This is another story of the type of adventures that can be had by any 'ordinary’ person who makes an effort to get out and do something different rather than sit and mope around at home. I have entitled it ‘Well In The Mire’ as that was what it felt like to myself and one of my companions at times during the incident.
Again there is no heroism nor derring-do on my part, just the simple thrill of being in the right place at the right time with the right people, and experiencing a feeling of what other people do as a job or calling - in this case some members of the RNLI.
As I’d wandered over the hills and down into caves, it had become a part of the norm for my friends and myself to see the Rescue Groups of both those pastimes going about their business, and we were always grateful to know that those dedicated men and women were standing by to help in the case of an emergency. But, on the particular weekend of this story I’d be involved with another branch of dedicated rescuers. They were men who risked their own lives for the sake of saving people at sea - the crew of the Pill (nr Bristol, UK) lifeboat.
I didn’t exactly go out into a wild raging sea on a mission of mercy with that crew, I would have been far too terrified for such an undertaking unless it was for my own egotistical and foolish pleasure (as happened on one occasion just previous to the events written here). But I did get a glimpse of the professionalism that seemed to emanate from those men, and their ongoing adventurous and determined spirit even when it came to overcoming obstacles in, what was to them, another and less-familiar environment.
Here is the story.
It was a long weekend in the British summer of 1973 and I was off on a day’s fishing trip in the Bristol Channel.
Through being ‘adopted’ by a Bristol family, whose two daughters I’d met while caving in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, I used to stay with that family whenever I climbed in the Avon Gorge or caved (pot-holed) in the Mendip Hills. It was through the family that met up with the Pill lifeboat men and had finally been invited to go fishing with those good lads in exchange for a trip into a couple of caves.
One item of interest that had really made an impression on my mind as we arrived at the appointed place was the fact that the lifeboat I saw tied up to the river bank was not the type of lifeboat I'd seen at other coastal locations. The Pill lifeboat was similar to an austere high-speed launch, orange/yellow in colour. The only thing I can recall that indicated the vessel to be a lifeboat were loops of rope hanging down the sides for swimmers to grab hold of. Now, in the late 1990s, there are all types of lifeboats, and helicopters have even taken over some of the work, but before the time of this story my conception of a lifeboat was the type with a 'sharp end' fore and aft, a rounded cabin amidships, and men standing in the 'cockpit' wearing oilskins and sou'westers. The sight of that lifeboat had really brought home the fact that new ideas and more-modern technologies were beginning to rapidly change what I'd previously accepted as normal. Although that lifeboat had probably helped to save many lives, in my mind it wasn't a 'real' lifeboat because it didn't fit in with my concept of what a lifeboat should look like at the time.
The morning was very foggy as we set off down the River Avon in a forty-foot boat (not the lifeboat) early on the Saturday. In fact, the fog was so thick that most of the lifeboat men were very doubtful that it was worth feeling our way out into the Bristol Channel just for a day’s fishing. Each one of the crew was quietly looking out into the thick mist and I could easily imagine them calmly heading out into stormy seas to rescue seamen whose ship was in distress. I was very proud to have the chance to spend a weekend with those extremely brave, but not foolhardy, men. Although I was fairly confident in mountain and underground environments, I knew very little about the sea and its dangers. Those lads were the experts in that watery environment and I was happy to go along with whatever they decided was best for our safety.
But, even though I had promised, regardless of whether we went fishing out in the channel or not,, that I would gladly take those fine men caving, they weren’t going to pass up the chance to give me something in return if their judgement told them that the day's fishing would be possible.
We chugged slowly down the river, barely able to see the river banks each side of the boat, until we reached a more-open channel where the river banks vanished completely into the damp greyness of the thick fog. We were completely encircled by that curtain of gloomy mist and we couldn’t see any further than about fifty feet. There was just the boat and a small area of sea around us. The thought crossed my mind that it seemed as if we were the only people left in the world.
