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It was amazing to note that it was 30 years since I'd been down Swildons - hopefully it won't be 30 more before the next time.
Back in the day this was a regular haunt for me and my fellow student chums, making the free-dives down to sump 5, then the limit for such tactics. Now, however, lowering of sump 5 has left a few ducks and one can free-dive through sumps 1, 2, 3 and 4, bypassing all sumps until the 40m sump 9. My aim for this trip was to get down to sump 9 with 2 bottles for this dive, in order to visit sump 12 and the atmospherically -named 'Desolation Row' at the end of the cave. Plans were changed when my Sherpa had a dose of hydrophobia and I decided to have a solo trip to sump 9 instead.
The 300-mile trip from Bishop Auckland to Priddy went as well as could be expected and we popped into the Belfry to have a cuppa and change before re-acquainting with the cave. Surprise, surprise - only 1 other chap was staying - turned out be BEC and Craven member Nick, who had been down Hammer with me and Simon four years ago - small world.
I was delighted to find Priddy just as I remembered, save for the bleating of goats at Manor Farm, rather than cows, as they were having their evening milking. Not a total surprise, as Mike Bottomley had told me the cave was much cleaner now for this reason. Much as I have great affection for dairy cows, I would rather have a goat than a Holstein drop its business on my head. Leaving our quids in the tin, we followed the clarty trail to the bunker and slid down into the healthy flow of clear water. First problem was a climb down from a van-sized block - disappearing boulders I guess, but we were soon rigging the ladder and I romped off to sump 1, eager to blast down through the first 3 sumps.
Arriving at sump 1, I pulled up my hood, put on my mask and dived through - quite tight it was too, without any of the leg inserting wiggles we used to do, but the sump is so short that one's bum is upstream when the head surfaces!
Following the fine passage to sump 2, I checked the bucket of weights to add to my belt - imperative for these free-dives and 1 reason for this recce. A belt of weights was lying on the bank, but I left this and checked the pile - finding many of them to be too bashed to go on my belt, so I was a bit light when I dived, emerging in the airbell to continue on to the fearsome sump 3. Depth is imperative here to pass a shelf and I heaved down, kicking off the roof to make the lung-busting journey to fresh air. After a slight pause, I reversed the dives to emerge back in Swildons 2, where I stood up and promptly fell over, due to the combination of cold and holding my breath for so long in such a short time! A few seconds to recover and I was back to pass sump 1 and meet Sherpa Viking.
The rapidity of these dives was in marked contrast to my first dive of sump 3, when my 3 companions and I eyed the rope descending into the gloom, willing one another to go first, until I plucked up enough oomph to lead the way, followed by super caver Mark Madden, who still apparently blames me for not leading the way through a flooded duck in Oxlow - but I won't say you needed the White Rose to get to the bottom of the Fromagere - honest Mark!
Next day and with Sherpa only going to sump 1, the plan was changed, as there was no way I could dive sump 9 on 1 partially full 5-L bottle, so I decided on a solo to sump 9, taking 1 3-L to check out sump 6 for a future trip and sipping air through 2, 3 and 4. Having brought my own weight, the dives through 2 and 3 were a delight, being able to see the head-bashing ledges I remembered from my youth and was soon romping down the fantastic black and white walls of this fine passage. Noting no flow down Cowsh Aven and finding the water to be not too mucky, I searched for the dive line, which turned out to be buried in muck and dived sump 4 - finding it to be not as tight as I recalled. Emerging in Swildons 5, I decided to dump my kit and weights, to make a quick dash for sump 9 via the sump 6 bypass instead to save my aching knee - probably not strong enough yet to carry 2 sets of kit anyway.
The ducks in sump 5 were easily passed, except on the return, when my dive torch bungee caught on a roof spike, halting me in mid-move - not nice and I was worried I may have gargled with some of the murky soup!
Easy going to the fine pool of sump 6, with the climb above soon had me passing the crawl and following with more fine, large passage and a bit of climbing to the awesome sump 9 pool - brilliant stuff. A race back to my chilly companion at sump 1 revealed I'd been gone for not much more than 90 minutes - but what a great variety of caving in that time.
After knocking back a nice pie snack, the steep hike out with the kit was great fun, with the sporty cascades providing lots of enjoyment and the heat I generated in my semi-dry was such that I removed my helmet and dunked my head into the cool flow for refreshment.
Back to the hut for a shower, pack the car and head off home - what a great couple of days.
Trip Date: 8th November 2011
Added: 11th November 2011
Reviewer: Ian Cummins
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