From the Early Days


Read accounts of the early days (1950's) when our club was only a few years old.
Hard exploration, home-made caving equipment, basic living standards but tremendous discoveries!

Tony Knibbs  Eric Inson

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by Tony Knibbs. Tony and his wife Denise came to our club's 60th Anniversary dinner in April 2006
and this is what he had to say . . .

"My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, you must excuse such a high mode of address, but when I was asked to speak this evening I think there was mention of a peerage - or was it 'porridge'? I suspect it was the latter, so I'll press on regardless.

You will all be aware that history is but a series of seemingly trivial events which pass unremarked at the time of their occurrence. The trivia which I am about to recount took place even before the dinosaurs first populated Dan-yr-Ogof; and even before the "scourge of the green jumpers" [a reference to Laurie Galpin's inimitable garment] came rampaging down from the North. You will have heard the ancient poem which includes the line " the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold". This was but an adaptation of an even earlier work referring to " the green jumper came down like a wolf on the fold". History is full of just such curiosities.

At approximately 06.00 hours on the fine autumnal morning of 18th September 1954 I sat in a café in Merthyr Tydfil with my colleague Malcolm Cotter discussing where we should spend a week's caving in South Wales. The street outside was noisy with the rhythmic clatter of the hobnailed boots of what seemed like an army of passing miners. Such an insignificant tête-à-tête had uncertain beginnings, but gave rise to a week of memorable caving. Having finished our breakfast, we shouldered our heavy packs (lightweight kit had yet to be invented) to catch the next train to Craig-y-Nos.

Apart from the scaling of Mount Everest, there were two important events in 1953: the discovery of St Cuthbert's Swallet on Mendip and the publication of "British Caving", the first book to provide a comparative, detailed overview of British caving regions. It also provided a showcase for caves in South Wales - in 64 pages of photos, 21 featured caves in Glyntawe, of which 14 were of OFD.
Impending National Service in 1954 had prompted me to take a caving holiday before the anticipated call-up in November. South Wales was chosen because it was unknown to both myself and my colleague Malcolm. The mute recommendation of the photos in "British Caving" may also have guided our choice. Neither of us had any knowledge of Wales. I have a logbook entry from which I'll shortly bore you with a few lines. In passing, may I say that anyone taking up caving should be encouraged to keep a detailed logbook from the outset. The possibilities for scandal, recrimination and simply boring people are endless. My own detailed logbook lasted only two years.

Malcolm and I met at Cheltenham coach station at 03.15 am on Saturday 18th September 1954 and at 04.00 am we took the coach for Merthyr Tydfil. I suppose I must have taken the midnight coach from Victoria. To my surprise, there was no visible border marking our arrival in Wales. Not even signs saying "do not feed the dragons". My logbook records, "On arrival at Merthyr we went to a café to discuss the Welsh prospect. The choice was Ystradfellte or Glyntawe. We decided on Glyntawe as a base and set off with our packs to catch the next train to Craig-y-Nos station We arrived there at 12.00 am after an extremely pleasant journey through the Brecon Beacons via Brecon and Sennybridge. Morning mist beneath a bright blue sky made the journey through the Beacons quite fascinating. An ideal introduction to the area. SWCC not having had the good sense to establish their headquarters at Penwyllt until 1959, we walked down the hill towards the river Tawe until we reached the rising of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu and soon obtained permission to camp at the nearby farm called Y Grithig. In the evening we crossed the Tawe near the Adelina Patti hospital and examined the rising at Dan-yr-Ogof. Then we paid a visit to the South Wales Caving Club HQ at Pen-Bont where we met Noel Dilly and others.

