“What are you planning for your last night of freedom before lockdown then Ben?” said a colleague as we were getting ready to leave work.
“Heading underground” I said with a smile.
“Of course you are, you weirdo” she replied laughing.
2 hours later I am eating a sandwich at Winnats head farm, looking up at a beautifully clear night sky and awaiting the crew for an adventure. Fabian, Sam and Ben had all expressed interest in this cave. Fabian however was a bit apprehensive. “It is a grade V cave and says that rescue would be impossible.”
“its fine” I nonchalantly say, “just don’t kick the boulder choke”
In all seriousness though, as long as normal caving sensibilities are applied, it is not that bad, I have been in far sketchier chokes than winnats.
There was a bitter frosty breeze cutting through us as we walked to the cave, I already knew however, that despite being cold now, I was over dressed for the cave. Sure enough, after the first flat out crawl I and the others decided to ditch a layer in the first chamber.
We all slid down a slot into the main chamber where a fledermaus flew over Fabians head. Fabian was in awe of the chambers size and atmosphere, looking quite imposing with blocks lying everywhere. “if you think this is good, wait until you see fox chamber”
Next up came the first boulder choke, this one is simple to navigate, just follow the guide rope as it snakes down and back on its-self a few times. This drops you to a small chamber with a small hole in the floor.
After this came the first challenge, the vertical keyhole squeeze. All 3 of us males slipped through with ease. Sam on the other hand, had some female attributes to contend with, but after some repositioning and some sheer determination she too slipped down to join us. The next challenge comes quickly, a bold step above a 5m drop which everyone got through safely. We were finally on the slopes of cornwall avenue. The nature of the cave changes here. It goes from technical scrambling and crawls to huge passage, with some beautiful stals, and then opens out to the even more impressive fox chamber, with large calcite flows on the walls. These have been sadly defaced with mud fights in the past, but still beautiful for the most part.
I have read many reports of people getting lost in the next choke, but as long as you end from the far end then you are fine, we squelched down to the opening in the thick claggy mud and I headed in the choke. I realised quickly however, that I was taking them into the sporting squeeze route and knowing that not everyone shares my perversion to a tight space, I retreated and found sam stood by the larger opening. Dropping down a few levels you hit the main wall, here you turn right and follow that wall to the next fun section, infact, my favourite section.
There is a knotted rope dropping down a thin vertical rift. Simply put, wedge yourself in and control the slide down. I tried to explain the best way to do it, and how I would stop them falling down a slot at the bottom, I don’t know if that made it seem worse or better for them all, but one by one, Sam, Ben and Fabian all negotiated it down with what looked like smiles……or maybe grimaces.
One final techy section with a rope and a waterfall and boom, we were at the sump in little over an hour. The boys were keen to explore the sewer, so we slide into the wet tube and squeezed through to the bottom of the fixed rope where I explained a bit about what’s happened here and future plans with digs before returning to sam who had been sat on her own for a bit. Hopefully the tranquility of the sump calmed her nerves.
Right, now just the job of getting back out. Everything going swimmingly well (literally as there was a fair bit of drippage in this lower section) until we got to the vertical squeeze. Ben shot up first and hauled my bag afterwards. Sam went next, and had, well, she had a moment. The lack of footholds were making life difficult, so I offered to be a step and got on all fours so she could push off of my back. Eventually all of us were back up and the signs of type 2 fun were on sam’s face.
Just before fox chamber Ben laughed as he pointed out a mud penguin, then we popped out and had an explore around fox chamber. I found a huge piece of blue john that was deceptively heavy, had a play on the fixed rope as a rope swing and then headed on up.
I had been keen to find the harpur hill series as the last few times in this cave I had not found it. This time it was almost too obvious, I couldn’t believe I had missed it so often. I had a very quick poke, so as not to leave everyone waiting too long. I was very happy to have found that and cannot wait until next time to explore it more.
Fabian was enjoying himself and flying off ahead up the climbs, sam, battling her fear of heights was making valiant efforts to keep calm and push on. Ben and I were on a geology tour looking at all of the fossils in the walls and the minerals on the floor.
Just the keyhole squeeze left, which is always fun to watch because there are no footholds, so people just flail around, but eventually we all squeezed through and climbed our way up to the main chamber. One final flat out crawl to finish. I sat in the mouth of the cave to wait for everyone before heading out into the cold night. We all sat and just enjoyed the still air for a moment, looking out into the blackness of the sky. A great trip all round.