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Sinc y Giedd, Pwll Dwfn etc. 1947-48

Mendip, Sinc y Giedd, Pwll Dwfn etc., 1947-48

by Peter I. W. Harvey                                                                                                                                            contents

After the excitement of the discovery of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, life gradually drifted back to normal.  Petrol rationing was still in force, which meant that excursions to Wales only took place every four or five weeks.  The return journey to Mendip, from Bristol, could be done with less than a gallon of petrol on my motorcycle but a weekend in Wales needed at least four gallons.  Over a gallon could be saved by travelling with the motorcycle on the train through the Severn Tunnel, from Pilning to Severn Tunnel Junction.  As the ration was only about four or five gallons a month, a lot of my time was spent on the Mendips.  I had joined the WCC several years previously and this became my main club whilst on Mendip.

The WCC at this time was run by its secretary, Frank Frost.  With Frank you were either in or out.  I was usually out!  I was talking to a new member once and he said to me “I am not supposed to talk to you, Frank said you were a bad influence.”  One year, I proposed somebody else for the job of secretary and Luke Devenish seconded the proposal.  By return of post I received a letter from the chairman telling me to withdraw my proposal as Frank wished to be secretary again.  Luke also had a letter and, unfortunately, he chickened out!  This did, at least, start the appointment of an assistant secretary, which made the running of the club a bit more open.  I believe the Wessex has now returned to the ranks of the democratic clubs!  One verse of a Wessex cave club song reads:

Frank Frost, he was our leader, our leader was Frank Frost
And though he was a bastard, without him we were lost.
His wisdom was eternal, he was our guiding light,
He filled the Wessex  journal with malice, hate and spite.

Back in Wales, now that the exploration of Ogof  Ffynnon Ddu was slowing down, Ian [Nixon] and I were turning our interest elsewhere.  Behind Dan yr Ogof, about two miles to the north-west, was a large swallet taking a stream which, in times of flood, was the size of a small river.  This swallet was called Sinc y Giedd and was about a mile beyond the one the Dolphin Gang had been digging since 1938, called Waun Fignen Felen after the peat bog which it drained.  It was believed that both these streams resurged at Dan yr Ogof  but there was no evidence of any water testing having been carried out.  Bill Weaver told me that he had examined this swallet before the war and had managed to get underground where the water sank and reached quite a large chamber.  As he was alone he had not prospected any further.  For all his knowledge of the area,  I always regarded Bill as great story teller.

We obtained permission to dig on the mountain from Mr. Ward, Lord Tredegar's agent.  This took rather longer than we expected because Mr. Ward got the idea we wanted to open a show cave two miles from the nearest road!  Ian and I decided to start digging this sink at Easter 1947 by camping at the site in the Giedd Valley.  We had visited Sinc y Giedd several times during the winter of 1946/47 and had examined a number of small holes in the vicinity of the sink but we never managed to find the hole Bill had found.  We uncovered one small bedding plane which looked quite promising as it obviously got bigger inside.  It was much too small for Ian or me, but we had two girls with us, Brenda and Phyllis.  Brenda managed to squeeze through the nine inch space but Phyllis, who was complaining that her chest was too big, got no sympathy and was told, “Stuff them under your armpits and get in there”. Unfortunately there was only 100ft of bedding plane and nothing else, so we decided to dig at the main sink where Bill claimed he had some success. 

I tried to visit the sink once more before Easter with a rucksack full of tinned food, to sustain us during the intended camp, but the visibility was so bad in the pouring rain that I stashed the food in a sink hole to be picked up later and returned to the Tawe Valley.  Food was always fairly difficult to obtain as a lot of it was still rationed for a number of years after the war, though vegetables were always fairly plentiful.  The usual procedure was to club together and make a stew with whatever everyone had.  I can remember many fine stews, but it was often a good thing not to enquire too deeply into the ingredients.  I remember once when I had been lucky in obtaining a pound of  sausages.  The others were cooking the potatoes and beans so I was on my own frying the sausages.  I put them in the frypan with some fat and after a minute or so it was obvious that there were little things inside trying to get out through the skin, away from the heat.  The topside of the sausages looked quite hairy!  The others had not noticed anything so I quickly rolled them over and, after cooking them well, served them up.  There were no complaints or any ill effects.  Whatever the age of the sausages there were certainly some fresh ingredients in them.

