OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

Exploration in Britain

Brown Hill Pot : History

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Proc. 13 Contents.

The Story So Far

The whole saga arose out of an obsession of Paul Brennan's that this was a "good cave" to go and do. He persisted in this view despite one, if not more, moderately abortive attempt to descend it, leaving a drunken scrawl in the logbook matching an earlier description of John Singleton's as "like an octopus screwing a pair of bagpipes" which purported to show the route through the rifts. Actually I have it in front of me now; it does make sense, but only if read right to left. The trip took them 10 hours.

Some time later Paul became interested in cave diving, in a strictly vicarious sense... "so when are you going to do some proper diving then, eh, explore something, eh ??" - this after I'd done about five dives, some of them less successful than others and none of them distinguished. Dave and I tried to fight him off by doing Tooth Cave and Dry Gill and a rather silly dive on Mendip (q.v.), but all to no avail. He had decided that Brown Hill Pot was going to be IT. He managed to persuade me and Dave to have a look at the sump, at least.

The first visit was on 25th May 1989. We packed a 21cu ft. bottle and various bits and pieces in a rucksack, so as not to appear "conspicuous', asked permission at Braida Garth, and had the traditional wander about all over East Kingsdale tops looking for it. Only Paul had been there before. Finally, the oil drum; Paul ceremoniously took off the lid and slid in. To about waist deep. "Urm, the entrance appears to be full of rocks." For some inexplicable reason we did not, this once, regard this as a good excuse to go to the Marton. In our defence, I can only say that the day was quite sunny and it seemed like a good idea.

It seemed rather less of a good idea when I was at the bottom of the oil drums about an hour later, standing on tip toe trying to steady a rather large rock in its slings as Dave, Tony and Paul heaved it up. The way in looked rather improbable, a small slit just under the lip of the bottom of the drums. We have not managed to enlarge it. Non-small people, particularly non-small people in wetsuits , are apt to get stuck in it, an ignominious beginning to pushing back the frontiers.

If the entrance was bad, the crawls were worse. I couldn't believe the awfulness was something I was voluntarily undergoing to put someone else, Dave, in the sump. Shame, shame on me, a potential sump pirate from the word go. The s-bends were really vile. Rocks piled up in front of everything, reducing me to one-armed lift and nose shove operations at full length. Many words of encouragement were spoken. For potential visitors: the head of the first pitch is the worst bit. After that you can't feel anything any more.

Finding the third pitch was the worst bit of the cave too. After this, it's a very fine place indeed. Unfortunately one member of the party who shall remain nameless got severely stuck in the rifts and made a sensible decision. So Dave nobly escorted him out (with the diving gear) while Paul and I carried on down. The sump looked promising, as advertised. I waded over to the far end and felt about under the lip with my feet. It felt like there was a gap there. Recklessly and full of misplaced bravado I told Paul I'd come back to give it a go.

In December Gavin, William and Tony portered the usual collection of junk down to the sump. I took twin 21 cu.ft. bottles. These caused a few problems in the crawl, but I found I was able to wear them for most of the rest of the cave. I had borrowed a plastic line reel from Mike, and with this in hand, with Tony acting as a human belay perched above the sump pool I edged my way to the action end of the sump. I had been having mild nightmares about this moment. The official description said the sump ended in a "constriction after ten feet'. For some reason, my vision of this was of my coming up against a lot of jammed boulders, pushing the line reel through and then wondering if I would be brave or stupid enough to follow it through.

This didn't happen at all. I gingerly pulled at the lip of the sump wall, watching the brown rock drift gently upwards. I pulled myself in a bit more; the visibility got worse momentarily and then I was in clear water, kicking my way along a scalloped roof as the line reel span out and my mind started making "HEY WOW" kind of noises. I seemed to trundle on for quite a while, until the reel ran out. Mike had said there was about 25m of line on it. I think it was only at this point that I realised that there simply hadn't been any constriction at all, and I had my own sump.

There was nothing to belay onto, so I reeled the line back in. Then I found the constriction. The line took me into a region where a big mud bank rose up to the roof. No amount of swodging myself into it allowed me to get through. I backed off, and tried again, a bit to the right; no go again. Getting a bit worried now - how could I have missed this on the way in? - I backed well off. In slightly clearer vis the bank seemed to slope down from the left, with the roof rising there too. I gave it a go, and with much shoving, broke through straight into the sump pool. "Constriction ? CONSTRICTION ?? - I just ran all the bloody line out". Loud cheers and much bullshit resulted.

