Free-diving adventures Part 1 by Ian Cummins

Adventures in Swildon’s sumps.

1980 – I must have been supping an orange juice and playing Space Invaders or Asteroids in the Union Bar, such was the wildness of my youth, when Mark Madden, one of my regular caving partners at the time, suggested an evening trip through Swildon’s sumps 1 – 4.  Being quietly competitive with Mark, I agreed and we collected gear for the trip down to Priddy in Mike Wise’s car, together with East End tough, but nice guy, Sean Walsh.

A couple of hours later and we were all stood neck-deep in the large air bell between sumps 2 and 3 in Swildon’s; shivering and looking at each other, hoping for someone to blink and actually commit to the unknown horror  downstream.  We had all made the traditional progression of a journey here – sump 1 in boiler suit and carbide on an early Freshers’ Trip, followed by later practice through sump 2 in wetsuit, hood, mask and weights, enjoying its perfectly round, spacious form , before retreating from the fearsome challenge of sump 3, waiting for the day of destiny.

Frustration or resolve intervened and I grabbed the rope, several deep breaths and off on the 11 metre+ journey into the unknown.  Depth must be gained to pass a projection and momentum was lost in a collision, but keep on pulling and pulling – lungs bursting such that an involuntary exhalation brought relief just before popping up into Swildon’s 4.  The 3-tug signal was made and with the spell broken, 3 more bodies appeared in quick succession.  The fine streamway – the best in the cave – was enjoyed until the mucky slit of Sump 4 was encountered.

Lying just downstream from the aptly, but unpleasantly named, Cowsh Aven, sump 4 is short, but back in the day when a herd of Friesians living a few hundred feet above leaked their waste into the cave, this was an awful place in retrospect, but hey, I’d grown up shovelling the stuff and it had never harmed me, so a quick feet-first wriggle to clear the slop was followed by a careful pull through its 5m-long tight, polluted confines.  Feeling pretty confident on the way back, I managed to free-climb Cowsh Aven, with its crumbly, slurry-coated rock and rope my chums up, pointing to future adventures and a change of direction for me.

Repeat trips in the following few weeks turned out to be my last for many years – impetigo and ear infections from the polluted water of Swildon’s and Stoke Lane sumps put me off somewhat and I caught the climbing bug instead.

Fast-forward more than 30 years and Leif and I returned for what was for me a pure nostalgia trip.  A drive down from home to Mendip was followed by a quick free-dive through sumps 1, 2 and 3.  Such was my haste on the return that upon exiting sump 2, I felt so giddy that I fell over – what a great feeling to come back to this place!  Next day with a 3L bottle was much easier and with goats replacing cows at Manor Farm, sump 4 was no problem, whilst the dug-out sump 5 was passed as a series of ducks on the trip down to sump 9.

Looking back on those early adventures in pre-internet days, when any information was gleaned from dubious second- or third-hand accounts is in stark contrast to today’s world, where one can see pretty much any cave or climb demonstrated on the internet, but I wouldn’t change a thing, having always preferred to work things out by myself.

Yorkshire free dives to follow….