Caving at Pridhamsleigh Cavern in Devon – Quite the Adventure

A couple of weeks ago I went on another caving adventure with Somerset Adventures. Following Goatchurch Cavern and Swildon’s Hole in Somerset, this time we picked Pridhamsleigh Cavern in nearby Devon. I specifically requested a ‘tough and challenging’ experience that would push me to my limits.

DISCLOSURE (PREVIOUS COLLABORATIONS) AND PRICING

For complete transparency, I should mention that I have been invited on a number of activities by Somerset Adventures in the past. I did pay the full price of £150 for this one-day caving trip, though. 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.

EASY TO GET TO FROM LONDON

The train from London to Exeter takes around two hours. Robin, the owner and chief instructor at Somerset Adventures, picked me up at the station with his van. Then we did the half-hour drive to the cave. We arrived at 9am. Half an hour later we were fully geared up and made our way to the cave entrance, a mere 15 minutes’ walk from where we had parked the car.

 

Feature photo and where indicated (c) Somerset Adventures, all other pics (c) BSqB

CAVING AT PRIDHAMSLEIGH CAVERN – A CHALLENGING ROUTE

Still a caving newbie, with only a few days of experience so far, I found Pridhamsleigh Cavern pretty challenging early on, at least on the route we picked. The day’s activity did not require rope and harness. That said, I found the climbing much more challenging than on other trips where I had indeed worn a harness and had been tied into a rope while someone belayed me.

THE FIRST STEEP WALL

A mere ten minutes after we had entered the Cavern, there was a fairly steep, maybe 65 to 70 degree (with 90 degrees being vertical) subterranean rock wall, about 7 metres tall, which gently rolled out onto a horizontal ledge at the bottom. The ledge was about 2m wide. On the other side the cliff continued downward for another 7 metres or so.

 

TO CLIMB OR NOT TO CLIMB

Robin asked me if I was comfortable giving the wall a try and he mentioned that there were easier alternatives. I was told in no uncertain terms that the wall was hard to climb, with very few holds, very far apart from each other. Most of all, every square inch of the wall was covered in dripping wet, slippery mud.

CLIMBING VS. CAVING

When you go climbing, you only ever start the ascent once the rock has dried up. When caving, it is perfectly normal to climb muddy walls. This is possible, because the climbing is usually more like scrambling and technically much easier than proper outdoor rock-climbing. Caving at Pridhamsleigh Cavern, despite being challenging, is no different in that regard.

  

PREPPING AND PLANNING

Robin walked me through the ascent, told me which holds to use. How to balance my weight. Which side to lean towards. When to turn from my belly onto my back and then again onto my belly. I spent a good five more minutes inspecting the wall, then I gave it a shot.

STARTING THE CLIMB

I climbed very slowly, planning each next move carefully, making sure I had a good grip on a hold before putting any weight on it. Four metres up, the space became narrower and the opposite wall of the chamber started leaning much closer towards the wall I was climbing. I had to turn onto my back to be able to grab the holds above/behind me on the other wall. This is because there were no good holds on my wall on that section.

STAYING CALM

I managed to find one hold and grabbed onto it with both hands, while pressing my knees onto the other wall which was above/in front of me, now that I was leaning with my back onto the wall I was climbing. The wall was still very steep at this section. This meant that gravity pulled hard on me. I focused on my breathing for a few moments and tried to stay calm. However, I realised I would not be able to keep myself in that position for much longer.

 

“YEAH… YEAH… JUST A LITTLE BIT FURTHER…”

I looked around me with an increasing level of alarm. Where was the next hold that would allow me to traverse the wall and then climb further up to the crack that was leading away from the wall about 2m further up? Robin was giving me pointers from the ledge below. Finally I spotted the other hold. In order to grab it I had to lean almost horizontally towards it. I leaned further and further. I heard some sounds of approval from Robin below: “yeah… yeah… just a little bit further.. you almost got it.”

…GASSSSSSUUUUUUUMMMPPP!

And then everything happened so quickly I only remember finding myself on the ledge with Robin leaning over me, asking if I was okay. For a couple of moments I was stunned, unable to think or speak. Then my brain kicked in again and I checked my body for bruises and my senses for pain. Luckily all was good. I’d get a few black and blue marks, but nothing serious and absolutely no pain. A real treat. The fact that the slope ran out gently onto the ledge and that there were no sharp protruding bits but just a few smaller bumps and tiny holds had made all the difference.

 

Left pic above (c) Somerset Adventures

SECOND ATTEMPT

Robin and I half-jokingly agreed that it was good to have ticked the fall-from-the-wall box early on, so that this was out of the way. I wasn’t going to let the wall get the better of me. After a five-minute breather and another good look at the wall I made my way up again. When I reached the traverse section from which I had fallen, I realised that my arms and legs were still very sore. It would’ve been better to take a longer break perhaps. Was I going to mess this one up a second time?

“YUP… YUP… JUST A LITTLE BIT FURTHER…”

I started leaning further and further towards the second hold. Again I could hear Robin below: “yup… yup… just a little further… you almost got it.” Finally I could feel the second hold in my palm. I put my other hand on another hold slightly further away and pulled myself over. Getting to the crack and the passageway that was leading away from the wall was child’s play.