Soon, as if to add to that feeling of isolation, we could hear the mournful ringing of a bell, hidden in the thick grey mist somewhere nearby. That bell was hanging from a buoy anchored where the River Avon flows into the Bristol Channel, and as the waves rocked the buoy from side to side, the unseen (in the thick grey mist that morning) bell clanged sorrowfully from just outside the immediate circle of our vision. I was reminded of a poem, that a school teacher had once read out to my class, about a rogue sailor who had cut the bell from the buoy on the Inchcape Rock, out from Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland, then had later run aground on those same rocks because he couldn’t hear the warning bell in the blackness of night.
I was very impressed by the professionalism of those lads and their standard of safety. They obviously knew roughly where we were even if I, a mere landlubber way out of his depth, was completely lost to my known world. But, as we left the mournful sound of the bell behind, the skipper, who was steering a compass course out into the Bristol Channel, explained to me that, as this was just a fun fishing trip, it wouldn’t be worth sailing on out into the channel, and all the shipping hazards, unless the fog cleared very soon and he could be completely sure of our exact position. I fully agreed but was happy to leave the decision in the hands of those maritime experts.
The thick fog didn’t clear and very wisely the skipper decided to return up the river to their Pill boatshed. Myself, knowing that the safety of people under my care must come foremost, only had admiration for the skipper and his crew for their decision. Even though they had wanted to give me a day of fine fishing to remember in return for a day’s caving, they accepted that it wasn’t worth the risk and I was assured that they would take me out into the channel another time.
Meanwhile, I was more than happy with the unique experience of seeing those lads handle their boat, and navigate in that thick fog, in such a professional manner as to be worthy of their calling as members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and yet to be professional enough to turn back when the risks were not worth the situation. It was an experience that I hope I will never forget and I have used their example many times in my own environments.
Thinking that the fishing trip was lost, I happily settled down in their boatshed for a chat while somebody put a large kettle on the stove to make us all a cup of tea. But, barely were the hot mugs in our hands when the skipper returned from using the telephone and it was decided to try again. Suddenly there was a flurry of excitement, the boat was turned around, and soon we were chugging down the river once more.
Although the fog was still around us, it had definitely thinned out this time and I could see a bit more of the river banks either side. Soon we could hear the mournful sound of the bell as we passed it somewhere hidden in the fog and headed out from the mouth of the Avon River.
Then the fog had suddenly begun to thin out and turn a golden colour. Almost at once the cold-looking grey water around our boat seemed a more cheerful grey/blue, and even the dirty-brown wake was tinged with colours of golden-white. The fog quickly cleared, the sun broke through to bathe us in its golden light (and warm us up a bit) and the morning became sparkly bright. With the boat-engine immediately roaring to full power at the opening of the throttle, and the wake boiling up behind us, the skipper calmly told me that the fishing trip was definitely on.
The scene, as we left the river and sailed out into the Bristol Channel, was a lot different from that fog-bound earlier attempt. The bell was still ringing from its buoy, just audible above the roar of the boat-engine, but it didn’t sound so mournful now that we could see the buoy as we passed on by. The Avonmouth docks were over on our right and, even in those declining days of general shipping (soon to be replaced by huge container-carrying ships and jet planes, therefore causing a big reduction in cargo-carrying and passenger-carrying ships), was bristling with the masts and funnels of many ships, causing me to appreciate the earlier decision to turn about just in case a ship should suddenly appear out of the thick fog and run us down.
As we steered left and headed down the Bristol Channel, the beautiful green coast of Somerset was on our left and I could see the distant mottled green/dark-brown coast of South Wales on our right. My work as a lorry driver had caused me to travel along both those coasts on many occasions and, indeed, I had taken many loads into the Avonmouth docks for shipping around the world, but it was certainly an enlightening change to see those areas from a different perspective for the first time.
Finally, we anchored some way out from the Somerset coast (probably near Clevedon) where the skipper told me that there would be plenty of good fishing. Soon the lines were cast and we settled down expectantly.
Within a few minutes there was an excited shout from one of the lads and I watched in pure fascination as he fought with something that was obviously putting up a tremendous battle. Having been mainly involved with river fishing for most of my life up until that time, where I’d caught nothing more than fish weighing a few pounds, I became very excited myself and, temporarily abandoning my own line to one of the lads I moved along the boat where I was allowed to hold the line so that I could feel the enormous fight that the creature was putting up.
