A few weeks ago Somerset Adventures very kindly invited me to check out their one-day caving experience. The outing includes 2 to 3h of dry caving in the morning and 2 to 3h of wet caving in the afternoon. Those terms will be clarified further below.
TIME FRAME & COST – SOMERSET ADVENTURES CAVING EXPERIENCE
In addition to these 4 to 5h of caving, you will need to allow for travel time, time to change in and out of gear, half an hour for a quick packed lunch, and the short walk from the respective parking lots to the caves. The dry caving was taking place at Goatchurch Cavern near Burrington Combe.
Doing the full-day two-caves experience with an instructor on your own like I did costs £150. But if you are happy to join a group or you are a group of 3 or more, then the cost goes down to £60 per person. The half-day speleological experiences start from an amazingly good value £35 per person. Further discounts are available, for example for young folk.
No special gear needed. Everything will be provided.
CAVING IN SOMERSET: LOCATION
Goatchurch Cavern and the second cave of the day, Swildon’s Hole, are both located in the Mendips in eastern Somerset, about 35km west of Bath. You won’t be going on a motorway but first through congested city traffic and then on small country roads. So allow 45 to 60mins, more in case of traffic warnings. Somerset lies in southwest England. The county’s largest city is Bath, about 175km – 1h20m by train or twice as long by car – to the west of London.
DRY CAVING VS. WET CAVING
Dry caving with Somerset Adventures (or anyone else) doesn’t usually mean that you won’t get wet. Typically caving will involve cavers getting wet. A lot. What it means is that for the most part you won’t be constantly getting soaked. In other words you’ll probably be fine wearing hiking gear with a thick fleece under the caving overall you’ll be provided with. (For the wet caving later that day I changed into a 5mm cold-water wetsuit.)
RUBBER BOOTS VS. HIKING BOOTS
A couple of years ago I had done my first and only other caving experience so far. It was also caving in Somerset, only a stone’s throw away. A dry caving experience. Back then I had been surprised that everyone recommended heavy rubber boots. I would have expected to be told to wear waterproof hiking boots as it is much easier to climb with them. When you realise how wet even dry caving can get, you see the point of wearing rubber boots even for dry caving.
AIR AND WATER TEMPERATURE
The air temperature in those caves hardly varies all year round and is between 10 and 12C. The water temperature can be significantly colder, close to freezing point.
CAVING AT GOATCHURCH CAVERN WITH SOMERSET ADVENTURES
After a short walk from the car park up a hillside through thick woodland and across a little stream, my guide Ben and I arrived at Goatchurch Cavern. I already knew Ben from two days earlier, when I had done some stand-up paddleboarding with him. Despite his very young age (I’m guessing 20), he’s very experienced and has a number of certifications, including as caving instructor. Turned out we share many interests, so ended up chatting about past and future adventures along the way.
A VICTORIAN SHOW CAVE
The Victorians had tried to turn Goatchurch Cavern into a show cave. So all through the outer parts of the cave, close to the entrance, you can still see traces from the 19th Century, like nearly washed-out steps, ledges, and paths, traces of railings and lighting.
ENTERING THE CAVE WITH SOMERSET ADVENTURES
We entered through the main entrance and the first 100 metres consist of spacious chambers, regularly more than 6 metres tall. Stalactites dangle from the ceiling, stalagmites are growing from the ground.
SOME GEOLOGY & HISTORY
Ben explained the more unusual patterns of mineral formations to me, how some were created by dripping water, others by little streams that had changed their paths since then or simply by erosion. Furthermore I was given a brief history of the human exploration and the cave’s peak of popularity during Victorian times.
LET THE PROPER POTHOLING PROGRESS
Then the proper potholing starts when you leave the show cave trail. A tiny hole in the floor just big enough for one person to comfortably climb through. I’m not at all claustrophobic. That said, it does feel counter-intuitive to squeeze yourself through narrow crevices. Soon you find out that that’s where the fun is.
WHY I LOVE CAVING
I find it very hard to describe the attraction caving has for me. Ever since my first attempt at it I know I love it, and so does Ellie. One of the more obvious reasons is that the bigger the challenge the bigger the sense of adventure.
CAVING IS PRIMAL
Moreover, I like that caving feels primal. Our ancestors were cavemen and women. You can’t get much closer to nature than literally immersing yourself into Mother Earth.
CAVING COMBINES MANY DIFFERENT SPORTS
I love that caving combines so many different sports and techniques. Climbing and caving are heavily interlinked. Not just in that caving does usually include a fair bit of climbing. Both sports involve scrambling and vertical work using ropes. The founder of the world’s premier climbing gear brand Petzl, for instance, Fernand Petzl, was a famous caver.
OFTEN IT IS LIKE UNDERGROUND CANYONING
Caving can be more similar to canyoning/canyoneering or even coasteering than to traditional climbing. It usually involves some abseiling, sometimes scuba-diving, ziplining, swimming, boating, mountaineering, hiking, bouldering, the list is long.
