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Afton Rift Cave, Totnes, Devon

For those who, prior to caving in Devon, consult "Britain Underground", the first cave mentioned, Afton Rift Cave, is dwarfed in length of description by Baker's Pit Cave, on the same page. The "deep winding narrow rift, with vivid red dripstone", would perhaps be interesting to the Devon caver, but the outsider, who has already experienced that "Britain Underground", with all due respect to its undoubted usefulness, is not the most accurate of oracles, might take a look. A small group of cavers associated with the Oxford Club did take a look, and the following is an account of their interesting findings.

Afton Rift, as described above, is a deep narrow rift, about 120 ft. in length. There is a high but rather narrow entrance, half blocked by a boulder. The floor for the first 20 to 30ft. is of gravelly clay, but this gives way to a rift extending downwards, 5 to 15ft. in depth; about 40ft. from the entrance the cave begins to slope downwards, quite steeply in parts, levelling off at about 100ft. from the entrance, and a little further on closing to the narrow crack which was the end of the cave. Through this crack the rift appeared to continue for another twelve feet or so, before finishing quite abruptly. But whether it did finish so abruptly, instead of finishing round some invisible corner, was not at all apparent, and so an attack was made on the narrow crack.

This obstruction soon became known as the Keyhole, (see Survey) from its general shape, wider at both top and bottom than in the middle. The bottom was tried first, but it proved impossible, even with a large hammer. So the upper part was tried, and after several attempts, using a hammer in a limited space, a way was forced into the rift beyond. The key to the keyhole had been found, and the door opened onto another 800ft. of new passages, making Afton Rift the sixth largest cave in Devon, and perhaps the most interesting of them all.

The main passage is of course the continuation of the same rift from the old cave, and it continues to wind in the same manner. After about 35 ft. it opens out into a small chamber, 8ft x 6ft x 5ft, and already there are more formations, mostly stalactites and curtains. Beyond the chamber the rift winds on for another 60ft., before opening out into the Flower Cavern, so called from the formations there, resembling gypsum flowers, but probably formed of aragonite. The floor here is of loose boulders with one wedged between the walls under which it is necessary to pass: it appears to be quite safe. Two small openings at the side of the cavern lead nowhere, but another one, close to the roof, looks more promising, but has still to be explored.

Beyond the Flower Cavern another 40ft. of passage leads to the Cockpit, a small round chamber with a large boulder on which one must perch on entering. A small passage behind this boulder has yet to be explored. Twenty feet further on, the Vault is reached by a downwards climb, and from this chamber there are two side passages as yet unexplored; one of them might connect with the Lower Series. Just beyond the Vault the rift deepens to 15ft., and water can be seen at the bottom; this is in fact part of the Lower Series. Again the rift winds on for another hundred feet or so, and then opens out into the final chamber, Cascade Cavern, taking its name from the large flowstone deposit on one wall. Stalactites and stalagmites abound, and on another wall there is beautiful red curtain. There are also one or two pools, but no running water. A small passage above the Cascade had still to be explored, and in another corner is the beginning of the Lower Series. The total length of the new section is 275ft.

The Upper Series begins just before Cascade Cavern, where a passage goes off to the right. Again this is a rift passage, and mud on the walls makes the going difficult. But after only a few feet it becomes a crawl, the Conduit where some of the fine stalactites had to be broken to allow the explorers to pass through: here at last there was some running water. After this the rift continues, sloping steadily upwards to a low chamber with two tight holes at the far end. Through one the passage could be seen to continue, and the other proved passable with a lot of effort. Again the passage sloped upwards, though now wider and lower, leading through a small chamber, 3ft. high, and through a short section which had to be dug out, to the end of the Series, a low, muddy chamber, without a single formation, and therefore named Dismal Hall. There is a narrow side passage which winds upwards for about 40ft., ending in a choke, and another at the Elbow requires excavation. The total length of this Series is 230ft.

The Lower Series begins in Cascade Cavern, and slopes gradually downwards, passing at one point underneath the Main Passage. This section contains some very good formations; a widening of the rift contains a beautiful red and white cascade. Beyond this a stalactite, with a stalagmite underneath, marks the entrance to a sloping chamber, from which a short passage on the left leads to the 'Oubliette', a round chamber with smooth walls and no formations. The main passage leads on to a junction. where its continuation is crowded with stalactites; the left-hand passage leads down to Mud Cavern, the lowest point of the whole cave where any water in the system must sink. Close to the entrance another passage leads upwards past the stalactite blockage in the main passage, containing itself many fine formation. After a short crawl the rift begins to rise steeply towards the small hole in the roof which is the present end of this series. Near the Mud Cavern a passage leads off for about 30ft. in the direction of Cascade Cavern. The total length of these Lower Series measured so far is about 250ft.

This extension to Afton Rift totals so far nearly 800ft., and with the already known cave, the length comes to 900ft. Several passages still have to be explored, especially in the Lower Series, and these ought to bring the total length of the cave to more than 1000ft. Already Afton Rift Cave is among the largest caves in Devon, warranting the classification, "Difficult", on account of the Keyhole and one or two other climbs in the new section.

Since this first exploration was made, other cavers have found their way through the Keyhole, and the local Press have even published an article with photographs. It is to be hoped that these people will respect the beautiful formations, which must be unique in that they are as yet unmarked.

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