Back when I was a kid, around 10 or 11 or there abouts, I went on an outward bounds week with School. I had an absolute blast; it was right up my street and almost certainly helped nurture my adventure and bucket list way of life now. I remember it really well – we did abseiling, climbing, archery, rifle shooting, random team building games, hiking, sea kayaking, sailing, probably some other stuff too. And caving. Yea, caving.
The caving crew – Sian, me, Immy, Jenni, Midge, Jonathan, Ed, Tom, Iona. Photo David Broadbent.
It was not my favourite thing that week. I discovered within about five minutes of being inside the cave that I find dark and damp caves quite scary. Things aren’t helped by the fact that my poor eyesight means I struggle to work out the difference between a shadow and a hole in low light, not helpful when trying to hike through a cave. I didn’t bail, I am proud to say that ten-year-old little girl me took a deep breath and got on with it, but since then I have activity avoided going in caves. And that included during big team challenge activity on the last day of the outward bounds week, when I very quickly volunteered another School friend to do that bit (but I did make up for that by abseiling down a harbour wall into a sailing dingy, wheeeee!).
I also hate tunnels. I’m not claustrophobic per se, but if I can’t see the way out (the other end of the tunnel, for example), I start to panic. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I need to know how to leave. I need to be able to see the way out. I need to be able to see the light, or at least know when I’m going to see it.
The route into the caves. Rather Alice in Wonderland.
So, when we received our information sheet about the Dean Wye Bloggers weekend and I spotted it mentioned caving “might” be one of the activities, I drafted an email to the organisers to ask them very politely not to put me in the group that did that particular activity. But after speaking to LincsGeek and a friend or two, I never sent it. It’s still in my drafts folder a couple of weeks later. While I would never choose myself to go caving, I decided (with some help), that if I was meant to get over this fear then I would just have to get on with it, like ten-year-old me did over 25 years ago.
Fast forward to when we were sat in Green & Jenks receiving our briefing about the weekend’s activities, I was strangely content to see “caving” on my itinerary. Okay, not really that content, but I worked hard to convince myself that content was the right attitude to have. An activity that never made it onto my bucket list, but was about to be written down and ticked off within the next 24 hours.
Caving at Clearwell Caves
That night before bed I googled “Clearwell Caves”, a series of large natural caverns in the Forest of Dean first mined for ochre over 4,500 years ago, then mined for iron ore until 1945, making some of Britain’s most complex and ancient mine workings. There is a museum and some large caverns that are open to the public, and the idea of a Santa’s Grotto inside the caves in December made me smile. Large caves like this don’t bother me at all, they are light and airy and there is an exit signposted at all times.
Inside Clearwell Caves, 200ft below ground. Dark. Very dark.
But this wasn’t what we were doing. We were down for the Deep Level experience, designed for those with a “sense of adventure” who want a “real caving activity”. We would “descend into an unfamiliar and uncompromising environment” which would “involve walking and crawling through narrow passageways and scrambling over rocks down to approximately 200ft underground”. Okay then. My most adventurous side was going to have to come out to play for this one.
Smile or grimace?!
On arrival at Clearwell Caves we were introduced to Jonathan who would be our instructor and guide for our expedition (yes, I’m calling it an expedition!) underground. We got kitted out in fetching boiler suits, helmets with head torches, and a belt to allow Jonathan to grab us if needed (I’m not kidding, that’s the reason we wore them, and they were useful!), and followed in a line down to a field on the other side of the road where there was a metal gate over a hole under a yew tree. That was our way in. It was way more like Alice in Wonderland than I had imagined – down the rabbit hole. We climbed down a fixed ladder and onto a ledge, where we swivelled around and clambered down the rocks into the cave. And that was it, Jonathan locked the gate behind us and we made our way through.
Immy and Sian putting on red ocre war paint!
I took my position at the back of the group, working on the theory that if everyone else could do it then so could I. I struggled to relax, but concentrated on breathing deeply and making defined movements with my legs and arms to make my way through the tunnels. My blogger friends around me were super helpful, telling me when there was a hole, a rock jutting out, or a bat – the cave is home to lesser horseshoe bats, super rare and currently sleeping, and so it was important we didn’t wake them up by either shining our torches on them or knocking them with our hand as we used them to guide ourselves through the tunnels. It was very, very dark, and our head lamps while not useless, didn’t really provide enough light to properly see what was going on.
