Cambridge Underground 1994 pp 27-30

Bristol - Armpit of the Cornish Peninsula

By Julian Todd

The UBSS manifests itself to the CUCC in the library cupboard in the form of the indescribably learned 'Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society'. Since I have been a member of UBSS I have had nothing to do with it; proceedings is mainly the prerogative of the crumblies. Crumblies are like the old lags in CUCC only much, much older. It's hard to classify them because some of them are complete armchairs, some do more caving per year than I have done in my whole life, and some are in between.

I think it's a good idea to culturally analyse other caving clubs in comparison to what had been my own - CUCC was brilliant in the days when I was in Cambridge, though it may have gone downill since they started letting in people five years younger than myself. For the benefit of those youngsters I am going to stick to the facts in the journal article this year.

Bristol City is less than a half hours drive away from the Mendips, a hill which has caves in it - not a lot of people in CUCC know that nowadays because they always go to Yorkshire instead. This imposes an important logistical difference on the matter. Whereas in Cambridge there is a 160 mile personnel relocation problem solvable only at weekends by pooling transport assets and travelling in a club group to the caves and back so that everyone gets to know everyone else sitting in the minibus, in Bristol there is no such ultimate cohesive force. One tends to organise a caving trip on Thursday night at the pub with the people sitting near to you, and you go and do it on Wednesday afternoon. It is not so much of an event. It is less of an adventure. One gets to cave, and that's it. You don't even need to own a sleeping bag to go caving.

In the good old days, when I was younger, those weekends away up in Yorkshire or even the Mendips with CUCC felt like real expeditions. Each one seemed to last a year. A week in Majorca and three weeks in Austria felt even longer. However, now that I am older and much more organised, my adventures are mostly short and sweet. They are usually only a few hours long. With a working car and lots of gear, getting to places and doing things is easy. My adventures don't seem particularly tough at the time either, although to myself five years ago, they would have made my hair stand on end. I think I will tell you about a couple.

Yesterday I went down GB to go digging. Digging is a Mendipian tradition. Many of the caves here were discovered or extended by digging, and it shows. The Bat Passage dig in GB has been going for 27 years. Now, the initial section of dug tunnel tends to flood. Fortunately there is a pump and a siphoning pipe which can drain it in half a day. We got to the dig and it was completely sumped, so we started the siphon and waited a bit. I always cave in a wetsuit, so after half an hour I was sent in to see if it was open yet. I floated on my back through the most atrocious sequence of ducks ever; water lapped over my eyeballs and my nose scraped against the ceiling. At the far end, the passage makes a vertical double bend and proceeds as a muddy crawl towards the dig face. I had not been there in a while. In the two and a half years since I first saw it, it has progressed no more than four metres. A digging session here rarely lasts for more than an hour at a time because there is no draught so you get carbon dioxide poisoning in the form of a bad headache if you stay too long. I went back out. Over the years the amount of geo-speleological bullshit that has been talked about this place reminds me of tealeaf reading: 'The gritty characteristics of the rock, combined with the way that the sand has settled in the mud tells us that there could be over three miles of passage beyond it once we break through. We've put down our call out time as 9 o'clock tonight, but if we are not back by then it means we are busy exploring new passages.'

You know how it is. After a couple of beers one can be discussing that damn stupid dig with optimism. We have seriously talked about how long we could keep the discovery quiet once we do break through We thought about what access rules will have to be put into force to protect the cave because, obviously, every caver in the world will be clamouring to visit it. Such as it was the night before the aforementioned digging trip when I got to the pub after a long drive back from Plymouth. In Plymouth I was diving out at sea off of a tiny Zodiac inflatable. Some mad diver who took the attitude: 'Well, he's a caver; he can cope,' led me through a wreck at 20 metres depth. He took me down the prop. shaft tunnels and in and out of a few dark holes. One has no choice when one is following I had been worried that this might happen. It was most exciting. My suit got painted orange with rust from it. I still never intend to cave dive.

