July 21st:

2pm on a Saturday and the phone rings. ‘Who’s this at this unsociable hour?’ I ponder. (I was just having my breakfast). Picking up the receiver, an anxious voice hurtles down the other end. It’s the manager of Peak Cavern in Castleton, ‘The Devil’s Arse’; one of Derbyshire’s finest showcaves. “We’ve heard a loud bang!” he cries, “a loud bang and a rumble” he continues, “the punters are shitting themselves”, he concludes. “We need a Mine Inspector down here now, know anyone?

I pause for a moment, stroking my beard in thought. I’m not fooling myself, its going to be a dangerous job; whoever’s going in there has to be one tough mother. A moment passes and almost subconsciously my hand moves up from my beard to make contact with my moustache. As soon as finger touches ‘toosh,’ it hits me.

 “Don’t worry,” I reply. “I know just the guy.”

 ********

The sleepy village of Taddington lies just off the A6 between Buxton and Bakewell. Hundreds of people pass by everyday on their way to work, the majority of whom will never stop, glance across, or even know of its existence. For the people of ‘Taddy,’ this is exactly how they like it. It’s said people go there to disappear, to forget. It’s said the residents of Taddington have a certain melancholy about them, each person with their own dark, mysterious secret; each one darker and more mysterious than the next.  

Legend has it that one ageing resident (simply referred to as ‘The Captain’) was caught drunk behind the wheel of an ‘unsinkable’ passenger ship many, many moons ago. Rumours say his drunken hands careered the hapless vessel into an iceberg, and after escaping on a lifeboat (disguised as a woman) he fled to Taddington to live out his days as a snappily dressed pensioner. He now spends most of his time alone in his shed, with his wife alone in a different shed further up the garden.

So it was here, in this cursed village, that I found myself a few hours after that fateful phone call. They needed a Mine Inspector they said, and there was only one goddamn Mine Inspector in Derbyshire worth talking to. George ‘Threehips’ Sampson.

Unlike the other residents of Taddy, George had taken to living in his van. By reputation ‘a rosy-cheeked drinker,’ he was prone to a violent temper when inebriated. Indeed, the sight of his van parked haphazardly against the side of the local pub gave me cause to be wary. His wife was away making money on the Open Water Swimming circuit, and it had evidently been another heavy night. I approached slowly, knocked on the side door and hoped I wouldn’t be mistaken for another confused Nigel Mansell fan looking for an autograph.

“This is not the Mansell residence!” a voice called angrily through the van door.

“I know, George. Your ‘toosh’ is far more impressive than Nige’s ever was,” I said, trying to calm his rage. “It’s Mike. I’ve got a job for you…”

 There was a pause. A silence. Then a sharp intake of breath.

 “I don’t do that anymore, lad… not anymore. Not since Wales.”

Wales, of course. How could I forget? Wales had been George’s last call-out. It should have been the pinnacle of his career, but it was an abject failure. Distracted and disorientated by the awkward abseils, the epic voyage across the abyss in HMS Homer and the impending fear that the roof was continually collapsing in around him, George had lost the plot. The job he’d been sent in there to do wasn’t done; the mine went UN-inspected. The official report was never submitted, having been dropped whilst launching himself along a zipwire with amateurish abandon. As a result, the hastily written summary he’d scribbled down in the pub afterwards only made things worse. Mainly because it just said, “The roof’s knackered.” And that was it.

After that he was shunned by the Mine Inspector’s Guild. Dismissed in disgrace, he hung up his fabled green boiler suit and vowed never to venture underground again. The infamous Croesor – Rhosydd through trip was to be his last.

Out of work, he’d spent the last 3 months opening local branches of JD Sports wearing a retro Team GB athletics kit, telling the management he was Daley Thompson. The money was good, but it had killed him inside knowing he was impersonating a man with an inferior ‘toosh.’

“This is no way for Derbyshire’s top Mine Inspector to live, George. They need you down Peak Cavern. There’s been a rumble; some tourists shat themselves,” I explained.

“I’m not going down some shitty little showcave, I mean, tha knows,” came the terse reply.

“Through Titan, George. We’re going in through Titan.”   

 Another pause, and then the van door slid slowly open.

 “Titan? …I’ll do it.”

The above introduction may or may not be entirely true, the author having lost the ability to distinguish between reality and the piss-taking alternative reality which all resulted from George once wearing a green boiler suit in a mine underneath Wales. Either way, it’s perhaps more entertaining than just saying ‘George wanted to do Titan - Peak, so we all met up on Sunday to do it’.

George wanted to do Titan - Peak, so we all met up on Sunday to do it. The rest of this is true.

