Last weekend Ms B & I treated ourselves to some caving at Wookey Hole in Somerset. The name ‘wookey’ is believed to come from the Celtic word ‘ogo’, which means ‘cave’. So ‘Wookey Hole Cave’ basically means ‘cave cave cave’. Playing it safe there.
The famous limestone caverns have been used by humans for at least 45,000 years. The Romans used it as a burial ground, and besides human skeletons they found the bones of a woolly rhino and a cave lion. Nowadays the cave is used to mature cheddar cheese (funny enough not from Cheddar, ten miles down the road, but from Dorset). Britain’s first cave dives took place here in 1935, making it a place of pilgrimage for the caving community.
A significant part of the cave system remains unexplored. Only 4km, including 25 chambers, have been charted so far. In 1927 the caves were opened as a tourist attraction to the public, and at some stage they were owned by Madame Tussauds. Here, underground, you can find perhaps the most famous stalagmite of the country. It is the so-called Witch of Wookey Hole, a vaguely human-shaped cone that is supposed to be a witch turned to stone by a monk from Glastonbury.
The package is called “Wild Wookey” and only cost us a very reasonable £40 per person. The ticket includes a roughly three-hour caving tour with an experienced instructor. Bigger tours sometimes have several instructors.
(c) Keith Edwards, posted with permission
We had managed to secure a booking for Sunday morning 9:30am, so arrived at our hotel in Wookey Hole the night before, to have an early dinner and catch some sleep. We had spent most of Saturday on a ten-mile hike through the Forest of Dean.
The next morning we made sure to get up on time with enough time to spare to pack our suitcases, enjoy a nice Full English each, check out of the hotel, and store our luggage in the mini-SUV we had hired for the weekend.
Ten minutes before the official meeting time, as requested, we were waiting next to the ice-cream parlour near the entrance to the Hole. The other three group-members had already arrived: Erica, an amateur climber in her early twenties, and Daniel and Tamsin, a married couple closer to my age, with previous experience in doing adventurous stuff.
It feels sillier every time I mention it here on the blog, considering I’ve done some skydiving, bungee jumping, and other stuff. However, I am absolutely not joking when I say that I’m very scared of heights. I had not slept very well the previous night and felt rather nervous.
As always in these situations, the more freaked out I got, the more of an urge to joke around I got. Like a fifth-grader who’s had too many jelly beans. When the song “China in your hand” by 1980’s pop band T’Pau was playing on the radio while we were having breakfast, I made an inexcusable remark about Ms B’s ethnicity, and it took off from there. Luckily Craig, our friendly, knowledgeable instructor, took it in a stride. His jokes were much better than mine… and not offensive.
We walked the short distance from the ice cream parlour to the “Bat Cave”, where we watched a useful 5-minute video about safety, how to put on and use our gear, and how to protect the caves. All gear except for hiking boots is provided. The organisers actually recommend wellington boots first, and hiking boots only as a second alternative. Nonetheless, Ms B & I were glad that we were wearing robust, firm, tight-fitting, water-proof, heavy hiking boots with good ankle protection. We felt grateful that we had been advised in advance to wear only light clothes made of synthetic fibres rather than heavy cotton clothes. You will get wet and even though the constant (come summer or winter) 11°C of the caves sound relatively cool, you’re likely to heat up soon, because of the strenuous activity. Another few words of advice from Craig and on our merry way we were to the actual Hole, 2mins walk away.
All photos up to here (but not the video) have been taken by Craig (Wild Wookey) but BSqB has full rights. The following photos are all (c) Wild Wookey.
The route starts with some of the narrowest (even though only very short) bits, and it took me a fair bit of maneuvering to make my way to the first assembly spot, all of which are marked with small, round, plastic light reflectors that are impossible to miss. There were just millimetres to spare on each side of my body. After seeing me struggle during the first bit, Craig took me a different route from the rest of the group for the next short section, in order to avoid having to call the plumber to clear the pipe. I’m exactly the maximum permissible weight (105kg), height (198cm; my passport says 200cm, but I shrunk since I got married), and waist size (40in).
