After a Covid-induced alteration of holiday plans from “expedition in Tresviso” to “touring the West Country”, I was offered a chance to join Rob on a dive in one of the few diamonds of a trip in the rough of Devon caving.
Nat and I spent the night at Rostam’s house in Exeter before driving down to meet Rob and Helen at Joe Daniels’ house on the edge of Dartmoor. Joe would be our guide through the maze that forms Pridhamsleigh Cavern entrance series, though sadly he wouldn’t be diving with us this time as he’d broken both thumbs in the pub somehow.
We drove in convoy, following Joe’s ludicrously jacked-up Defender down the A38 to the layby near the cave. We packed our kit, divvied out the various heavy bags to our Sherpas (thanks to Nat, Helen, Joe and Holly for that!) and set off to the cave. The walk in to the entrance is short, but features the crossing of a bridge over an A-road which feels kind of funny whilst kitted up for diving, it also features a walk through a cider orchard which felt very Devon.
We soon reached the idyllic cave entrance, a gorgeous deep alcove beset in a cliff face just above a small babbling brook. If it weren’t for the sounds of the nearby dual carriageway you could have pictured the place in neolithic times.
After a short, tight (with a pair of cylinders) wriggle in the back of the entrance the passage becomes narrow and stooping. The rock is bedded at an odd angle and has really cool narrow striations in it, very different to other areas of British caves, but kind of comparable to the Scottish limestone. Unfortunately the rock can’t be appreciated too much as the cave walls are the most smoothed-down I’ve seen since the Cheese Press! Every inch of surface has been rubbed and prodded with mud so much that the walls and ceiling are a homogenous brown smudge. Nothing provides enough friction for a good footing, which led to many instances of over-encumbered divers sliding down unforgiving calcite slopes into pools of sloppy mud. Apparently the reason for this prevalence of glazing on the cave walls is due to the sheer number of tourist groups and local kids that visit the place, and because of its labyrinthine nature each passage will have been travelled through numerous times by the same groups desperately searching for the way on, or the way out. The cave itself has many interconnected passages and oxbows so it’s easy to lose yourself quite quickly, which isn’t helped by the monotony of colour the cave presents you with.
Joe ably escorted us through the maze and down to The Lake, which has a very handy bench nearby for kitting up on. The sump pool is a pleasant blue colour which was welcome break from the endless brown my eyes had become accustomed to. Well, the pool was blue, that was until Rob stood in it to take a piss and muddied the waters, ruining the ambience somewhat.
We kitted up and flopped into the pool, after being given rough directions from Joe as to where to go once we were underwater we did our pre-dive checks and set off beneath the surface.
The broad sump pool cuts steeply down a 30m straight shot line, belling out slightly as it descends. As we passed the 6m marker on the shot line we floated down through a cloud of silt that must still have been falling from when Rob went for a piss earlier – pushing the thought of swimming through Rob’s fluids to the back of my mind I kept up my steady descent.
The shaft bottoms out at ~30m depth and I certainly think that floating gracefully downwards in a clear blue paradise is a more atmospheric way of descending a 30m pitch in a cave than the more traditional abseiling method (or indeed the less traditional “throw yourself down and hope for the best” method). At the bottom the simple comfort of a single shot line for navigation soon becomes a hazardous nest of complex junctions, loops, and dead-ends that we had to work our way through to find the way on. It felt like being a fly coming into land along a strand of a spiders thread only to find the dangerous web waiting at the bottom. Joe had told us that navigation was simple but down here the reality was much different! We’d been told to follow the orange line, but which orange line Joe? Would that be the thick orange line, the old thin orange line, or the shiny new orange line? I followed the thick continuation of the shot line from the surface but it only lead to a dead-end anchor point at the cave floor, decorated with traffic cones. Rob tugged at my fin and pointed towards a horizontal continuation of clean new orange line which we followed for 10m to yet another junction with a line going straight up, we decided this must be the way up to Prid 2, the airbell we were aiming for. Following this line past a further two junctions, with a parallel and seemingly unconnected shot line running alongside us we headed back up 30m to surface, the shaft we were ascending in was gargantuan by British sump standards, visibility was ~5m and there were points at which no walls were in sight, just a line in the centre of a blue expanse leading upwards. My computer flashed at me indicating I needed a brief safety stop after being at depth so Rob and I hung around in the sump below the surface for a few minutes, but decompression or no decompression it was worth a stop and look around! The visibility was absolutely perfect here, and the walls were all within sight – black limestone with a blue tinge from the water, lined with fine veins of white mineral.
We surfaced in the dome-shaped airbell, perfectly circular and probably 10m high at its apex. The first thing that struck me was the acoustics, Rob’s voice was unintelligible as the cacophony of echoes and reverberation drowned out all sense – it must be a combination of the size, shape and fact that it’s completely sealed. The pretty limestone walls are coated in flowstone and raise out of the clear, blue pool to converge at the top where a cluster of curtains and stalactites hang down, reaching out for the water. Rob waved his camera round to get some footage of the pretties, we sorted out our plan for return, and set off back under.
The way out was easily followed as we’d pegged the myriad of junctions that had led to the air bell, without the pegging I’d have struggled to find the way out! We ducked down into a cloud of terrible vis around the 30m mark, presumably from me scuffling around the dead ends on the way in. Following the line across I found the shot-line that led back to the home sump pool and began to ascend. The visibility on ascension was fairly poor so I kept the shot line in arms reach, rising slowly. Once I reached my safety stop ceiling I paused once again with Rob. I could hear a lot of commotion above, which reminded me that the others had said they were going to take a swim while they waited, as the heavy carry had left them incredibly hot. Rob and I finished our Stop and surfaced to the most unlikely sight you’d expect to find when finishing up a cave dive; the pool was filled with naked women. That is to say Nat, Helen, Holly (and Joe) had all stripped off to skinny dip in the sump pool above us. They’d enjoyed several minutes of using the turbulence from our bubbles expanding upwards from 30m depth as a makeshift Jacuzzi in the sump, to form what we referred to as a “Cold Tub”. We all clambered out of the pool and de-kitted, or re-kitted in the case of the Sherpas! Rob reassured me that not all cave dives would feature a display of nudity upon resurfacing, though I must say the occurrence of it even a single time must surely put the CDG leaps and bounds ahead of all other dive organisations.
I packed my cylinders away and hoisted the bag onto my back. Bollocks, a strap had broken! This was going to be a miserable carry out. Between Helen and myself we managed to shepherd the bag out through the slippy meandering passage that continued out to the surface. We wandered back through the orchard, over the dual-carriageway, and back to the lay-by. I washed the mud off my wetsuit in a nearby stream and packed the car, then Helen pointed out that we were less than a mile from Buckfast Abbey, so it would be rude of us not to have a wander round the gardens and gather a supply of the sweet nectar of Tonic Wine from the Gift Shop.
Cracking day out – fun was had, sump was dived, and nudity was enjoyed by all.
Trip Date: 6-9-20