From: Descent. The magazine of underground exploration
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Jim Hanwell started to collect reminiscences from those who had dared to dive at Wookey Hole. It was the fiftieth anniversary of diving in the cave and it seemed a suitable occasion to begin work on a book to record the discoveries of these pioneers, the hopes and trials and dedication to the task at hand of these explorers. It has taken until now for that work to reach fruition in the form of Wookey Hole.
Why so long? Jim’s text was edited and prepared for publication, but only disseminated as 33 copies to those who had made contributions, then laid quietly in the background – not so much at rest as awaiting its day. That came only after the Cave Diving Group reprinted Graham Balcombe and Penelope Powell’s 1935 log of dives undertaken in Wookey (Descent 211) and Balcombe’s record of the events leading to the formation of the CDG, A Glimmering in Darkness (Descent 197) as well as the Wessex CC publication of Swildon’s Hole in 2007 (Descent 200), it being the ‘other end’ of this segment of Mendip’s hydrology.
Thereby came the impetus and we have our reward: Wookey Hole. 75 years of cave diving & exploration, published in timely fashion to coincide with the 75th anniversary of diving at the cave (one wonders whether any pushes were curtailed to ensure it remained up to date during those final few months of preparation). When Balcombe died, he made a bequest to BCRA and some of that money has supported publication, a fitting use indeed.
The book is structured in two major parts: 1935 to 1985, essentially the original text compiled by Jim, then the following 25 years bringing us up to date with modern exploration. Let’s face it: much of the early history of diving at Wookey has been told before, either through the words of those involved (such as in Glimmering) or those who came after in detailing their own accounts of the latest breakthroughs or as part of broader histories (such as Martyn Farr’s The Darkness Beckons). In Wookey Hole, though, we concentrate only on one cave and with the intelligent use of extracts and chapters specially written by the protagonists (there are in reality many more authors than the main title at first suggests), this is a story that can be read afresh. That so much is written first person makes it live.
Neither is it completely exploration-based, in the sense of passing sumps and finding new passages. Bob Davies, for example, writes of how he photographed Chamber 9 – nowhere near as easy a task as it is today – and, on the same subject though with more modern treatment, Pete Glanvill on colour photography in Wookey 20 and beyond, and Gavin Newman on the production of his film Wookey Exposed. There is also a chapter on surveying the cave and the different productions over the decades, written by the late Willie Stanton (so sad that so many are no longer with us); it, as with the former chapters, shows that the thrill of discovery and achievement does not only belong to the traditional explorer, but also to creativity under- and over-ground.
It is to our lasting benefit that all the exploration at Wookey has been supported by photographs, in just the same manner as Mendip pioneer cavers of the early 1900s always recorded their finds. The book bears a distinctive layout, the work of Mark ‘Gonzo’ Lumley, and is beautifully illustrated. More, it is properly indexed, eminently readable and a pleasure to own.
So buy one. You won’t regret it for an instant: this is as fine an account of exploration that you will read. Ever.
Copyright material originally published in Descent (214), June 2010, reproduced by permission of the author and Wild Places Publishing
From: The Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society
This book has a long history. The first intention was that it should be published in the 1980s to mark the 50th anniversary of the pioneer ‘hard hat’ dives in Wookey Hole in 1935. Between 1985 and 1987, Jim Hanwell collected the reminisces of those involved with cave diving in Wookey Hole from the earliest days and the 21 chapters of the book comprise either first-hand accounts by the divers themselves or Jim’s own retelling of each person’s contribution. However, at that stage the project faltered as no publisher could be found and only a small number of bound copies were produced and given a limited circulation. I well remember one of them kicking around at home for some time as Linda was asked by Jim to review the text.
The successful publication of Swildon's Hole 100 years of exploration, in 2007 provided the spur needed to restart this project and caused Duncan Price and Rich Witcombe to collect the modern accounts of diving in the cave and bring the project up to date in time for the 75th anniversary of those first dives. Intentionally, the first chapters, as collected by Jim were only lightly edited as many of the earlier pioneers are no longer with us, to approve (or not) any changes.
In this approach lies both the book’s strength and its weakness. Each contributor has been allowed to tell their own story in their own way. Jim, in the chapters he wrote, has used extracts from other publications and personal logs as much as possible. This gives much of the tale an immediacy and impact that can only come from personal experience, but it does mean that the style is patchy and somewhat variable. Each chapter covers a particular aspect of the history of diving at Wookey, either a specific time period or a specific series of dives. Interspersed with these, sometimes in separate chapters, are accounts of diving at the ‘other end’ of the system in Swildon’s Hole, whose history is, in many respects, solidly tied to developments in Wookey. Other chapters also discuss explorations in St. Cuthbert’s Swallet and Eastwater Cavern. The book does resemble the Swildon's book, mentioned above, in some respects, as they were both designed and laid out by Mark Lumley. This one is better than the previous one, though, not having even the minor stylistic niggles that your reviewer noticed before. It differs in content however. That book was far more about the cave, this one is really about diving and the people who did the exploration.
The later, newer, chapters are more diverse than the earlier ones as they describe more developments than just those in diving, with chapters describing surveying (Willie Stanton) photography (Pete Glanville) aven climbing (Alex Gee) and filming (Gavin Newman). Overall the history of exploration at Wookey since 1935 is covered in great detail.
Although I am not a diver, many of the authors and others whose work is described have been and are good friends of mine. In addition, I was present, at Wookey, when a number of the events described took place, such as turning up in the car park, with Lloyd, whose fault it was, when Bear and Geoff were packing up after the discovery of ‘24’ in 1976 and being in Chamber Nine when the divers returned after Rob Parker’s ‘push’ in 1985, when we drank all the champagne kindly supplied by the management whilst waiting for the divers to reappear. I can honestly say, therefore, that the book does capture the mood of the events and the characters of the participants extremely well. For anyone interested in Mendip, caving and cave diving this is an excellent read.
Copyright material originally published in UBSS Proceedings 25(2), May 2011, reproduced by permission of the author and University of Bristol Spelaeological Society