NB My 180-mile journey to Craig-y-Nos from home in Surrey must have taken a total of some 15 hours! 
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The week's programme:
Sunday 19th [Sept 1954] Tunnel Cave trip with Dai Hunt.
Monday 20th Downey's Cave survey with Noel Dilly. This cave proved to be extremely badly designed, low uncomfortable and occasionally wet The final station was at a gour pool with small inlet from OFD Noel informed us that this impossible-looking squeeze led directly into OFD. It must have been at this point that the "Dilly factor" kicked in and we believed the manoeuvre to be easier than it actually was. I went through first, bloody nearly drowning as by body dammed up the water above my chest. This was a situation guaranteed to inspire a violent physical effort to move on, simply to avoid drowning. As I sat in OFD thinking how close a shave that had been, Malcolm followed me through. Meanwhile Noel had gone back out, ostensibly to meet us in OFD and show us the way out, but he really just wanted to keep dry, but an en-route duck which we had bailed from the entrance side had refilled…. He did eventually come round to meet us in OFD, bemoaning his saturated lot.
Tuesday 21st We did some Shopping at Clarke's and walked up to Pwll Byfre, noticing several possible digs. We spent the evening at the club headquarters; were promised a guided trip into OFD next day. I mentioned that we had considered caving at 'Istradfelty'. This was followed by what Noel described as a "monstrous hoosh", and my pronunciation was loudly corrected by a dark brown voice in a corner - Ystradfellte, if you please!
Wednesday 22nd OFD visit. At 08.00 am the sound of nailed boots passed by our tents without stopping, so we set off guideless expecting them to be waiting inside the cave. The Guides had gone, but we pressed on. I recall a wheelbarrow not far inside the entrance and some strange-looking 'candles' on a ledge; but they had no wicks, but were wrapped in waxy brown paper and were of a variety called Polar Ammon - just legible by the light of our carbide lamps. We found our way around the Rawl to Pi Chamber and came out by the Escape Route, relying on a mixture of caving instinct and memory of things read or said to navigate by.
Thursday 23rd Craig-y-Nos Quarry cave.                                                          to the beginning ?
Friday24th Visit to Pwll Pant-Mawr which made us miss our train, but we were given a lift into Merthyr by Bill Clarke and caught the coach back to Cheltenham.

It was many years before I became a member of the club. Eventually I had the good fortune to marry the OFD permit secretary. I would like to mention in passing that SWCC has always shown the greatest consideration to other clubs in its administration of the caves it controls.

SWCC was not like any other club I had ever met. It was more of an engineering company with caving interests. Going out in the mornings, you had to become adept at recognising people by the seats of their trousers as they laboured in the rain beneath the bonnets of their vehicles, mind you, it was then the fashion for blokes to wear the same grotty garments for years on end, so recognition was not so hard after a while. However, to address Peter's rear end [Peter Harvey] with " good morning Bill!" usually produced an unkind response followed by a comment such as, "pass me a three-quarter Whitworth open-ended spanner will you?" The toolbox in which this was found might be the size of an "Oxo" box or as big as a large suitcase. And God help you if you passed a three-quarter inch AF by mistake! The engineering enterprise also encompassed caving, for the pursuit of which, such gems as the simpler 'skyhook' and the very complicated Balinka Pit winch system were created. People aimed high in those days!

For those of us who hailed from outside the Principality, a lasting memory of early visits were the Après Grotte festivities at such trendy places as the Gwyn Arms where the quality of the singing, luckily, made up for the deplorable quality of the beer. "Evan, Evans, Bevan Vale of Death Ales" was no idle threat. It was an obnoxious concoction, likened locally to the Tawe in flood. It was probably with this brew in mind that a drinker's version of a well-known hymn, retitled "Imbibe with me" might usefully have been written. The arrival of Whitbread's 'Trophy' bitter simply added insult to injury. It's a bloody miracle that some of us are still alive to tell the tale! As a colleague used to assure me, "it's the beer that makes me stupid".

The welcome extended to foreigners had something in common with an old ex-army kapok sleeping bag I once had, which offered 'variable warmth'. I seem to remember that the refrain " Twll dyn, Bob Seis, I'ach-y-da" implied a criticism of those from beyond the eastern boundary of the Principality. But then, nobody's perfect. Shit happens.

Tony Knibbs, April 2006

[Of the people mentioned in Tony's speech, Peter Harvey, Laurie Galpin
and Noel Dilly were present that evening]

[Items in [ ] are clarifications by PCW for those not familiar with life in the valley!]


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Speech by Eric Inson. Eric and his wife came to our club's 60th Anniversary dinner in April 2006
and this is what he had to say . . .

"Good evening everybody. Thank you for asking me to speak to you on this special occasion. I'll try not to be too verbose. Some of the older members will remember a previous dinner held in Brecon when the guest speaker spoke for an hour! What I would like to tell you is my memory of the early days in the Club and some of the highlights of the sixties and seventies. One regret I have is not keeping a diary, so please forgive me if some details are not quite correct, especially dates.

The Club has been in existence for 60 years. I was not there at the very beginning, but I have been coming to the club for 54 of those years.

