OUCC Proceedings 2 (1963)

Future for Potholing?

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The Golden Age of Potholing is not likely to return, at least to England and Wales. Before the war there were few cave clubs and many pots in the Pennines still offered new ground to be broken. The Golden Age which had been ushered in with the boom and pulley methods of the Yorkshire Ramblers and other early potholers, probably ended with the sophisticated rope ladders which Gemmell and Myers could carry easily (!) on their bicycles. But even Gemmell and Myers had to look in rather out-of-the-way corners for some of their discoveries, for holes were getting scarcer and scarcer.

Impetus for the next potholing advance came from the Continent in two forms. One was the development of light-weight tackle and nylon rope - and the mechanisation of potholing subsequently has seen a proliferation of maypoles and diving apparati, not to mention "uppets" and "skyhooks". The labour-saving devices not only enabled cavers to push new systems hitherto inaccessible, but also left them larger reserves of energy to carry out active digging and other work underground, and more space in their rucsacks for better survey equipment and other spelaeological apparatus.

The second form taken by foreign influences was to persuade clubs to explore areas abroad, previously little examined. Ireland proved, and still proves, popular since it was found there were still holes for the laddering. However, university groups with their close-knit internal organisation and copious free time (!) have often undertaken some of the more exotic expeditions - to Norway, France, Yugoslavia, Austria, Libya, and last but not least, our own Oxford University Expedition to Northern Spain, the first British expedition abroad whose sole aim was cave exploration to receive official support from both the University and the Cave Research Group, among other bodies. Other clubs and individuals have recently run fortnightly caving holidays abroad, and the Gouffre Berger Expedition of 1962 was an outstanding success. But few of these short trips can hope to break into much new ground, and their value may be small if there is no link-up with a local club in the country visited. Indeed, I might say that it seems as futile for a north of England club with a fortnight's holiday to do much in the way of new discoveries abroad, as it would for our Oxford club to hope to be able to spend time seriously digging in Yorkshire and to find something worthwhile. Time is against both in their race for success.

The 'fifties saw a group of cavers faced with so many tough English systems to be bottomed, that many potholers were more anxious to prove their physical fitness by rushing up and down "supersevere" pots, with the same lack of interest in anything but doing "the sights" that the average American tourist in Britain shows. Exploration tended to become concentrated in the hands of small bands of tigers, who often waged fierce war against rival cliques. Their perseverance was often rewarded by discoveries nevertheless. Spelaeological information was collected and centralised by the C.R.G., and many clubs were glad to abdicated from responsibility towards doing any scientific work whatsoever. They are mistaken, for the C.R.G. needs their active participation. Scientific methods are needed to help locate the ever-dwindling number of unexplored systems - water-testing, geoelectric surveys, cave surveys to Grade Six or Seven, and careful field-work on the surface. Today it is only the "never-ending" series such as Lancaster Hole or Agen Allwedd that offer obvious chances for new passages of any length, and then only after laborious digging, blasting, or erection of scaling poles. Cave diving and mine exploration are also coming to the fore.

A serious development during the 'fifties was the appearance of many small caving clubs like our own. The post-war upsurge of interest in hiking, mountaineering, and the like, hit potholing too. The spread of further education saw the establishment of many university, technical college, Services', and even school potholing societies. Some are well-equipped and can draw on experienced cavers from all over the country, especially in the universities. Students also offer the best chance of bring back to clubs an interest in scientific matters, especially when geographers and geologists of the university staff are interested in the clubs. Regrettably, some small clubs are ill-organised and have leadership problems. These, together with potholers who refuse to join any sort of club, lead to trouble and irresponsibility. Damage is done to property and land, permission to enter a system may not be sought, all too often tackle may fail, or the difficulties of a system may be underestimated. Farmers are naturally annoyed when two hundred "rescuers" turn up to hold a gala. and public relations totter, and collapse completely when the Press gets the "scoop" of an accident.

