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18 Months Hard Labour - Gas St." Sanctimonious Passage.  Hunters' Hole.

by Tony Jarratt

(This article was written in 1989, but was never published.  It relates the history of a desperate dig in this cave between March 1987 and September 1988 and is relevant to the current exploration in this area - particularly Tony Blick's dowsing results!)

Sanctimonious Passage, discovered by the BEC on the 13th of July 1958, is situated 2.5m up the south west wall of the Railway Tunnel some 5.2m from the bottom of Main Pitch.  38m of sporting downdip passage leads via the once 5.5m deep Rover Pot to what was a choked rift.  The Pot is now 0.6m less deep due to digging spoil and the rift is no longer choked.  Previous digging at the rift was mainly by Alan Thomas and friends in Feb/March 1968. They banged the small hole at the then end of the passage to uncover a 10cm wide by c.6m long rift after which their dig was abandoned.

Being the deepest point in the cave at 52.4m, it was examined in October 1985 by Tim Large and the writer who were looking for a new project.  Nothing further was done until March 7th 1987 when Martin Bishop, who also had an interest in the site, joined the writer, Steve Milner and Richard Stevenson on the first digging and blasting trip of the project.  Some 6m of narrow, outward draughting rift led off from the bottom of Rover Pot.  This was banged by Rich and cleared the following day by a large team, resulting in 2m of progress.  The following weekend Nigel Taylor banged the dig (see, I told you it was an old write up!) followed by Tony Boycott on the 12th of April.  Further banging trips by the writer, Brian Prewer and Fred Davies - with clearing sessions by most of the active Belfryites - resulted in some 10m of passable cave by the 5th of July when an open hole could be seen in the ceiling of the rift some 2m ahead.  On this trip it was noticed that the draught was now inwards.  One more bang enabled the team to reach this hole, but it could not be pushed due to awkward wedged boulders.  The first signs of lack of oxygen made themselves felt as all on this trip suffered from "bang heads".

Fred laid a further charge midweek and Snablet passed the remains of the boulders to enter 5m of decorated crawl ending in a further blockage. 1.5m of open stuff could be seen ahead and there was an encouraging echo.   After further clearing, on the 18th of July the visible end was reached and two small holes noted, through a false floor above the passage, which revealed a view into a clean washed bedding passage above.  The false floor was banged.

The following day the writer squeezed up through the resulting "Manhole" to gain a view along c.8m of open bedding passage, well decorated with small straws and helictites (now destroyed).  This could not be entered due to the writer's leg length but Steve got in by removing his wellies.  He pushed a further 3m until stopped by a low squeeze but could see a further 6-7m. The air conditions were by now particularly bad with the carbon dioxide content being very high.  Another bang by Nigel (of reduced scale in 1987!) enabled Snablet to reach the same squeeze but not pass it.  All again retreated suffering from exhaustion and headaches.

Pete Eckford banged next and after leaving the fumes to clear for a week the writer removed enough debris to pass the squeeze and crawl downdip, through another very tight section for some 6m to be confronted by what appeared to be a sump.  With breathing rate and panic both rapidly rising he retreated backwards and uphill as quickly as possible, hoping desperately not to pass out before passing the squeeze! Both he and Pete were very badly affected by the bad air and it took some time (and beer) to recover.

In an attempt to pass the supposed sump, Steve and Pat Cronin entered the CO2 filled section using diving gear and mini bottles on the 8th August 1987 but were defeated by the final squeeze and could do little but empty the contents of their three bottles to try and improve the atmosphere.

On the 14th of August yet another banging trip was made to widen the passage immediately beyond the Manhole.  The results were checked on the 12th of September by the writer and Tom Chapman who found a vast pile of gravel awaiting them.  This was cleared aside and the final squeeze passed to find that the supposed sump was actually a 3m long duck with about 15cm of airspace. With some trepidation this was pushed to emerge in 12m of small but well decorated phreatic tube ending in a flowstone blocked comer with the tell-tale echo of more passage beyond.  Sadly, the crystal pools and straws in the new section did not survive this exploration.  On this trip the air was relatively fresh so a planned bang was cancelled in the hope that all the rubble in the dig could be cleared while conditions were good.

This was carried out during two trips on the 10th of October and the 21st of November with the assistance of Cardiff University and Worcester cavers, some 20 sledge loads of spoil being dragged out and dumped at Rover Pot.  On the 19th of December the flowstone blocked comer was banged.  This was cleared and another charge fired on the 5th of January and it was now realised that the bad air problem seemed to have been resolved - probably due to passage dimensions being greater following the clearing sessions. A further charge was fired on the 23rd of January and the unpleasant 3m duck converted into a muddy grovel by Rich Payne.  The water from the duck could be heard flowing away into the distance along the 1.5m by 13cm wide rift at the end of the dig.

