On day two of Northern CHECC Tom was rather more lax on his previous commandment that we should only cave with other clubs as he chose to take only SUSSians down Notts 2, notably Will, Rachael, Slinger, and I. We wanted to be off early so we set off in Tom’s oddly asymmetrically-wheeled car at about half 9, with a call out for 5pm.
We found a suitably un-wind-shielded spot to park and get changed. Most of us were halfway changed when a shrill whine cut across the howling gales; “oh, no!” said Rachael, “I’ve not got my wellies”. The rest of us exchanged looks – Tom’s face plainly said ‘I’m not driving you back’.
Rachael thought long and hard about what she was going to do. She suggested that she stay in the car while we went down the cave. We said she definitely should not do that as she would catch hypothermia in the car. She resigned herself to simply going down the cave in her walking trainers and wearing her wellies for the rest of the weekend, though she was not happy about it! We walked to the cave fairly quickly and spotted the entrance – located in a glade surrounded by protected saplings. Tom had the tough job of hauling the entrance open, it seemed that all they had done was steal a drain cover and lump it on top of the opening which made it hard to get out. Once it was open it was my job to lead us down the cave, or rather should I say the ‘climbing frame’ that was the 40m entrance shaft to the cave.
I twisted and contorted my body around the myriad of poles, scaffolds, ladders and breeze blocks that formulated the buttresses used to prop open the imposing cave walls. It seemed that the people who constructed this entrance had simply nicked a load of scrap scaffolding ad bricks that happened to be lying around ‘unattended’ at someone’s yard and placed them haphazardly against the cave wall to desperately try and stop it from collapsing. The descent consisted of deciding which poles and ladders weren’t going to fall once you touched them and eventually deciding to put your weight on them anyway because there was no other choice of foot placement. The poles criss-crossed all the way down the shaft, occasionally the passage did a dog-leg but it was pretty much vertical the whole way. As I scrambled down the mish-mash of tubes I was reminded of the game Kerplunk, if I was to fall down this shaft I would hit every metal bar and possibly land straddling one of them – with no prospects of children!
As I stepped down off the final ladder I sat and waited for the rest. When some caught up I headed off in the general direction of the sound of water. There was a bit more scaffolding to descend and a tricky rope-descent which I traversed slowly across and down but the unstoppable Tom Smith just dropped off with unspeakable agility. We made it to the streamway, which was babbling nice and smoothly, Tom directed us downstream first. The path was a bit samey for a few hundred metres; a shallow streamway at our feet, the gap in the rock only wide enough for our legs but only coming up to the hips before flaring out into a wider passageway just higher up. The odd calcite feature loomed at us with an eerie paleness out of the dingy gloom.
We hopped down a surging waterfall and turned around a corner with plenty of banked sand. Tom pointed out to us the place where the sump usually is, though it was somewhat shallower than most sumps. Slinger and I decided to take on the flat-out crawl in the two-inch deep streamway to see where the damn thing actually sumped. I followed Slinger for about 30m before slowing down – realising this very wet endeavor was pretty much pointless, it was seemingly ages before the wet floor actually sumped because Slinger was out of sight when I heard him call “it’s here!” back at me. I yelled to him to say I was crawling back and I managed an awkward about turn in the very shallow passage. Emerging out of the ‘sump’ I saw Will and Rachael sitting on the sandy banks silently, and joined them. Rachael was beginning to look like she had come to terms with having to wear her trainers in a cave that was 90% walking through shin-deep streamway. I looked around but I couldn’t see Tom immediately, however when Slinger popped out of the sump a few minutes later we set off and turned the corner, sure enough there was Tom crouching expectantly at the top of the waterfall not unlike Sméagol. He was damming the stream to reduce its flow to a trickle so we were able to scale it as dryly as it was possible to be – although in retrospect I think he was initially planning on un-damming it as we mantled over the top in order to release the full volume of the water he had stored behind him and soak us to the bone – as it transpired he had a much more devious plan up his sleeves…
We stomped our way back upstream; Tom way up ahead (how does he do it?) and Rachael way behind (we know why she was doing it!) and the rest of us littered around the middle somewhere. We passed the passage we had previously come out of, that lead back to the exit, but continued on upstream. We saw a lot of piled up mud from digs and some impressively large stalactites, but not much else. After a while the stream stopped to flow so fast and it was more of a knee-deep wade than a splash up some trickles. Some corners of the passage caught me by surprise as they suddenly dropped to waist high water. The thing about sudden drops in streams is that they are often followed by sudden inclines, and when you are wearing many layers and an oversuit the wetness only works its way through to your skin once you are already out of the pools. This meant after a few paces past the deepest corner I felt a sudden surge of cold grip me by the unmentionables and clench them within a bone-chilling grasp that may not have lasted long had another unavoidably deep stretch of murky cave water not reared its seeping head around the next corner.
Luckily it was after this deep stream that we reached a fork. Tom asked us if we would prefer to go down the pretty passage or the wet passage first – as they both lead to dead ends fairly quickly. We all chose to brave the wet passage first, as we were soaked to the core and didn’t want to dry off in the pretty part before plunging quite literally back into the horrible depths of wetness and coldness. Plus, this way we could put up with the wet cave and have the pretty cave as ‘dessert’.
Tom suggested that I, followed closely by Slinger, should lead the way. The passageway was filled with deep, opaque brown water that filled your boots and soiled your pants. The wade was hard and there were no notches on the high walls that surrounded us. A few minutes after walking down the ‘wet passage’ Slinger and I found ourselves unaccompanied. I assumed that Will, not being a water person, and Rachael, not being a ‘currently-wearing-wellies’ person, had quite sensibly stopped a while back to let us go ahead and return to them at our leisure but Tom, not being a ‘take-caves-slowly-and-enjoy-the-view’ person, seemed to be just as far back as the others. Nevertheless Slinger and I plodded on, the bed of the streamway become more and more claggy and deep and the depth of the stream itself creeping higher and higher up our waists until a short and shocking drop of a stone plunged us armpit deep with our arms above our heads. I trotted a little further up but it was only getting deeper.
Suddenly a cheery voice called from above; “It does sump eventually you know!” – Tom, our ‘guide’ was stood above us peering down from a pathway atop the walls lining the deep streamway in which I was now neck-deep. I spotted a very small ledge in the side of the wall that I hopped onto to let myself warm up. I couldn’t believe he didn’t let us know about the above passage! It was all part of his plan to get us totally drenched and loathing him, of course I should have known! Slinger and I quickly decided not to find out how or where this waterway sumped and turned back to meet the other two. As the water began to shallow a little I tripped on an unseen boulder and fell forward into a kind of half-breaststroke-half-doggy-paddle which must have looked hilarious had I let anybody see it. I never expected to find myself swimming the breaststroke hundreds of metres below the Earth’s surface but that’s just what caving does to you – lets you explore new boundaries!
We made it out of the wet passage and after a brief snack of Midget Gems we found ourselves in the ‘Pretty Passage’ (not a euphemism guys, come on), this passage consisted of a lot of mud piled up in places it seemed that there were no features to block, which must have been hard for the diggers because there were features absolutely everywhere.