About nine years ago I was on holiday in Somerset with my wife and stepdaughter. As part of that holiday we visited Cheddar Gorge and, in particular, the caves there. Whilst wandering round the show caves is all very interesting, my stepdaughter’s attention was grabbed by the fact that they also ran “adventure caving” trips where a guide took you deeper into the caves. We pointed out that the minimum age for the trip was 12 and that she was therefore too young. We promised to bring her back when she was old enough and promptly forgot about it. Until this year.
This Christmas we went back to stay in the same cottage in Somerset. When we asked my stepdaughter (who is now 20) if she wanted to come with us, one of the first things she asked was “can we go adventure caving?”
And that’s how on the day after Boxing Day the three of us found ourselves entering one of the Cheddar Gorge show caves in boiler suits and wellies, wearing hard hats with lights on the front.
I didn’t really know what to expect. The show caves are, of course, all very safe. The floors are all concrete with proper steps and hand-rails. And constant lighting. I assumed that the adventure caving would only be a small step up from that. Maybe a few ladders, perhaps a bit of a scramble up a gentle incline. That kind of thing. I was therefore slightly worried when out kit included a carabiner attached to our belt.
As we left the tourist part of the cave and entered the Black Cat chamber my initial ideas seemed to be borne out. We scrambled up a small incline and down the other side and then had to duck a bit to get through the gap into the next chamber. Moving on into the following chamber required getting down on your hands and knees. This was about as hard as I expected it to get. Our guide hadn’t measured or weighed anyone so surely there wouldn’t be anything too taxing.
I was, of course, wrong. Leaving the second or third chamber our guide said that it was a bit of tight squeeze. This is apparently caver-speak meaning that crawling is no longer an option and you’ll have to get down on your stomach and wriggle through. There were a few of those on our route, each seemingly narrower than the previous one. After each one I asked out guide if that was the worst one and each time he gave anon-committal answer which I learned to interpret as meaning “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.
There were other adventures too. In one chamber we turned out lights off and sat there in complete darkness for a few minutes (apparently some parties include people who can be convinced that their night vision is starting to activate in a cave several metres underground with no ambient light at all). At other points we were climbing up and down rather flimsy looking (and rather wet after the recent rain) ladders. It was going down one of those where our carabiners were used for the first time.
The darkness and the climbing didn’t bother me at all. It was the crawling and slithering that I didn’t like. The problem is that you don’t really know where you’re going. Some of them are narrow enough that you can’t raise your head to look in front of you. You can just look down at the cave floor as you slowly inch through the gap. I’m not a slim person. In some of these gaps I had to breathe out a lot in order to make any progress.
The last (and worst) of these gaps was also the second (and final) time that we were tied onto a rope using the carabiners. We were crawling across a ledge. To our left was a fall (twelve metres I think the guide said) into another chamber. We told to crawl as far to the right as possible with a rope stopping us from falling in. Once that was finished there was a small bridge to slither over (spare a thought for the people who put the bridge and the ladders into the cave) and then the narrowest and longest of the gaps to push yourself through. I say longest, but it was probably only a couple of metres. That was long enough for me though. I didn’t like it at all.
I finished the tour though. There’s really no alternative. It’s not like you get into the depths of the cave and suddenly there’s a lift to whisk you up to the gift shop.
I’m glad I did it. If only so I now know that caving isn’t a hobby that I would have loved if I had tried it twenty years ago. I know that it’s really not for me. I still have aches from using muscles that haven’t been used for decades and I’ve developed a bit of a cough from breathing in all of the dust.
Yesterday I watched Ultimate Caving. A BBC programme I’d downloaded months ago where Kate Humble tries caving. She visits four increasingly difficult caves. And even the easiest one that she visits is far worse than the one we were in.There’s far more crawling and a lot of running water (we only encountered a few small puddles).
The tour was a lot harder work than I thought it was going to be. But comparing it to the caves in the TV programme, I’m sure now that it was about as easy as caving can get. I don’t intend to go back but if you want a relatively painless introduction to caving then I recommend it.You can get more information from the rather amateur web site.
Update (Jan 2013): The web site has moved and the webmaster apparently doesn’t know about redirections. Here’s a link to the new site.