This trip was my second attempt at sea-fishing. A few weeks earlier I had accompanied some work-mates down to Newhaven, on the south coast, for a day. But there had been a force-8 gale blowing and the trip was abandoned. My greatest memory from that trip was as we headed out through the entrance of the harbour walls - straight into the teeth of that gale. The skipper of that boat hadn’t been all that keen to put to sea in such a storm but, with much pressure from myself, plus a bit of apprehensive pressure from my work-mates, he had agreed to give it a try. No sooner were we past the harbour entrance when the storm grabbed at us in all its fury. I have a vivid mental picture of myself, sitting in the very stern of that boat and hanging on for dear life while the boots of that skipper dangled above my head as he hung on to the steering-wheel when the boat hit the first huge wave. Although I was thoroughly enjoying every sensation of this, to me, unusual experience, commonsense prevailed, fishing was impossible in those conditions anyway, and the skipper turned his boat around and headed back for the shelter of the harbour. Fleeting though it was, the memory of that short ride out into the force-8 gale has left a marked impression in my memory and the calm walk around the Newhaven boatsheds after was, to myself, a bit of a let-down.
But, after the initial abortive attempt to get out into the Bristol Channel with those Pill Lifeboat men, there was no such trouble this time. We were actually anchored at a ‘known’ fishing spot, there was already something on one of our lines, and I was greatly excited with the thrill of the adventure.
With the experience of fighting many such creatures the chap finally brought it into the side of the boat where it was gaffed and pulled aboard. I was amazed, and slightly disappointed, to see that the catch hadn’t been, as I’d expected, a huge fish, but nothing more than a large (to me) Thornback Ray. I still hadn’t learned that ‘fishing’ could mean catching any type of creature from the deep, not just fish!
As mentioned earlier, the boat was forty-feet long. It had no cabin, the steering-wheel and instruments being fitted to some short upright boards amidships. The skipper stood behind these boards as he steered the craft. Otherwise there was no other shelter whatsoever on the vessel. I’d brought along one of my ‘adopted’ family’s children, a 16 year old girl named Violet (‘Young Vi’ to us).
Young Vi was a typical, freckled-faced tom-boy, and, with me, she had already shared a few adventures up in the hills and down in the caves. Although slim and short of stature, Young Vi had an extremely adventurous nature and, under my guidance, had already proved that she was a very keen and determined young person when it came to getting the most out of life. As the weather was cold that morning she’d borrowed my anorac and had pulled the hood up over her head. This had made her look even more like a young boy. The lads had began to use a bucket for their toilet requirements (a thing that I hadn’t thought of), and it wasn’t long before I had to explain that ‘the ‘Young ‘Un’ was a girl, not a boy’, to save further embarrassment all round. New arrangements were made for having a ‘lady’ aboard and Young Vi became a bit of a mascot for the rest of the weekend.
After another Thornback Ray had been caught by one of the lads, it was my turn. My line suddenly went taught, I could feel the pressure and quickly gave a sharp jerk on the line. Within seconds I was fighting to keep my catch off the sea bed just in case it was a Ray (apparently, so I’d been told, they dug themselves into the sand and were almost impossible to move with the size of line that we were using). Eventually, after plenty of encouragement and advice from those experienced seamen, I was able to get my catch near enough to the side of the boat so that one of them could use the gaff to drag its thrashing bronze/grey body into the boat.
With that trophy actually on the deck of the boat I felt contented that at least I’d caught something after all the efforts to get me there. Regardless of my catch only being a ‘mere’ Thornback Ray I had felt its power and the fight to get it up to the boat had left me a bit breathless. All I wanted was for Young Vi to catch something then the day would be complete.
Her turn came shortly after and I watched excitedly as she fought her catch amid much advice from the lads. But this time the catch wasn’t a Ray, it was a Dogfish (a small member of the Shark family I was told). That ‘real-looking’ fish was more in keeping with my concept of fishing at the time and, after congratulating Young Vi, I turned back to my line with renewed enthusiasm.
