With a week of bad weather behind us and the knowledge that when it rains, that rain eventually finds it's way under ground and into caves systems be decided on to mess around. We went straight to Hitch and Hike that morning to talk to Shaun behind the counter about caving and what would be a sensible idea for the day. He suggested a range of little places and caves but there was one that stood out a little more. It was Lay by Pot. It stood out because it would a journey through a cave, rather than in and out the same way like we'd done before. He did warn us that it would be a little wet but we'd been plenty wet already so it didn't bother us.
Lay by Pot is just off the road in Stoney Middleton Dale, where we seem to spend most of our caving time. It starts with a abseil down a 14 metre shaft before meandering through the surrounding rock to exit at somewhere called the oil drum entrance.
Our first challenge for the day was actually finding the entrance and between not reading the guide book properly (parked in the wrong place) and then having quite a few little caves to check on the way it took us a while to actually get there. I volunteered to go first down the rope and clipped myself in with my gri-gri (I'm yet to aquire a petzl stop) and shot off down the rope. Abseiling on a gri-gri in a tight space is something I don't recommend at all. It's a really really awkward piece of kit to use if you're all cramped up. It wasn't that bad really and I ended up in a chest height passage in which I made myself comfortable and waited for Finney to come down.
Finney took forever, or it seemed like he did at least! I just made myself comfortable and picked at the crumbly ceiling looking at the fossils I was finding. The passage has a lot of loose material in it, which looked like it had come from the roof. He told me when he'd got down that he'd had one of those moment when you look at your belay device and think “how in god's name does this thing work”. Abseiling into a tight passage is a pretty stressful thing to do and I'm not surprised his brain was running overtime. We sat there eating jelly babies and taking photos till Ronnie joined us.
There are two passages off which lead off once you get down. We'd already been warned about following the tight squeeze of old man's slabbed level, which doesn't go anywhere really. We set off crawling down the right passage with the cheese grate being our first check point. I don't know why the cheese grater is called what it is as it's not cheesey or gratery (if that's even a word). Instead its a 7 metre drop into a pool with a small stream running into it. I guess the pool must drain from somewhere, but we didn't exactly dive in and have a look. There's something about water in caves that really scares me. Just after here we came across our first obstacle... a low passage with a puddle of water about 6/8 inches deep. I'm sure hardy cavers would have laughed at us deliberating whether to carry on or not but being honest I didn't fancy a soaking so early on in the cave. We didn't really know how long we actually be down there and being cold and wet is a lot worse than just being cold.
I squeezed out the other side with wet hands, arms, elbows, knees and one wellington full of water... but it wasn't that bad. I'd managed to get the kit bag through as well without it getting too wet either. The passage ahead we up slightly and we piled into it to check out the stalactites. It's a shame that we didn't just carry on into the Calcite passage and instead just plough on ahead with our journey. I think we'd all decided that this was caving trip, so a bumble underground to take pretty pictures. Still the passage we were in had some beautiful stalagtubes hanging down from the ceiling and after a bit of backing up and me sending Ronnie in the wrong direction we got moving again.
Ronnie was pretty much leading this cave, with me behind him checking the map every so often. Finney had acquired the camera and we found out later that he'd been recording little personal documentaries while Ronnie and I had been off ahead. He's fast becoming the team camera man! With Ronnie up ahead all I generally got every time he entered a tunnel a mix of laugher and groaning. The first puddle we suffered was not the last, and not the worst either. I followed each one, fighting with the bloody kit bag each time to try and keep it dry as I'd not stuffed everything in waterproof bags. It was something that I'll remember for next time.
I wasn't until we reached the first of the larger chambers that me and Finney could get off our hands and knees. Ronnie on the other day had been able to get a couch on in some of the passages and chambers, which made me very jealous. The chamber although quite large in plan, wasn't actually that big apart for a aven that had formed in the centre. Normally people sit down to take a break, but we all had a good stand up and stretch in that aven. The kit bag, which has been names “oink” due to it being a pig to carry around (stolen from the term used for haul bags when big walling). Oink had suffered an internal injury because he'd been thrown around by his rather stressed carrier (me). Instead of forking out a little cash for a smash proof caving box, it decided that I knew better and had packed a lot of our emergency gear in a plastic container brought at tesco. For future reference plastic tesco sandwich boxes do not survive underground, especially when placed next to hard plastic nalgene bottles! I really couldn't get the bag wet now!
