- General

Caving in Swildon’s Hole

On the 4th of October 1936 Jack Sheppard finally cracked the first sump in Swildon’s Hole and dived through to the other side. It took Jack and his team two years to make this breakthrough dive. The dive itself turned out to be short and sweet, before he knew it the dive was over and he could stand up and wade out of the water.

Imagine his surprise, shock and disbelief when his head popped out of the water and it dawned on him that they could have easily free dived the sump and continued their exploration many years prior. The effort and the development of the revolutionary breathing apparatus was not in vain however, as passing the first sump paved the way for the discovery of more cave passage and the exploration of subsequent sumps.

Swildon’s Hole is the longest cave in the Mendip Hills area of the UK, with over 9 kilometers of passage. Twelve sumps divide the classic streamway passage; some of the sumps are shallow and short and can be free dived, while others require the use of dive gear in order to negotiate them. The water flowing through Swildon’s Hole has been dye traced and resurgences at Wookey Hole Cave, a show cave several kilometers away. Cave divers have been trying to get past Sump 12 and connect the two caves for many years but at this stage this remains a theoretical proposition for most and a holy grail for some.

My first experience in Swildon’s Hole was back in early 2009 with Rick Stanton and John Volanthen as my guides. We quite literally ran through the cave before hitting Sump 9 and calling it a day. I vaguely remember seeing decoration, negotiating waterfalls, free diving sumps, carrying tanks over lots of dry passage and in general getting my ass kicked. Don’t get me wrong I kept up with the long legged boys, leaving them vaguely impressed, but the next day I could hardly walk I was that stiff and sore. In my defense I did just come off a year of living in America. It seems that in North Florida walking is a foreign concept… perhaps even actively discouraged, as footpaths are few and far between. More to the point, I spent my time in gracefully swimming through underwater caves rather than walking, climbing and crawling in all over dry caves.

Time heals old wounds and I was ready for another go at Swildon’s Hole on my return visit to the UK this October. I did spend a good month prior to the trip getting fit and terrific and preparing my body for hauling dive gear long distances, this time I knew what was coming! As it happened my return visit to Swildon’s Hole was quite a relaxed affair and a nice slow tourist trip up to Sump 2, with a fellow Ozzie, Craig Challen, as my sidekick. This meant that we had no heavy dive gear to carry and could just relax and appreciate the scenery along the way. Traveling light without scuba tanks strapped to our sides meant we could almost skip down the passages. Swildon’s One is actually a lovely and highly decorated passage, so it was nice to take the time and enjoy it.

Sump 1 is a quick free dive that takes just a few seconds to negotiate. I might have led Craig astray and said that it was a 30 second breath hold. His facial expression of incredulity and surprise upon surfacing must have somewhat matched Jack Sheppard’s when he managed to finally get through back in 1936. Having finished with my light hearted jokes we trundled down to Sump 2. The nature of the cave changes in this section but although it is starker compared to Swildon’s One it is still amazing in its own way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly we took the scenic route on the way out. Once the stream passage ended and there was no more water to follow, we began exploring the upper sections of the cave, in search of the exit. Ever helpful, I recounted the story of the cavers who lost their way in Honeycomb cave in Buchan, right next to the exit. On the cave floor there were leaves and branches, they could hear the birds outside, they could smell the fresh air but they could not figure out how to get out that one final bit. When the rescuers came the lost group was right there, only a couple of meters into the cave. Luckily we did not share the same fate and finally hit the right path, saving ourselves the possibility of much embarrassment and ridicule.

Swildon’s Hole is a terrific cave and at its best is a very sporty trip. Next time I’m in that part of the world I’ll happily revisit it and perhaps aim to go all the way to Sump 12 and the present bitter end.