Matt said it was OK so I just followed him...
When I did Martyn Farr's Cavern Diving course, basically 'Underwater Line
Laying in the dark for Dummies', his closing advice was that if I wanted to do
much UK cave diving I should do plenty of dry caving as a prerequisite. I
thought this sounded like good advice and had vague visions of striding
purposefully through 'Caverns measureless to man' viewing the glories of
geology from the inside.
Now I've already told the tale about how Matt, a real live caver, took me to
some of his local sites
and the first thing you learn is that the word 'dry', in caving circles, means
'not flooded to the roof'. In the UK cave diving is just a trick cavers use to
carry on exploring the cave even if all that pesky water tries to get in your
Well this is now chapter two 'Nigel's further adventures down a hole'. Matt
promised a 'real UK caving experience' and described the cave as 'mild'. Both
the words 'real' and 'mild' should have rung alarm bells but I just obediently
packed the kit into the car and headed off to Sheffield.
Now this probably isn't the place for a run-down on caving so I'll try to be
brief. Caving is just taking an exploratory wander round a place you've never
been before. There are real touristy caves with lights and stairs and these can
be very interesting. Wookey Hole in Cheddar Gorge is probably one of the most
famous ones in the UK. The guide walks you round and by switching the lights on
dramatically does quite a good show. The current passageways are definitely a
family friendly affair but it wasn't always so. The passageways were originally
surveyed by diving cavers who used various styles of scuba gear over the years
to pass through the flooded sections.
Scuba is only one of a wide range of tools cavers use. They need all the skills
of a rock climber except the usually are doing more down than up but with the
snag of doing it in the dark... and the wet. The most basic caving kit is a
helmet to protect your head, boots, for example heavy duty wellies, to protect
your feet and a light to see what's going on.
Saturday started with an introduction to SRT equipment. SRT, Single
Rope Technique, is the good way to get yourself up and down near
vertical passageways without them having to call out cave rescue to recover the
body. If you've read about my last caving exploit you'll know I have a problem
with ladders and an SRT system saved me from having to be hauled ignominiously
out of a hole. I wanted to have a more controlled go on the system and get a
feel for what are my personal limits. On the first trip Matt had pointed me at
boots, suit and stuff but warned me not to let anybody try to sell me rope kit
as I was then too much the beginner for that. This time I was allowed.
Matt had two of us along so John and I started with a session on ropes and
knots. I'm a bit of a knot person but most of these were new to me as I'm
mostly nautical these days. Naturally I'm the mannequin for the pictures as it
was my shiny new kit. Matt grumbled at the length of one piece of rope as it
didn't match his Bible of rope work and, since I have a copy of the book too,
I'll get a longer bit later and re-rig it.
Then we moved onto the bondage rig in the pictures. Basically it has loops to
sit in, a rope ratchet (an ascender) on that and a loop to put either one or
two feet in with another ratchet on that so by doing alternating sit-stand
motions you can crank yourself up a rope. There is also a descender trick which
looks far more fun but then you wrap the whole lot up in some serious safety
procedures because sitting at the bottom of a hole with an interesting
collection of broken bones because you went over the edge trying to get hitched
on is just so not cool.
Once we had got the equipment ideas together it was time to tackle,
successfully, our first inclined passageway, Matt's stairs. So now, although I
feel that I can confidently manage steppy, carpeted caves, at least all those
weird pieces of metal I had bought as 'the SRT kit' make a bit more sense.
However it was then time to leave it all behind because Matt's chosen 'mild'
cave didn't need any of that complicated stuff. We were only just beginners
Great Masson Mine Cavern is an old mining site set on top of Masson Hill
in the beautiful Derbyshire Peak District. It was originally mined for lead but
later they came back for the pretty stones Calcite and Fluorspar. We parked,
changed and walked up a mile of track and down into a sunny quarry. Frankly it
was beautiful. I was almost surprised that the National Trust weren't there
checking my card and trying to sell me a tub of heritage ice cream. I gather
that there is a visitor entrance round the other side but not where we were
going. As it was we said 'Hi' in passing to a pair of rock climbers limbering
up their rope techniques on a vertical wall, fired up the helmet video camera
and clambered up to the entrance. It was a lovely day for a 'real UK caving'
experience so Matt, John and I sat in the sun beside the narrow slot in the
hillside for a few minutes to chill out before we zipped ourselves up and
clambered down the slope to the entrance.
OK forget that 'Caverns measureless to man' guff. This was small passageways,
some carved by nature so random sized, some carved by miners with chisels so
only as big as they need to be. I was to be in the middle of our party of three
so I rapidly became familiar with Matt's boots which also feature strongly in
the helmet cam video of the trip.