I come from Cardiff, and was in Howard Gardens High School with Noel Dilly (who is here tonight) - or rather what was left of the school after Mr Hitler had done his worst. One part of the building that was still intact was a fine Victorian Gymnasium which was two and a half stories high, and had climbing ropes reaching up into the roof, so we learned to climb ropes. We started caving about 1951, in the caves and mines just north of Cardiff. I remember Noel bribing a lad the princely sum of one shilling to show us where the entrance of the Lesser Garth Cave was situated.

Then we discovered the Iron Mine nearby. This has holes and caverns hundreds of feet deep and lakes of similar depths. Noel had acquired an old hemp rope, and I had a lifeline of sorts (thick string). We used to slide down shafts up to 50ft deep, and often took our friends from school. We had no proper equipment, no helmets, just hand torches, no proper boots. We must have been lucky as there was no Cave Rescue to call and nobody knew where we were.

Noel and I used to cycle from Cardiff to Ystradfellte, Pont Nedd Fechan or Merthyr, visit the various caves and then cycle back. A round trip of 60 miles. It was nice to be young and fit. On one trip to Dinas Rock we spoke to a man who was working in the Silica Mine and we had a conducted tour of the workings. The mine closed in 1964.
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Cycling to the Caving Club was more of a problem with the extra kit to carry and only an ex-army rucksack to carry it, so we came by bus. This took 4 hours if you caught all the connections. It was quicker by bike. We came in 1952, 53, 54 before going to university.

The people I remember of that era were Peter Harvey, David Hunt, Bill Little, Bill Fossil, John Truman, Brian De Graff, Edward Aslett, Clive Jones, Les Hawes, and the Railtons. Bill Little was our mentor. He showed us how to abseil, put nails in boots (no rubber boots then) and how to use explosives safely. Bill used to crimp plain deteonators on to the fuse with his teeth!

Dave Hunt gave us advice on photography - we used flash powder, often referred to as 'flashless smoke mixture'. I remember a number of people taking 3D pictures with two identical cameras mounted on a frame, and a twin lens device to view the results.

Explosives were easy to come by. The licence was issued by the Local Authority Weights and Measures department - no Police involvement. Explosives were sold over the counter by the ironmongers in Clydach near Swansea. A sign outside said 'Explosives Agent'. Your purchases were wrapped up in brown paper just like any thing else you had bought. How times have changed!

The Club Cottage was by the stream just below Dan-yr-Ogof. It was a small two up two down - or rather 1 ½ up 1 ½ down. It could sleep 10 at a push. There was a separate falling down cottage used for tackle storage and drying gear. The drying room had a small solid fuel stove with a long flue pipe. There was more heat from the flue than the stove, with a great danger of combustion, asphyxia or CO poisoning.
Water was from a tap outside by the road. You washed at the tap or in the river. Cooking was by a double burner oil stove called 'Florrie' or primus stoves.
The toilet was a chemical affair in a lean-to shed, and it was the duty of the last person to leave to empty it. If the river was high, it was easy, but otherwise you had to dig a hole in the back garden, hoping the spot you had chosen had not been used before.

Carbide was the order of the day. Perhaps people were not so conservation conscious then, as I can remember being shown how to bury the used carbide in the cave or tip it into the stream if it was in flood. The main caves were OFD 1, DYO 1937 series, and Tunnel Cave - all within easy reach of the Club on foot. To get to OFD you paddled through the river where the stepping stones now are at the top of the [Craig y Nos] Country Park.

I went to College from 1954 to 1957, and acquired a girl friend with various attributes but no interest in caving. In 1957 I sold the engagement ring to buy a motor cycle and could then go to the Club every weekend, only one hour from Cardiff.

Motor cycles were the order of the day. Myself, Bill Harris (here tonight) Peter Harvey, David Hunt, Seaton Phillips, Mary Boughton, Neil Jones all used motor cycles. What cars there were were pre-war old bangers. Later vans were bought. These had the advantage of being cheaper than cars as they were exempt the 33 % purchase tax, but being commercial vehicles were restricted to 30 mph! Luckily radar traps had not yet appeared, and later the restrictions were eased and then abolished in the early 1960's.
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I did a lot of caving with Bill Harris. On the Gower, we could go from cave to cave by motor cycle without having to change clothes or helmets in between.
DYO was easy to get into, as there were several large gaps in the entrance passage giving access from the river. The cave was opened commercially in 1939, closed during the war, and not re-opened until 1964 due to a dispute between the family shareholders. Originally the Club was allowed in, but then stopped, so we used to creep in at night or early morning, walking up the river from the club very quietly so as not to wake the dogs at the farm.