Easter 1947 arrived, and I managed to get a lift to Wales in someone’s car.  The weather that year had been awful, with sleet, heavy snow and high winds, and we had planned to camp at Sink y Giedd, high on the mountain.  On the Saturday morning we rose early.  All the party had arrived at the Gwyn and we were all at Sinc y Giedd before midday.  It was decided that because of the dreadful weather Kay Dixon and I would camp at the sink while Ian and the rest would stay in the valley and come up daily.  The dig was started at the main sink. We managed to dig down about 6ft that day, the day workers leaving about 6pm and the campers retiring to a good night’s sleep at about 9pm.  We were camping beside the stream which flowed into the swallet, which is at an altitude of about 1400ft.  During the night, the noise of the stream ceased, indicating that the temperature was well below zero.  We rose at 6 am next morning and, after a good breakfast, carried on downwards.  Eventually, after wrestling with a large boulder in the bottom of the hole, we drilled it and with a small charge the bits dropped down the hole.  We had broken the shafts on both our sledgehammers, which had been at the sink since the previous November.  At this point it started to rain again and Mike Gummer arrived from the valley.  The hole was now 10ft deep, leading to two parallel passages each about 3ft high and joined by a bedding plane.  From the far passage there was another 10ft drop into another passage going north and south.  Ian, Brenda and Liz had arrived by now and the rain was coming down in real Welsh style.  We decided , as the river would soon be flowing down our dig, we would retire to the valley and the Gwyn Arms.  Next day, in the rain, we removed all our equipment, hoping to return for the Whitsun holiday when we might expect some better weather.  The chances of getting into a cave of some length now looked very promising but we were high up on the open mountain, a long way from the road and the weather was too much for us.

It  was on our return that we learned that Dolphin, Lander and Colin Low, collectively known, with Norman Paddock, as the ‘Dolphin  Gang’ had found a promising hole in the Dan yr Ogof valley which they described as “very dangerous”.  They had been sheltering from the wind and rain in a small depression to consume a snack when they heard the sound of running water beneath them.  It was not long before they had removed enough soil and boulders to enter a sloping passage with the stream running along the floor and which after about 20 ft dropped down a pitch.  They returned quickly to the Gwyn for some rope ladder.  They returned again later for all the available ladder.  They had descended one short pitch of about 20ft but there was another one immediately beyond it.  Unfortunately, at the bottom of the second pitch which was about 55 ft, they found a third pitch for which there was no more tackle.  It was decided to acquire more ladder and have another attempt at a  later date.                                                       back to the top

Immediately after the war, tackle consisted of ladders made from rope with wooden rungs, which would have been made at least seven to ten years previously and stored in unknown conditions.  It was therefore fairly unreliable.   I was now making new rope ladder but up until then had not finished very much.  Later on, I managed to supply the needs of both the Wessex and the South Wales Caving Club.  I always enjoyed climbing rope ladders, compared with the later wire and aluminium rung variety.  Rope ladders were, of course, much heavier and bulkier but were slightly elastic so that, when climbing, one could get a rhythm going with the bounce and this was a help in climbing.

On Mendip, meanwhile, I had been intrigued by a deep depression about two miles north-east of the Hunter’s Lodge.  Bill Weaver was also interested, and we decided to have a go at digging it, perhaps with the help of the Dolphin Gang.  First of all we had to find out who owned the field and Bill agreed that this would be his job.  Looking through the old mining maps, I saw that the area this depression was in was called Cuckoo Cleeves, so we used this name when referring to our proposed dig.  Bill was lucky in locating the owner and, after getting permission to dig, we decided to start at Whitsun helped by Leslie Millward.  I was to join them on the last day of the holiday when I returned from Wales.

