This post is about a day out in the Mendip Hills, an upland area south of Bristol that includes the famous Cheddar Gorge. It's limestone country. That means that all rainfall disappears underground, and there are no running rivers on the Mendip plateau. Limestone is permeable: it's jointed, and the water finds its way down these joints, dissolving the rock as it goes. Over thousands of years it creates a system of caves linked by tortuous passageways, the kind beloved of potholers. It's a renowned area for potholing. Here's general map of the area covered by this post:
I have been in caves, but only the sort you walk into for a short distance, occasionally on a guided tour. Personally, I find them slightly oppressive. You can't help being aware of the weight of the rock above, and how dangerous it would be if there were a rock fall. You are also very well aware of the danger from water. It's easy to imagine a rain shower up on the surface leading to a rush of water through those passageways, and caves filling up, and hapless potholers being caught underground. Or indeed mere hapless visitors!
A little more on this theme later in the post.
I was meeting up with Angie and S--- for lunch one day last April at the Queen Victoria pub in Priddy, a classic Mendip village. There used to be another pub there, the Priddy Inn, but it was closed, having changed hands for refurbishment and a relaunch as a gastro pub with its own micro-brewery. That would be a step up from its old status, which was as an inn for hearty booted hill-walkers needing no-nonsense overnight accommodation. If the relaunch actually takes place, Priddy will gain an ambitious eatery that may put the village on the fine dining circuit. But it will have to charge prices that some won't like paying. And its atmosphere might not be pubby enough for many others. At the Queen Victoria they were confident that a revamped and upgraded rival wasn't likely to steal their customers. The lunch and drinks were very pleasant, and I tended to agree with them.
We were going to head south first, towards Ebbor Gorge. Whereas the plateau was mostly farmland with dry stone walls aplenty, and some far-reaching views, the edges of the Mendips featured several deep, wooded ravines like Ebbor Gorge. Here's myself, at the point where we began to head downhill:
It was April, of course! I wouldn't need to wear a jacket like that in the current warm weather.
The Gorge was very green, very mossy, and with bluebells coming out. How lovely to see them.
Our walk contemplated going only so far down the Gorge, just enough to get a feel for it. Then we'd head up to the plateau again, but at a different spot from where we came in. At the point where we stopped descending, it got narrow, rocky, and very steep. We watched some people coming up. It was clearly an unexpected climb for them:
You can imagine a torrent of floodwater from a sudden thunderstorm rushing through there!
Let's consult the map:
We'd come south from Priddy using the West Mendip Way, and had got to the footpath-crossing just below where it says Ebbor Rocks. Now we were going to head north-east using Monarch's Way to East Water. After that, to Priddy church, then back to our cars at the Queen Victoria.
It was proving to be a decent walk, in good weather too. The dry stone walls were picturesque. So were the trees that dotted the open landscape.
At East Water, we struck off across the field to have a close look at Eastwater Cavern. Or at least the entrance to it. I was last here on 10th July 1968, a fateful day. I was aged sixteen, and I was one year into my A-Level Geography course. It was a special day trip by coach to limestone country from Southampton.
The day was a washout. We were meant to study typical examples of limestone scenery, swallow holes among them, these being water-formed pits leading to cave systems, into which any temporary surface water drained. But the worsening weather rendered quite a lot of the day's programme impossible.
Rain fell all day long, and that field was very sodden as we rather unwillingly left the warmth of the coach to inspect the Cavern, notebooks and pens in hand. I remember slithering down to look into the Cavern, which already had a little stream of water cascading into it. Actually climbing down into the Cavern was clearly out of the question, although I rather think that our Geography masters - an all-male team clearly used to trekking without oxygen or KitKats in the Himalayas - had had some such notion in mind. I felt saved by the wet weather, and secretly thanked the rain gods. But I still had wet feet, which was distressing enough. Getting half-drenched in some hole would have been a matter for tears. (I admit it, I was a complete wimp at the time)
I'd never been back there since. But now, forty-nine years later, here I was with two friends - on a sunny afternoon too. The swallow hole seemed to have grown deeper! I didn't fancy climbing down, and stayed up top, with S---. But Angie was game, which is why she was able to take these shots, which are hers and not mine:
When I was there in 1968, there was an iron grating over the entrance, which I think some local caving body had padlocked to deny the reckless a chance to kill themselves. I wondered why it had since been removed.
