Report by Mike Annesley
Cavers: Mike Annesley (EPC), Geoff Lewis (non-EPC)
The last time I was in Bath visiting Geoff, about six months ago, I showed him my video footage of the Croesor-Rhosydd mine trip. He loved the video and every time I had spoken to him on the phone since then he’d reminded me about the video and how he’d love to do something similar one day. He had also told me that ages ago, his boss and him had more or less bottomed Goatchurch Cavern on an impromptu trip armed only with torches and candles, but that they had turned back before the “Drainpipe” and he was keen to return and finish it off. Since Selina and I were heading down that way to visit him over the bank holiday weekend, I bought myself a copy of Mendip Underground from Hitch ‘n Hike and started having a look at the possibilities for a nice introductory Mendip trip that didn’t involve any SRT, as Geoff had never done any ropework. It turns out that within a half hour drive of Bath there is a whole host of caves ranging from nice easy trips like Goatchurch to deadly tight and gnarly holes like Dallimores. Like many others before me, and being decidedly unoriginal, I decided to have a look at Swildon’s which offered a sporting streamway, a small ladder pitch, and a free-dive of sump-one if by that time we weren’t wet enough already.
We set off early after I’d phoned Bat Products to enquire as to whether the rainy looking sky would mean Swildon’s was a bad idea - they said that more water would only be a good thing, and also informed me that the Mud Sump (closed for some considerable time) had recently been re-opened if we fancied doing the round trip, though this was strictly not a trip suitable for novices (especially claustrophobic novices like Geoff!). We arrived in the quaint village of Priddy which seemed like a most unlikely caving venue after being used to your typical Derbyshire moorland terrain. There is an access fee of 50p each and the farmer has kindly provided a changing area in his barn which was a much more attractive proposition than scaring tourists with our dangly bits out on the village green. A ten-minute walk north through cow-fields brought us to the Swildon’s entrance blockhouse where the stream sinks into a shallow depression. The stream seemed very low indeed which was a little disappointing, but after stashing the car keys and having a quick slash, I dropped into the entrance hole that soon led into a bouldery chamber, where the obvious way on was a quick crawl in the streamway under some boulders. From here there appeared to be several routes, and I consulted the photocopied guidebook page that I’d brought in with me as to the best way on - the entrance series in Swildon’s comprises of many different routes that all end up at more or less the same place a little deeper into the cave. I had intended doing “The Long Dry Way” (aka “The Pretty Way”) but after getting bored of trying to decipher the guide and the fact that the water was very low anyway I decided to just follow my nose, and chose the most obvious way on which was a climb down into a rift to my right - I think in retrospect this was “The Short Dry Way” and leads to a bypass of the Forty Foot pot via a pleasant climb down a cascade. The Forty Foot Pot used to be the main route until the epic floods of 1968 washed away the false floor and opened the other routes below.