Back in Wales, the Dolphin Gang had assembled some more ladder and invited Bill Weaver, John Parkes and myself to join them on 27th April for the exploration of their new pot, which they had named Pwll Dwfn, or ‘Deep Pot’ in English.  I was able to help them with a few lengths of my own  rope ladder.  We descended four pitches, the last being 80ft, and a short climb down to the head of another pitch which was at least  60ft deep.  Even using the ladder on the third pitch again, we still did not have enough to reach the bottom.  The total ladder needed was about 260 ft. There was nothing for it but to retreat and arrange another date, which was July 6th.  The place did not seem all that dangerous.  The First two pitches were a bit loose and seemed to have large loose rocks in the wall that were sufficiently keyed in so that they could not fall out.  The rest of the cave appeared pretty solid. There was very little horizontal passage, probably less than 50ft in total, as one pitch was followed closely by the next.

It was now Whitsun and Ian, Mike Gummer and I went over to Wales to see how far we could get into Sinc y Giedd.  We were lucky with the weather and there was no water going in at our dig.  It had not been filled by flood debris and we were able to reach the furthest passage we had seen at Easter.  To the north it got too small after about 20ft, but to the south it curled round and down into quite a large chamber.  This was could have been the same chamber that Bill Weaver said he entered before the war.  From this, there was a round passage about 3ft in diameter leading off in a westerly direction, for the first time in solid rock.  After about 35ft, it cut into the top of an aven about 40ft above the floor below.  Just below our opening was a band of chert, so we could stand one foot on  either side looking down as the aven opened out below us.  Of course, we had no ladder with us so we decided to call it a day and return in August, when we were intending to spend a week in the area.  Sink y Giedd was certainly still looking very promising.  The rock we were now in was solid.  Until we entered the large chamber, the cave appeared to be large rocks, the size of small houses, just resting on each other, which suggested to me that it was a very young swallet where little collapse had as yet taken place.  Looking at the surroundings, it could be seen that the stream had carried on down the valley before the swallet was formed.  In the cave there were no formations of any kind and everywhere was waterwashed black rock with flood debris lodged everywhere up to the ceiling.  It was obvious that in time of flood the whole place was filled with water - not a place to be caught in during a cloudburst!

I left Wales with one day of the holiday remaining.  This was reserved for Mendip, to see how Bill and Leslie had fared with the dig at Cuckoo Cleeves.  When I arrived they were not there but it was obvious that they had done magnificently.  They had dug a shaft about 20ft deep in glacial mud and boulders and there was actually a black hole at the bottom, but I could see that if the sides of the shaft were not supported pretty soon, everything would be lost.  I tracked them down and found them in the Hunter’s Lodge nearby, where arrangements were made for obtaining timber and shuttering.  The next Saturday, Bill and I were up early and by midday had shuttered most of the shaft, although a bit had fallen in.  Leslie arrived after midday and by about 10pm we had made an entrance.  As it was now pretty late, we decided to explore it on the following Wednesday evening.                                                       back to the top

The following Wednesday saw the three of us at the entrance with 120ft of ladder and associated tackle.  One of  Sod’s laws is that if you need ladder you won’t have it with you and if you don’t need ladder there will plenty available.  At the bottom of the shaft, after going through a small chamber, we were in a short descending passage and then after passing a swinging block of stone, which seemed hinged rather like a door, there was a short drop on which we used a handline.  At this point we were in a sloping chamber, at the bottom of which a narrow passage led off in a south-easterly direction for about 200ft then changing direction to the south-west, finishing in a bedding plane chamber sloping at about 45 degrees.  After about 10ft this chamber closed down to a crack about six inches wide and much too narrow to get through.  It was while we were sitting down at the end of the cave considering the possibilities and all was quiet that a boulder moved below us and rumbled down a slope.  It was a very eerie sound and, not being sure what to make of it, we all moved out of the cave.  It could possibly have been a boulder at the entrance, which of course had recently been disturbed by our digging activities.  I can’t remember if we had told anyone where we were that evening!