The bottom of the sea bed.
We made regular stops during our underground hike so Jonathan could tell us something about the caves and caverns we came across. Natural caves that have been reshaped through mining, there were lots of features to keep things interesting. The caves were full of red ocre, a pigment that turns everything a wonderful red colour (my boots are still that colour), and icon ore, both important commodities even now. At one point we stood looking up at what scientists believe is the bottom of an ancient sea bed, and I can definitely appreciate that conclusion – it was like there were ripples in the rock.
Midge exiting the rabbit hole.
There were sections of the cave system that were very small and difficult to manoeuvre through. You know, the sort of elements I was most worried about. The first was the corkscrew, which was a crack in the rock that spiralled down so you came out at the bottom facing the opposite way to how you went in at the top. It was narrow and involved me giving myself a strong talking to. But it was fine and completely doable. Then there was the “rabbit hole”, which was a narrow tunnel that involved getting down on our bellies and combat crawling through on our elbows. The strong talking to became a severe talking to here, and I’m still bruised on my arms from it. But again, it was fine, and we all managed it, without tears.
Jenni exiting the mouse hole. Tiny!
And then there was the mouse hole. Apparently also called the worm hole. Give you the idea?! By now I had made my way more towards the front of the group, had relaxed a little bit, and was a lot more confident in what I was doing. I mean, I’d conquered the corkscrew and the rabbit hole, had done plenty of scrambling in the dark, and had learnt a whole lot about caves and wildlife and mining and dried up sea beds. But the mouse hole was something else. Jonathan turned to me and said, “right, what I want you to do is lay down on your belly, put your hands out in front of you, and slide your way right through until you reach the cavern at the other end”. He wasn’t going ahead for us to follow this time, we were going first and he was going to join us at the end. Well, I was going first, it was my turn. Ah. I had two very important questions before I went anywhere near what appeared to be a hole far too small to fit my head and derriere in; was it short enough so I could see the end as soon as I started to go through and could I stand up at the other end? The latter was a yes, I could stand up, but the former was a no; there was a bend in the middle and the tiny tunnel was longer than I was – they would see my feet disappear before I could see the other end. Right. Okay then. What, now?!
The face of someone who conquered something! Photo David Broadbent.
I took the deepest of breaths and fought back the fear. Laying down on my belly (no longer worried about red ocre or mud), I just went for it, using every ounce of energy I had left after the morning’s mountain biking experience to wiggle my way through the tunnel. For a brief second I got my foot caught (probably wiggling too vigorously), felt myself start to panic, but instead of bursting into tears I took the anxiety and turned it into extra energy to get to the other end as quickly as possible. I pulled myself out, stood up, and allowed a single tear to fall down my face. Wow, that was exhausting. But it felt good.
I sat on a rock and shouted back, I’m out, come on! One by one my blogger friends made their way through – some more worried about it than others. The three guys in the group – bloggers Ed and Tom, and instructor Jonathan , came round another way. I hated and loved Jonathan for that move in equal measure; I didn’t have to do it, but he made me.
Pleased to be out!
After that I felt amazing. I stomped my way through the caves, wasn’t afraid when we stood in a cavern and turned all the lights out to see how dark it really was, loved the ghost story we were told (I won’t give it away in case you go sometime), and chatted away. By the time we reached the end we had been walking for over two hours, I was utterly exhausted and drained, and was so pleased to be outside again in the fresh air where I could see what was around me and breath normally once again. But I felt good. And smiled a very genuine smile that could be seen on my face and felt in my belly.
With our awesome taxi driver – once a champion rally driver! Photo David Broadbent.
Thanks so much to Jonathan and Clearwell Caves for this experience. Thanks for putting up with my questions, dealing with my obvious fear, and helping me overcome. Would I do it again? In a word, no, but I am pleased that the email I drafted remains unsent and think I made my ten-year-old self proud.
If you are holidaying in the Forest of Dean, or if you live close enough, get yourself to Clearwell Caves for one of the deep caving experiences.
My afternoon caving at Clearwell Caves was part of the Dean Wye Bloggers activities weekend. #DeanWyeBloggers was an activity weekend organised by Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Tourism to help promote the area. I was invited along with a number of other bloggers and had an absolutely fantastic weekend with them. I have been asked to follow up my visit with a blog post or two, but know that I always write from experience and with my own opinions.