Oxford University Cave Club

Memories and Records of the Early Days of the OU Cave Club

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Richard Gowing

Most of this article is taken from my diaries written up at the time.

In October 1957 a notice appeared proposing the formation of a University caving club, inviting those interested to a meeting, in Bostar Hall, Univ., I think, on Tuesday 5th November. I had visited a few easy caves with my father, who had been an active potholer with the Yorkshire Ramblers' Club before the war and, as the first of my qualifying meets for the YRC, I had attended a day training meet on Newby Moss, where I was taught the basics of potholing using rope and electron ladders. In the course of this I descended a few easy pots, culminating in 160 ft. Pillar Pot, which was quite wet at the bottom! I hadn't done any more potholing or caving since, as I couldn't get to YRC meets in term time and anyway my main passion was mountaineering, going to as many OUMC meets as I could as well as a few YRC mountain meets during the vacations. So I felt I had a little to offer a university caving club, and duly turned up at the inaugural meeting, where we found enough men and women with some experience to form a club. Members were signed on and a committee was formed, headed initially (I think) by graduate geologist Derek Ford as President and Hon. Secretary Peter Crabtree, with geomorphology don Marjorie Sweeting as Senior Member and guiding light.

The Inaugural Meet of the Oxford University Cave Club was held on Sunday 1st December 1957, when a coach took us via Bath to Mendip, where we stopped at the Miners' Arms for coffee before following the crest of Mendip and descending Cheddar Gorge to the car park where we filled in time by picnicking and doing some of the easier and shorter climbs, such as the Sugar Loaf and the French Pinnacle. Then on to Charterhouse Farm where we met our hosts and guides from the University of Bristol Speleological Society, who conducted us through GB Cave by the easy way, visiting the very fine main chamber with good formations and several clusters of helictites. When I returned, 50 years later to the day, it was nice to recognise some of the features seen on that first visit. On the way home we stopped for tea at Burrington Combe and arrived in Oxford at about 11 p.m., after a great day of getting to know our fellow members and confirming the idea of caving together as a club.

The next meet of the fledgling club was a day trip by coach on 2nd March 1958 to Swildon's Hole. We went in two groups, the first led by Derek Ford, the second by myself. Tight entrance passages led to a 40 ft. pot which we laddered and lifelined. Further in, we descended a 20 ft. pot and finished at Barnes' Loop, a fine grotto with calcite pools. We returned the same way but lost it in the entrance passages; after much searching we found the way, by a side passage coming in high up. My log records Swildons as a very wet cave, but with hardly any mud!

The Trinity Term bus meet, on Sunday 1st June 1958, was to Burrington Combe, where we visited a number of short, rather tight caves which I likened to outcrop climbing. The day was showery, clearing in the afternoon. After changing in the entrance to Goatchurch Cavern we were led into this 1800 ft.long by 180 ft. deep cave by Mike Pym, entering by the main entrance and following the cave to a 40 ft. “drain-pipe” crawl to the end chamber, and returning through the drain-pipe to exit via a second entrance. Our second cave was Sidcot Swallet, a 400 ft. x 100 ft. Severe Cave. Led again by Mike Pym, we crawled along this cave, fairly tight most of the way, to a pretty grotto which leads to a double squeeze. The first squeeze led to a tiny chamber then the second, tighter one led to a 30 ft. drop. This second squeeze, with its lack of holds, was harder on the return, representing in our view a practical limit of tightness, and I was only able to get out through it with some assistance from Mike Pym. Something only to be done once, and not with a mature girth!

Our final cave of the day was Rod's Pot, a 450 x 200 ft. Difficult Cave, which I did with John Leonard, Alan Davidson and another. After a tight entrance a left-handed right angle led into the main chamber which was quite pretty; passing some fine curtains we descended into a rift which marked the end of the cave. Caving finished we returned to Goatchurch where we changed and washed in the stream, then had supper sitting above Burrington Combe. This was very pretty, but I noted the climbing possibilities as practically nil!

In 1957 the Yorkshire Ramblers had taken the lease of a corrugated iron-clad building in a beautiful location in the Lowstern plantation on the Ingleborough estate, a short distance out of Clapham on the Bentham road. Members had put a lot of effort into converting the somewhat dilapidated structure into a usable potholing base, so I optimistically arranged an OUCC meet to be held there in July 1958. As it turned out, the Lowstern Hut was not ready by then, so we were lucky to find alternative accommodation at the Northern Pennine Club's cottage at Green Close, a mile further out on the Bentham road where it crossed the former railway line from Clapham via Kirkby Lonsdale to Lowgill on the West Coast Main Line. This comfortable club cottage had the benefit of a resident warden by the name of Dick Hylton. There follows a day-by-day account of our explorations of the Gaping Gill system.

Sunday 6th July: My father took me from our home in Teesside to Green Close where I was soon joined by the only other member of the meet, our Hon. Sec. Peter Crabtree. Neither of us had been in Gaping Gill before, so we relied entirely on published route descriptions and the fortuitous company of NPC members.

Monday 7th July: First we bought food for the week at the village shop in Clapham, then investigated the route up to Gaping Gill and collected the necessary ropes and ladders from the YRC tackle store at Austwick, carrying it up in relays to Bar Pot. We rigged the 20 ft. entrance with electron and descended into the upper reaches of Bar Pot. I have found that, with successive visits over the years, this gets tighter and more awkward; on my last trip, in 1996 in a party commemorating the centenary of the YRC's first descent of Gaping Gill, I found the ascent of this pitch so awkward that I vowed never to go that way again, and all my subsequent visits to the system have made use of the main shaft winch operated by the BPC and CPC at bank holidays!

