Oxford University Cave Club

The Infant OUCC

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OUCC History


Russell Sunderland

(Queen’s) (Member 1957 -1961: Chairman, 1959 – 1960)

The Club’s archive reveals little  about the events surrounding its formation in 1957 or its modus operandi as it sought to establish itself as a viable organisation.  Record-keeping obviously took second place to finding and retaining an initial core membership.  A bare list of meets, a  couple of actual term-cards , two brief Secretary’s reports to General Meetings and an even briefer note from theTreasurer at the end of Year 2 seems to be all that has so far been unearthed in terms of formal records.  However, John Crompton, in his introduction to the account of the first expedition to Spain in 1961 (Proceedings 1) and John Wilcock in ‘How it all Began’(Proceedings 12 ) give us  short sketches of the Club and its activities in the  four years since its inception.  Richard Gowing, a founder member, kept detailed diaries of expeditions up to November 1958 and his memories of that first full year in the life of the club are reproduced elsewhere. The purpose of the present piece is to fill out the story to the extent that the fallible memories of another  founder member allow.

It seems to be accepted that the Club was formed on the initiative of Dr Marjorie Sweeting  of the Geology Department, where most of its meetings were held and that she was the club’s President in its early years. The chairman from 1958 to 1959 was Mike Pym but for the first few months the post appears to have been filled by Derek Ford, then a post-graduate student, who  played a key role in building a programme  that saw the club  attracting good speakers from the word ‘go’and  arranging a varied series of initial meets.  It is recorded that no fewer than 31 members attended the inaugural meet at GB Cave on 5 December 1957, but subsequent parties were usually in the 15 to 20 range.     

By the time we embarked on a second full year we seemd to be pretty well  on our own so far as senior guidance was concerned.  Many members had done a bit of caving before Oxford but we  lacked the in-depth experience available to the Club today.  Fortunately, Peter Crabtree (now deceased) who had taken on the job of Secretary in 1958, had both the academic geologist’s instincts and a highly practical approach to the business of mounting excursions of all kinds, so that by the time of the first full AGM in 1959 we were looking back on a programme of no fewer than 30 outings in under 15 months.  One benefit of the enforced DIY approach to running the club was that we all learned pretty quickly.  The terms ‘Health and Safety’ and ‘Risk Assessment’ had not been invented or, if they had, nobody in the hierarchy of the University’s administration had thought of applying them to the new and - so far - low-profile Cave Club.  Perhaps Marjorie Sweeting was performimg miracles   behind the scenes;  at any rate, we found ourselves pretty well free to organise ourselves as we saw fit. Some of our methods might have raised 21st century eyebrows  -- no written guidance for new members, an elastic view of when the outside world might expect us to surface, and so on.

For the first couple of years we habitually hired a coach to get  ourselves to the Mendips or South Wales;  a smooth, warm ride with a long pub stop on the return leg was an agreeable way of accessing cave territory but the hire costs were always a worry and there were regular anguished debates about whether our meagre funds should be used to subsidise transport at the expense of new gear. Eventually, after nearly three years of luxury travel, somebody managed to track down an open-back ex-army ambulance that looked as though it had seen war service right across Western Europe .  The purchase set the club back a few pounds (memory suggests five but we have no record of that) and cost the mechanically-minded among the membership innumerable hours of fiddling and coaxing.  The long, steep climb out of Crickhowell stands out in the memory as a desperately slow and nail-biting experience, draining us of mental strength before we had got anywhere near the unnerving squeeze then required for access to Agen Allwedd.

The Club started life with a modest and varied collection of ropes and ladders (perhaps acquired with the help of a grant from the University, although the secretary’s report in 1960 records no help from that quarter in 1959) but all clothing, helmets and lighting was the responsibility of members. At the outset this meant standard boiler suits and carbide lamps but underwater suits and miners’ lamps very soon made their appearance.  The first proper dive was of course through the first sump in Swildon’s.  The small group who performed the feat – all of them underwater virgins – noted with quiet satisfaction that perhaps the club was now on the caving map.

After a year and a half of familiarisation with the range of caves and pots offered by the Mendips, Devon and Derbyshire, plus one two-man venture into Gaping Gill via Bar Pot, 1959 saw a vigorous campaign to break new ground in a variety of rifts and low crawls.  In Swildon’s, Oxford Chamber was named but it was in Yorkshire, during a long vac meet at the Gritstone Club hut at Ribblehead, that a small group, just setting out on the hike to Alum Pot,  stumbled on an un-named resurgence that offered surprisingly easy access. On this and subsequent visits the cave was explored to a total length of almost 2000 feet and was well surveyed later in the year. It was promptly named Black Reef Cave, by loose reference to a handsome pool in its far reaches, with unusual underwater formations perhaps involving manganese deposition.

If any mishaps occurred on Club meets in the early years they have not been recorded.  However, the potential for disaster was brought home to members most forcibly in the 1959 Easter vacation.  In the course of a meet in the Castleton area, contact was made with a group from Sheffield who were planning a first exploration of a deep and very narrow rift in Peak Cavern.  One of OUCC’s newer members, Neil Moss, accepted an invitation to stay on and join that party.  The story of how Neil died despite a rescue attempt on a scale unparallelled in British caving, needs no repetition.  The club was well represented at the memorial service; the tragic incident left our members under no illusion about the importance of correct ladder technique.

If an Oxford society was to flourish in the fifties it needed a measure of administrative flair  from its officers  but also a willingness to put in the hours on pretty menial tasks.  No e-mail in those days; no mobile phones; copying strictly via the ghastly carbon paper.  There was at least the blessed twice-daily inter-college messenger service which would deliver a note within an hour or so anywhere within the academic community.   Against this background,  and bearing in mind the Club’s precarious financial position, not to mention Oxford’s  distance from decent  limestone, the level of activity achieved now seems quite remarkable.

The archives do not record the members’ collective academic performance but for many of us the regular escape from the Oxford hot-house into the bowels of the earth served as both refreshment and stimulus.  After two or three years we sensed that the club was on the right track.  And so it proved.