There were no wet-suits, so each person had a large polythene bag and a towel. You undressed at the lakes and re-dressed on the other side. One memory I have from about this time was the early cave divers with cumbersome dry-suits, lead weighted boots, ex-submarine re-breathing sets and the 'Aflow' device with light, reel of cable and compass etc.

Club membership was increasing, putting a strain on the accommodation. Powell St Penwyllt became available and was purchased in the late 1950's for the great sum of £200. Much work had to be done. There was great enthusiasm to knock holes in walls, but rather less to build up again. One of the first jobs was to build a septic tank. Bill Harris and I used to go up to Penwyllt early in the morning and do a couple of hours digging before going caving. When the pipes were laid out they were about 2ft short so we had to dig the hole 2ft longer.

Finally the move was made (1960 ish). It was possible to travel to the club by rail until Dr Beeching [famous for closing many of Britains branch lines] came along in 1962. It was useful to have Bill and Betty Burton living in cottage No. 5 until they bought the bungalow.

Heating was rudimentary, a fire in the long common room and a stove in the small room which also heated water. The water supply was always a problem, with old iron pipes going to buildings demolished a long before. Repairs were made with old fire service hose and jubilee clips. There were severe winters in 1961/2 and 62/3. A gang of us spent Christmas at the club. Everything was frozen, the quarry had to stop because the diesel fuel froze. We had to get drinking water from the OFD resurgence, and to smash the ice on a pond that used to be near Cwmdwr to get water to flush toilets. Cooking was a problem, the butane cylinder was in the kitchen but we had to light a small fire under it to cause any gas to come out! All windows were covered with ice on the inside. However there was excellent ice climbing on the old quarries by the engine house and we played a sort of ice hockey near the lime kilns.

The 1960's and early 70's was great time for cave discovery in the Swansea Valley and for trips further afield. Bill Birchenough (here tonight) made the first Ogofone [low frequency radio for communication through solid rock] although there was no phone at that time, and Morse Code had to be used for communication. The top entrance to Tunnel Cave was located and Laurie Galpin and I were in demand as we were the only ones who knew Morse.
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Cwmdwr entrance was dug, and work started on the dreaded crawls. They had to be blasted from one end to the other, and after each blast it took an age for the fumes to clear. Fortunately it was near the HQ so we used to arrive on a Friday evening, go straight down and set off a charge, and leave it until the next morning to clear the debris. I think many of us would have given up the job if it was not for Clive Jones who somehow managed to keep up the enthusiasm.

Bill Little one day appeared in a new fangled thing called a wet-suit. It was a single skinned unlined 3mm suit which obviously would not last 5 minutes in a cave, despite being worn under a boiler suit. After a year he was still wearing it, so the rest of us took notice. They were all home made, and you needed assistance with the marking out to get a good fit. Later the thickness increased and they were lined. The aqua-lung appeared and a number of club members took up cave diving, some using dangerous ex-gov cylinders. This enabled the divers to get through the OFD sumps into OFD2, and one of them found the route out through the boulders into Cwmdwr. The route was so convoluted that a cable was laid for people to follow. It was later improved. A short time later Top Entrance was found using the Ogofone.

Shortly afterwards the Dan-yr-Ogof crawl was passed by Eileen Davies and exploration there opened up. It all happened in a very short space of time. There was a bit of controversy as the biologists wanted some time to themselves to survey the cave before the explorers trampled over it. It came to a compromise that Virgin Passage in the Lower Series should be left for them.

Unfortunately when we descended the Abyss we inadvertently blundered into it from the other end. A very pleasant week's camp was held in DYO Bat Chamber in the late 60's. Dave Judson was surveying, and various bits were found. It was very comfortable to be in dry kit for the duration, as we were beyond the lakes and Green Canal.
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There was one later incident which turned out to be amusing in the end. Dave Judson was trying to bypass the long crawl. The dig started to fall in, and the others in the party drew back. Dave carried on and became entombed. Fortunately it was a Good Friday, and as people arrived for the Easter weekend they were directed straight to DYO and Dave was duly rescued. To show his gratitude he bought a barrel of beer and started something of a precedent.