The next go was more than a bit of a disaster. The word had got around, and Dave Hetherington, who had (he said) been eyeing up this particular sump for a while, was anxious to lend a hand. We gathered on New Year's Eve to make the best finish to the year we could. The day started to go wrong almost immediately. I knew I had to survey, so I had got my survey slate all nice and ready. Halfway up the hill I realised I hadn't attached the pencil to it; back to the car. Twenty sweaty minutes later I was back at the cave. Tip the bottles out of the rucksack. Oh shit... no o-ring in one of them. "Didn't you check it before packing it, Steve?". "Haven't you got a spare?". No and no; I am a cretin and walk back to the car again.

Meanwhile mean team Gavin and Dave go to rig in, the special Hetherington way. Some time later we catch them up. At the head of Puits Ian Plant I can hear shivering and shouting below. "MURBLE MURBLE URG URG WOOORFLE!"....

"WHAAT ?'.


"AGAIN ?!?".

Obviously something is wrong; I'd better go down and find out what. What was wrong proved to be a knot changeover halfway down the last hang.

We arrive at the sump to find Hetherington looking dumbfoundedly at the tacklebag that so recently contained a lot of lead (I was going to belay the line good and proper this time) but now contained mostly a large hole. He went off to look for it while I kitted up. "Haven't you got any fins, Steve?", Urs asked. "Oh no," I said, "the passage was quite low last time, so I just booted my way along the ceiling. Reckon I should be O.K. this time. Didn't want to go to all the hassle of carrying them down, anyway."

This time on the way into the sump I felt carefully for the highest bit and anchored the line with my first bit of lead. Then the passage opened out and suddenly I wished I had fins on. I don't know what was different from the first time but I seemed to be completely out of control. Head down one second, floating up almost on my back the next; breathing badly only made it worse. Somehow I struggled along till I got to the slight leftwards bend over bare rock where the line had run out last time. I put another lead on the line and edged forwards. "BLOODY HELL". A foot further on was a hole in the floor that I plummeted down. Thrashing and hauling on the line pulled the lead over the edge; as I maniacally made my way back up what seemed to be a sheer drop I let go of the reel which promptly floated up to the roof and dropped most of its line.

Back on the lip of the pot I got my breathing back down and "assessed the situation". I hadn't got the line reel but I had got the line, quite a lot of it. Around my leg, around my back, around my nice survey slate, under my knife (how?), around my leg again and in a large floating cloud. O.K. get the reel, wind it back on. No, FIND the reel. Looking up I can see it bumping on the roof not too far away. A few delicate minutes later and I am definitely ready to call it a day. The reel is tied up and I feel my way back along the line... which (muted "Bloody Hell") goes straight into the mud bank. At least I know this time that if I shove enough I can get through.

The excited sherpas gather round. "Well, what did you find?" "errrr, well...."

The very next weekend we drove back to the Dales. We admired the waterspout coming out of Joint Hole, the lakes all over the fields, etc. We did not go down Brown Hill. A long way for a pub lunch in The Sun. It stayed wet for quite a long time.

It wasn't till the first of April 1990 that we returned. I hadn't done any diving in the intervening months. When we got to the sump, one of the aquaflashes I'd left tucked into a rift at the changing spot had mysteriously vanished, the other one, and the rather tatty neoprene vest (a remnant of my very first wetsuit), were still there. I persuaded the porters (Tony, Gavin and Mark Bown) to paddle around in the sump pool to look for it, but no luck. It didn't seem quite bad enough to warrant not diving - especially as, after the long gap, I wanted to wipe the slate of the last attempt clean.

With fins on, I got to the edge of the pot very quickly, after carefully leading the line in the centre of the low bit. The line carried on down the shaft. The roof level went nowhere. I carefully went down the pot headfirst - and came to a dead halt as one of my fins snagged the line. Hanging head down over a pot (visions of the big shaft in Gavel) did not appeal, so the second time I descended upright, and was very relieved to see the floor almost immediately. The line had been washed into a two foot high, six foot wide bedding with a silty floor.

About 20 feet further in, I caught up with the line reel - nice when you can get floods to lay the line for you! - and heard what seemed to be my bubbles breaking surface. However, a swim up just reached a slightly higher and narrower section of roof, with bubbles lodged against it. I went back down and swam on between the silt banks for about another 30 feet, when I felt rather too far beyond the last belay for comfort. 50 metres in - how much further?