Perhaps the most unconventional adventure down here was a canoeing trip. In the centre of Bristol last year. On old maps of the city, the river Frome ran through the centre, but this was concreted over in about 1938. I found where the river goes underground one day and returned with two other people and enough canoes a week later at two in the morning. My research had drawn a blank and we simply had to go for it. You could see manhole covers in the ceiling as you paddled through the network of tunnels. It was probably my most spooky trip ever. But, as always, I get home in the end. Always I go alone to bed and fail to get up very early in the morning, mainly because I have to put the kettle on and eat toast with horrible marmalade. That's each day, and the days are running out quickly. I've been looking for a job, you see, as nothing I do now even slightly generates an income. It gets me down because there is a lot of bullshit out there that simply cannot be cut.

I don't know if I should, but occasionally I expose myself to a taste of the real worid and meet the sorts of people who could soon be running my life, or whom I should be becoming like. It was at that time that I decided to hitch hike to Cambridge to be awarded the stupid MA degree. I stood at the root of the M32 where it joins the inner circuit ring road for over an hour before getting my first lift.

The first car driver was a middle manager in Arthur Anderson Computer Consultants. I intend to become a computer programmer, so he said why don't I apply to them. I could wear a white shirt and suit every day, work hard during the week and into each evening, live in London and get drunk at weekends or raise a family. Sounds just like those accountancy jobs which are suspiciously easy for people to get into just as they graduate. They have your entire life planned out on a large flow chart including a mid-life crisis at 45. So I told him 'no way'. He then reminisced slightly about how hard he was having to work to earn the money for upkeep of wife and daughter in London. After a few moments of consideration, he sald it was still worth it. He wasn't yet 45.

I got out at an M4 service station intending to change to a car that was going to travel up the M25 rather than go into London. I specifically wrote this on my placard, but was picked up by someone driving into London who intended to drop me off at the M4/M25 junction. I was a little surprised by this. The driver was a sailplane pilot instructor in a satisfyingly rusty car. He was on his way to pick up his girlfliend from the city to drive her down to Heathrow to fly off for a two week skiing holiday. He really ought to have known more about hitching. I got off at the next junction with no way to get back on the motorway, so I had to hitch cross country from there via Oxford.

A subsequent lift seemed to demonstrate an ominous, post-mid-life crisis style of life. When I got into the car, there were cassettes scattered all around the floor, as you would expect with normal people, but not one of them had any music. They all had titles like: 'The power to persuade', 'Liberating your wealth potential' and 'Have you got your Porche yet?'. This was the tape collection of a sick man. It was only a matter of time before he began to talk about his Network marketing business. Atypically, he claimed to be actually successful at it in that he had 'replaced his income'. Network marketing is a system whereby fools act as agents attempting to sell a certain unmarketable (because the price is too high) brand of soap. They make a profit on the sales, obviously, but more importantly they make a profit on the sales made by all other fools they have directly or indirectly persuaded to join in as similar agents. The theory is that you spend five years pissing off all your friends and everybody else you meet by persuading them to become agents in selling this wonderful (not) brand of soap, and then you will have sufficient direct and indirect links to people from whose total profit you take a slice of cash each month, And that's your income. The only problem if you do succeed and get rich, however, is that having not spoken to any normal people (because you have pissed them all off) your mind is so washed with this soap that you can speak of nothing else: it is your only topic of conversation to anyone.

Every single driver who picks me up talks about his wife or girlfriend, very often in the context of having to support them financially in that fashion which us liberal minded educated people kid ourselves into believing is old-fashioned, out of date and uncommon. This man was no different. His network profit indexed income is inheritable, he says, so if he were to crash his car and die today, he would be carried to his grave knowing that, despite this, his wife would have enough money to look after herself for the rest of her life. That is, obviously, the same motivation for squandering one's income on life insurance deals whose policy tells you never to go caving because it's dangerous. Note how there is no similar policy to which a wife can subscribe to provide her husband with a new woman when she dies.