A couple of further Thornback Rays were caught by others, then Young Vi caught one and, amid more advice from the lads (and some help when she was almost pulled over the side), she managed to get it to the side where it was gaffed and hauled aboard. The day was passing fast as we enjoyed the excitement of each others catch. I still only had the one Ray to show for my efforts. but I was having a wonderful time and was almost sad when the skipper told us that we would have to head back to Pill within half an hour.
Barely had he uttered those words when there was a tug at my line and I was quickly engaged in fighting my second catch. Then Young Vi gave a shout as she hooked onto something. As if the fish had sensed that time was short and had decided to give us a last ‘fling’, one of the lads also latched onto something. The remaining lads furiously reeled their lines in and rushed to help Young Vi again while us other two fought with our catches. Although I was concentrating on getting my catch up to the boat, I recall that there was much laughter and excitement at this sudden flurry of last-minute action.
It was a memorable experience. I had felt safe with those good lads and they were great company, the weather was wonderful, the fishing had been fairly constant, and now, at the last minute we had three bites to round off the day. What more could anybody ask for?
Each of us three fought the fish in our own way and the results were a further three Dogfish to add to the day’s catch. I was more than satisfied to see that my catch was a Dogfish, a ‘real -looking’ fish and a more worthy catch when ‘fishing’. But soon I would recognise that ‘fishing in the sea’ means catching anything that comes along and is edible. With this recognition, and that initial experience gained with those lads, under my belt, I was given a good start to build upon when I eventually went on sea-fishing trips in Australia and caught such fish as ‘Queenies’, ‘Kingies’, Groupers, Sharks, etc.
But all that was in the future as, with the sun setting, the late afternoon turning quite cold, and the sea beginning to look a leaden dark grey, we turned back up the channel and set a course for Avonmouth and Pill. The boat had to fight every inch of the way upstream as the tide was going out and the waters from the River Severn and River Avon were racing past us and out to sea. Nevertheless, we arrived safely at Pill and tied up.
But even then the day wasn’t at an end and soon we were all happily sitting outside of a pub, Young Vi with a bottle of pop in her hand and the rest of us with a pint of strong cider (‘scrumpy’). Young Vi was in my care and, after the one pint of cider I decided that I should get her home. Sensibly, there were no arguments from the lads, and no asking me to have ‘one more for the road’ (which I would have declined anyway as I didn’t normally drink alcohol in those days). They would carry on celebrating our wonderful day out and Young Vi and I arranged to meet them all in Burrington Combe early the next morning.
Those lads had more than kept their side of the bargain, I was very satisfied with that memorable day, and now it was up to me to give them, what I hoped would be, a memorable day in return. Contentedly, Young Vi and I headed back to her parent’s home for the night, myself knowing that I had the necessary experience and knowledge to give those lads a day of fun-adventure in one of my environments such as I’d had in their environment.
Knowing that the lads had stayed on at the pub and wondering apprehensively if any of them would be the worse for it (hangovers?), I arrived at the appointed meeting place with Young Vi early the next morning. To my delight all of them were waiting for us, each one eagerly ready for our day of underground adventures. They had all made a great effort to obtain the correct gear (3 sources of light, overalls, boots, helmets, first-aid kits, etc.) so with no more ado we set off.
As we left the Burrington Combe cafe, I related the story about the legend of ‘Plumley’s Hole’. Apparently, I was once told (Peter Conway - the Bristol University Pot-holing Club if I recall rightly), that a chap named Plumbley (a noted pioneer caver in the area, and said to have suicidal tendencies) had been lowered into a cave (now beside the cafe and the entrance covered over by a concrete slab) by his friends. After a short while, so the story went, Plumbley shouted up to be hauled out of the cave. His friends quickly hauled in Plumbley’s rope, only to find that Plumbley had re-tied the rope around his neck and he’d been strangled as they’d pulled him up.
I also pointed across the road at the Rock of Ages where, apparently, in 1775 the Reverend A. M. Toplady had sheltered from a storm in the noticeable cleft that splits the rock in half. It was while sheltering there from the storm that he had got the idea for the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ and had raced home to write the words for that hymn after the storm had cleared. Until my first visit to Burrington Combe eight years previously I had always thought that the hymn was American. My friends of that weekend, although living not all that far away from the Mendip Hills, had also thought that the hymn was American and were quite intrigued when I told them that story as we stood beside the rock.