To return to 1958: we explored our way down to the top of the 100ft. pitch which leads down into the main GG system, rigged it with rope ladders then returned to the surface, to wash in Fell Beck and change out of our potholing clothes before walking down Trow Gill to Clapham and so back to Green Close.

Tuesday 8th July: We returned up Trow Gill to Bar Pot, carrying more tackle for Mud Hall. After rigging a lifeline with pulley we descended the 100 ft. pitch into the SE Passage of the GG system. On arriving at the foot of the ladder, we found it to be 6 ft. short of the floor, but found we could climb down (and up!) without difficulty. We went via the oxbow at SE Pot, T Junction and the Portcullis, mostly upright or stooping, to emerge at the foot of the eastern boulder slope for our first sight of the magnificent Main Chamber of Gaping Gill, with the spray from the waterfall descending the 340 ft. shaft diffusing the daylight into the far reaches of the great cavern. An unforgettable sight which never ceases to impress, however many times one encounters it.

We explored the Main Chamber and looked into the West Chamber (which doesn't lead anywhere) then climbed the eastern boulder slope and followed the East Passage, with quite nice formations, to Mud Hall, where we left the tackle for it and set off back to the surface, taking 1 hour 20 minutes from Mud Hall. This time after descending Trow Gill we carried on through the Ingleborough Hall grounds beside the lake, into Clapham.

Wednesday 9th July: Today we were joined by an NPC member, Roy. We descended Bar Pot, adding an extra 6 ft. length to the bottom of the ladder on the 100 ft. pitch. We went along to T Junction, and followed the SW Passage into Sand Cavern. We took the return oxbow by mistake, laddering into Sand Cavern and eventually ended back at T Junction. Realising our mistake we retraced; Peter climbed back and dropped the ladder into the correct part and joined me and Roy via the oxbow. We continued via Stream Chamber to the end of SW Passage, with lots of mud, interesting caving and fine formations. I don't think I visited Sand Cavern again until August 2008 when, on a YRC family meet, we took a group of grandchildren down the CPC winch and visited Sand Cavern and Mud Hall.

From Stream Passage we returned to T Junction and the Main Chamber, then followed East Passage to Mud Hall, which we tried rigging but ran out of time. As there wouldn't be another opportunity to go to Mud Hall we brought out the tackle, surfacing into a dull, misty afternoon.

Thursday 10th July: We caught a bus to Clapham, walked up Trow Gill to Bar Pot and descended to the top of the 100 ft. pitch. While looking around, Peter discovered an easier route to it which proved to be the usual way, no doubt accounting for the 6 ft. deficiency in our initial laddering. Soon Graham of the NPC arrived, and with his help we derigged the 100 ft. pot, and carried the tackle to the foot of the entrance pitch, then hauled it to the surface. After derigging the top pitch we bathed and changed at Fell Beck, then carried all the tackle down through the Ingleborough Hall grounds to Clapham, where we'd arranged for John Lovett, the YRC tackle warden, to collect it and take it back to its store at Austwick. Thus ended the OUCC's first visit to the great cavern and system of Gaping Gill.

For the first club caving trip in Michaelmas Term 1958 a party of us travelled by train and bus on Friday 31st October to the Bristol Exploration Club's hut, The Belfry, the final 4 miles being a pleasant walk by the light of the full moon.

On the Saturday, a member of the BEC came along to guide us through St Cuthbert's Swallet. We found this to be an extensive system with some interesting pitches and very fine formations, including some nests of cave pearls. Next day the weather turned out very wet. We entered the boulder maze of Eastwater Swallet, but didn't press it, as the way was not obvious, it was all very wet and none of our party was familiar with it. We returned to Oxford by bus from Hillgrove to Bath, then by train to Oxford; very few of us had cars in those days.

What turned out to be my final caving trip with the OUCC, until the President's Meet in 1998, followed three weeks later, with a coach trip to Stoke Lane Slocker, which I understand is now inaccessible due to contamination of the water from a nearby farm. I went in a party with Stan Nichols, Russell Sunderland, Peter Thickbroom, John Leonard, George Dale and Carola Anderson, led by Derek Ford. My diary records it as a magnificent cave, with good sport and superb scenery. We went in - and out – via the Muddy Oxbow, and found the short sump an interesting experience, reassuring that one could reach one's hand through and feel the air on the other side!

After we'd all gone through we wrung out our clothes in a small chamber called the Changing Room (no wet or dry suits in those days!) then toured the main system. We went up through CB Cavern into Main Chamber, up across the Traverse, with a bit of climbing led by Derek Ford, and through the Traverse Grotto into the magnificent Throne Room. After looking at Princess's Grotto, we went into the large Bone Chamber, and down to Pool Chamber. From there we returned along the fine Streamway to Main Chamber and back through CB Cavern to the sump, which proved easier on second encounter, and without delay out through the entrance series, to be welcomed with hot water at the farm for our return to everyday clothing. A most memorable trip and my last with the OUCC until recent times as, living in the north, I pursued my caving and potholing with that pioneer of the sport the YRC, mostly in the Craven area but with the occasional meet further afield, notably a splendid whitsun week in 1963 in Fermanagh where I had my experience of real exploration in the Reyfad system. Even now, in my 70's, I occasionally venture underground with the help of younger members of the YRC, and it has recently been my great pleasure to resume contact with the OUCC, exemplified by my trip into Kingsdale Master Cave on the President's Meet in 1998, and that most enjoyable 50th anniversary celebration in GB in 2007.

Long may the OUCC flourish; here's to the next 50 years!

Richard Gowing, 15th April 2009