assumed to come from one of two large  swallets: Pwll Byfre, about one and a half miles to the north-east, and Pant Mawr about a mile further east.  There was no real proof of this but there were tales of dogs disappearing into Pwll Byfre and reappearing some time later at Ffynnon Ddu with no hair on!  There was another story of a load of chaff being thrown in at the sink and coming out at the rising, but the connection had always been only an assumption.Balcombe and Weaver preparing to dive at OFD 1946

There was a large crowd at Ffynnon Ddu when I arrived, mostly spectators.  The divers were Graham Balcombe, Jack Shepherd and Bill Weaver.  Graham and Jack were well-known divers and had been the first to pass Sump 1 in Swildons Hole in the Mendips.  Bill was still a trainee diver and this was to be his initiation;  I was  acting as his dresser and log keeper.  We had already completed several open air training dives, in the mineries pool on Mendip and Henleaze Swimming pool in Bristol.  This was to be his first dive into a cave under the supervision of Grahame.  He was, when trained, to form the nucleus of the Welsh section of the newly formed Cave Diving Group.  As it happened, the passage beyond the entrance [the resurgence] had collapsed and no progress could be made into the cave.  At the end of the second day, Graham set a charge off on one of the boulders in the sump; there was a satisfactory dull thud, the water became a bit murky and a dead fish floated out belly-up.  Anyway the spectators had had a fine day in the sun watching the slow process of dressing and diving.  Mrs Bannister and her two daughters, living in the nearby cottage known as the ‘Grithig’, provided the divers with cups of tea.  Now that the serious diving had come to an end, a few novice divers, including Arthur Hill, had a dip in the resurgence pool.

During lulls in the excitement I had been looking around the area.  There had been a small amount of digging, with a view to entering the cave which was obviously there, but this had been during the war when the exploration of Dan yr Ogof had been suspended.  Before the war, when Dan yr Ogof was still not fully explored, there had been no spare time to consider digging at Ffynnon Ddu.  Cyril Powell, owner of the land, with the help of the local cavers, among them Arthur Hill and Ted Mason, had dug into a small cave with a lake which they originally called Ffynnon Jenkin but later became known as Pant Canol, after the little valley it was in.  This cave consisted of a tight entrance leading down to a lake, the water in which was reputed to be the coldest in South Wales.  On the other side of the lake there was a small hole too tight for further exploration but which had a draught.  On the road above, leading to the quarries at Penwyllt and the station, there was a cave entrance.  Cyril Powell had dug this out some time before and it was therefore known as Powell’s cave or Penwyllt Cave.  This was just a relic left when the glaciers altered the landscape during the ice ages, but nevertheless was perhaps indicative of the larger cave beneath.  Bill Weaver in his jottings in South Wales (British Caver,vol VI p 52,) writes:

On the Monday [Easter Monday 1946] we took a walk up the Penwyllt Valley and called on Mr Powell at Rhongyr-isaf Farm.  He took us up to a spot on the hillside where he had opened out a swallet, disclosing beneath the drift a cave in limestone.  Apparently his uncle used to work rottenstone here and had broken into a large cave system which was subsequently lost.  He has most certainly re-discovered it.  The stream falls into the rift and then filters away through a mass of fault breccia.  A large volume of water could be heard in the distance.

Then he took us up and showed us the old rottenstone workings, long since derelict. From there we went to the quarry on the right-hand side of the road where a large cave entrance is seen.  Mr. Powell discovered this when working the limestone and has since opened out an upper entrance.

And so on to Ffynnon Ddu (the Black Well) behind Craig y nos Castle.  The possibilities here are enormous, diving is ruled out for obvious reasons, but a few days digging should give the required results.  This outfall is most certainly the result of the Pwll Byfre sink some miles away towards Pant Mawr.  (This connection has already been established with chaff. Ed.).  Here again is a swallet with enormous potential.

Ian Nixon was with me and we decided that the area was much more promising than the Bath Swallet at the UBSS hut on Mendip, so we spent some time looking round for a likely place to make an entry into the cave that must be there.  We made plans to spend several weekends during the summer looking for the cave.

The main activities in the evenings [of the Easter holiday 1946] were eating, drinking beer and attending meetings.  The important meeting of the holiday took place on Saturday 20th of April This took place in the Gwyn Arms, in what was called the Coachhouse, chaired by Brig. E. A. Glennie [who in later years was to be SWCC President].  A lot of people spent a lot of time talking but the net result was that in the first meeting the MES was disbanded.  In the following meeting a new Welsh club was formed which was to be called ‘The South Wales Caving Club’ or, in Welsh, ‘Clwb Ogofeydd Deheudir Cymru’.  I was rather confused when I noticed that those who did the most talking at the meeting never joined the new club.  The annual subscription was set at ten shillings, with an entrance fee of five shillings.  Arthur Hill was the first secretary, Ted Mason was elected chairman and Charles Freeman was the treasurer.  The meeting had decided that it would be appropriate to start the new era of caving after the war with a  truly Welsh club.  At another meeting which took place, The Cave Association of Wales was formed. Ted Mason was the secretary.  This was supposed to be a body to which all the clubs interested in the South Wales area could affiliate.  However, it never really caught on and finally faded away.  Later, when national bodies were all the rage, the Cambrian Caving Council was formed, doing much the same job, whatever that was, as the original Cave Association of Wales.

The Easter weekend had to come to an end and it was necessary to pack-up return to work in Bristol.  It was hard tearing myself away from this interesting valley but I intended to return as often as the petrol ration would allow.  Petrol rationing continued until 1954, including a period with nothing at all, and caving in Wales, for me, depended on the ration and whatever extra petrol coupons I could acquire.  Several times I travelled by train to Neath and changed for Penwyllt station, on the Neath to Brecon railway, which was still running in those days, and continuing to the Gwyn by taxi. Another popular route was to use the train to Swansea and travel on the bus up the Swansea Valley to the Gwyn Arms.  Public transport after the war, by modern standards, was very good.  The main difficulty was the mountain of gear which had to be carried for a weekend’s caving; the new club did not as yet have a base in the area so everything for the weekend had to be carried.

Edited by Jem Rowland,                                                        back to the top
March 2009