With that day’s first little snippets of legend and information, we walked on up the road, took a path on the right, and finally, after passing a few cave entrances, found the top entrance into Goatchurch Cavern.
Although it is not a large cave, Goatchurch Cavern is quite ‘sporty’, boasting of an upper and lower entrance, a stream, a large boulder-ruckle, and an interesting tube that can be crawled along with just enough room at the end to curl up in a ball and turn around to come out again (I think that we used to call it ‘The Rabbit Warren’).
Amazingly enough to myself, in spite of having been into that small cave on many occasions during my early pot-holing days in Britain, when I went to take my son, Stephen, into its depths in 1981, I couldn’t find the lower chambers from the upper-entrance chamber at all. I can only suppose that, after entering hundreds of different caves around the world since, my memory of such an insignificant cave had diminish over the years. As I think back while I sit at my computer and type away at this story, I have a clear mental picture of where the entrance to the lower chambers is from the upper-entrance chamber. But now, of course, it’s too late, all my son wanted to do when I took him pot-holing in 1981 was to get out of that cave, and away from his bungling father. Who could blame him??
Nevertheless, I had no such trouble during that weekend of 1973 and I was able to give those lads a thorough ‘tour’ of Goatchurch Cavern. As we emerged from the lower entrance of that cave, each of my friends made it clear that they wanted to see more of that underground environment. Soon I’d squeezed them all into Sidcot Swallet and, as we emerged back out into the sunshine, they were still asking for more. After lunch I suggested that we all have a change of scenery and go over to the Cheddar Gorge where I knew of a short cave that might keep us amused for the rest of the afternoon.
The Cheddar Gorge was well known to me as it was one of my favourite areas, not just for visiting the local tourist caves but for going into some of the ‘wild’ caves there, and also doing a bit of ‘sneaky’ climbing on the cliffs. Permission had to be obtained to climb on those cliffs and, as the safety of the summer tourists came first, that permission was usually only given in the winter months.
I must confess that, as I hated ‘red tape’, my partners and I often began a climb there as dawn was breaking and were usually well up our chosen route long before the car-park attendants (it was one of their jobs to keep climbers off the cliffs during the tourist season) or the tourists arrived. Instead of calling instructions up and down to each other as normal (so that each of us knew when to climb, etc.), I devised a series of signals by pulling on the rope a certain number of times so that very few people knew we were there.
I nearly came unstuck on one occasion when my partner and I were climbing directly above the narrow winding road that leads down through the gorge. A lump of rock, the size of a rugby ball, came away in my hand and, as I tried to prevent myself from falling off, I let the lump of rock go. It was with sheer horror, as I quickly found another handhold and glanced down between my feet, that I saw the lump of rock dropping down towards a coach which happened to be passing directly below at that very moment. Fortunately for the coach passengers, and indeed myself, the rock struck a ledge and bounced out enough to just miss the roof of the coach by a couple of feet. I gave a grateful sigh of relief as the rock finally smashed into the road beside the coach where it broke into a hundred pieces.
But slipping into a ‘wild’ cave down in the gorge caused no such problems and that afternoon my friends and I parked in the upper car-park and wandered down to the coach-park (which was closer to the tourist caves) where the chosen cave was situated.
White Spot Cave (if I recall the name rightly) is behind the lower end of the coach-park. There is a low wall with an iron railing on top protecting the public from a fall into its entrance and I remember that a lot of rubbish always seemed to be laying behind that wall, as if tourists used the entrance as a convenient spot to get rid of their unwanted waste because they were too lazy to take it home. To myself at the time (having been into most of the wonderful and exciting Mendip caves, and many other caves around the British Isles, by then), it was not a spectacular cave for ordinary walk-in cavers but, it was a different cave in a different (though local for my companions) area. Owing to being at the end of the coach-park, and its easy access, the short, and relatively safe, cave was visited by hundreds of tourists each year as they slipped in for a taste of ‘the real thing’ before heading home. I knew that I could let my friends grovel about in that cave’s confines, using some of the skills I had already passed on to them earlier that day, and that they would enjoy themselves safely without my immediate supervision. I was content to hover in the background while they groped around as if they themselves were the first explorers of that cave.