The entrance was a low squiggle on your tummy at the bottom of a hole but it
was an authentic introduction to what was to come. Matt had kindly picked a
hole where we did the more challenging, I mean tight, bits first and got the
promised reward of bigger chambers later. The initial section was more of a
crawl than a stoop but it got us into the feel of things. We proceeded slowly
and found things tended to go down in steps rather then smoothly. Every time
you think it can't get much lower it does.
Now I'm not going to claim that the really low section, where we had to remove
our helmets because otherwise your head wasn't going to fit, was hugely fun but
it certainly washed out any concerns I had that I was a closet claustrophobe
and this day was all going to come to pieces on me. However it was only about
ten meters of really low stuff where you were regretting putting things in your
chest pockets because they are digging in when the roof presses down on your
back. I do question what sort of nutter looks at a slot like that and asks "I
wonder if I can get through there? Does it go anywhere?" He's going to have to
come out backwards if it's just a dead end because there certainly wasn't room
for a three point turn.
Now knowing the low bit was restricted and that although there would be low
bits later but never quite like this again did help. I squirmed along using my
knees and elbows and pushing my helmet in front. I could see Matt moving rocks
out of the line but several got kicked back so I just emulated the trick so at
least I had the floor to ceiling gap. I did rather regret the fact that I had
the head-cam controller in the under-suit breast pocket which coincided with
the stills camera in the over-suit pocket. The problem was that I was never
going to get a hand inside the suit to move either. I just had to make sure
that bit of me followed the best line round the bumps in the floor and the dips
in the ceiling.
The end of the really low bit gave way to a crawl so I replaced my helmet and
moved on slowly so Matt could watch his other vict^H^H^H^H
protégé through the narrows. I ended up at a divide in the
passageway and not wishing to be an intrepid explorer I stopped for a
I'm not going to give a blow by blow commentary on the rest of the trip
although the head cam is a wonderful aid-memoir. The highlights were moving
round the edge of a sudden rectangular mine shaft, a couple of vertical
descents that were narrow enough and rough enough that you could virtually
ladder down them, several more tummy slithers and finally we reached the
A Coffin level is nothing like as macabre as it sounds. It is a mine passageway
that is hand chiselled as a crouching walk, say a meter high, narrow at your
feet and head and a bit wider at your elbows giving a cross-section that is
like a traditional coffin. I have read that time served miners could almost run
along these, remember they only got paid for the time worked at the mine-face,
but I confess I crawled quite a bit of it.
Somewhere about here I must have got up a reasonable speed as I knocked the
helmet-cam off its attachment pad of super Velcro. This means there was a
rather confused bit on the recording as we mess about to put it back. I took
the opportunity to try and clean my glasses but a quick wipe on my undersuit
left them more wet so I could do with improvising a hankie in a sealed bag for
next time. The camera on my head actually held up rather well. I was worried
that it was going to get as glooped up as my glasses but it seemed to stay
clean. Most of the pictures here are from the recording but I probably need a
bit more light to do it justice. Matt's boots in my face are captured in detail
but once things got more than a meter or so away I could see them but the
camera was beginning to struggle.
When we finally made the big chamber I was running out of fuel. Matt and John
very kindly decided to forgo the fuller walk round and Matt started to lead us
off towards the exit.
Now it has to be admitted that we had crawled about a quarter of a mile into
the hillside from our entrance, then turned in the coffin level sideways and
now we walked about the quarter of a mile back. As the cavern ended we
clambered up a muddy slope, another even slipperier muddy slope and finally
into a chamber with the feel of fresh air on your cheeks and light coming down
from above. We took a break before starting the final clamber out.
The first bit of the last bit was straight up. Matt lead the way and with a
helpful push from behind by John I followed him. It was about six meters
vertically and finally lead out into sunlight in a huge hole in the cliff wall
about eight or ten meters above the quarry floor.
Let's finish with the big shot. You can see the exit in the sunlit wall above
the trees. The place does look a bit strange with the slope but the picture
makes it look worse than it really is.
I'm going to edit up the video footage but for a lot of it you had to be there.
The light on my head was enough to see by but not quite enough to video by. I'm
pretty sure we'll get some good footage of the low bit but the main chamber
just needs more light. The second try will be better I promise.
NGR 292786, 256m asl, total cave length 3 miles of which we did about half a
The cave guidebooks rate this as grade 3 to 5 but I suspect the 5 means you
need ropes elsewhere. The low bit might be a bit of a shock to the system the
first time you do something like that but nothing we did was actually
So. I think John and I were very pleased with Matt for giving up his real
caving time to play nurse-maid to a pair of trios. This definitely isn't the
sort of thing to attempt without experienced company so, especially for me
coming from non-cave country of the Sussex Downs and perhaps a tadge over the
usual age for a novice, I wouldn't know where to start. So can I blame it all
on Matt please?
Pictures by Nigel Hewitt and Matt Smith. If you copy them we want a credit.
by Nigel Hewitt