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The Last Laugh - A Major Discovery at Hunters' Lodge Inn Sink!

by Tony Jarratt
with photographs by Carmen Haskell (WCC)

" ... the Rock had been blown 45 feet further in than where I was last year ... " & what is further, Gunpowder, Sledges, hard Labour & Time must discover. "

R. Oliver "Journal of a voyage to England" 1776-77. (Cave digging with bang in Peak Cavern, Derbyshire - 225 years ago!)

Part One - Update to 25th June

Since the last report in BB 513 work has continued regularly, and almost exclusively, at this site, the Wednesday Night Team having now expanded its title to the Wednesday Night, Sunday Lunchtime, and Monday Morning Team.

During the first two weeks of April three more bangs saw us at the bottom of the "10ft rift", giving a 7ft fixed steel ladder climb down to another downdip bedding plane. The 1st birthday of the dig passed quietly and uncelebrated on the 9th of April.

By the 24th of June another 24 bangs had been detonated here to gain some 30ft of descending passage following the route of the stream.  A nice touch was added to the history of this amusing dig by the sale of much of the spoil heap to passers-by for use as rockery stone or hardcore!  This has helped offset the increasing cost of the explosives.  Possible future changes in storage and transport regulations may preclude the use of bang altogether and so we are making the most of it while the going is good. The skip hauling system has been improved and a strong, enthusiastic, and reasonably regular team has ensured good progress - resolutely putting up with the often soul-destroying job of spoil removal.

The superb ceramic "Bertie" plaque sculpted by Ben Holden has unfortunately fallen foul of the winter frosts so Ben has "done it to excess" and moulded a new one from solid lead - apparently his diving weights!  This has been painted in the Club colours and Araldited in position in the entrance shaft.  Ceramic copies of this circular plaque can be obtained from Ben via the writer.

Roger Dors has provided a large expanse of hard standing in the field above the dig, cleared and graded to perfection by Mr. Nigel and Jake of Mendip Demrock (free advert Nigel). This should provide ample parking space for the tourist hordes when the dig breaks through (see Part Two).  All our smaller spoil is now used as infill in the tractor ruts leading to the Hunters' Hole field, while the saleable stone is stored behind the car park wall.  This hard standing was recently put to use when a wedding party marquee was erected on it resulting in the face worker at the time being entertained underground by live music filtering down from above.  This, and Snab's 60th birthday party in the adjacent back room were two missed opportunities to fire off large charges!

To go along with the theme of this particularly well sited dig it should be recorded that Trevor uses beer barrel spiles for plugging shotholes to be used at a later date and that John Walsh has gone out of his way to drink vast quantities of wine purely in order to provide corks for wedging the bang wire into cracks in the passage sides - a truly dedicated digger.

The occasion of "Mendip Caving 2002," 16th June, provided the opportunity for more BEC excess as an underground explosion was actually filmed live from about 10 feet away and broadcast to an audience supping their ale in the Pub Function Room! This was made possible by Bob Smith who constructed a video camera inside an Oldham headset (see separate article) and Prew, who provided a l2v lamp. For a millisecond the assembled were presented with far better viewing than the World Cup as Roger Dors connected up the bang wire.  After the initial flash of the detonation a blank screen was expected as the camera and lamp were disintegrated by flying rock, but applause rent the air as the sight of swirling bang fumes appeared on the computer screen.  The undamaged camera was still in position but the lamp, also intact, had been blown over by the blast.  This may be a Mendip first and was much appreciated by the gathering of armchair diggers who donated 15 pounds to the bang fund.

Before this climax the camera had been worn on a helmet by Bev who filmed Trevor clearing spoil and drilling shotholes, and Alex hammering boulders and stacking full bags.  Bob then took over to film the writer charging the holes with detonating cord.  It was probably just as well that sound was unavailable judging by Trev's expression on returning from the constricted end of the dig.


Looking up dip in the largest Dart of the blasted out Pub Crawl.