There were ten people meeting at the TSG in Castleton that morning. Out of the ten, eight of them were modelling the latest in hard wearing, waterproof caving gear. The other two had clearly misread the meet notice, thinking it was some kind of charity event and had turned up in fancy dress. One had come dressed as an 80’s skier, looking more like he should be queuing up for the Aiguille du Midi, chatting up the local French girls and bragging about making fresh tracks down the Vallee Blanche rather than squirming through a wet, muddy hole in the Peak District. No prizes for guessing who this was. (Actually there is a prize, but it’s just a lump of rock. And instead of being awarded to you, it will be thrown across the dinner table at you. So probably best just to tell you it was Phil, and leave it at that). The other fun-runner looked like he’d turned up for a local round-robin tennis tournament, dressed appropriately in New Balance trainers and a polo shirt. Finished off with a retro 80’s sports bag, slung casually over his shoulder.

For us this was a concern. Franz Klammer wasn’t the issue; he was in the remedial group with Andy. It was Björn Borg we were worried about; he was coming down Titan with us.

"George, where are your clothes?” We asked with mild concern. This was no way for a Mine Inspector to come dressed for work. Very unprofessional.

As it happened, we needn’t have worried; George had gone all showbiz on his big day. Not only had he arranged for his chauffeur (Pip) to drive him up the hill, he’d also scheduled an entire wardrobe change at the top of the Winnats Pass. His newly upgraded, waterproof Mine Inspecting suit already waiting for him in the car along with his sandwiches. 

So, having paid our £4 and signed the usual liability waivers (should we be crushed by a falling Syd who’s just threaded his Rack the wrong way round), Pip kindly ferried us up the hill and we slowly made the short walk over to the now familiar entrance to Titan. 

Now the more discerning reader may question the foresight of taking Derbyshire’s most inflexible man down through Britain’s deepest pothole. But you may be reassured to hear that George has undergone something of a climbing and caving renaissance recently. He’s been an-almost-regular on Wednesday Nights, and every time he ties onto the end of a rope an anticipated hush descends upon the crag. However, he does continually let us down in one respect. For weeks we’ve been promised a master class in slab climbing from ‘The County’s Top Slab Climbing Specialist,’ only to hear him call out for a tight rope; complaining that the slab he’s on “isn’t the right kind of slab.” Nevertheless, despite being a slab-climbing charlatan, buoyed by his recent exploits in a mine underneath Wales, he’s been itching for something bigger and better. Well, what could we find that was bigger and better than Croesor - Rhosydd? Titan-Peak was the only answer, and having been inspired by Old Man Peppit’s recent triumph, he was determined to add his name to the list. So there we found ourselves, all kitted up at the entrance and ready to descend. With George’s toosh lightly quivering in the moorland breeze.

Speaking of tooshes, three of us had attempted to grow our own version of the famous Sampson facial feature to mark the momentous occasion. (With varying degrees of failure). I had grown a blonde one, Rob had grown a ginger one, and Ed had grown some sort of post-modern minimalist one. If I could compare his top lip to a cornfield, Countryfile would describe it as having yielded ‘the worst harvest in living memory.’ It was a shameful attempt by a Sampson, and possibly grounds for a DNA test. But at least he’d tried. Unlike Syd, who claimed “not to have got the memo” and turned up with his standard issue beard. Such disrespect didn’t go unnoticed, and the group justifiably shunned him until he apologised for his insolence.

After comparing facial hair, it was finally time to descend. There have by now been numerous accounts of Titan and its vastness, so I’ll avoid repeating them all here. Needless to say it’s a scary place and it never fails to ruin a pair of your best underpants. However, descending the entrance shaft is straightforward enough, and we all regrouped at the Breakthrough Window to watch Rob disappear down into the inky blackness to set about rigging the third and final pitch. Syd was up next, and as we lost sight of the electric candle he uses for a headtorch, I clipped into the rope and swung out into the abyss myself. We never heard a “rope-free” (or even an “op-ee”) shouted up from below, so we assumed Syd’s voice had once again been swallowed up by Titan’s internal blackhole. (Titan being so big, you have to move your watch forward an hour when you reach the bottom). With me gone, this just left Lionel Richie, and his poorly moustached nephew, peering out from the Breakthrough Window with their matching Chinese mining lights illuminating the cathedral-like roof above us.

The 2nd pitch is always the loneliest, the longest of the three, and gives an exposure induced adrenaline rush like nothing else in the Peak District. 70m later, and landing at the hanging slab of the Event Horizon, I did my good deed for the day (by releasing a snagged Syd back into the wild) and set about making myself comfortable to await the arrival of George, who was coming down next. I’d done the same thing for our Old Man a few months before, and wasn’t looking forward to it. The rebelay is positioned at the lip of an overhang and is entirely freehanging. Clipped into the spare bolts to the side of the final rope, it’s literally a right ball-ache to hang there for any length of time. (Caving harnesses being designed for crawling around in, rather than giving any kind of comfort whilst hanging 60m above the floor like a very unhappy toddler on a very exposed garden swing). With this in mind, I was glad to see George’s light steadily descend towards me, lighting up all four walls of the cavern as he slowly rotated down through it.