CAVERS ARE SERIOUS ABOUT CONSERVATION
Cavers also take a keen interest in conservation. While most sports climbers will happily cover a rock wall with a tight grid of bolts, a caver will modify his route in order to avoid a spider web or a bat family’s home.
CAVING IS EXPLORATION
The sense of exploration is multiplied in caving. Some people say you climb a mountain because it’s there, but you climb a cave because it’s not there. Or at least proper spelunkers often don’t know yet if it is there or not, when they start out. It is not uncommon to find traces of human visitors from hundreds of years ago, and sometimes even older ones.
YOU’RE UNLIKELY TO FREEZE TO DEATH – A BIG PLUS
Due to the constant temperature of 10 to 12C degrees and the lack of snowfall and blizzards, the chances of freezing stiff are significantly lower than, say, on an alpine climbing trip where temperatures can easily fall below -20C. I used to suffer from a terrible fear of heights, which increased exponentially with exposure. Usually when caving, your exposure will not exceed 30m or so. If it does, you won’t see it, as it’s pitch-black dark.
CAVES ARE OUTRAGEOUSLY BEAUTIFUL
Maybe most of all: caves are very beautiful. Especially the ones with stalactites and stalagmites. Equally, the ones with waterfalls, or lakes or rivers. And naturally the giant ones with huge rock faces, and the narrow, crooked ones that take some effort getting to and that make you feel like you’re the first one to enjoy the view.
For real cavers the most interesting ones are often the deepest, longest, largest cave systems. The UK’s biggest cave system, the Three Counties System, has around 100km of mapped passageways and reaches a depth of more than 250m from the entrance level.
I often get puzzled looks when I say that perhaps the most amazing nature I’ve seen was a cave. More precisely, the Padirac Cave in southern France. But I mean it. Caves rock. Even if you’re not a troglodyte. A globetrotting friend of mine, who’s been to around 140 countries, swears by the life of his mother that Son Doong Cave in Vietnam is the most magic place he ever visited. Ms B always gets wet eyes when she talks about the beautiful cave paintings at Lascaux.
In southern Bavaria where I grew up all school children visit the ancient salt mines and some stalactite, ice, or stone age caves. As a kid I couldn’t imagine anything more fun than shooting down giant wooden slides or hopping onto a trolley train in the salt mines.
DEEPER AND DEEPER WITH SOMERSET ADVENTURES
Shortly after we started our potholing experience, the hole became steeper and tighter. Quite to my relief we reached another large cave after about 25m of crawling. Ben continued the sightseeing part of the experience and I learned more about the cave and how it had come into existence. We bumped into a small group of other humans.
ALMOST ENTIRELY ON OUR OWN, AWAY FROM CIVILISATION
During the following two hours we only saw one other small group of people. About half of the time we could move in a fully or somewhat upright/leaning manner. The other half of the time we were doing light, very easy climbing, requiring no skills, scrambling, and no small amount of crawling. Only at one stage did we briefly use a rope. Once you get your head around it, everything feels more natural.
EASY-PEASY WITH SOMERSET ADVENTURES
I had a big smile on my face when we walked back to our cars. This was exactly what I had hoped for. It had all felt pretty relaxed and I did not feel exhausted in any way.
SANDWICHES IN THE CAR
After short deliberation Ben and I decided to gobble down our sandwiches in our cars while driving to cave #2: Swildon’s Hole. Thus we would have more time to explore. This was the wet caving bit, so I changed into my 5mm wetsuit. In hindsight I should’ve brought my summer wetsuit, as I did get quite hot, but I intentionally risked erring on the safe side. Rather too warm than too cold. Somerset Adventures can provide wetsuits on request. The caving overall goes on top of the wetsuit.
WHY CAN’T I KEEP MY BIG MOUTH SHUT?
While we were strolling along a crooked country road and then across two fields, I mentioned to Ben that I’d happily be challenged a bit more. Looking back, this had not been a smart thing to do. I’m not particularly athletic. I’m in my forties. I’m just starting to put a lengthy knee injury behind me. I’m 2m tall and slightly overweight.
TOO HYPED TO FEEL TIRED
Crawling through crevices on all fours for extended periods during the morning would probably have taken some energy for anyone, it certainly must have for me. I had just been too hyped up to feel it.
The entrance to Swildon’s Hole looks… what can I say… interesting? Inside a very small stone hut there is a 1m x 1m x 80cm x 30cm hole in the ground. Through this hole you see a little bit of water flowing over rocks.
We lowered ourselves into the hole and climbed down about 2m to the slightly inclined, almost level rock ledge, over which the water was flowing. Then my Somerset Adventures instructor spent 5mins explaining to me in some detail what the next moves were. He was going to be close to me all along the way, so could always jump in and assist, if needed.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
That said, the idea was that Ben went first. Then I was also going to squeeze myself around two corners in an S-shaped path. I would then see a marginally bigger stream, perhaps 5 to 10cm deep go over a more steeply inclined rock ledge and vanish through a tunnel, less than half a metre high.
