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Dave “Wig” Irwin’s Plaque Unveiling.

By Martin Grass.

On Saturday 10th November a large team in assorted caving kit assembled at the Belfry to descend St. Cuthbert’s Swallet for the unveiling of the memorial plaque to Dave Irwin in recognition of the work he had carried out in the cave over the years and specifically the survey of the cave.

However the event goes back some months to when Dave passed away and a few of us along with the BEC committee thought it would be a great idea to place one final plaque in Cerberus Hall to commemorate Dave’s life. Already plaques to the cave’s main discoverers, Don Coase and Roy Bennett are in the hall and it was felt this would be a fitting tribute to a caver who had done in excess of 750 trips into the cave, mainly for surveying and digging purposes.

Initially we decided to have a plaque the same size as Roy’s so it could sit on the other side of Don’s and balance everything out. This should have been 12 inches by 12 inches but as we added Cave and Surveyor to the original wording of Dave Irwin and his year of birth and death Wells Stone masons changed the size to 17 inches by 17 inches without telling us. Thus when I collected it I did think it was slightly larger than what we had ordered! It was also on the slightly heavy side and when Mac weighted it we found it was 30 kilos, Dave was still giving us headaches from beyond the grave!

Mac put it in a wooden frame and it was padded out with carpet and tape slings were secured to the frame for hauling. Now all we had to do was get it down the cave in one piece. So a cunning plan was hatched, Mac, Dany, J’Rat and myself would go in and drill the holes, tidy the wall and direct operations while Greg Brock and a team of young fit cavers would carry it down the cave with us giving encouragement! As it turned out Greg carried it most of the way with it slung over one shoulder and his whole body bent over and leaning to one side. He looked like Christ carrying the cross!

Still, we had our problems. Despite Mac making a wooden frame with pre-drilled holes and Dany’s expertise in drilling straight holes, on our second visit to put the plaque on the wall the holes did not quite line up and then one bolt sheared off! Now to plan B. So on the third visit Mac and Dany drilled bigger holes and very carefully drilled holes all the way through the stone. Everything was then set in epoxy resin and Dany held the whole lot on the wall while it set as it kept slipping forward even though it was on a metal bracket that Mac had made.

On the last trip we removed the bracket and Dany cemented in the gaps and it was at last complete. Big thanks to all the cavers who helped on the various trips into the cave over a very short period of time. On the 10th November we assembled a motley crew of 49 cavers in Cerberus Hall. These ranged from old stalwarts like Pete Franklin and Mike Palmer now in his 68th year down to young Helen who is 20. It was a truly representative bunch. John Irwin, Dave’s nephew, unveiled the plaque and we toasted Dave with his favourite tipple of lager and lime. We did have a bit of a wait as Pete Glanvill, who entered the cave last, had come along with a friend of his daughter Sally, a violinist called Bridget. Pete told her that as she had been down Bakers Pit she would not have a problem with Cuthbert’s! Terrified as she was we did eventually get her to Cerberus Hall with her violin and she played a few tunes for Dave before the damp air made all the strings on her bow come off! Finally Dave’s ashes were placed in the stream and a slow exit was made. This quickened considerably once Mr Nigel had popped like a cork out of the entrance rift!

On the surface a great team had produced hot soup, Indian snacks and of course a barrel of Potholer. An excellent day was had by all and in true BEC style it was “to excess”. Big thanks to all those that made it possible, by putting up the plaque, cooking food and sending hot soup down the cave (how did you get it past Nigel in the rift?). Those in attending the unveiling underground were:- 

John Irwin, Bob Cork, Barry Lawton, Alex Jones, Alison Ball, Pete Glanvill, Sally Glanvill, Bridget and the violin, Greg Brock, Helen Brock, Martin Faulkner, Martin Webster, Pete Hellier, Phil Coles, Jake Baynes, Greg Villis, Justin Emery, Mike Palmer, Mac, Martin Grass, Cheg Chester, Darrell Insterell, Phil Romford, Pete Franklin, Alison Moody, Jamie Wonnacott, Pete Hann, Graham Price, Chrissie Price, Nigel Taylor, Butch, Andy Chamberlain, Sean Howe, Steve Neads, Estelle Sandford, Mike Wilson, Crispin Floyd, Robin Gray, Damian Butler, Trevor Hughes, Bob Smith, Chris Smart, Mary Damson, Helen Brown, Stu Gardiner, Robin Lewando, Sue Dukes, Nick Gymer

Dave Irwin, in memoriam


The unveiling of the plaque

By Sue Dukes.

On Saturday 10th November nearly 50 cavers kitted up to slither down the entrance rift of St Cuthbert’s Swallet to pay homage to their old friend, and unveil the plaque which had been placed there earlier by some stalwart club members, including the honourable hut warden (who took a nasty tumble in the Wire Rift, and as a consequence of which was unable to join the wake).  I won’t list the names of the worthy at this time, but she has a list, which will no doubt go into the BEC annals for all time.

I met Wig, who was never called Dave, many years ago, when I was 23.  We frequently jaunted down Cuthbert’s to take measurements or draw profiles of passage for his long-term project to produce a book on the cave. We also shared a love of music. Those who knew Wig will recall he was an avid aficionado of classical music; a pianist himself, he also had an awe-inspiring collection of classical vinyl records (which I hope are going to a good home). At that time we also made a monthly trip into the Old Vic in Bristol to get some culcher (and the odd beer or two).  He had a kind nature, an amusing take on life, and modestly referred to the part of Concorde he designed as “that fussy little bit which fitted somewhere under the wing”.

Cavers, according to Wig, come in three types: troglobites (cave dwellers), troglophiles (surface dwellers who venture into the dark), and accidental visitors (washed in by water). On this momentous of trips to commemorate Wig’s life and his dedication to the exploration of Cuthbert’s there was an abundance of all three.  There were a few surviving troglobites long past breeding age; many surface dwellers gasping their way through almost-familiar passage (don’t I remember that from some otherwhen?); and a couple of accidental visitors.  Although there is a strict rule that no novice cavers should attempt this potentially dangerous cave, exceptions were made, notably for Wig’s nephew John, who made some of us experienced older cavers look like geriatrics (shoot the bloke who said, ‘we are’), and for Glanvill’s young fiddle-playing friend who was pressed-ganged into service to play the Last Post or something at the unveiling of the plaque.  She bravely made her way, with some help, through a cave he had blithely told her was like Goatchurch with a few ladders.

Safety rules were adhered to in a loose fashion, the diverse adventurers being divided into groups with leaders.  Some stout souls also volunteered to man the entrance, taking names of all who went down and eventually, with much struggling and cursing, came up again, according to the laws of nature.  We managed not to lose or damage a single trog, so well done to the organisers and leaders – talking of which, never have so many Cuthbert’s leaders been spotted together at the same time, leading rise to the supposition that they are not a dying breed as previously suspected, but simply shy.  Had there been a problem a complement of MRO personnel, of course, were on hand, but I have to mention they all scarpered out fast after the ceremony, to get to the barrel… by the time the last weary souls stumbled into the Belfry gasping for a drink in the late afternoon the barrel was empty and the food gobbled.

A reporting team from Mendip TV was also on hand.  Their cameraman gamely got his civvies wet and muddy in true reporting fashion, wedging himself above the entrance rift to catch the flavour of cavers slithering into the dark.  Some fairly tasteful footage of the event can be seen on MendipTV.com.   I took my camera down, and managed to snatch a few passable shots of the ageing fauna in its various guises.  I did notice other cavers flashing here and there, so there might be a few more interesting shots in the offing.

Everyone gathered in Cerberus Hall where Wig’s plaque joined that of Roy Bennett and Don Coase, apparently the last, which will do so.  While we waited and waited and waited for the fiddler to arrive, we did good justice to the BEC song, which echoed around Cuthbert’s in a remarkably church-like fashion. (It’s a shame the only time caving songs seem to be sung these days is at the BEC dinner or funerals.  Remember those Saturday nights:  Biddle on the piano or Simon on the box, and Ben’s perpetual moan about ‘they words, they ’orrible words?’)

Eventually Pete and the bone-weary fiddler arrived.  Exhausted and hot, she slid the top of her boiler suit down, and Alison, to the annoyance of certain older male members, lent her a belt to preserve modesty as the garment succumbed instantly to the pull of gravity.  The fiddle emerged from its cocoon of bubble wrap, and the last of the lager and lime, being Wig’s choice of drink (he wasn’t perfect), was handed around.  Eulogies were spoken, personal silences were observed, and then as the fiddle began to echo melodiously around the hall we raised a toast to Wig:  caver, friend, and Cuthberts’ leading authority.  At which point the fiddle bow immediately began to disintegrate, to our great amusement.  It was Wig having a last laugh.

The trip back out took a long time as the logistics of 50 people in varying stages of fitness did justice to the entrance rift.  My small party didn’t hurry back, but took a leisurely detour via Quarry Corner, to High Chamber and the cave pearls.  We still arrived at the foot of ladder chamber behind a queue of rapidly chilling bodies, and tucked ourselves into Pulpit to wait it out.  Eventually we, the last five, clambered back into dusk to be greeted by some very merry bodies who were surprised to see us, having assumed everyone was out half an hour previously.

Thereafter, everyone repaired to the village hall for beer, the auction, nosh, stomp (good job most of us are already deaf), and more beer.

Sue Dukes