I love getting away – into the wild, although that can be challenging on this crowded isle. Probably the wildest, most untouched landscapes left in Britain are underground. Even caves attract too many visitors though and – like when summiting Everest – there can be queues. One way “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is to take up cave diving. Some years ago I did just that.
I was living in Devon and heard of a cave that contained a deep lake; blind white eels were rumoured to live there. Someone was said to have dived to 130ft/40m and not reached the bottom; 130ft is the very limit of recreational SCUBA diving. Any deeper and you need to use helium.
Cave divers are nervous of deep dives, but I’d done proper open water SCUBA training and knew about nitrogen narcosis, decompression and the bends. But I was in a quandary. I’d been taught never to dive alone whereas cave-divers often do. Flooded subterranean passages can be tiny and, as there is little chance of rescue if things go wrong, having a buddy isn’t likely to help. Nor does a life jacket. They get snagged on rocks. Maybe that’s why a third of cave-divers die pursuing their sport.
I’d recruited Richard to explore with me. He was an experienced cave diver with an intrepid reputation and was attracted by the prospect of discovering new depths. Saturday came and five of us assembled in the unsalubrious mire trapped at the bottom of a small limestone outcrop. The yawning entrance of Pridhamsleigh Cavern exhaled cool air. We had a lot of kit. We’d needed helmets, lights, back up lights, fins, masks, demand valves, knives and a line on a spool to find our way home. We also needed plenty of air – to allow for decompression time. I’d dive with two waste-slung aqualungs and 8lb weight belt. Richard brought hugely heavy twin 60 cu ft air cylinders and wore a bulky bright red Unisuit. This is the kind people use for diving in the Arctic and needed 30lb of lead to sink him. Richard announced that he’d super-heat in his Unisuit if he carried his aqualungs or the lead.
Devon caves are rabbit-warrens of small passages. They began beneath the water table and, over the eons, limestone dissolved and passages formed. Tunnels seem carved out of reddish clay. This clung onto the cylinders so we had to unstick them every time we wanted to move forward. I felt grateful that my wet-suit was so well-ventilated by rips at the armpits, elbows, arse and knees.