Earlier that day BCRA Secretary, John Wilcock, had once again spent some time dowsing in the area as part of his ongoing project on his occasional visits to Mendip.  His results indicate an underground drainage coming from the southern Stockhill area, under H.L.I.Sink, Hunters' Hole and Eighteen Acre Swallet to join the St. Cuthbert's Swallet streamway somewhere below the SE comer of 100 Acres field.  After picking up an inlet from Tusker's dig at Templeton Pot, this passage itself joins the combined Swildon's/Eastwater drainage just before Wookey Hole.  Only time will tell if his predictions are correct (but Mad Phil's latest surveys seem to disprove this).  Hopefully Phil Short's timely discovery of the way on in Swildon's 12 may soon shed some light on this (as, indeed, may our own future explorations!).  John's dowsing map and summary are appended to this article and any queries should be addressed to him.

On the 22nd of June a large horse leech was found in a puddle halfway down the cave.  It was later liberated and after an evening of being admired in the bar was released at Waldegrave Pond.  Its seemingly shrunken size on capture was explained when its fatter companion was fished out a few days later!  Yet another of these beasties was later rescued by John and we are perplexed as to their source of origin, but convinced that they are washed in after heavy rain.  Lots of work was put in this week to push along the low bedding plane and narrow rift at the end in the hope of entering a possible enlargement which could be seen ahead.

Part Two - The First Breakthrough

On the 24th of June the writer was clearing bang debris from the RH side of the bedding plane when it was realised that just beyond there was an open rift passage full of loose boulders with a c.5ft drop to the floor and boulder filled void above.  This rift apparently continued upstream and may be the prophesised parallel waterway.  Attempts to gain access were thwarted by movement of the boulders so this passage was used as a convenient spoil dump and attention was transferred to the continuation of the more solid bedding plane in the hope of reaching a seemingly boulder free extension which could be glimpsed ahead.  Having reached real, open cave only 14½ months after the start of the dig it was with a sense of both satisfaction and relief that the writer headed out for a celebratory pint and to inform Roger and Jacquie that they now owned twice as many caves as Robin Main!  A return was made in the evening to fire the final charge to enlarge the bedding plane.  As much use was made of a crowbar to enter the passage, and to keep the dig theme, the extension was provisionally named The Bar Room - but this was later changed to Bar Steward Passage for reasons which will become obvious!

The following evening saw the writer, Trev, Alex and Mad Phil clearing the spoil from this bang so that a recce. of the find could be made in preparation for the Wednesday night push.  Where previously was an impassable bedding slot there was now a wide and roomy opening into the side of a roughly 5ft square passage heading down dip for some 20ft and boulder choked upstream after about 10ft.  Directly below the entry point an open rift at least 15 ft deep issued a strong draught and seemed to be the way on - possibly cutting under the boulder choked down dip passage.  Unfortunately, the far wall and ceiling of the extension were composed of "hanging deaths" and it could not be entered safely (so Mad Phil went in for a look!).  Luckily the LH wall of the breakthrough point is solid and the open rift in the floor of the bedding plane, which is directly above the hole in the floor of Bar Steward Passage, was banged on the 28th of June.  Next day the writer and Adrian Hole were able to squeeze down into the large, boulder filled passage below to find it to be a veritable death trap! The way on seems to be under the loose boulder floor in which several holes reveal voids below at least 15ft deep. By somehow engineering a route downwards this will eventually give us a sporting and occasionally very wet climb of at least 20ft.  Bar Steward Passage itself will come in handy as a spoil dump so hauling to the surface may eventually be a thing of the past.  In the meantime a lot of loose rock, purposely brought down from the ceiling of Bar Steward Passage will be dragged out to the rockery rock pile.  A mud choked phreatic tube leading straight ahead above the holes in the floor was tentatively examined and seemed to be the safest option.  The whole passage appears to have developed along a fault which explains its instability.

The depth of the cave must now be around 75ft and looks to be on course for going under the rubbish and stone filled dewpond situated in a depression adjacent to the roadside wall. It is assumed that Bar Steward Passage brings in the rest of the stream which sinks in the rift below the entrance shaft but it must be deep under the boulder floor and cannot yet be reached.

