This weekend, I found myself blessed to be in the position to experience something not entirely new to me, but something very much out of the ordinary. A good friend of mine (and long standing surrogate canoe mother) Colette, and her husband (also good friend and long standing surrogate father) Chris, were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary down in sunny Wales, a place that the pair have been visiting since before they even got together, way back in 1992.
The invite came to me about a month ago in sunny Nottingham – and before I had even checked the diary I RSVP’d that I would in fact be there. With bells on.
It’s is safe to say that I was looking forward to it constantly from that point. I even made an elaborate plan to cycle down there – with a wild camp on the evening before I was supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, this plan was quashed by a need to work on the Friday, but amazingly Colette and Chris responded to my call for help and offered me a space in their car. So, following a full day of work, I scurried home, packed up a few bits and meandered down to a meeting point. I say packed up a few bits, compared to my camping trips of late this was to be relatively luxurious. I found myself packing a plethora of food, a crate of beer and even (my pride and joy) the cafetiere. So much so that George had to help me carry it all down the road.
In the car, I was told all kinds of interesting stories, both about the cottage itself, the people I’d be meeting (the invite had gone to a variety of friends from the canoeing, diving and caving communities), and the possible activities which we would be undertaking. The cottage itself was nestled in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, just off the beaten track, and served as the perfect gateway to the hills. On offer were a variety of possible routes – both over and underground – that one would need way more than a weekend to explore. There were also celebrations to be had – meaning that a beer or two were not only a temptation, they were an obligation. I did feel a little bit nervous – of the 30 odd people who would be attending that weekend , I only knew a small handful, but then again recently I have found that mixing with strangers isn’t always as terrifying as I seem to think it will be. In fact, it is becoming almost enjoyable, once I get over the initial blushing/slight sweating mix which comes with being ever so slightly socially inept.
And with that little bit of over-sharing, I will get back to the point. The cottage itself (Caerllwyn Cottage) is a beautiful 250 year old cottage that the caving club that Colette and Chris belong to (Westminster Speleological Group) – also the group which led to them meeting – have called home for the past 49 years. It is a small cottage, with newly refurbished toilets, hot showers, a huge log burner and an awesome bunk room designed to sleep no less than 18 humans. There was also space for camping, and I did pitch my tent in the garden, before deciding that actually sleeping indoors was a much more sociable (not to mention warm and dry) option. Still, at least the tent got it’s first airing of this year.
After a quick chat, an assessment of the ability levels of the group and the surprise news that one of the more experienced climbers who was going to lead a caving trip was injured and could no longer lead, it was decided that on Saturday morning Chris and Colette would take all us novices up to Porth Yr Ogof for a small scale explore. I hadn’t realised, but this was a cave that I had visited before as a young’un. I was surprised at how much of the cave I remembered (I usually have the memory of a goldfish) and it wasn’t long before I let curiosity take over and just started crawling, jumping and submerging myself wherever I could. Caving is fantastic for curious minds because everything looks different until you are right up close, a gap for instance can appear impassable until you start wriggling through, and whatever is waiting on the other side is a glorious surprise, which more often than not leads to a few gasps of wonder.
Plus, the rock formations are fantastic. And as a geographer, you don’t get any more exciting than that (unless perhaps you have a room full of maps waiting to be coloured in with a brand new box of Crayolas).
Caving trip one completed, we headed back to the cottage to enjoy a huge dinner which Colette had prepared a few days previously. There may have been time to squeeze in a run beforehand, however I seemed somewhat lacking in motivation when the beers were calling – so I decided to leave it until the morning and crack on with the celebrations instead. We were joined by a few new faces on Saturday, many of whom I know from the canoe club, and what followed was a really relaxed evening of eating my own bodyweight in cheese, doubling that in beer, and even joining in a sing song. I am not blessed with a good voice, but singing really makes me happy, and as I get older (or drunker) I am starting to realise that’s all that matters (to me). To everyone else who was there – I can only apologise.
Beers drunk, merry evening concluded we headed to bed – with honest intentions in my mind of rising early and going for a long run before the caving group departed. As it happens (as it always happens) I woke later than expected and had to opt for a much shorter run than I had planned. Having said this, my running motivation as once again was low, so a 5km dash to the top of the local peak actually fitted quite well. The morning was beautiful, the scenery was ace, and the sheep didn’t try to attack me. It was as ideal as any hungover running experience could be, and I definitely regretted not getting out earlier when I returned home. This was a really stunning part of the world for running, and I’d been sitting back letting the opportunity pass. Next time, I’ll get out more. And there will definitely be a next time soon.
The final trip of the weekend was with a group of canoey people (plus a stray husband who will no doubt be roped in soon) to another cave – known as Bridge Cave. This cave had a much narrower entrance, followed by a long crawl down a tight tunnel. We (and when I say we I may really mean I) had a little bit of a worry, when Chris stated that some of the rocks had moved a while back. Yes, it may have been twelve years ago but when you’ve just slid on your belly into a small space called the ‘boulder trap’, having just noticed that the ceiling is made up of hundreds of fragments of rock and has random bits of scaffolding protruding from a couple of the gaps, your first impulse tends to be that of a worried nature. Until you emerge on the other side of course. Then it is just awesome. Awesome is also a word which should be used to describe the space we emerged to on the other side of the ‘boulder trap’. Suddenly, the passage opened up into a huge steep sided cavern, with a large stream flowing through the middle. We made our way down the stream until a huge stone arch came into focus. This was ‘The Bridge’ and it was really quite a sectacular landform. Equally as spectacular were the stalactites which we discovered shortly afterwards – alien-like formations that glistened in the light of our headtorches. If you want to be blown away by the power of nature, head underground, you won’t be disappointed and the adrenaline rush is mental. Never before have I felt quite so at the the mercy of the elements. If you are at all interested in earth processes, I really do urge you to get down there and have a look (with the right equipment and an experienced guide of course).
And on that overly enthusiatic (though in all honesty there are not enough superlatives to describe the wonder of caving) note I will wrap up this piece. Huge thanks to Colette and Chris for organising everything, giving me a lift and generally looking out for me on what was their special weekend. Also a huge thanks to the Westminster Speleological Group for letting us borrow some kit, being such a welcoming crowd and opening up the cottage to the public. If you are interested in giving caving a go, or if you are already a caver looking to find like minded people, I strongly suggest you visit their website here.
Thanks for reading – hope this has encouraged you all to get out and try something new soon. Remember – in the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take.