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.
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
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
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
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
There 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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