16th December 2018

“You can come caving if you want. The cave has even been picked with you in mind!” said Rob. “We’re doing it by candle light and everyone will be frisked to make sure no one has a torch.” Whilst living in Sussex as a child, I could not begin to understand why people would want to climb rocks. It seemed utterly mad – a sort of masochistic form of suicide, or outrageous act of irresponsibility. I moved to Derbyshire, in my late twenties, and found I loved it. Caving was exactly the same; all except for loving it. It was about forty years ago that I last enjoyed crawling through muddy puddles. “How could you have let him do that?” my mother used to say when my father brought me home from one of his walks. If only he had known, he could have replied “it’s OK, there are actual clubs ‘op-north’ where real adults get together and crawl through muddy puddles. They even do it underground. The water is freezing cold and they love it!” I’m sure my mother would have been much more understanding as she scrapped the mud off me. The thing was that I did quite fancy this trip. I had been in the cave before and I had no recollection of it, which meant it couldn’t have been too much of an ordeal. It was Christmas and it would have been a shame to miss out on part of the DPC festivities. How scary could it be if we only needed candles to light the way? It would also be an opportunity to harvest material to write about with my shallow sense of humour.  

I said to Geoff the next day that I thought it was a shame Mike doesn’t write up more of the DPC meets and show off his highly entertaining English Degree skills. “Yes, he has a deeper sense of humour than you” Geoff replied. Thanks a lot for that Geoff. I’ve been trying to work out what a deep sense of humour means ever since. A quick Google brought up nine types of sense of humour and ‘deep’ wasn’t one of them. Indeed, in a survey for the Huffington Post, my favourite ‘word play’ was the most popular amongst ‘educated people’ (presumably: educated = deep?)

Right Jon…think deep humour…pressure on…got to write deeply…dig deep…no…can’t think of anything…better just recount what happened and see if anything deep comes to mind…

It was 17:30 the Saturday before the Saturday before Christmas when Rob and Mike came to collect me. Rain lashed down as though we were in a pre-rapture apocalypse and Christ was getting ready to return on his birthday to save the faithful and damn the rest of us to eternal torment before annihilating the globe and the heathens with it (deep enough Geoff? OK, deep, maybe, but I agree the humour needs some work and it probably works better as a story in America where they actually believe this stuff is actually going to happen.) Back to the story. We arrived at the hut and met Ben and Sam. A bottle of remarkably pleasant ginger spirit appeared and we enjoyed some Dutch Courage whilst showing off our candelabras. Sam’s really was good. I couldn’t do its magnificence justice by describing it. Thank goodness for Sam and his illuminating efforts. We’d be fine if we stuck with Sam. We then drove off in Rob’s van, together, about half a mile past Stony and parked in the imaginatively named Layby. With Layby pot opposite, what else were they going to call the parking space? It was very dark once the car lights went off but we were safe in the knowledge that Sam would light the way. “What, you mean I’m not even allowed a torch to get to the cave entrance?” I said to Rob. My comment was met with predictable ridicule and incredulity. As we lit up, Sam said “I think I’ve left my candle at the hut”. “Groans” all round. He took this very well and made up for it by scavenging a 1 m long piece of garden hose that he found in the grassy bank. Even now, I do not know, and cannot imagine, how the hose was going to help the no-candle-situation; but Sam seemed happy, so he and Mike set off. Rob, Ben and I set off a few seconds later, in the wrong direction and it was obvious that even getting across the road, armed only with candles, was going to be a challenge. Finally, we arrived at the cave entrance. My candle was excellent. It didn’t really provide any useful light, though it did smell nice. Somehow, the caving experience didn’t seem anything like as bad with the familiar cave smell masked by a bit of Christmas berry aroma. Luckily, Rob and Mike were a dab hand at this candle making and theirs illuminated the way nicely. They even had spares for the rest of us. Following Sam and then Ben, I set off down a 10 m ladder, within a tube of rock approximately the diameter of an American’s waist. The string I had fastened to my candle was slung over my shoulder and, remarkably, I reached the ground without setting fire to the caving suit that Rob had lent me. Crawling in a little way, I started to remember this cave. I thought to myself: “arr, it’s that cave where I needed to shut my eyes and pretend that I wasn’t cocooned in a wet, muddy tomb – instead imagining I was in a nice outdoor swimming pool with sun beating at my back and birds singing in the trees”. Forward we slithered and I reflected that what we were doing was slightly mad but what about the first people to be crawling through here, not knowing where it went; how mad were they? How, on earth, could Mike and Rob have found the way when they first came here? Brave or what? Braver than me, that’s for sure. At this point, we discussed that at its deepest; the cave was only 23 m below the road. Never mind the humour, not even the cave was deep in this story!