The rift passages down to the terminal chamber were interesting in that the rock contained numerous fossils and was worn away to leave the fossils sticking out proud of the rock.  I imagine that today, after the passing of many cavers, a lot of the walls have been worn smooth.

July arrived and we were all back in Wales for the final exploration of Pwll Dwfn.  The same party as before had assembled in the Swansea Valley with at least 350ft of rope ladder.  It was arranged that our party would ladder the cave on the Saturday and, on the Sunday, a group of SWCC members would descend the pot and remove the tackle.  The 350ft of ladder plus the associated tethers and lifelines was a formidable load for six of us to carry up the mountain so Paul had organised a horse to help us, complete with a driver.  This saved us carrying some of the tackle, but took considerably longer  because none of us seemed capable of loading the cargo on the horse’s back reliably.  We had to reload the horse a couple of times when, instead of being on its back, the load slipped and hung from its belly, thus making it difficult for the poor animal to work its legs properly.

Of the trip itself, there is little to record.  We were expecting to drop into a vast system of horizontal passages behind the known parts of Dan yr Ogof, but caving is never like that.  There seems to be some rule that allows only a bit at a time.  We quickly descended the first four pitches and, with great expectations, threw 60ft of ladder down the fifth pitch.  Paul and another climbed down but there was no way on, only a miserable pool of water in the floor.  This was a big disappointment to us all, but there was the consolation that Pwll Dwfn was like nothing else in Wales.  It was more like the potholes found in Yorkshire.  Much later on, on January 24th 1964, Bill Clark and Charles George organised a dive in this terminal pool but were disappointed to find no way on underwater.

August arrived and Ian and I were back in the Swansea Valley with our attention now again on Sinc y Giedd, ready to explore the miles of passage that lay below the pitch.  Mike Gummer and Kay Dixon had also arrived.  The SWCC had now been given the use of a cottage by Jeffrey Morgan, for use as a headquarters, situated near the main road on the banks of the Llynfell - the river which flows out of Dan yr Ogof.  [The cottage was known as 'Penbont' and has since been demolished as a result of road realignment.]  This was very convenient, being both close to the caves and the Gwyn Arms.  We had fitted it up with about a dozen bunks and facilities for cooking.  The girls were still accommodated at the Gwyn as Arthur Hill, the club secretary, thought that the local people in the valley would disapprove if they slept in the same building as the men.  This was quite an inconvenience as we usually rose in the morning about 5am and this meant instead of just kicking them out of their bunks, somebody had to run to the Gwyn, a half a mile away, to throw stones at their window in order to get them up for breakfast.  It seems a very early start in the morning after the night before but we could not afford to come to Wales very often because of the petrol situation.  Although we always tried to drink the Gwyn dry every evening, it was only the wartime watery brew, which did not seem to do the damage that more modern beers seem to manage.  

When we arrived at Sinc y Giedd, the weather was fine but there was too much water going down for any exploration to take place.  We left the tackle and went for a walk to look at the other sinks in the area.  There was one taking a lot of water about 100yds further up the Giedd and, all the way up the Giedd until it reached the Old Red Sandstone, there were also further small sinks.   South of the main sink there was a small peat bog which was the head of another small stream also named the Giedd on the map.  It seems that in the past both streams were one until, as it flowed over the limestone, the water was gradually captured by the waters flowing underground.  We also examined a swallet we had not seen before to the north of Sink y Giedd called Twyn Tal Ddraenen.  We pulled a few boulders out and noted it down for attention later on. 