Next day 2m of progress was made after a clearing session and another kilo of bang fired at the end. This was found to have had very little result on the next visit on February 6th 1988, so another kilo was set off. Appropriately, on February 13th it was found that the last charge had misfired so a new detonator was attached and duly fired.  A week later half of the original bang was still in existence!  Another half kilo was added in the hope that the "Curse of Sanctimonious" had worn off.

No such luck.  On the 27th February two fresh detonators and yet another kilo were laid among the stubborn and growing pile of bang lurking at the face and the lot was fired with a very satisfying thump.  On the 16th of March the writer found to his relief that at last the place was safe but with poor results and so another kilo was evaporated.

This was checked out four days later when a visiting Wessex team came down on a "works outing". Due to foul air this was a quick trip with another kilo being fired at the end and yet another, on a separate wire, being laid on the squeeze just before the duck to make life easier on future trips.

Four more banging and clearing trips were made up to the 11th of June during which 2m of passage was gained at the end and the offending squeeze removed by Martin after chiselling away the shattered rock.  On the last of these visits Steve and Snablet surveyed the extension using a Fibron tape and Suunto compass for a length of 37m but unfortunately found the air conditions to have once more deteriorated.

Meanwhile, on the 14th of May the diggers were treated to a display of dowsing by Tony Blick of the Craven Pothole Club.  Not knowing anything about the cave he successfully traced the known passages and then followed Sanctimonious to a junction with a supposedly 5m wide passage at well over 35m depth which would appear to be the continuation of the Railway Tunnel.  He suggested that this passage descends steeply and there is water present in the form of pools or a small stream.  (Although this surmised passage was presumably not far from the current end of Hunters' Hole - time having erased the memory of its position - it fits perfectly with the Happy Hour Highway extensions in Hunters' Lodge Inn Sink.  At  this time of year the stream may well have been flowing).

The writer checked out the bang results on June 17th and found them wanting so returned the following week with Mark "Gonzo" Lumley to clear and fire 1½ kilos.  On the 1st July they returned to lay another kilo - the bad air making it a quick trip. Another charge was fired two weeks later and on the 22nd of July open passage was entered up to waist level! On the 13th of August this squeeze was banged and left for two weeks when the breakthrough came at last on the 27th and a 2.45m deep pot was descended into 10m of well decorated and relatively large passage ending in a low, mud choked crawl.  This was opened up to Snablet size and 6m of muddy rift entered ending in another miserable looking mud and rock choke.  The bad air here encouraged a swift exit.

The writer returned to this unpleasant spot on the 5th of September and, after stabilising the spoil heap before the last crawl using mud filled sandbags, went to the bitter end. The crawl was now half full of water and the air conditions at the end were atrocious.  A view through the fist sized hole at the end revealed either a small pool or sump a metre ahead.

In view of the extreme danger inherent in working here in the present conditions (1988) it has been decided to suspend digging over the winter months in the hope that the air improves.   There is really no hope of using bang at the end as it would prove fatal to the next party down.

So ends - hopefully temporarily - the painful saga of almost exactly eighteen months of digging and blasting.  Though all part of Sanctimonious Passage the squeeze down into the 61 metres or so of the extension now bears a metal road sign (pinched from Newtown, Mid-Wales) which is both nickname and warning to the unaware: Gas St.

(As far as I know the place hasn't been visited since - hardly surprising!  It sounds just like Mad Phil's cup of tea).

The Diggers

1968 - Alan Thomas, Colin Priddle, Keith Franklin and Phil Coles.

1985-1988 - Rich Stevenson, Steve Milner, Tony Jarratt, Martin Bishop (Pegasus CC), Mark Lumley, Pete "Snablet" Mcnab, John Chew, Happy and Viv (Royal Marines), Nigel Taylor, Tom Chapman, Robin Brown, Mike Wilson (Keynsham EG), Tony Boycott, Andy Middleton, Phil Provis, Richard Neville-Dove, Pete Hopkins, Gary Jago, Tony?, Brian Prewer, Fred Davies (WCC), Keith Bentham (Eldon PC), Steve? (EPC), Phil Romford, Alan Jeffreys (GSG), Kevin Gurner, Nick Gymer, Pat Cronin, Pete Eckford, Lisa Taylor, Andy Sparrow, Rich Stevens, Brian van Luipen, Hugh Penny, Jane and Phil (Cardiff UCC), Rich Payne, Graham Wilton-Jones, Duncan Price, Brian Gilbert, Chris Proctor (Devon SS), Graham "Jake" Johnson (WCC), Nick Pollard (WCC), Geoff Newton (WCC), Steve ?, Jon Shaw (OS) and Stuart Laing.

Acknowledgements

Shepton Mallet Caving Club for permission to reproduce the Hunters Hole survey.  (This included Stem Passage, discovered by Jim Rands and Pete Hann of the Wessex and the Sanctimonious Passage/Gas St. extension which should be taken as BCRA Grade 2 and will hopefully be resurveyed one day).