Author Topic: A review of Adventures Underground (Dave Haigh and John Cordingley)  (Read 811 times)

Offline Cavematt

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‘Adventures Underground’ by Dave Haigh and John Cordingley

Wild Places Publishing, 2017.
£24.95 soft back / £39.95 hardback, 240 pages, full colour. http://www.wildplaces.co.uk/books/630-adventures-underground.html.
All royalties donated to Cave Rescue and Macmillan Cancer Support.

In 1952, Underground Adventure by Gemmell and Myers was published; a landmark book documenting some of the biggest discoveries in northern UK. Unlike many other books which presented straight facts for reference, this book presented the personal stories of the discoveries from the perspective of the two authors who had been directly involved. In each short, standalone chapter, the reader was taken on an underground adventure, experiencing the highs and lows of the first explorations of some of the caves we know well today. The writing style was engaging, enticing and exhilarating and left the reader feeling as if they were almost there with these original explorers, and offering a beautifully written first person perspective on many of the early discoveries.

I am embarrassed to say that my copy of Underground Adventure languished on my bookshelf for several years before I finally reached for it one evening in 2012. As fortune would have it, I’d enjoyed a trip down Little Hull Pot on Penyghent for the first time only a week earlier so I was immediately drawn to the chapter describing the original exploration of this fine pothole by Gemmell et. al. in 1939. I was quickly captivated by the story of how Little Hull Pot was first descended, and what a major undertaking this was with the equipment at the time. I then couldn’t put the book down, soon becoming immersed in the gripping story of the exploration of Simpson Pot, Lancaster Hole, Notts Pot (known as Notts Hole originally) and others. Each was told in a way that immersed the reader in the underground adventure as it unfolded.

Of course, cave exploration did not end in 1952 when this book was written. Sure, many of the easier pickings had been explored; but enormous cave systems continued to be discovered. This is thanks to the tenacity and ongoing resourcefulness of underground explorers, improved caving equipment, SRT, and advances in cave diving.

It was therefore with great excitement that I learned of Adventures Underground. This new book is billed as an unofficial follow-up to the 1952 Underground Adventure. The authors, Dave Haigh and John Cordingley, are well qualified to narrate on some of the biggest discoveries of recent decades. They make no secret of their admiration for the 1952 Underground Adventure, and their wish for their book to be written in a similar style.

So, does Adventures Underground live up to its aims? I was keen to find out.

Much as I was drawn to the Little Hull Pot chapter of the 1952 Underground Adventure, I was first drawn to the Adventures Underground story of the discovery of Pay Sank and P5. Only a week prior to collecting the book I had performed an exchange trip between Grange Rigg Pot and Christmas Pot, both of which are part of the Pay Sank/P5 hydrological system. I yearned to know more about this often-forgotten small area, sandwiched between the more popular Gaping Gill pots and those on the Ingleborough Allotment. To my delight, there it was, a chapter dedicated to the Pay Sank and P5 discoveries. This seems a fitting inclusion in the new book, as Grange Rigg Pot was originally explored by Arthur Gemmell et al. in 1943. Dave Haigh provides a history of the exploration before describing the post-1952 explorations which culminated in the discovery of Pinnacle Hall via Grange Rigg/Christmas Pot.

This introduction, as with all chapter introductions, is written in a concise yet informative way, providing enough historical background to help the reader appreciate the nature of the adventure that lies ahead, but without getting bogged down by too much historical context.

The story then jumps to above ground and the surface dig of Pay Sank in the P5 shakehole. Capturing the excitement (and relating the miseries) of digging in words is no easy task but one which Dave has done extremely well on several occasions; combining exactly the right mix of facts, intrigue, adventure, comedic anecdote and personalities to keep the reader gripped.

Having jumped straight in at a later chapter, I then returned to the beginning. The first chapter is dedicated to the search for the elusive Penyghent Master Cave; a theoretically immense system spanning the potholes on Penyghent and Fountains Fell. This is skilfully narrated. Dave grabs the readers’ attention, leading them into the mystery and explaining the evidence.

After reading the introduction to this chapter, it is almost impossible not to read on; a theme common to the entire book. The story then moves onto Penyghent Pot. Most cavers will have heard of this classic pothole; many will have been on the sporting trip to the main downstream sump, but few will have ventured into the furthest reaches such as the Living Dead Extensions; for good reason as you will find out. The ULSA explorations, commencing from 1986, are extremely well recounted; with each key breakthrough covered. The story accurately portrays the determination of the cavers involved, returning week after week to push through the most torturous and wet passages, on 16hr+ exploration trips, always believing they were one corner away from finding the elusive Master Cave.

I became acutely aware that in the hour or so it had taken me to read this chapter, I had learned more about the wider Penyghent cave system than I had learned in 13 years as an active Yorkshire Dales caver. Maybe this was just laziness on my part. The authors have managed to both educate and enthral the reader in each short chapter.

It is fascinating to see a short chapter dedicated to Hull Pot; a tribute to the coverage this well-known enormous pothole received in the 1952 Underground Adventure. This chapter follows on very nicely from the Penyghent Master Cave chapter, changing focus, as John shares with the reader a short personal story of his early trips into this well-known pothole. He recalls his early descents of the lower pitches, which unknown to many, are some of the wettest in the Dales.

The explorations of Notts II, originally by divers, and later by dry cavers following the breakthrough into the system at Committee Pot, form two excellent chapters. The story of this complex discovery is well told, and the excitement that this discovery created is captured. Likewise, in a separate chapter, the story of the work to connect Ingleborough Cave and Gaping Gill is told with admirable clarity.

The Three Counties System is rightly given considerable attention; the concept of this was first proposed in 1968 (prior to Underground Adventure). The key breakthroughs, right up to the final Notts II/Lost Johns’ connection in November 2011 are well covered. Over the course of 14 pages, the reader is taken on the mission to explore and connect this enormous system. The authors accurately portray the adventure and determination experienced by the explorers, and (like any good story that is likely to have a sequel) have left us on a cliff hanger with the mention of a potentially much larger trans-Craven system from Aygill Caverns all the way across to Wharfedale.

Diving was naturally going to play a massive part in post-1952 cave discoveries. From the discovery of Notts II, the exploration of the Kingsdale Master Cave (including the famous King Pot to Keld Head dive), to the underwater explorations at Malham, John Cordingley tells the stories very well indeed, in a way that captures the excitement, the opportunities (and the dangers) of cave diving.

Finally, it is great to see some attention given to areas outside of the Three Peaks/Three Counties area; the explorations in Birks Fell and Preachers Cave on Wild Boar Fell are covered; in the latter, the determination of the explorers is made all too clear, as John recounts episodes of poking at (and deliberately collapsing) underwater boulder chokes; and even scaffolding underwater; All in the interests of pushing for that next big discovery.

The book is well furnished with photos throughout, and the reader is assisted in his/her understanding of the systems being discussed by simplified ‘tube style’ maps, simple black-line surveys or more detailed surveys which help to put everything in perspective. Readers will recognise the style of many of the surveys; the book is published by Wild Places Publishing, who also publish Descent. