The history books tell us the golden age of caving, when Yorkshire's great open systems were waiting for first descents, ended in 1930. My first exploits commenced just 20 years later in 1950, and in their peculiar way now seem like a second golden age.
Summer. 1951, in the Mendips with Cambridge University Caving Club. The Mendip caving scene appeared to be ruled over firmly but kindly by Herbert. E. Balch, the pioneer of Mendip caving who had discovered Swildons and Eastwater at the beginning of the century. We paid him a courtesy call at his museum in Wells, and I proudly showed him my new helmet (that became soft and soggy when wet) complete with an electric bicycle lamp tied on to the front. He told me that electric lights were not suitable for caving as they cast treacherous shadows and candles were far better. A second telling off followed for having nailed boots (modern Vibrams had not been invented then) as they would leave scratch marks on the rocks.
We settled in at the Wessex Club hut at Beechbarrow (overnight fee 1/-) and on a hot Sunday morning cycled to Swildons, armed with some enormous Wessex rope ladders with wooden rungs. They were real good ladders, with rungs wide enough to get both feet side by side on the same rung and knobbles on each rung end.
We only needed enough tackle for the forty foot pitch (later washed away in the great 1968 flood) and the twenty foot, but it weighed a ton.
We had Priddy village, Swildons and all of Mendip to ourselves, with not another caver in sight, and that on a summer Sunday morning. I gather a crowd control officer is often necessary at Swildons on weekends nowadays.
Our only information about Swildons was a very small scale survey in Balch's classic book "Mendip, its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters". We staggered and struggled to sump 1, often having to unroll the huge ladder coils and re-roll them again as they repeatedly jammed. Surfacing again 7 hours later, we proudly wrote up our exploit in the Wessex Club log book. Nowadays, this trip, I gather is comfortably done in one hour.
On later Mendip visits, the second Wessex hut at Eastwater Cavern was used (overnight fee 6d). This was simply a converted chicken hut with bunks and primus stoves, but no luxuries like running water or toilets, but it was very central for all the major Mendip caves, particularly as bicycles were our only transport.
The bitterly cold Christmas of 1951 was spent here for a determined dig at Hunter's hole, behind the Hunter's Lodge Inn. The landlord, Ben Dors (father, I think, of the present landlord) took a friendly interest in our excavation and on several occasions staggered through the snowdrifts from the pub to the dig with pints of scrumpy cider and crisps on a tray to, as he told us, "keep up our strength". The scrumpy gave us a temporary burst of energy and warmth, rapidly followed by worse shivering and shaking. We abandoned Hunter's Hole just short of what was later found to be the breakthrough point to the present system.
Priddy Village's New Inn was then managed by the elderly brothers Sylvester and Oliver Speed, both of whom had known the lead miners who worked the mines around 1890. They were full of tales of miners entering large natural cave systems but whenever we tried to tie them down to an exact location, their memories started to fail.
Thus were held several weeklong caving expeditions covering all major systems and a few digs. Total cost, from home to Mendip and back home again around £3 per week.