We returned to our sink after midday and found that there was much less water going down.  We went underground and laddered the pitch which we had looked down last time - about 45ft of nice easy climbing.  At the bottom, the rift went north and south.  There was not much to the north, as the passage gradually closed down, but to the south there was a high passage which closed down to a bedding plane to the left.  This opened out into a number of walking passages but all of these became too tight after a while.  As the prospects of getting into the Dan yr Ogof system were now looking rather slim, we decided that it would be best to look for somewhere else to dig.  At the bottom of Sinc y Giedd we were something like 100ft underground.  The rock was black waterwashed limestone with flood debris in all the cracks, just as we had found in the entrance passages.  This gave me the impression that there would be no easy route into the main Dan yr Ogof system.  Reluctantly, we called it a day, removed our tackle and returned to the valley.  On emerging from the cave we met Don Lumbard out walking with some friends, who helped carry some of our tackle.  To crown the day, we found that we had succeeded in drinking the Gwyn Arms dry during  the previous evening.  This was not an uncommon occurrence in the years during and after the war.  Luckily the Tafarn y Garreg, a few hundred yards up the road, was open and had beer!

The rest of this holiday was spent in trying to dig through the boulder choke in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.  We dug in the floor on the right hand side and did manage to reach a small passage in solid rock but it did not look very exciting.  In fact, it was so small only Peggy Hardwidge could get into the first six feet or so.  Peggy was very useful being so small, because we could push her into any small hole we could not manage ourselves.

One evening after the Gwyn had shut, I went with Peter Densham to the rising across the road from Craig y Nos Castle, now used as a TB hospital.  This was known as the Hospital Water Cave.  Up until now, nobody had been in because it was thought that the hospital authorities might refuse permission but, as they only used the water during droughts, a very rare occurrence in Wales, we decided to have a little look.  There was a small system totalling about 600ft ending in a sump.  I remember in one place there was a horrendous looking boulder, which did not look supported, that we had to climb over.  Many people have visited the cave since then and this boulder is still there so I suppose it must be firmly in place.  The sump has been dived by Martin Farr, Mike Ware, and others but they have been unable to break through into any worthwhile passages.  Craig y Nos Castle was built by the Powells, local industrialists, and was later the home Adelina Patti, the Edwardian opera soprano.  She had built into it a very pretty little opera theatre, which is well worth a visit.  She also had a private waiting room at Penwyllt station.  Madame Patti was  a friend of Edward the Caresser  (Edward VII) and it is said that when he arrived for a visit, her husband, Baron Cederstrom, retired to the hunting lodge (Ty Mawr) at the top of Penwyllt hill near the station.

Our week in Wales came to an end and, with it, the end of a very busy twelve months, with the opening of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, exploration of Pwll Dwfn, Downey's Cave, the Hospital Water Cave and a small part of Sinc y Giedd and then the opening of Cuckoo Cleeves on Mendip.  It seemed that, in October, when the petrol ration for private use was stopped altogether, a brake was being put on our activities.  It meant that we could not go to Wales so often and when we did it was usually  by public transport.

Towards the end of 1947, I decided to prove the connection between the swallet at Pwll Byfre and the river in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.  On the 25th October 1947 I put 6oz. of fluorescein in the stream at Pwll Byfre.  This dye is a red powder in the bottle, stains ones hands yellow, and yet turns the water a brilliant green in the sunlight.  It was Saturday midday when we dyed the stream.  We watched at Ffynnon Ddu all Sunday but nothing came through.  It was not until midday on Monday that Mrs. Bannister at y Grithig cottage saw that the spring had turned green.  The dye had taken approximately two days to travel the mile and a bit underground.  Soon afterwards, in March 1948, we introduced 35oz of fluorescein into Sinc y Giedd.  About 50 hours later it was seen in the Llynfell, flowing out of Dan yr Ogof, taking about a day to clear.  We had now located the source of water of both the main risings in the Swansea Valley.  It was interesting that the Dan yr Ogof catchment area went as far west as Sinc y Giedd;  many people had assumed that the water here went to Ffrwd Las, a rising in the Twrch Valley, a mile or so further further west.                                                        back to the top