As soon as we entered the cave Young Vi and the lads began hunting around in the nooks and crannies. I settled down beside a pool of water on the left of the short main passage where I could keep an eye on my friends, occasionally shouting encouragement or advice. A happy half an hour was spent in this manner until the group gradually gathered back at the spot where I was sitting, and they were still clamouring for more caving fun.
Just as I was about to suggest that we could round off the day by visiting a better cave a bit farther up the gorge, one of the lads shone the beam of his torch through a horizontal slot between rocks up above my head. I had tried to squeeze through that slot on earlier trips into the cave. I knew that there was another chamber beyond, but due to the constriction of the slot I’d failed each time.
Nevertheless, as the lads were showing a keen interest, I thought that it would be a bit of fun to try again, more with an idea of pointing out the correct way to tackle a ‘squeeze’ than getting through. As on the other attempts I failed once more. Each of the lads gave it a try and they all failed. Then there was only Young Vi left and she climbed up and crawled into the slot.
As already mentioned, Young Vi was fairly slim. She was also very determined and we watched with mounting excitement as she pushed and pulled herself through the narrow slot encouraged by our cheers. Soon she had slid head-first into the far chamber and was calling back that there was a pool of water below her side of the slot, and what could be a continuation of the cave through another pool of water on the other side of that chamber. That bit of information from Young Vi made me even more determined to get through the slot and I tried again, forcing every last bit of air from my chest in an effort to make myself smaller so that I could squeeze past the constriction. But it was no use, my shoulders and chest jammed up between the floor and roof of the slot and, once more I had to back out. Two or three of the other lads gave it another go but they also failed.
Then I looked into the pool down below our side of the slot. I was used to swimming through ‘ducks’, where the cave roof dips down into the water of an underground stream or lake. If it was known that the duck was short, one simply held one’s breath and swam through into the next chamber. I called to Young Vi and asked her how deep the water was below her side of the slot, and she answered that it was roughly the same depth as the pool on our side. Her answer set me wondering if the two pools might really be one large pool, with a part of the roof, that had obviously dropped down (hence the slot above) laying across the water-filled depression. If so, it was quite possible that there could be a way under the rock and into the chamber where Young Vi was waiting. I explained this to the lads and their enthusiasm began to bubble up again. Then I called Young Vi, passed my helmet and carbide lamp through the slot and explained that I would attempt to swim under the rock and hopefully join her. With Young Vi waiting in the far chamber and the lads lending a hand with plenty of encouragement, I took a huge breath of air and slid head-first down into the cold water.
But I didn’t get far for, no more than a couple of feet down into that black water, my groping hands dug into thick mud. I had time to feel that there could be a gap between the sloping side of the pool depression and the huge lump of rock above, then I had to back out. As I sat beside the pool and got my breath back we discussed the prospect of whether or not we might be able to get under the rock and through into the next chamber.
I was very keen to somehow get through if it was possible. Young Vi was in that next chamber and saying that there could be just a duck into a chamber beyond. I didn’t like to be beat, I knew that my adventurous nature and determination wouldn’t let me rest until I’d tried every possibility to get through. If there was a gap under the huge rock, then I would give everything I had in my efforts to succeed in that direction.
The compacted texture of the mud at the bottom of the pool had suggested to me that very few people would have gone that way. Visitors who went there to see the tourists caves, then wandered into this cave for a bit of ‘wild caving’ wouldn’t have the gear nor knowledge to get through into the chamber where Young Vi patiently waited for us unless they were of a similar build to Young Vi herself. Even then I doubt if any of the non-cavers would try a duck, such as Young Vi had described as maybe being a continuation of the way. No, I felt that only cavers (pot-holers in the U.K.) would have explored the cave past the point where I sat with the lads and, as already mentioned, I wasn’t going to give up any chance of getting through too easily. I explained this to my companions and they, being quite determined and adventurous persons themselves, readily agreed that we should make every effort to get under the huge rock if it was at all possible.
