Cheddar Caving Club

A Brief History Of Caving

Caving, Potholing, Spelunking - call it what you will, it all amounts to the same thing. Crawling around in holes in the ground for apparently no reason. I mean, it's not as if there is likely to be nuggets of gold just lying about down there. So how did it all start?

Well, back in the old days any natural hole in the ground was considered to be a conduit to the very depths of hell. At the very least most people thought that nasty creatures were likely to live in them. Even the numerous miners who spent all their working days underground were dubious of natural cave passage and often walled up accidental breakthroughs. During the 19th Century, such deeply religious beliefs began to give way to the expanding disciplines of science. The interior of Africa was being explored by the landed gentry in pith helmets and pioneering archaeologists were discovering dinosaur remains and removing them with dynamite. Such exploits gave more credence to Darwinism and less to tales of cave dwelling demons.

Lascaux Cave, France Some archaeologists did not have the resources of the nobility so, rather than dig their own holes, they started poking about in ones that already existed. A Frenchman was lowered into Gaping Ghyll in Yorkshire on a rope until he was nearly drowned and then pulled out rapidly when the crowd got bored of waiting. A similar attempt at exploration in Burrington Combe, Somerset apparently ended in accidental decapitation! Around the turn of the century some less obvious sites were investigated and over the next twenty or so years men in tweed suits wearing felt hats stiffened with varnish explored numerous cave systems by candlelight. By the 1930's, ramblers and mountaineers had got in on the act and the idea of exploring underground for fun, or sport caving was established. Numerous caving clubs were formed and equipment developed. Tweed suits gave way to boiler suits and candles to acetylene lamps - which are basically gas-fired metal candles. Since there was no such thing as a Nanny State in those days, although you needed a licence to own a poodle or a radio, anyone could buy high explosives. Gelignite was good healthy fun at a shilling per pound. This led to tight passages being widened and obstructions being removed. Despite this approach the terminal sump in Swildon's Hole refused to budge. After failing to pass this obstacle by stripping down to their pants and breathing through a hose-pipe, two determined cavers developed some slightly more sophisticated equipment and invented the potentially lethal pursuit of cave diving.

Burt demonstrating SRT After the war, ex-service equipment and clothing were readily available and the numbers of cavers grew. The coal industry provided a source of robust electric lighting. Standard caver fashion was still woolens under a boiler suit. Since hypothermia hadn't been invented, cavers simply succumbed to lack of moral fibre, such attire was still deemed suitable. By the 1960's, however, wetsuits became available - some or these were supplied in kit form. This consisted of a roll of neoprene and a set of instructions showing how to mark it out, cut it and stitch it. Some cavers ended up with person-shaped holes in their carpets and one individual was hospitalised after gluing himself into the garment during construction. This new breed of wet-suited electrically lit caver made enormous strides and the 60's, 70's and 80's saw great achievements in all aspects of the sport. This period also saw the development of new techniques such as SRT and the emergence of specially manufactured caving equipment.

Although the number of participants has dropped in recent years, the sport remains popular and the modern caver clad in fleece undersuit, cordura oversuit, neoprene wetsocks and LED lighting is as warm and comfortable as ever. This and the constant potential for new discoveries means the future looks as intriguing as the past.

Last modified: 01 May 2013 19:19