The last lift was from a man in a van who did not speak very much. It was getting late in the evening and his mobile phone kept ringing with noone on the other end of the line. He claimed that this was probably because all the men in their cars were phoning their wives to tell them that they would be late home for their supper, and overloading the system. I approved; at last a man who protested at the fallout he received from everybody else's standard lifestyle. However, my approval was shattered when he did in the end receive a genuine call and it turned out to be his wife asking why he was so late in coming home.

Like I said, do not go to Cambridge MA events. They are a waste of time. During the day I spent all my money hiring robes for the ceremony and in the evening I went to the free MA dinner provided by my college. I saw many people from my year there, three years on. Some of them had changed shape and size, but all were familiarly recognisable. They proceeded to talk around me and above me at the dinner table. What were they talking about? Gossip; who was doing what, where, and with whom. They weaved their culturally inspiring trips to Namibia into their dialogues. I was speechless and had nothing to say. You see, I tend to believe that what I have done with my time, with all these little adventures, and some bigger ones, has been worthwhile. I did some of them well. They made me happy, and still do. Some of it even has high bullshit value. But, as I pondered quietly there at the table and thought about them, they looked like nothing. I do not know what to say. It happens often in company; I can get the impression that whatever I can talk about is going to be about as interesting to anyone as if I explained how I last fixed my car engine.

I got a bit lonely, not surprisingly, until we moved into another room to drink hang-over port. I sat next to a guy who was a tax accountant. A tax accountant's job is to find loop holes in the tax law through which companies who employ them can push their hard cash intact from one year to the next. He spent a whole hour talking to me about it. Given the incentive it is possible for people to get interested in almost anything. I thought it was sad. This man, I thought, has already booked his mid-life crisis for the age of 45. That will be the day when he wakes up and realises that tax law is incredibly boring and that, looking back on it, he has wasted the best years of his life on it.

Now I have had the misfortune of running into older people who have jacked in caving because they decided that it was crap and a waste of time. I mean, all you see is mud and rocks and sometimes water. Even tax law has more variation and content, Obviously if I carry on with this caving it is possible that I will have a similar crisis too. One can never be sure that one isn't going to, that one won't discover something previously unsuspected that will trash all that one has done and show it up for the shit that I is.

Well, maybe I can answer that one, but not right now. It has something to do with measurement comparative success and certain personnel hierarchies. All I have are the facts and the short adventures the tales which fall like a pancake in the presence of normal people. There is a small freak cave callec Pen Park Hole in Southmead, a district in the rough area in the north of Bristol where even the twelve year old kids smoke cigarettes. It has mud stickier than tar, sharp dogtooth crystals poking out from all the walls, and a large lake at the bottom about the size of a swimming pool. I took my fins and mask and snorkelled around in it. Then I did a duckdive and got to the bottom where I saw footprints in the mud because the water level varies by that much, only to become disorientated and scare myself silly at how long it took to find the surface.

One day we heard that a set of derelict MOD mines near Bath had been vandalised and therefore opened. A party of us from UBSS went over there and found the wrenched-open entrance and had look round the extensive network of tunnels which had ventilation ducts so large in places you had to duck under them. We found the giant air turbines, miles of conveyor belts and an absolutely enormous Diesel engine. The place was remarkable. We got back into the main passage ready to go out and met a wall of smoke coming our way. Evidently some locals thought that lighting a fire in the entrance to trap us was a swell idea. Then they could go and perhaps steal our cars. We retreated to a ventilation shaft. One of us climbed a hundred feet up a dangerous manifold of rusty pipework to the top and found no way to get out. After an hour of dithering we explored further away from the main passage anc discovered an alternative exit by following another conveyor belt. There was a sunset just as we got outside. The cars were unharmed.

Bristol is not a bad place to live.

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