FIRST TIME GETTING STUCK WHILE CAVING AT PRIDHAMSLEIGH CAVERN

It was a great relief to have left the wall behind me. Nothing was going to stop me now. Caveman doing some caving. The passageway I was crawling through was getting tighter and tighter. I was no more than five metres away from the wall when my belt got stuck on some hook-like protrusion on the side of the pothole. It took me several minutes of manoeuvring back and forth, twisting around, to get my belt unhooked and to move forward.

SHORT BREAK, TAKING OFF THE BELT

I was pleased when I reached the next chamber. Robin had taken another route and was already waiting there for me. We took a five-minute break. Robin mentioned that it would be okay for me to take my belt off. The belt is meant to allow the instructor to grab a caver and pull them or to attach a rope to it. However, the likelihood, that the belt would be of any use, seemed low. So I took the belt off and put it into the bag we were carrying with us.

 

THE BIG SQUEEZE

Robin asked if I wanted to do some proper tight squeezing. He advised me that there was a 15m long circular route from the chamber we were in. The route was tighter than any of the other caving at Pridhamsleigh Cavern and tighter than most of Somerset’s and Devon’s potholes in a general sort of way.

GOOD TO GO

I wasn’t going to bail out now, so I confirmed I was good to go. Robin gave me detailed instructions, when to have my left shoulder pointing upwards, when to have my right shoulder pointing upwards. When to lie on my back. When to wiggle along on my belly.

SHOULDER ACROBATICS

Throughout the route you have one arm alongside your body and the other arm pointing forward. The shoulder of the forward pointing arm is further forward than the other shoulder, too. This minimises the width of your shoulders, if you were to look at your body from above. Your shoulders are not at a 90 degree angle to your spine, but one is at a bigger, the other at a smaller angle. Your shoulder width is now similar to your chest width (if you were to look from above).

THERE’S TIGHT AND THEN THERE’S TIGHT

The hole where I had just gotten stuck with my belt had been relatively wide, with plenty of air around the body. This hole was almost constantly so tight that my body would touch the rock around me with nearly every square inch of it. A belt would not be helpful here, because Robin would never be able to reach it. Every two to four metres there were 50cm-long slightly wider sections with a bit of air around your head, but still too tight to crawl or to move your arms.

 

INSTRUCTIONS ALONG THE WAY

On three locations there were openings in the hole’s walls which connected to other, wider passageways. Robin monitored me and gave me instructions from the entrance and the exit of the circular route in the big chamber, as well as from those openings in the passageway’s walls.

ALMOST ZERO RISK OF GETTING STUCK FOR GOOD

When I chat with friends about my love for caving as a recreational activity, they usually understand the fascination. What many of them are afraid of, is getting stuck for good. It seems an almost entirely irrational fear, because no caver has ever been stuck for good in the UK. Worldwide there is only one known fatality from getting stuck in a pothole. Over hundreds of years of recreational caving. Worldwide. By tens of millions of people.

GETTING STUCK A FEW MORE TIMES WHILE CAVING AT PRIDHAMSLEIGH CAVERN

Throughout the day I got stuck a total of five times, but it never took me more than a minute or two to get unstuck again. On one occasion I had misunderstood Robin’s instructions and had taken a wrong turn where a particularly tight pothole passage forked. My instructor kept telling me from the distance and out of sight, that I should follow the passageway upwards and slightly to the left. There the pothole should open into a much bigger passageway.

  

Right pic above (c) Somerset Adventures

NO WAY FORWARD

I was in such a tight spot that it was very difficult to move my head in a way where I could see forward properly. After moving my head around for a good five minutes or so, I was certain: I had reached the end of the pothole. There was no way forward. No chamber.

WRONG PASSAGEWAY

I shouted the news back to Robin. He asked “At the fork, did you go left or right?”

“Right.”

“Oh… that explains… you should have gone left, you are in the wrong passageway.”

“Oh.”

“Move back very, very slowly, but remember, there is a cliff edge 3m behind you with a 6m drop, so make sure you grab holds and don’t fall over the edge.”

RE-ROUTING

At some stage I got stuck, but was able to get myself unstuck quickly. With my instructor’s help I managed to move back to the fork, next to the cliff edge, and then move into the right pothole. Sure enough, the hole opened into a much bigger passageway, as expected.

‘THE SLIDE’

Next up was a spiral slide, which was great fun. It’s fairly steep and goes around a bend. As on any slide, you sit down on your bottom and let gravity do its job. You use your hands and feet to assist with navigation and to avoid the bigger bumps. You’re probably never faster than 15kph, but it feels rather fast.

BIGGER PASSAGEWAYS

We explored several further, much wider passageways. Most of them were so big that you could walk upright with plenty of space between your head and the ceiling.

 

Right pic above (c) Somerset Adventures

THE LAKE AND THE CAVE DIVERS

Some of the chambers were much bigger than the first ones. The biggest chamber we saw was the one with the famous lake. Pridhamsleigh Cavern is a mecca for cave divers. Next to the big chamber with the lake is a smaller chamber which has been named “The Changing Room”, because this is where the divers change into their diving gear. They then enter the water and swim towards the middle of the lake where a vertical rope has been fixed.