It is the irresponsibility of the few which has led to the restrictions placed on many caves, either by the landowners, or by clubs of groups of clubs. The reasons for restrictions tend to be various. To allow only one party at a time down systems such as Gaping Ghyll or Lancaster-Easegill may prevent tackle mix-ups, and also limits the number of people wandering about the fells. The newly formed Council of Northern Caving Clubs seems largely to have been formed to maintain a sort of discipline over access to and entry of caves on Casterton and Leck Fells. In the case of Agen Allwedd and August Hole-Longwood Swallet, the landowners seem mainly interested in legal questions respecting their liability towards any potholers injured underground. The Indemnity Chits signed for the Nature Conservancy to enter Aggi are of dubious validity. On safer ground, Bristol Waterworks now require clubs to acquire expensive insurance before entry to caves on their land. In other cases farmers may charge varying fees, but to my knowledge none have ever been held responsible for injury sustained by a potholer.

Some other caves are kept perpetually closed as the result of dud schemes to exploit natural curiosities, e.g. Dan yr Ogof, Tunnel Cave. Some show caves may be explored in the further reaches, e.g. Clapham Cave, Stump Cross Caverns, varying fees being charged for entry. Where work is being carried out of a serious nature, or where formations are particularly fine, certain clubs have obtained sole access rights to particular caves, e.g. G-B, St. Cuthbert's Swallet, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu.

The trouble with all these restrictions is that in the long run they are imposed by the landowners. The Council of Northern Caving Clubs is a case in point. Its very raison d'Ítre was that of mediation between landowners and potholers for permission to use the land and enter the caves. Further, it must contain some of those selfsame small clubs whose irresponsibility has often been nationally publicised. How is it to deal with unruly members? If they are withheld permits, they will go in illegally, if necessary dynamiting any barriers to entry, as has happened in the past. If the illegal entrants suffer injury, are the landowners responsible in spite of the trespass suffered? If they are not members if clubs belonging to the Council, how are they to be dealt with?

I believe it is high time all clubs from all over the country got together, perhaps under the auspices of the C.R.G. or B.S.A. to form a national potholing council, representing all potholers. Such a council would have a national committee drawn from all the major caving areas, and containing "prestige" figures of the calibre of, say, Sir John Hunt. It would receive a subscription from all member clubs, like the British Mountaineering Council does for climbers, say four of five pounds a year. The C.R.G. and rescue organisations could operate in conjunction with a council so operated, and if necessary be subsidised by it. The council would have the following tasks :

  1. to ensure good public relations with press and television.
  2. to ensure good relations with the Council for Physical Recreation and local education authorities' youth sports' officers, and other youth movements, so as to stop disorganised mobs getting into trouble. Many youth leaders will not envisage potholing as an organised activity on account of its bad name; and many clubs will not instruct lads who want to learn unless they undertake to join. Can we not liaise and help to make potholing as respectable as climbing? Liaison with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, Scouts, or Outward Bound would be possibilities.
  3. to ensure arrangements for insurance of member clubs, so as to avoid the present necessity of making separate arrangements for each cave and landowner. This should include a scheme to recompense landowners whose property is damaged as well as removing from them any liability in respect of injuries sustained by potholers.
  4. to schedule all major caves as Sites of Scientific Importance and if necessary to take out Court Orders so as to be able to prosecute trespassers through the police.
  5. to abolish all restrictions to caves to members of member clubs where deemed fit, disciplinary action being taken against nuisance by withdrawal of insurance benefits or by prosecution.
  6. to publish a glossy prestige journal of British potholing, similar to "Mountaincraft".
  7. to sponsor foreign expeditions and aid their publicity, possibly enabling really big expeditions to explore the unthought-of caves of the Himalayas or the Andes.

This may all sound rather high-flown and complicated. It is really long overdue simplification. To get potholing a good public image we must forget our cliques and rivalries, our petty self-interest and short-sighted policies and unite so that English potholers can stand alongside English mountaineers and count equally great successes.

M.J. Walker