The now scaffolded route through the boulders heading into the mud choked tube

A few days earlier, on the 26th of June, what we thought to be the last 60 bags of spoil had been hauled out to the surface where a bottle of pretend Champagne, courtesy of Jim Smart, was rapidly diminishing in volume, and the following day Mad Phil, assisted by Dominic and Michelle, re-surveyed the cave.  Martin Mills's original survey notes for Hunters Hole were generously loaned to us by their creator (who, coincidentally is currently resident in the Pub) and on the 27th June these were tied in to the H.L.I. Sink with a surface survey by Phil and the writer.  These notes have been computerised by Phil so that the relationship between the two caves can be studied.  The surprisingly eastern position of Phil's last survey point was confirmed on the 1st of July by Brian and Brenda Prewer using radio location to fix the writer's transmitter position at the breakthrough point despite much interference from the adjacent electricity pole and transformer.

To date some 1400 loads of spoil have been removed from this dig and we are into large, open, draughting and extremely promising passage - albeit after a lot of hard work.  From now on we have the added stress of working our way down through the loose boulder ruckle so progress will inevitably be slow. Some work has been done at the mud choke at mid height in Bar Steward Passage and on the 15th of July a view of open, draughting passage was obtained.  Nearby an old peanut bag and piece of crisp packet were found - 2d and 6d respectively.  These probably date from the early 60s and indicate an open, though doubtless tiny, route to the surface at this time.  This may have been via Pub Crawl or the open rift below the entrance shaft. A good supply of scaffold poles and clips is being built up underground and we will soon be on the scrounge for more cement.  Vintage BEC members will be amused to know that Alfie's Hole may be above the assumed route of this cave!

Part Three - The Second Breakthrough

Four digging sessions from the 13th to the 16th of July gained some ten feet of progress in the muddy tube and in the process turned HLIS from Mendip's cleanest dig into one of its filthiest.  It also verified the BEC curse of the "Reverse Midas Touch" - everything we dig turns to shit!  At the end a view could be gained into open, draughting passage with a thick calcite floor preventing easy access from below.  A couple of sticks of gelignite were employed to solve this problem and on Wednesday the 17th, after a bit of squalid clearing, the way on was open.  A squeeze over a gonadcrunching rock led to some 20ft of dipping, hands and knees passage with a solid wall on the left and a calcited boulder choke on the right.  Ahead lay bigger blackness.  The committing route into the extension was passed by the writer and Gwilym but proved to be too tight for Trev, too difficult for uni-limbed Alex and too dark for Geoff, whose lamp had failed.

The Happy Hour Highway Extensions


The lithe and lucky duo found themselves entering a large, square passage with a massive boulder slope soaring up above Bar Steward Passage.  This was climbed for about 60ft, through horrendously poised, tottering monoliths to a point some 25ft from the surface and under Roger's new car park!  There is a lot of empty space just below the field here, the passage being 20ft wide by 6ft high with some fine yellow banded curtains on the ceiling.  It has been radio-located by Prew, assisted by Phil Hendy who was distinctly heard bashing a rock on the surface!  There were plans to drill a borehole into this area to aid the airflow and provide video camera access, but depth maybe a problem.

Downdip this amazing and totally unexpected bore passage was followed for about 120ft to a choke of clay and rock completely blocking the way on.  The draught, though, gives hope for a bypass to this.  The dimensions of "Happy Hour Highway" are on average 12-18ft wide by 6ft high.  There are hundreds of pure white straws and pale yellow "carrots" and large areas of ca1cited floor, drip pockets, crystals and flowstone walls.  A marked route has been laid using 9mm static cord donated by Andy Elson and photographs have been taken - a particularly fine set being captured by Carmen Haskell using a digital camera.  Large, broken stalagmites on the floor, big phreatic ceiling pockets and roof tubes, together with the size and general nature of the place testify to its extreme age - contemporary with Talus Four in White Pit? On first impressions it would seem to be far older than St. Cuthbert's Swallet and Hunters' Hole is probably a mere inlet.  The current end is well over 80ft below the bottom of the infilled Alfie's Hole and lies directly below the road (see map).  Its continuation may be under Southfield Farm. Watch this space!!!