We pushed off from here, me knowing the way but letting Ronnie crawl around in looking for the tunnel to the next chamber. I could have told him where to go, but chose not to as there was only two tunnels leaving this chamber and we'd come in by one of them. Soon he found the right tunnel and the mix of groaning and laughter echoed down the passage. This was going to be a wet one...
(time passes as we crawl, squeeze and swear at oink)
…then there was woop of elation echoing back down the tunnel. Ronnie'd broken into the big chamber (literally called the big chamber) and we could all stand up. Ronnie gave me a hand exiting the squeeze into and took oink off me. Finney joined us and sat around eating jelly babies and taking on some much needed water. A quick scope of the guidebook revealed that we'd now be heading down into Phil's dome pit. This started with a tight (for me) squeeze through a small boulder ruckle and onto an beautiful flowstone floor. This passage/chamber was pretty amazing with the flowstone floor and plenty of stalagtubes and stalagtites & mites all over the place. I got some pretty good video of stalagtite running with water so I can pass this onto a friend who teaches geography. We followed Ronnie into Phil's Dome Pit proper and were struck by our next obstacle... 5 metres of climbing upwards.
Being climber's by nature (for the moment at least) 5 metres of climb shouldn't have bothered us, but if there hadn't been a couple of old ropes hanging down made into a couple of rope ladders wed have been in for a long crawl back and some SRT get us out. Instead we'd planned for this and I tied onto the end of a short section of rope we brought with us and clumsly climbed up the ropes. It wasn't elegant, but then again climbing in wellington boots never is. At the top I looked for something to belay off, but found nothing other than the thread the ropes were tied onto so belaying off this I brought up the others up.
Ronnie immediately set off down the passage to make space for Finney and when we were all up he scouted ahead while we [Finney and I] stowed the gear. Ronnie pointed out a hole in the floor which we should avoid falling down and then off into the squeeze ahead. Soon his feet disappeared, followed by grunting and then the sound of some rocks falling. We yelled tom see if he was ok and he replied telling us not to follow him yet as the chamber was cramped and loose. We just had to sit and wait while the sounds of a human body scraping and bumping off things echoed down to us. After what seemed like forever (again!) Ronnie yelled down to ask me if there was a lid on the exit. This was something that had never occurred to me but I was sure I'd read about it. There wasn't any access issues and it wasn't mentioned that it was locked or anything in the guidebook. I yelled that it should be ok and Ronnie carried on looking, but for me panic had set in. I sat/lay there in the tunnel breathing too fast and trying not to let on I was panicing. It was pretty stupid really because there are no hero's in our little group and no need to put on a brave face.
Ronnie's cheers echoed back down to us and he yelled the next one up. Finney took it as I wanted to force myself to stay in the tunnel on my own to get used to the darkness. Finney gave me a running commentary of what he was caving through so I knew what coming next and soon it was my turn. I'd clipped oink to a sling and my longest cowtail, intending to drag the little bugger behind me, instead od pushing it ahead and dislodging any rocks. It was a bit of a squeeze for me, and I entered a loose chamber with a circle of light coming in for an oil drum set in the ceiling. This was obviously the oil drum entrance, which had a cover over it to stop people, animals anything I guess falling. Soon I was our, grabbing Ronnie's hand to pull me up. Oink came out last.
So our first through cave! And it was fantastic! The whole thing was a real adventure all the way through and it was quite different to all the other caves we've been in so far. It'll be nice to go back next time, knowing what we're in for and go into the various other little chambers we missed and get some decent photographs. I also look forward to taking some of my friends down who've expressed a wish to go caving as it'll be a proper little experience for them!