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The Shaves Of The Mendip Hills

                 Yer Ed makes some surprising discoveries about caves and beards.


One of the most frequently asked questions by those who do not occupy the underground realm of caving is why are there so many beards? Today, beards and caving are almost synonymous and indeed one only has to frequent the various watering holes populated by those who indulge in that passion to see that beards are far from dying out – as some have wrongly claimed (see Haver’s The Shaved Men of Caving for a description of such misconceptions). It seems there is a long tradition of not shaving in the pursuits of a subterranean nature. Indeed, one may even consider it an act of freethought rebellion to indulge in wanton facial hair expression and rightly so. There is nothing more liberating than being one of the few who venture where the many fear to squeeze bedecked in enough facial hair to startle itinerant spinsters. 

The tradition is thought to have started with Gough whose magnificent facial hair was the talk of Cheddar. Scholars of this subject though rightly claim that beard wearing predates the great man by at least a century. Antiquarian and bon viveur John Pilsbury sported an enormous beard; one that was often reported as being ‘like the sail of a mighty galleon as she battled the storms of the Cape of Good Hope’. Pilsbury was fond of exploring the region in all weathers and a brisk southwester whipping across the Mendips was hardly likely to deter him. While regaling rude mechanicals of his adventures in inns of the area he often claimed that when caught out at night such was the enormity of his whiskers that he could curl up beneath them and sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that…‘the rain could nought but penetrate the resplendent outpourings of my chin.’ 

Of course it soon became clear to Pilsbury that crawling through the tunnels and orifices of the Mendips was becoming an arduous task hampered as he was by the size of his mat. Although on one occasion he was deeply thankful that he had ignored his wife’s protestations to remove the wretched beast. In short he owed his life to it. While negotiating a squeeze he popped out ten fathoms above a deep abyss (which cave this is in no one is absolutely sure) but was saved from falling after his beard snagged on a knobbly protuberance of stal.

In his diary of 1756 he wrote:

I fell out, evacuated from the perilous opening, to what I deemed was my certain doom. Had I not been in possession of the fibres of my chin I would have that day met my maker. The knobbulous rockform had halted thereon my plummet and to it I made vigorous blessings as well as to my follicles…

Pilsbury spent three long days suspended over the deep pitch, turning lazily at the end of his beard until “certaine men of Priddy” rescued him. While waiting, he occupied his time in the long hours conjuring up caving techniques centred on the use of the beard. Predominant of which was SBT or the Single Beard Technique.  On paper and from his brief experience of it SBT seemed a novel and workable exploring tool but it was to prove, in reality, an untenable idea. Pilsbury finally met his doom during a test run swing off a steeple of rock in The Trousers of the Saint passage in Ball’s Opening just north of Wells. His beardless body was found wedged in the Bishop’s Nuisance Thrutch, now renamed, in his honour, Pilsbury’s Rip.   

His rescued beard, until quite recently, used to hang in the back of a cupboard in Wells museum. The identity of precisely which cupboard though has now been completely forgotten and the item lost to history.  

Another famous Mendip beard was Ezekiel ‘Thatch’ Whackery who facial hair reminded many of a map of Africa. Not only it must be mentioned due to its likeness of that continent but to its sheer size. Thatch had started his career as something of a cur of low moral fibre working near the coast, not far from present day Weston super Mare, smuggling barrels of brandy and other fancy goods in his whiskers. He even, if what was famously reported is true, carried two gentlemen avoiding a gambling debt, to Swindon without once letting them tumble from his face. It can only be assumed they clung tenaciously to his chin throughout the entire journey hidden from the authorities under his voluminous beard. 

Thatch, who incidentally was the first to explore Dripping Hole near West Harptree, had the ability to roll his beard into something that resembled a thick rope from which he could suspend other fellow explorers – in essence a human belay, or use it to scale certain rock formations in the various caves he ventured into. Beard historians (Or Barb-arians to give them their proper name) have rightly noted that Thatch had inadvertently stumbled upon the SBT independently.  Some have disputed this. Although Thatch came along some twenty years after Pilsbury, there is no evidence the men ever met, Thatch spent long hours talking about caves to elderly men of the area – some of whom had rescued Pilsbury’s body from the Bishop’s Nuisance Thrutch. So it is not without historical veracity that Thatch knew something of SBT.

Either way he became the most famous exemplar of SBT. Scandal dogged his later years when it was claimed that Thatch had returned to his old smuggling ways. In June of 1791 he was apprehended leaving a tobacconists with a hundredweight of rough shag lodged under his chin. He was incarcerated in the local stocks for a week and his beard was cut off in punishment. (It later appeared in an auction house in London where it sold for thirty guineas)

Further scandal would shock the caving world, in the early part of the 19th century, when a series of accidents revealed an underground market of fake beards. Explorers, usually from beyond the borders of Somerset, would purchase chin adornments in the mistaken belief they would aid them in their subterranean quests. It turned out that a shipment of substandard glue from the Far East had rendered the items useless as well as potentially dangerous. The Sheriff of Somerset launched an inquiry and formed a group of facial hair police called The Fuzz to track down and punish purveyors of pseudobarbafollicae.  It was due to his overwhelming success that even genuine caving beards fell into obsolescence - even those distributed to women - without which they were unable to explore the netherworld of Mendip. Thankfully that dogmatically sexist period was brief.

                                                ‘Beard madam?’

                                                            Monty Python’s Life of Brian       

Wetheral Fudge who caved once then retired unmoving to his bed for the remaining sixty years of his life was the last of the Great Beards of the Golden Age. Incidentally it was said that when he died rigor vigorous set in such was his lack of activity over that long period. His beard was the last of the greats to venture beneath the fields of the Mendips albeit on a once in a lifetime excursion. For a while, after his demise his beard hung in a Wells public house above a dartboard. Eventually the wretched thing began to stink up the place due to an inordinate amount of discarded ale and foodstuffs lodged in its hairs. It was laid to rest next to Fudge, beard and one time caver united once more.  

In the early and mid part of the 20th Century the beard in caving circles went into decline due in part to the shaves of the Mendip Hills but thankfully in more recent times the association of caving with facial hair has once more been re-affirmed. Balch sported a fine moustache but never went for the complete Monty.

Anyone interested in beard fieldwork can do worse than visit the Hunters Lodge Inn wherein any number of beards can be espied. One beard watcher (known as a whisker) went undiscovered for a whole month having taken up residence in a hide in the corner of the pub.

It seems that caves and beards are synonymous and who would have it any other way.

Long may they grow.  

See Celia Canth’s By A Whisker for further reading.

One famous Banwell caver, William Beard, actually changed his surname by deed poll in honour of facial hair. His original name was Stubble. – Jrat