Peter I. W. Harvey: 27th May 1921 - 29th October 2009
An appreciation, by Jem Rowland, delivered at Peter's Funeral on
6th November 2009.
Peter Harvey was discoverer of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, founder member of
the South Wales Caving Club, its president for 33 years, a great character
and a great friend.
Peter was born in 1921 at the North West Frontier in India, where his
father was high-ranking army officer. His mother was from the Branson
family, a name that is familiar today. Shortly after Peter's birth the
family moved to the U.K. and settled first in the Mendips and then in
south Devon. A visit to Wookey Hole at an early age sparked his interest
in caves and later he explored holes he found whilst cycling around
south Devon during holidays from boarding school.
He had a public school education at Clifton College in Bristol, though
I had the impression that he hadn't enjoyed it much. Its saving grace
seemed to be a school outdoor activities group that introduced him to
the caving world. School was followed by a prestigious engineering apprenticeship
with the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, and Peter took the opportunity
to cave with some of the main Mendip clubs and to develop a taste for
digging for new caves.
World War II, with its pressure on the aircraft industry, put a temporary
end to his caving but, as the war drew to an end, he began to cave again,
particularly with the UBSS, the University of Bristol club, though he
had to join as a so-called 'outside' member because he was not a member
of the University. This brought him into contact with the Dragon Group,
which was led by Gerard Platten. It was an informal group of mainly
Mendip cavers, but also including some from South Wales. Its aim was
to develop the caving potential of South Wales, particularly the Swansea
Valley area. It led directly to the formation, of the South Wales Caving
Club at a meeting held in the Gwyn Arms in 1946, with Peter as one of
its founding members. Soon after, and following some careful investigation,
came his discovery, with Ian Nixon, of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, which of course
became a cave of major international importance.
He always took great pride in this discovery and in the success of
the South Wales Caving Club. He was delighted to be elected its President
in 1976, a position he would hold, unchallenged, for
33 years. For most of his life Peter was a fit, capable, and inspirational
caver with a nose for promising digs and new passage. He is, of course,
the Peter in 'Peter's Pretty Passage' which, when we found it after
Peter had looked upwards and spotted a hole, was one of the most finely
decorated in the whole cave.
On his 60th birthday, accompanied by Bob Radcliffe, he completed the
challenging trip from OFD I up to Smith's Armoury and back, determined
to be the first person over 60 to do the trip. The fact that he completed
it in not much over 8 hours is testament to his fitness at the time.
Bob tells me that, to ensure success, Peter had insisted they rehearse
it two weeks before!
Peter caved regularly until the age of 85, when he and I went via
the OFD I streamway and up to Roundabout Chamber, on what was to be
his final trip into the cave that he had dug into almost exactly 60
years before. His diaries reveal that, in all, he completed well over
900 trips into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.
He took up cave photography in the late 1940s, in the final days of
glass plates and flashpowder, and took some fine shots. He maintained
that he was never as comfortable with film as with plates, nor as comfortable
with bulbs or electronic flash as he was with flashpowder but, nevertheless,
cave photography remained a passion for the rest of his life, recognised
by a special award at the Hidden Earth national caving conference in
He had remained at the Bristol Aeroplane Company and its successor
for many years following the war, later pursuing business interests
in South Wales, and purchasing the stately Llandough Castle, near Cardiff,
where he lived until 1963, when he bought a yacht and sailed off to
the Mediterranean - for four years, during which time he explored caves
in Sardinia and Tunisia. He returned to Bristol in 1967 and joined the
team designing the supersonic Concorde.
At the end of the Concorde development, he applied for a job with a
highly specialised gearbox design company at Rhayader in Mid Wales,
a company which at that time was part of the Vickers Group. At interview
he was shown a set of drawings of a particularly complex engineering
design and was asked a technical question about them. His response was
to point to a set of initials in the corner. They were his initials
- it was his design! He got the job, and later became a director and
joint owner of the company, working on the design of epicyclic gearboxes
for wind turbines, battle tanks, and more. As a caving by-product of
his skills, he designed the ingenious 'Sky Hook' for retrieving and
replacing fixed ropes from high places.
I first met Peter when he returned from the Mediterranean in 1967,
though I had certainly heard of him before that. I was talking to Clive
Jones outside the Club at Penwyllt; a car drew up, Clive said "good
grief it's Harvey". Peter walked up to us, scowled at me and said
angrily to Clive "Who's that?". Clive said "that's Jem,
he's ok" and thereafter we were the best of friends, frequently
caving and digging together.
During the 1980s he used to come over from Rhayader to stay with us
at home near Aberystwyth, to explore mines, to drink beer, and to enjoy
being cooked for. He particularly enjoyed visiting when our strawberry
patch was producing far more than we could eat - that wasn't a problem
for Peter! I well remember his "Hmmmm
and the copious quantities he used to eat.
His caving career was not without mishap. The relatively innocuous
traverse of 'President's Leap' in OFD II commemorates a momentary lapse
of concentration that led to Peter's rapid descent onto the boulders
below, miraculously without serious injury. On another occasion, while
'victim' on a rescue practice using an experimental stretcher of canvas
and plywood, the head ropes were attached incorrectly. Suddenly finding
himself dangling by the feet over a large drop, his somewhat characteristic
comment was simply "Hmmm
what did you do that for?".
Despite his wicked sense of humour and the glint in his eye, he tended
to be a shy and, for much of his life perhaps, a lonely character, with
his close caving friends providing his 'world'. One of his closest friends,
until his sad death in 1985, was Gwynne Sanders, whom many of us remember
with great affection.
Meeting Wendy, in 1982, transformed Peter's life. She became a loving
partner with an extremely supportive extended family. Possibly for the
first time, Peter was truly happy, and remained so until Wendy's early,
sudden and tragic death in 2003. It shattered him, and it was a trauma
from which he never recovered.
Peter, you were a great friend, a great character, and one of the greats
of the caving world. We will miss you.
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