Looking left at the end – briefly dug but abandoned due to size of the collapsed roof slabs blocking the dig.

The site of current efforts along the right hand wall of the collapse.  A tunnel has been dug through sand and gravels passing beneath the formations.  Some 8ft along the dig has turned left and downwards beneath the roof and into well compacted sand. gravel and boulders

Extreme care should be taken throughout this passage.  Some unique formations have already been destroyed by the inattention of the diggers, including the writer.  Unobvious floor deposits are particularly vulnerable and the tapes should not be crossed for any reason - photographers take note. If damage continues this extension could easily be resealed!

There is great scope for scientific work in this cave, particularly regarding its age and geological formation.  UBSS geologist Andy Farrant has visited and is currently giving this some thought. Surveying and photography is continuing and the terminal choke is being dug, as is the choke below Bar Steward Passage.


WARNING. Following a very wet trip on the 10th of July (shades of 1968!) John Walsh contracted an unpleasant virus initially diagnosed as Weil's Disease.  Luckily it wasn't and he is back on the wine but there is every chance of its presence here and should visitors get flu-like symptoms between 3 and 19 days after a wet trip here they should immediately see their doctor and advise him of this.  All cavers should carry an NCA Weil' s Disease information card - available from the writer - as any wet Mendip cave is likely to be infected with the leptospirosis bacterium.  In addition, with the current prevailing weather conditions the levels of carbon dioxide in the extension are uncomfortably high and hence any physical exertion is rapidly exhausting.  The party size should thus be kept small.  

A happy man and some of his archaeological discoveries


More views of the extensions

Additions to the Team and Acknowledgements

Matt Davey, Richard Dolby, Danny Burnett, Julie Hesketh (MCG,GSG), John Wilcock (BCRA - dowsing), Brian and Brenda Prewer (lighting and radio-location), Michelle Lloyd-Hopkins, Dominic Gane, Martin "Milche" Mills (SMCC - Hunters' Hole Survey), Sean Morgan (ropes and boulder nets), Nick Mitchell, Alison Moody (WCC), Jonathon Davies (GSG), Guy Morgan, Tony Boycott, Geoff Wild, Thomas Arbenz (SNT and Bat Products, Switzerland), Andy Elson (cord donation), Jayne Stead (GSG), Richard Carey (MCG), Carmen Haskell (WCC), Phil Hendy (WCC radio-location), Sean Howe, Martin Grass (CSCC - conservation tape), Mike Wilson, Jim Smart, and Andy Farrant (UBSS).

Selected References

Hunters Lodge Inn Sink

Belfry Bulletins Nos. 448 (Feb 1989); 511 (July 2001); 513 (Sprin 2002)  (A.R. Jarratt. )

MSS Logbooks, Survey Notes. (A.R. Jarratt, T. Hughes, A. Livingstone, P. Rowsell).

Hunters Hole

BEC Caving Report No.6 - Some smaller Mendip Caves, (B.M. Ellis), Oct. 1961.

SMCC Jnl. Series 5. No.10 - A Survey of Hunters' Hole, Central Mendip, (M.T. Mills), Aug. 1975.

The Story of Priddy, (Alan Thomas), 1989, pp 59-60.

Limestones and Caves of the Mendip Hills (D.1. Smith & D.P. Drew), 1975, pp 122, 124, 128, 307.

Mendip. The Complete Caves (N. Barrington & W. Stanton), 3rd edn. 1977. Mendip Underground (D.J. Irwin & A.R. Jarratt), 1999, pp 97-98.

Alfie's Hole

BEC Caving Report No.6 - Some smaller Mendip Caves, (S.J. Collins), Oct. 1961.

Mendip. The Complete Caves (N. Barrington & W. Stanton), 3rd edn. 1977.