We soon entered the fine, roomy main streamway that is then followed through some great terrain down to the Twenty Foot Pot where I rigged a ladder and lifeline for Geoff and then abseiled down myself. This pot is P-bolted but the lower of the two bolts at the pitch head is very loose. From the bottom of this pot the streamway continues via many twists, turns and fun climbs down small pots above pools - all pretty easy but classic caving. Eventually we passed the climbs that lead up to Tratman’s Temple and the start of the Round Trip and entrances to the upper series and not too far beyond this after more pleasant cave the main streamway sumps into a gloomy pool at the free-diveable Sump One. The only other free-dive I’ve done is Lake Sump in Peak Cavern and I’d expected this one to be similar in nature, but I found it much more intimidating. Lake Sump is longer but you start from a nice deep pool in a roomy passage and the slight airspace allows communication with the other side… and of course, there’s a bypass if you don’t fancy it on the return journey. It also helped that I was with a load of people who’d done it before and could give encouragement and advice. Sump One in Swildon’s starts in a shallow pool and the dive line just seems to head for a tiny underwater slot at the end of the pool - it looks hideous and I was thinking “ho hum, if Geoff doesn’t want to do this I won’t be too upset”… Geoff was thinking the same thing, and was looking distinctly wild-eyed at this point, but anyway, I sploshed down into the freezing pool and stuck my legs through - I thought I could feel airspace right at the limit of my toes’ reach and Geoff also checked it out and came to the same conclusion. We were now both freezing from the water (I was in an furry / warmbac combo and Geoff was in a selection of thermals and an old flying suit) so it was decision time. I lay down on my front in the shallow water, held the line with my right hand, took a few deep breaths and plunged under. I felt strangely calm and pulled gently on the line, then lost it for a moment, then pulled on it again and felt myself glide first downwards to the low lip of the sump, and then felt myself rising up on the other side. By this time I was thinking “if I’m not in airspace by now I’m going to be a very unhappy boy” but then my head broke the surface and I sat up in a roomy water filled passage. After collecting my thoughts for a moment, I tugged on the line to signal to Geoff that all was ok, and after a few seconds, I felt the line go tight again, and a short while later his lamp started to loom up at me from the murky water. I grabbed his suit to let him know he was through and he sat up beside me - we looked at each other and started whooping like children, both very cold but very psyched. To give Geoff full credit, I think that if I’d have been asked to this on my first ever proper caving trip, I would have been heading back out to the entrance. In retrospect, it doesn’t really seem that bad, and the next time I’m there it will no doubt seem fine, but at the time the fear of the unknown and the seeming insanity of going underwater all added up to make this a formidable obstacle. I’ve since read that it was first passed in 1936 by J Sheppard using a home-made dry suit fed by a football inflator pump!
We were now in Swildon’s Two, and the now rather subdued streamway led through a deep pool to an easy duck, to a point where we could stand and get out of the water again. Amusingly, there was a “liberated” road-sign saying “Wookey Hole 1.5 miles, avoiding town centre” (the stream does indeed re-appear in Wookey Hole after about 1.5 miles!) and also an ironing board, presumably courtesy of the Extreme Ironing crew. The streamway now opened up again to huge dimensions and we followed pleasant walking passage past another, similar road-sign next to a divers-only sump and a long ramp with a handline, which was the way down from the far end of the Short Round Trip (other round trips go deeper into the streamway but these are hard and serious trips). Below here the streamway reduces to easy ducks and a few crawls in ever deepening water until Sump Two is reached. Sump Two is eight metres long and leads to airbells where you can’t get out of the water and are immediately faced with the even more serious Sump Three which is about 10 metres long and also quite deep. These sumps are free-divable but only by the very experienced, and I’ve read of somebody nearly dying when they got caught up in Sump Three. The usual route to get beyond this point is now to do one of the longer round-trips thus avoiding these sumps. In fact, it is possible to free-dive Swildon’s as far as Sump Nine but I must say that this must be one of the most serious trips around in terms of rescuing an injured caver. Divers are still currently trying to push the far limits of the cave at Sump Twelve and rumour has it that there has been some recent success. As an aside, I spoke to another caver back on Priddy green after we’d exited the cave who told me that people would often carry small bottles for many of the sumps, rather than just hold their breath.
Since we were now very cold we decided to head back into Swildon’s One, and so sploshed back to Sump One, and once again went for a thorough soaking. The sump seemed much easier in reverse, as it was all uphill and we knew we were heading for a big chamber. I was quite keen to have a look at the start of the Round Trip but was worried that Geoff wasn’t really warming back up and was also starting to look a bit tired, so we made our way back up the streamway, which was even more fun in the uphill direction. It didn’t take long to get back out as this time we knew the way, and in about forty-five minutes we were back at the surface and trudging over the fields past bemused tourists to reach the sanctuary of warm clothes and the car heater.
All in all a really good trip and a great introduction for Geoff who couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the weekend! Swildon’s is a fine cave that far exceeded my expectations. The main streamway would be superb in higher water (although it’s worth noting the entrance could become impassable), and the other parts of the cave offer trips that would range from fairly moderate to extremely serious in nature. The cave has also been linked to Priddy Green Sink via a tight and difficult connection.