Hmm. Instructions for a cave rescue in the event of an accident or emergency. Definitely not reassuring! Surely nobody would want to go underground, if it were risky? Well, clearly some daredevils do.
I had mixed feelings about coming here again. It wasn't a fond memory, which is perhaps part of the reason why I didn't join Angie at the Cavern entrance. She had no such problems, and in any event is a brave soul, and happier than I am with steep slopes. I'm still not a seeker of thrills and adventure! It's not just holes. I've never climbed a tree in my life. That said, I've stood close to many a cliff edge for the sake of a photograph.
Back in 1968, the coach motored on towards Cheddar, entering via Cheddar Gorge, already streaming with water. We were allowed a couple of hours to look around the packaged tourist attractions and the gift shops. The rain continued relentlessly. Not fancying the attractions and shops - and not having any money - I did climb up Jacob's Ladder, a long series of steep steps up the side of the Gorge, but the rain-swept landscape at the top was disappointing, and there was no view to admire. I went down again, and decided to wait out the next hour or more in the coach. To my surprise, everyone else was there well before me, and the engine of the coach was running, the driver impatient to go. It turned out that fears of a flood were growing, and the masters were very eager to depart, and get their charges out of harm's way. So in fact we all left much earlier than planned. I was the last back on board.
We were lucky to get away. Later that day the rain got even worse, and the consequences - awful floods - made the national TV news. Some people must have been underground at the time, unable to get out. I didn't hear of fatalities, but reports now on the Internet recount how bad it all was. See for instance:
We were out of immediate danger by the time the coach edged through Wells. But it had been a scary thing. I couldn't help thinking that by climbing up Jacob's Ladder I had wasted time, delayed our departure, and had inadvertently put everyone else at risk. (Obviously, the coach couldn't leave without me. And I might have taken even longer to turn up) That notion sank in on the way back to Southampton.
Thereafter I was very, very reluctant to do anything that might involve someone else rescuing me at their peril.
I felt just the same when in Easter 1969 I was on the Isle of Arran in Scotland on an extended A-Level Geography Field Trip to study the geology there, which involved some pretty awful scrambling up the sides of mountains, and over sharp corries carved by glaciers. We were led by the same Alpha-male team, but they had the sense to see that I would only go so far, and it was no good pushing me further. So I was able to duck out of the worst, and just enjoy the sunshine, the wind in the heather, and chatting to the coach driver. Nobody offered me any scorn. I should hope not. I'd had the gumption to stand my ground and do something different. And I didn't mind being the only one to make a fuss.
If I'd given in, and attempted things that I knew would scare me witless, I'd have become a problem for everyone, spoiling the day's expedition and diverting effort away from the purpose of the trek. So I felt my recognition of personal limits was thoroughly sensible and did us all a favour. And coming from a youngster, a mere student with no personal clout whatever, and far from home, it might have had - in an odd kind of way - certain elements of bravery.
It wasn't the last time I stood my ground, although in my working life it didn't always go down so well. Big career fish don't appreciate opposition, and in 1996 I stood my ground again and got thoroughly hammered for it. You can't behave like a wimpy girly (or a stubborn old owl) in the adult world and get away with it.
At least, not until you retire. Once that glorious event occurs, once you are free, and once there is nobody - not family, nor anyone else - who can push you around any longer, then you can insist on whatever you think best and wisest. Sure, you have to stand by your decisions. But you don't have to follow the crowd. And you can be as deaf as you please to other people's arguments, be they ever so eminent, so long as you have properly worked out your own plan and are prepared to follow it through, and will blame nobody else if you come unstuck. That's what I think being grown-up is all about.