As we progressed, we assembled into a convoy, to find the person that was most confident of the way (Mike) was at the back of the party, with no way of moving to the front. My arms were beginning to tire and I did not want to have to retrace any of our steps (not that you could call them ‘steps’, of course). I had not been caving in two or three years and the familiar sequence of events started to unfold. The stages were: 1) trying to stay clean and dry successfully; 2) getting wet, muddy feet and lower legs; splashes of mud over body; 3) banging head on the rock, not taking care whilst going too fast, trying to keep up with the Peppits; 4) (the big transition when you know you aren’t going to get out without some discomfort) the first welly-scoop of muddy, cold water and the feeling of it settling around your foot; 5) giving up and lying down in mud; 6) giving up and lying in the cold water without groin submerged; 7) giving up and lying in the cold water with groin submerged – shudder even to think about it; 8) exhaustion and giving up the will to live; 9) hope that the exit is near; 10) elation at having survived; 11) despair that it isn’t quite all over; 12) freedom!    

I felt a certain sense of responsibility having said to Ben that the cave would be easy because even I had been through it before. He was, by now, at the back of the party and I had no idea how he was doing. We also had the prospect of the knotted rope climb in the penultimate chamber, that I now remembered. My candle had been drowned in its own wax, though Rob had given me a spare that was much brighter and fitted neatly inside the molten well that had been created by my now deceased wick. It really gave off quite a bit of heat. As I squeezed through a particularly narrow bit of rock I slightly panicked a lunge to place my candle an arm’s reach in front, so-as not to singe my eyebrows. My mug toppled over and the glass container that housed my candle within slid out and started rolling down toward my face. Caving with candles: what could possibly go wrong? Like an Indiana Jones boulder, it came at me. With arms pinned by the rock, all I could do was shut my eyes, turn my head and hope to escape with only minor burns. I opened my eyes, the candle had come to rest and I was unscathed. I gratefully accepted my good fortune and carried on.

At this point my arms were giving up and I started to make groaning noises with every wriggle forward that were clearly audible to Sam behind me. With my head to the side, I was mainly just pushing with my feet, arms useless and furrowing mud with my head and ear. On the point of despair, at last, we reached a chamber that we could stand up in. A couple of minutes of recovery and admiring the stalactites and we were off into the next chamber and the rope climb. The consensus was that it would not be a good idea to climb this with candles and the wriggle beneath would be better. There was a cleft in the rock behind the rope that went both down and up. Mike made a wedge in the drop whilst Sam climbed over and it sounded as though the passage up was not as tight as I previously thought. Mike moved out and I treacherously climbed over the drop and into the ramped tube. Sam could not get through! He retreated with a view to climbing the rope and I pushed on with trepidation, though with the knowledge that he almost got through and he is a little ‘bigger boned’ than me. I could see a slit in the dark tube that led to a passage lit by Rob’s candle. The thought occurred that if Rob had got through, it must be possible for a human male to pass. I could see that the slit widened a little toward the right and I stuck my head through it there, hoping Rob would be on hand as Midwife for my rebirth. Somewhat wedged, I could not see Rob, who had left to help Sam with his surprisingly rapid and adept rope-ascension. It was the right thing for him to do – I remembered the topping out being quite scary, even properly illuminated, the last time I was in this cave. With a bit of squeezing, rigging, pushing with my feet and groaning, I popped out. “Arr. It’s a boy. 10 stone and 4 ounces.”