My only idea at the time was that we would use our helmets to bail the water from the pool so that I wasn’t forced to hold my breath while I worked to clear the mud, and also so that I could see where I was digging. Then one of the lads laughingly suggested that, rather than using our helmets, the draining of the pool would be done a lot easier if we used a boat’s bilge-pump. There were a few sarcastic comments such as "Have you got one in the boot of your car then?" and "I’ll just nip outside and borrow one!" before the Skipper asked me if I didn’t think that it was a good idea. I had to admit that it was a good idea but, like the other lads, I also had to point out that we didn’t have such a thing on hand. Then someone asked if we couldn’t get one from home and come back the following day to carry on with the job. Everyone was suddenly very enthusiastic with this further suggestion and myself, recognising their enthusiasm, had agreed to give it a go. Young Vi squirmed back through the slot and we all took off for the Pub at Nailsea. Again Young Vi and I had a quick ‘drink’ before it was time to get her back home and we left the lads chatting about the fun day we had spent together.
The next morning we were all back in the cave early before the coaches started arriving. We set up the bilge pump and began to pump the water out of our side of the depression. We took it in turns to lie in the water to stir the mud up so as to get rid of as much of it as possible. Finally our side was empty of water. Young Vi again squeezed through into the other chamber and announced that the water was still in the pool on that side of the depression.
At first we thought that the way was blocked off after all, but water seeping back into our side soon raised our spirits again. The water level on Young Vi's side was going down very gradually. I slithered head first down to the bottom of the depression under the rock and dragged handfuls of mud from the space that was opening out. The water from the other side started to build up on our side again so we got the bilge pump going once more.
As soon as our side was empty of water again, I slithered down into the depression with a rope tied around one ankle. The idea being that if I got into trouble the lads could pull me back out. I'd kick my legs hard as a signal (Oh! the carefree younger days!). The water was already building up and I dropped head-first into it's muddy depths. I tried to work slowly to conserve the air in my lungs and the blood was soon pounding in my head. But I managed to clear a bit more of the solid mud and could feel softer mud behind. The water was seeping through quicker. I kicked my legs and a steady pull on the rope helped me to reverse out.
As none of the other lads had ever done anything like this before, I had a rest then told them I'd try and get through this time. I didn't want to empty any more water out as I thought it would help flush the mud away as I tried to force my way through. We passed a rope over to young Vi and tied it on our side, if I got through, she'd guide the rope to my hand and I'd have something to pull on.
I was already soaked and covered from head to toe in thick mud so there were no qualms about getting wetter (or colder). With the lads ready at the rope, and Young Vi ready with her rope, I slid head first into the watery mud again.
There was no crisis, and I didn't catch my overalls on any projecting spike. Once I got going I was just terrified, but it was easier than I'd expected. As I entered the water I knew I needed time to get back out and tried to calculate how long it would take for the boys to drag me back. I didn't know whether my leg would be pulled apart, if I got stuck, by the suction of the mud and the lads kept pulling.
Holding my breath, I reached forward and, forcing my fingers down through the mud, managed to get a hand-hold on the floor of the depression. I pulled forward and my head hit the underneath of the rock. Panic welled up inside me, so I quickly tried to work out my next move. I lifted my other hand up to the bottom of the rock, managed to find a hand-hold and pulled myself further under. Then I found that I could push with my feet and I moved another foot. My breath was fast going and I knew it was time I did something quickly. I groped forward again and found the way was suddenly easier. Then I felt Young Vi's hand and nearly pulled her under before she could give me the rope. Clutching the rope I pulled with all the strength I could muster and my body slid from under the rock quite easily. I gulped in great lungs-full of air as I emerged from the water. I was a very happy (and probably lucky) man just then.
One of the other lads wanted to come through so, as the water was free and level both sides they set to and pumped the depression dry. They retrieved the top rope and tied it around his ankle and, with me pulling on my rope and them paying out the ankle rope, he slid through with no problems.