The next dive added 30m to the line. The worst part of this trip was getting started. The weather was vile, and even a solid couple of hours festering in Bernies failed to lift our (especially my) spirits. At the parking spot, drive failed completely, and I went back to the Helwith to get the yellow van so that I wouldn't have to get wet! I took in with me the mega line reel that I'd made a year or so before in a fit of enthusiasm, with about 180m of line on it. Some of the line is still on as I write!

We went back again in May. The usual team of Tony, Mark and Gavin was reinforced by the two Daves for the arduous task of getting forties to the sump. In fact this proved to be no real problem (apart from my forgetting my SRT kit, and having to go back to the car for it). I took in stacks of lead to belay the line - no naturals had been seen so far in the silty-floored smooth tunnel. Just after I picked up the reel, the silt receded, and the rocky passage sprouted spiky bits galore, making my trailing danglies like a diving Buster Gonad somewhat pointless.

60 metres on I was getting close to thirds. The passage had stayed more or less the same up to here - about 1 metre high, 2 metres wide as far as I could tell (visibility was typically about two feet, four feet in the good patches). Now a particularly big silt bank seemed to fill the passage, heaped up on the left side; there looked to be a fairly narrow gap over the top. If I was going to come back I didn't want to find it closing off straight away; and, more to the point, I didn't want to come back with the first new bit being something nasty. So I scraped over the top - not difficult after all - and was relieved to land on rocky floor in the usual tube beyond.

This had stirred up the crap so much that I couldn't survey on the first bit of the way out. Well, to be honest, I didn't want to hang about; as I turned round I got one of those "Jesus, it's a long way home, let's just GET ON WITH IT" feelings, and it wasn't till I was well clear of the bad vis that I felt like stopping, let alone taking bearings. On the way back I started feeling colder and colder; I was actually afraid of dropping the mouthpiece and made the ascent of the pot (now mentally labelled the Well of Loneliness) with one hand holding the gag firmly between my teeth.

As soon as I got out of the water I started shivering quite violently - the base team gave me a mug of hot soup but I had to give it back between sips because I kept shaking it out of the cup! The prusik out was quite slow - I thought that it would warm me up but all I got was tired. The weather outside was still glorious - Kingsdale at its early summer, early evening best - and I'd left a bottle of elderberry wine and a hip flask of scotch in my rucksack at the entrance.

The next - and to date, latest - visit was a month later. I'd borrowed a pair of 55 cubic foot bottles from the Somerset section, as I didn't think I'd get much further on my forties. I hope Dave Pike never goes down Brownhill, because I wouldn't like him to see what his bottles were subjected to. Considering that less than a year before, just getting to the sump seemed pretty epic, and that we had doubts about getting even mini-bottles there, the trip in was pretty painless. This was particularly so as I'd decided to take (OK, have taken) my thick wetsuit down in a tacklebag, go down in furry suit, and change at the sump. I think the suit must have shrunk. It was very difficult to get on, and I got bloody cold before I even got in the water. However, there are means of warming up a wetsuit*.

I had to fiddle with the Manta valve quite a bit to get it to work properly before entering the water, and it wasn't long in the sump before it started to free-flow gently. I loosened off the fitting to the hose a bit and it more or less stopped losing air, so I decided to carry on. Then I found that the heavy CDG bottles balanced rather differently from my floating forties, and kept crawling under my knees. All of this conspired to make me feel less than happy, so I pottered along stirring up the silt and rebelaying the line nicely with snoopies to make me feel that I was doing something useful.

Eventually I got to the reel; once I started laying out line I began to feel a lot happier. Keeps the mind occupied I suppose. The passage continued more or less as before, level, lowish and wideish, until after about 15 metres it seemed to widen out a lot. I swept from side to side looking for the walls. They must be 6m or so apart here. Unfortunately (or, as I felt at the time, relievedly), thirds were reached at this point - the inefficient and nervous journey in had taken its toll of my air - and so the mystery remains until the next dive.

Total line laid out is now 180m. Depth at the end - and all the way in after the Well - is 6m. It's possible the wider bit at the current end is the joining of water from Crescent, Growling, or whatever. The survey shows that there is still about 300m (agh!) to go before the upstream (diving) extensions to King Pot, so there's still a lot to go at.

* Danilewicz' Dictum - "There are two sorts of divers; those who pee in their wetsuits and liars'.

Steve Roberts