During every stop, our instructor came up with an anecdote, some background information, historic facts, or more advice. One of his colleagues, we learned, had found a human jaw bone just a week earlier, at the location where we were standing at the time. Everyone was hoping that it was from Roman times and not from Tuesday the week before, when Barry went missing during the afternoon tour (just kidding about Barry, the jaw bone story is true though, and the object was shown to us upon our return to the “Bat Cave” sitting in a plastic container of cave water).
Early on, you do your first abseil, just under ten metres, with your body nearly horizontal and your feet touching the cliff wall, as you “walk” down the cliff backwards. Next comes a fair bit of walking on the official show cave paths, where we overtook a class of primary school kids and their guide. My friends all think I’m a boring, middle-aged, accountant-type, but these kiddos still show some respect to anyone they’ve just seen abseiling down a wall.
Next you do a few more bits of climbing until you reach the section where you traverse over the River Axe along the walls just two feet above the water and across the so-called ‘wobbly bridge’ (yes, it is very wobbly). That’s when, in my view, it all started to turn from a walk in the park into a proper challenge.
Like most of the members of my group, I was soaked by a tiny intermittent ‘waterfall’ of rainwater that had been seeping down here from the ground above and gradually increased in volume. The next bit was by far the most challenging in terms of climbing. It was still very basic and required no technical skills.
However, I found it physically quite demanding, despite exercising nearly every day and being in an okay shape. Much of it probably had to do with the fact that my whole body started to seriously over-heat. In combination with the soaking wet overall and undergarment my glasses started to fog up. Whenever I cleaned them with a muddy handkerchief I had with me, they started fogging up again immediately each time with an added layer of mud and dust, until my vision was seriously impaired.
This led to me leaning my upper torso backwards a lot, away from the wall, in order to increase the chance of catching a glimpse of the ladder or the rope above or a step for my feet. The fact that I’m very scared of heights was not particularly conducive to my efforts either. When I reached the top of the climbing route, it took me a dozen attempts until I had figured out how to get my foot onto the final step before the level part on top of the cliff. Only then did I realise that you need to lean backwards, away from the wall, and it will be much easier to lift your foot up onto the little ledge.
I rested for a couple of minutes while lying on my back in the tight, horizontal crevice, trying to slow my breathing. Then the difficult part began: the crawling. There are only four bits of crawling during the 700m long path we took, three sections are just a few metres long. This last length was only around 15m long, but I found it very exhausting. With my big frame I was not able to make much use of my arms and legs, as there was not enough space to extend them and use them to move myself forward. I ended up wiggling and snaking my way forward, one inch at a time. The surface is obviously uneven, so it was not extremely comfortable, to say the least.
Next up was the 30-metre monster abseil, the equivalent of a twelve-storey building. You dangle freely mid-air, without your feet touching the wall. I have to admit, it was quite a thrill, and great views, too, even though I only looked up and horizontally, never down. I was ready for the last 30-minute leg of the tour with the boat ride and the zipline, but then we reached the show cave path again. Craig asked the group if anyone wanted to skip the last section. Everyone else in the group was clearly hellbent on ploughing on, including an all-smiles Ms B. After pondering the pros and cons for a moment, I decided to leave the group here and wait outside. I’m not a spring-chicken anymore. Crawling is not for me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that it’s better to take it easy sometimes, if an opportunity to do so presents itself, right in your face.
Apparently the boat ride, the zipline, and the rest of the climbing were all great fun. This was one of the most exciting things we’ve done in a long time. Most importantly, Craig made us feel 100% safe at all times and managed to keep me calm and confident. 5 out of 5 in our book. We’ve already recommended this tour to several friends, including one who is now planning on doing her hen do in the Hole.
Looking for more fun things to do? Check out our posts about mountain-biking, kayaking, hiking, quad-biking, punting (on the river Cam), and horse-back riding. For travel inspiration, feel welcome to read our articles about the mask ball in Venice, a medieval pageant in my home town Burghausen, or our Norfolk seal safari.