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Diving Wookey Hole Cave

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Monday, 25 October 2010 11:45

Wookey Hole Cave

Wookey Hole Cave, situated in the Mendip Hills area of Somerset, England, has fascinated visitors for hundreds of years and has been a tourist attraction since 1927. It is easy to see why; the mighty cavern is the resurgence for the thunderous waters of the River Axe and further inside the cave are grand vaults and chambers. It would be difficult to find another cave seeped with so much history.

Wookey Hole Cave is the site of the first ever cave dive, not just in the UK but the whole world! On the 14th of July 1935 Graham Balcombe and Penelope Powell or ‘Mossy’ as she was affectionately known, submerged beneath the water of chamber 3. But get this – they did the dive wearing standard admiralty hard-hat suits. This meant they had to physically walk on the bottom of the cave, whilst wearing the bulky equipment, in order to explore and probe further into the cave. Meanwhile the rest of the team pumped gas to them via the umbilical cord using a seesaw pump. In the words of the original divers, ‘Foot by foot, yard by yard, with extending air lines and shot-rope (a weighted guide-line) the submerged floor was explored.’ They certainly bred the English cave divers tough right from the start.

In the end the team successfully penetrated into chamber 7 and thus history was made! Generations of cave divers since then have continued to explore the passages of Wookey Hole Cave, both wet and dry. Yet, the battle to unravel the secrets of the River Axe and physically follow the underground river to its source a mile and a half away continues to this day. The connection between Wookey Hole Cave and Swildon’s Hole for example remains a holy grail.

My first experience with Wookey Hole Cave, a couple of years ago, was most anticlimactic. After much effort of dragging tanks into the cave and setting up, I found that I could not equalize properly and was in piercing pain on descend. My cold had not quite cleared up prior to the dive and my sinuses were not cooperating, clearly unaware just how much of a momentous occasion diving in Wookey Hole Cave was. Wookey or not, I had to abort. So I thumbed the dive on none other than Rick Stanton. The very man who pushed through the gravel restriction that stopped Rob Parker in 1985, eventually extending the cave by 230m and down to a depth of 90 meters. Yes, I felt a just a little bit pathetic.

Needless to say, I wanted to come back and do a proper dive. Finally I got my chance and together with Craig Challen we descended on the Mendip Hills area. Jonathan Williams was volunteered as our guide and dive buddy and generously donated much dive gear to make the dive happen. I looked just like a local, dressed in typical British cave diving fashion; wetsuit, helmet, lightweight harness in order to sidemount the 7 liter tanks and a jacket BCD for buoyancy. It worked a treat.

We started the dive from chamber 3 in fine historic fashion, as it is here that the first ever dive by Mossy and Graham began 75 years ago. We submerged into a world of green and a cave that is truly fascinating. The visibility was decent and we had the opportunity to look around and enjoy the experience. The dive today seems so easy and straightforward so it was interesting to reflect on the slow and at first hesitant steps of the first explorers as we dived through. Taking the time to remember how they felt as they ventured further and further into the system really added to the experience.

The dive itself was awesome and we continued on to the dry chamber Wookey 22, where we ditched the gear and skipped off to look around and check out the start of sump 23. At least I skipped and also jumped up and down like a crazy person, as I got a wee bit cold on the dive. The wetsuit should have been sufficient for such a short dive, even in the not-so-balmy waters of the UK. However, my wetsuit while very flexible, comfortable and in fact perfect for sump diving in caves like Swildon’s, was grossly inadequate for the much longer sumps of Wookey. I always find these things out the hard way.
I quite loved the dry chamber and not just because it gave me a chance to warm up, it was in fact very pretty, fairly extensive and in section quite large. To dive in the very spot where cave diving was born was quite an incredible experience and Jonathan is a star for making it all happen.

Cave exploration is part of the culture of the area and this is nowhere more evident than at the Hunters Hotel on a Wednesday night, when cavers who just finished their weekly digging session swamp the pub. The Hunters offers tasty food, great beer and fabulous company and in my mind is one of the most delightful aspects of caving in the area.

Fully understanding and appreciating the history of the exploration in this cave added something extra to my experience whilst diving within its submerged passages. So a big thank you to David Ryall for my very own copy of the book ‘Wookey Hole, 75 years of Cave Diving and Exploration.’