The 1960's also saw Club trips to Yugoslavia which represented a considerable amount of work in organisation and engineering. SRT had not been invented and the winch was king. Frank Salt organised trips to Greece and France, some more successful than others. In both Greece and Yugoslavia there were shafts at the bottom of which were human remains and old handgrenades.

One very interesting visit was to the Rhosydd slate mines at Cwm Orthin near Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia. These connected through to the mines at Cwm Croesor, the entrance to which was protected by barbed wire and 'go away' notices. The mines are vast, so much so that in cloudy weather the cloud forms inside the caverns. To get from one mine to the other there were bridges suspended by cables from the roof, but these had been purposely destroyed. The party of us included John Osborne and Rob Williams (both here tonight). We used some long lengths of ladder to get down the slopes and the last vertical drop to the bottom.

On walking into the Croesor mine things were very different, clean and tidy, lights on at one point and a pump to keep the lower level dry. We went up to the next level and found ourselves in the middle of thousands of tons of war-time military explosives. There was chamber after chamber after chamber stacked up to the roof with boxes of TNT and cordite marked 'made in Canada 1942'. The explosives were in good shape, being non-hydroscopic, but the same could not be said for the containers. There was rot and fungus everywhere and in particular there were steel drums of flaked cordite. The drums had disintegrated spilling the stuff all over the floor just waiting to be trodden on.
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I made some enquiries to find out who was responsible for the site - it turned out to be ICI, and John informed the police. ICI eventually made the place safer by flooding the lower level, but some electricity workers found their way in via a level passage and ICI was forced to empty the place. There could have been some very nasty occurrences if the wrong people had found out what was there.

In the 1970's a very interesting project was finding the dry route from OFD1 to OFD2. Bob Radcliffe was the main mover. Attempts to get from Boulder Chamber fizzled out, so we went through Cwmdwr to climb the Divers' Pitch where a line had been left for a skyhook and ladder. However the line jammed, so I climbed up the opposite wall and discovered the bypass (where the rope now hangs). Pete Cardy joined us and we laddered down into the sumps, swam across, and climbed Niphargus Niche to try to dig a way back to Boulder Chamber. Unfortunately the passage filled with water, so attention was then given to the very narrow passage from Boulder Chamber which is now used. This turned out to be underneath a water filled passage, but by a great stroke of providence the water burst through when there was nobody there, or someone would have drowned.

One person I must mention is Gwyn Sanders. Gwyn was a pillar of the Club for many years, and there are many photographs of him in the common room. Any visitors to the Club were sure of a warm welcome. Gwyn was also very generous, and was always giving people presents, usually made of metal, which were either useful tools or interesting artefacts. Our house has a dozen or more such objects, including a nickel sculpture, a set of stainless steel fire irons, and a mediaeval weapon - a spiked ball and chain.
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I'll stop at that point, but I must mention Cave Rescue. The first major rescue I remember was from Llethrid Swallet on the Gower in the early 60's, when a man sustained a broken leg. Unfortunately the Police Chief at the time dismissed us as a bunch of amateurs and called the Mines Rescue, who were completely out of their depth. We ended up having to hospitalise the casualty overnight in the cave. Dr Rob Williams (Lisa's father) set the leg, and I was sent to a local hospital for supplies, bed pans and such-like. The next day, the rescue officer Gordon Clissold told us to get in and get the casualty out, which we did, in a short time. Times have changed since then.

Over the years, I was involved in many rescues, including sadly the recovery of five deceased persons, fortunately none of them being club members. In the 70's there were quite a number of searches for parties lost on OFD through trips, and various dislocations and breakages including Bill Little's.
The Rescue Organisation was part of the Club, and it was suggested that it would be better as a separate organisation, as it would be easier to incorporate members of other clubs and to attract sponsorship. Bruce Foster was one of the people actively proposing this action. As you know it did happen, and there was a ceremony at Dan-yr-Ogof when Simon Weston of Falklands fame presented me (as Treasurer) with the keys of the first purpose built Land Rover. Great strides have been made since then.

I have not been very active recently, but I have had a great deal of enjoyment from the Club and its activities for many years. I would like to think that the Club will still be here in 60 years' time. I will not, but some of you younger members will be, so keep the tradition going! "

Eric Inson, April 2006

[Of the people mentioned in Eric's speech, Peter Harvey, Laurie Galpin, Noel Dilly, John Osbourne, Pete Cardy, Rob Williams, Bill Harris and Bill Birchenough were present that evening]

[Items in [ ] are clarifications by PCW for those not familiar with life in the valley!]


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