What surprised me though, was the relatively little noise that an abseiling-Sampson makes. It seems an abseiling-Sampson is much quieter than an aboveground-Sampson, and there was not a peep to be heard emanating from the great chorister’s lungs as he lowered himself down the main pitch towards me. (It turns out he was too busy handling the immense bounce in the rope, whilst perfecting the art of his one-glove abseiling technique - inspired by Michael Jackson). Nevertheless, before I knew it he’d bounced down alongside me, changed over onto the final rope and shot off down to the bottom of the shaft, knowing the scariest part was now behind him. As a result, he set about making up for his previous silence by thumping out a version of ‘Swing Low,’ turning Titan’s natural acoustic system all the way up to 11 in the process.

All regrouped at the bottom, it was time to start making the long journey out to daylight. First though we had to negotiate the boulder choke. Never super tight, it does however involve bending and twisting the body into lots of unusual shapes to pass through. Something which we were worried George might struggle with. If he was going to get stuck anywhere, it was going to be here. So now was the moment of truth. In all honesty, If George did get stuck, my main fear wasn’t necessarily for his well-being, but for the potential embarrassment of the Cave Rescue turning up to find four men huddled together all wearing matching moustaches. Yet despite our concern, he shot through it, and was out the other side looking like he’d done nothing more than having played a rather muddy game of Twister. With this, I breathed a sigh of relief and instantly relaxed, knowing I would never have to read the ‘Derbyshire Times’ headline: Freddie Mercury Tribute Band gets stuck in Devil’s Arse.

From here on in, it was plain sailing. We knew that if he could get through the boulder choke, then the rest of the trip shouldn’t really hold any difficulties, and so confidently plodded off towards Stemple Highway. Ed, Rob and Syd took a slippery detour up to Salmon’s Cavern, and George and I continued on our way out. This was to give George adequate time to get his effeminate, red sandwich bag through the crawls into Leviathan. The timing was perfect, and as we sat for a brief rest in the enormous mined cavern, a distant “op-ee” signalled the arrival of the others shuffling through the final (this time dry) duck to join us.  

Climbing down into Speedwell, we were disappointed to have missed Andy and the remedial party (we were hoping to see Franz Crowson struggling to wade through waist deep water in what is essentially a large babygrow). Disappointed but still in good spirits, a quick detour was taken up to see the famous Miner’s Toast and Main Rising before traipsing back downstream to the unusually shallow Whirlpool. Here Rob, Syd and myself took the opportunity to have a look at Whirlpool Rising, whilst Ed and George tucked into their remarkably smelly lunches. (Ed’s traditional caving-lunch consisting entirely of sausages). It was then decided that the heroic team would have to split up.

It had been about 2 hours since we’d reached the bottom of Titan, so it was time to go our separate ways. Rob and I had been brought along as George’s personal rope-rigging lackeys, and so would have to derig the great shaft after we exited. We decided to sacrifice completing the thru-trip with the others so we wouldn’t have to traipse back up the hill, only to descend it again in order to retrieve the ropes. So, being the geniuses that we are, decided to abandon our client and head back out via Titan – derigging it as we went.

And so there we left them. Many questions were left unanswered. Would they survive? Would Threehips make it through Colostomy Crawl? Would the Mine Inspector save Peak Cavern? Would Syd remember the way out?

You’d be correct in thinking ‘Yes’ to all of them. Except the last one. Syd’s memory is terrible.

Now alone, we soon found our way back through the labyrinth and standing beneath the hanging ropes, peering up into the chasm we’d recently descended. Rob had been smart, powering off ahead and had arrived there first. (Thus ensuring he’d get an easy ride up the two big pitches without having to lug any rope bags up beneath him). Half an hour or so later, I rejoined him back at the Breakthrough Window, absolutely knackered and refusing to carry another bag another metre. Luckily, Rob’s new moustache (despite making him look like the 3rd Chuckle Brother) had tripled his strength, and so he set about lugging them up the final pitch to daylight by himself.

Both out, we locked up, and all that remained was the triumphant walk back down the hill into Castleton itself, wondering if we’d beaten the others out. (We hadn’t).

We were disappointed to find Ed already heading home for a shower, Syd drinking tea, and George in the kitchen of the TSG flicking through a naked calendar of young girls he actually knows. Despite this, we congratulated the dirty old man on his accomplishment, got changed, and made our way back towards the club hut for beer and food. 

It was a fantastic achievement by George, considering he was struggling to walk a few days before, and news of his heroism had already travelled fast. Back at Stoney, a brass band had been arranged to play him into the grounds of Carlswark Cottage. Over at home, the backward folk of Taddington had celebrated by killing a cow. And further south, the more civil folk of London later marked the occasion by naming a baby after him.

What a guy.

All hail Prince George of Titan.