DIVING TO PRID II

They then dive vertically down along the rope. The rope has coloured markers which indicate the depth. At certain markers the divers stop for a while to acclimatise to the depth, then they move further down until, about 24m down, just 6m above the bottom of the lake, there is a hole in the wall. The divers swim through that hole and into a second lake. The second lake has an identical rope where the process is reversed. Divers gradually ascend until they reach the non-submerged part of Prid II, the chamber which is home to the second lake. The lake is home to a tiny variety of cave shrimps endemic to southwest England.

TIME FOR A SNACK

There were no cave divers (or indeed other cavers) around when we visited. We sat down next to the lake and had a couple of muesli bars.

 

WADING THROUGH WATER

On the way back to the cavern entrance we did some more climbing, parts of it on near-vertical walls. We also passed through one section where we were wading through chest-deep water. On a 3m-long stretch the ceiling was so low, that there was just enough space for a human head between the water surface and the ceiling. We bent forward, making sure our heads stayed above the water, and waded forward.

LETTING THE WATER DRIP

The water was surprisingly warm, perhaps 10C degrees, just 2C colder than the air temperature. When we exited the puddle, we stopped for a moment to let the water drip from our rubber boots and overalls. The caving overalls with the fleece overalls below and the base layers, as well as the neoprene socks kept us reasonably warm’ish.

 

Right pic above (c) Somerset Adventures

BACK AT THE VAN

30 minutes later we were back at Robin’s van, roughly 4.5 hours after we had started. Caving at Pridhamsleigh Cavern had been my most exciting caving experience so far. It wasn’t something that Ellie could have joined me on. She didn’t even want to look at the ‘scary’ pictures or hear me talk about my adventure. However, for me it had ticked all boxes. I felt like I had significantly improved my skills and that I was getting closer to joining a caving club where there is usually less handholding than when you go with a paid instructor 1:1 or 1:2.

PICK AND CHOOSE

It should be noted that Somerset Adventures are very flexible in their approach. I got what I asked for. Robin and his instructors would have been equally happy to take someone caving at Pridhamsleigh Cavern (or another cave) for just half a day and for mostly upright walking in bigger passageways and with no squeezing or climbing.

 

GREAT EXPERIENCE CAVING AT PRIDHAMSLEIGH CAVERN

5 out of 5 in my book. I hope to be doing more caving with Somerset Adventures soon. My plan is to do another session at Swildon’s Hole, but this time make my way much further down the hole through the large number of sumps.

UP NEXT: SUMPS

You don’t need scuba-diving gear for the sumps, but you gradually have to hold your breath for longer and longer periods of time. It starts with just two or three seconds, you basically just dive two metres under a section where the ceiling reaches the water surface. If I understand correctly, then the longest section is about ten times longer and takes about 15 to 20 seconds underwater. Better not get stuck anywhere on your way, as you can only hold your breath for so long, apparently.

Looking for more outdoor adventures? Check out our posts about packrafting, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, ocean rowing, hiking, ice-climbing, rock-climbing, indoor bouldering, and flyboarding. We’ve also visited the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, a Carnival mask ball in Venice, Marche Aligre in Paris, Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, and Kathmandu’s temples.

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14 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness – I was on the edge of my seat reading that! Pridhamsleigh looked like a real challenge (although the slide sounded fun) and you did absolutely brilliantly. It’s also very reassuring to know that no one has ever got stuck for good in the UK. Another excellent adventure!

    1. Thanks so much, Mitch. I wouldn’t want to miss the experience, it was so much fun. Yes, knowing that no one ever got stuck for good in the UK makes me feel much better about the squeezing sections. The risk is surprisingly low, almost non-existent. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. Amazing! Every time I read about your caving adventures I am amazed. I am pretty adventurous but this would likely challenge me. Also the amount of training it takes to do these things also is amazing. Great post. At least I can live it through your eyes.

    1. Thank you, what a nice compliment.

      I think learning to sail a big boat and then going on a sailing trip around the Caribbean like you’ve done it is incredibly cool. Kudos to you guys. 🙂

    1. That’s such a nice thing to say, Richard. You and I will definitely have to do some caving when you’re back in the UK for a visit, mate.

  3. It’s pretty crazy to think that there’s only been the one death from getting stuck. I guess as long as you stay calm, you figure you got in there somehow so you should be able wriggle out. Sounds like it was a fun journey. I do think holding my breath is where I would definitely draw the line though haha

    1. Yes, it IS quite crazy that not more people are getting stuck for good, I guess. But as you say, if you managed to get in, you should be able to wriggle out. I’d imagine you’ll enjoy caving as much as I did, being an outdoors man and all. 🙂

  4. So stressful! I am amazed by your courage and determination. I would consider myself somewhat adventurous but this is a definite no for me! I am happy that you enjoyed it so much!

    1. Cheers, Peggy. Oh.. I don’t know, but yes, I definitely had a lot of fun. Ellie & I are planning to do a lot more caving soon. 🙂

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