My main interests in caving were now centred on the Swansea Valley and, in particular, on Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, which had the potential of becoming the largest and deepest cave in Britain.  This did not mean that I only caved in Wales.  I was involved in several digs on Mendip.  With Leslie and Phyllis Millward we dug down 25ft in both the depressions in the field adjacent to the Hunter’s Lodge.  One of these we filled in, the other we handed over to Oliver Wells, who carried on with it and entered a pothole with a 70ft pitch.  I had a theory that most successful digs entered a cave before 25ft.  There are several examples of mammoth digs which tended to turn into someone's life's work.  I think I was unlucky with the Hunter’s Hole.  Looking at it now, the entrance is nowhere near 25ft. deep.  We must have been digging down beside open space!  After that, we spent a while digging at Manor Farm Swallet but were defeated by the regular floods filling in the dig.  Another dig we attempted was on the farm about a mile south of Lamb Lair.  The farmer gave us permission to dig an interesting looking depression on his land but it was on condition that we did not do any work on Sunday.  Cave digging requires all-out effort and in the end we lost interest.

Peter in Home Guard UniformWe also found time and petrol to visit Derbyshire and the Yorkshire Dales.  I never seemed to do very much when I went to Derbyshire.  We visited a few small caves and went down a few mineshafts, but I always had the impression that I was on a social outing.  Yorkshire, on the other hand, was quite different.  After the first day I was always aching all over.  Living in the south I was not brought up to climb ladders all day or carry so much rope ladder around inside pots.  The weather never seemed to be very kind to us and my old Home Guard uniform (pictured left) and old sweaters used to soak up enormous quantities of water which I had to carry around with me and up and down wet pitches.  After one hard day, it seemed I was expected to do the same again next day.  I was always pleased when the weekend was over but the strange thing about caving is that, in retrospect, I always realized that I had enjoyed the experience.Edward Aslett portrait

The Chairman of the SWCC was now Dr. Edward Aslett (pictured right).  He was an eminent specialist in lung diseases and had spent many years in South Wales in connection with the coalminers’ endemic lung disease, pneumoconiosis.  There are numerous stories of his absent-mindedness.  On one occasion he took a young lady out to dinner;  after the dinner went out to fetch his car but forgot he was out with a young lady and drove home!  He was in the pub one night and one of the locals asked someone who he was.  He was told that Edward was a very famous venereologist. The local looked at him in wonder and said “Duw, there’s Culture for you.”.

If one was in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu and kept finding things like a pencil or a glasses case, it meant that Brigadier Aubrey Glennie was somewhere around.  He spent many hours in the cave studying the layout of the passages and the different limestone beds these were in.  He wrote a number of very interesting articles in the Cave Research Group’s publications on the formation of the cave.  He once asked me to help him enter a small chamber he had found;  “A screwdriver will be enough” he assured me.  I happened to be carrying a crowbar at the time and, after about two hours hard work, I managed to make the hole big enough to enter.  Glennie was one of the leading lights who formed the Cave Research Group in about 1947 (which later became BCRA).  His niece, Mary Hazelton, was very interested in the underground fauna and was recorder for the CRG on this subject for a number of years.  Aubrey Glennie was subsequently president of SWCC (from 1962-68).

Now that the club had a cottage in the area (Penbont) we were getting numerous visits from other clubs.  This meant that we were quite often asked to show them round the local caves.  On one occasion, Les Hawes and I were taking a party from the Bradford Pothole Club round Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.  The stream was pretty high, more than a foot above the step, which is generaly regarded as the limit.  The visiting party found this a very wet and strenuous trip.  Being locals and knowing the stream well, we had no difficulty.  Anyway, some time later, Les was in Yorkshire and the Bradford club were having their annual meet at Gaping Gill with the winch.  Les was strapped into the seat and, just as he was going down, he was recognised by one of the party we had taken into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.  They told him they were going to try and beat the record for the descent into the main chamber.  I believe they managed 17 seconds!

Edited by Jem Rowland,                                                        back to the top
March 2009