JUST SLIDE THROUGH THE TUNNEL IN THE STREAM
I would lie flat down on my back and slide through the tunnel. Where the tunnel ends, after about 3m, there would be an edge with a vertical section, dropping about 3m down. Not too dangerous but to be avoided. While the water would go over the edge in a waterfall, I would stick to the right, rotate upside-down along my body’s axis, grab one of the big, easy-to-spot holds to my right, or rather at that stage: left side, then steady myself. Finally, I would climb the 3m down along the mini-waterfall to reach the ground.
SOME HAND-HOLDING AND ENCOURAGEMENT
I won’t lie, especially the idea of sliding through the very low tunnel, while surrounded by fast-flowing water, didn’t sound particularly enticing to me at first. However, Somerset Adventures’ sterling reputation as well as Ben’s proven expertise and calm and reassuring manner made me feel more relaxed about it.
GO WITH THE FLOW
Boy did it feel weird lowering myself onto the ledge, feeling the water flow past me below me and on my sides, and then letting loose and sliding into the tunnel. This one was a straight 10 out of 10 on the weirdness-scale.
GRAB THE HOLD
I could spot Ben as soon as I entered the tunnel and hear him guide me towards the holds. Much to my relief it was extremely easy to grab a hold, stabilise myself, and then climb down to the ground.
BACK ON MY FEET
What followed were a few taller caves where we could mostly walk and stand upright or at least be on our feet while leaning, crouching, pulling, pushing. Next there were several lengthy stretches of scrambling and crawling and squeezing. Eventually we arrived at another bigger chamber where Ben provided a bit more information about the cave.
“MAKE SURE YOU DON’T LET GO OF THE ROPE”
My Someset Adventures guide recommended I rest a little bit while he walked to one end of the chamber. I hadn’t spotted the hole in the ground above which he attached the rope. “The next bit is going to be quite steep. Just make sure you don’t let go of the rope.”
Solid advice, I thought, and started to lower myself down the hole, following Ben down the steep but far from vertical incline. We left the rope where it was and pushed further ahead and downwards at a flatter angle. At around this stage exhaustion hit me like a steam train, from one second to another.
NO SKILLS REQUIRED, BUT SOME ENERGY TO BURN
None of the caving we did that day was technical or requiring any skills. Nonetheless, it can still at times take some energy. For the first time that day I asked Ben if I could avoid an especially ‘squeezey’ part after I had watched him go through it first. No problem. Ben said to wait, which I did. After 2mins his face popped up out of an entirely different, much wider hole and he asked me to follow him.
FEELING LIKE INDIANA JONES
We agreed we’d do a shorter route and not go all the way to the planned half-way point. I was in very good spirits. There is no shame in doing a slightly shorter route. This was a serious adventure, a real challenge I’d without any doubt bang on about for years at the pub. I felt part Indiana Jones, part Nimsdai Purja. Did it again. Eat this, self-doubt. In your face.
And then my hole world (mind the pun) came tumbling down. We bumped into another small group. The group consisted of an instructor and a young family. Mom, dad, and 4-year old baby girl little Zoe. Zoe was clearly having the best time of her life. She giggled and waved at us and kept saying ‘hello, hello’ while Mom kept gently whispering ‘shush, Zoe, drink your orange juice’…
HOW ADVENTUROUS ARE YOU?
Joking aside. There is an ounce (not more!) of truth in my saying that the situation wasn’t entirely uplifting. Many of the ‘adventurous’ activities I’ve completed over the years have no noteworthy age restrictions or fitness or skills requirements.
HOW ADVENTUROUS IS CAVING IN SOMERSET?
In a way it’s great that a 4-year old or an 80-year old are able to do the same fun things that you do. On the other hand, is it really that adventurous if a toddler and an octogenarian can do them with some assistance… I never take it to heart. And hopefully those of you who thought that caving is too adventurous for you will have another think about it.
KUDOS TO THE REAL CAVERS
Exploring a cave system with a buddy or two while staying underground for one or more days using just your map, your tools, and your own skills, is of course very adventurous. It is also potentially a very quick and easy way for some to meet their maker.
Like with many activities so far at least, I prefer going out with an instructor and with little or no intention of ever learning the skills to do it by myself. Kudos to those who leave the well-crawled crevices and who venture into caves further afield without the help of a professional instructor.
I’M HOT, OH YEAH
On the way back to the starting point I got hotter and hotter in my wetsuit. I could feel myself getting more tired by the minute. I was still having a lot of fun. Caving is one of the most fun activities I’m aware of. Ben and I were still joking around and chatting. That said, I was relieved when we exited the cave again through the same hole we had entered it two and a half hours earlier.
I’LL BE BACK SOON WITH SOMERSET ADVENTURES
We walked back to the cars, changed into our normal clothes, and said our goodbyes. I am already looking into booking more activities with Somerset Adventures, including more caving and some coasteering. 5 out of 5 in my book. Ellie is likely to join me on at least some of the trips.
Looking for more fun things to do? Check out our posts about canyoning, climbing, kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, kitesurfing, skydiving, and exploring ancient Buddhist temple caves in Bhutan, Roman gold mines in Portugal and Russian coal mines near the North Pole.