Apart from a few bits of grit in my eyes, every other part of my body was covered in mud. It was thick in my hair, up my nose, in my ears, inside and outside my overalls, up my sleeves, in my boots, and I was having a good meal of the stuff. The cold was really creeping through my body and I started to worry about Hypothermia.
I had a look at the duck and suspected that it was too tight to try without air tanks. Then, after a quick glance around the chamber to note any signs of another way on for future trips, it was time to retreat. The lad graciously stepped back and offered me the lead so, without arguing, I grabbed the rope and the other lads hauled me back out. Then the hauling party started to pull the other lad through while the rest began to tidy up the area. Meanwhile, Young Vi had come back over the top of the rock.
As soon as the other lad was safely back through to our side, I rallied the men towards getting out so that he and I could warm up a bit in the sunshine. Very shortly they were ready and I moved out first, with Young Vi following me and the rest trailing behind.
As I climbed the railings into the coach park, I heard a scream and was just in time to look up and see an old lady fall to the ground at the side of a coach. There were a lot of people there and they gathered around her, but, with bits of muddy grit still in my eyes, I couldn't take much notice of what was going on there.
I made my way to a nearby small concrete-gully stream and proceeded to splash water over my face to remove some of the mud. Soon we were all out of the cave and gathered at the spot beside the gully. While the other lad was washing his face, I’d taken off my overalls and so that I could feel the warmth from the sun through my shirt and pants. Then an ambulance arrived at the coach in front of us to attend the fallen lady.
Young Vi had sat down beside me and we’d wondered what had happened to the old lady. As we’d idly watched, the ambulance men had worked on a cut that the old lady had received on her head as she fell. I felt very sorry for her having an accident on what was obviously an old persons outing.
When the ambulance men left, the old lady tottered over to us with her friends. She told us that we'd given her a real fright, but that she'd have a story to tell the rest of her family when she returned home.
None of us could understand what she meant and didn't know what was going on until one of the other old ladies explained that the old lady had seen me coming out of the hole, covered from head to toe in mud, and thought that I was a horrible creature from underground. She'd fainted with fright and hit her head on the steps of the coach. I was appalled and apologised profusely, but she was a wonderful old lady and she told me that it was alright and could she have her photo taken with me?.
I suggested that she and her friends join us all for a photo and the old folk were delighted with the suggestion. The other lad, still covered in mud, stood on one side of the old lady and I stood on the other. The rest of our group gathered round with the other old folk, and the coach driver took the photo. I never did see the photo, but I hope the old lady got much pleasure from showing it around and relating her story.
Thanking us all the old folk happily headed off down the road to look at the show caves, with me still trying to apologize to the old lady and her still telling me not to worry.
We all finished washing and changing into dry clothes and headed home, happy that we'd had a great weekend and talking about future trips.
The following weekend, Young Vi, myself, and a different group of lads went in to White Spot Cave again to see if we could push on through the second water-filled dip on the other side of the remote chamber. Sadly, the depression was full of water once more. We had no bilge pump and I wasn’t going to risk trying to squeeze through the muddy hole while the water was so deep, so we retreated.
Since that weekend I’ve been involved in hundreds of caving adventures, many that would make the above story seem insignificant. Even so, the professionalism that I felt, coupled with their dogged determination not to be beaten by a foreign environment, have endeared those gallant seamen into my memory and I will never forget the precious weekend I spent in their company.
Unfortunately for me this present day, even though I have
the whole of the Internet at my disposal I can find no record of
the Pill Lifeboat Station, nor any of the men who served there. I
can only speculate that the Station has closed down due to
economic reasons, safer and less shipping, or more-modern methods
that have made some of the Lifeboat Stations redundant.
I would be very interested to have any information regarding the Pill Lifeboat Station so that I can update this story.
Nevertheless, it was a wonderful weekend - and it all happened to me because I didn’t want to sit at home and mope about.
Don’t waste your precious life on following the paths to drugs, crime, boredom, frustration, and useless exploits - be determined, get out, meet good people, and have some real-life & worthwhile adventures of your own to remember!
Next story - The New Boy.
Back to top of page.