“He thought it was all over.” For the first time in my life, I was at the front of a caving party. I was hoping for a quick get-away and as far as I remembered, the exit was just a few wriggles further on. Now is probably the time to make a little confession. It’s a bit embarrassing  but...I don’t really like spiders. I don’t mind them too much if I am armed with a long piece of sports equipment or a vacuum cleaner. I remember picking them up as a child and scaring my mother with them, yet something happened later in life and I started to get a feeling of anxiousness when seeing their horrible little crawling motions. I had also heard that cave dwellers can give a little nip, which, somehow, seems viscerally unpleasant as a concept – never mind the mild discomfort of a mild venomous sting. They can be dangerous too; as I found when one descended on me yesterday whilst I was driving on the M4. In the process of flinch-batting it across my car, we veered across all three lanes of traffic. Therefore, I was a little perturbed when I pushed my head into the final chamber, through a small aperture, and was met with the familiar feeling one gets when walking through the garden on a summer morning. I could feel a cobweb break over my cheeks. Were it not for this feeling, I might not have looked a few inches in front, where a 5 cm Meta Menardi was staring at me with its little black piggy eyes. What could I do? I seriously considered setting fire to it with my candle but I wouldn’t really have been able to bring myself to commit such a murder. Anyway, my guest Ben is a vegetarian (I think he calls himself a Presbyterian because he also eats fish) and I thought he might never speak to me again if he followed me to find the charred remains of what was actually quite a beautifully coloured creature, barbequed on the passage floor. All I could do was a rather comical, desperate and forceful blowing of air at the creature through pursed lips. Eventually, I caught it square on and it sailed back into the gloom. Out-of-sight: out-of-mind, I pushed myself fully into the tiny chamber, only to see my exit was through an oil drum, with a corrugated lid. “Oh my God! What if it is locked?” I panicked. I may have expressed these thoughts out loud because predictable ridicule from Rob quickly followed from behind. I edged out of his way, hoping he would move past me and use his body to sweep anything living along with him like a human pipe cleaner. This worked, though I looked around to see more of these spiders, together with their little offspring sacks. Apparently, the adults hate light and live in the cave and eat slugs. The young are strongly attracted to the light and the gene pool is diluted by them clinging to humans and animals that transplant them to other cave colonies. I didn’t want to be a vector for juvenile spider relocation and I followed Rob up and out as quickly as I could; followed by frantic brushing myself down, particularly round the back of the neck.

We emerged at 21:00, which was too late for food at the Moon. Luckily, the curry house in Stony was open and we enjoyed a very nice evening of curry. Oddly, they don’t have a licence but we enjoyed beer purchased from the Spa that Rob and Sam kindly acquired.

Sam dropped us off and Rob, Mike, Ben and I spent the night at the hut. In the morning, Rob cooked a beautiful breakfast and entertained us with his Barry White impression. The hut began to fill with sloe gin drinkers and then we were off on another DPC Christmas walk. The route took us round behind the hut, up onto the hill and down to the river. Along the river, we entered Baslow and walked up onto Baslow Edge. Rob was the only one brave enough to climb the Eagle Stone. Rapid progress was then made to the summit of Heather Wall, where it was decided that Froggatt was too slippery to attempt a climb that day. We arrived at the Grouse where two pints of ale were consumed and conversation flowed nicely. Once back outside, we found the temperature had dropped significantly and talk of climbing at Pinnacle Quarry evaporated. We headed to the Miners Arms via Grindleford and enjoyed another couple of ales before heading back to the hut. An excellent four course (!) Christmas meal was assembled and led by Bob. It really was excellent and all the hard work paid off well for the members. However, I could, maybe, point out that, in my opinion, the addition of sprouts to a meal is, well, unnecessary. I feel similarly about sprouts to how I feel about the large orbs that form the colourful behind of a Meta Menardi. Whilst we are on the subject of ‘constructive criticism’, I would also like to point out that the darts in the hut are hopelessly lightweight. It is like throwing feathered quills at the dartboard. John, undeterred by ‘bad tools’, entered the hall of fame as one of the select group of third-time-winners of the Travis Trophy. And then, another joyous Christmas was at an end for another year.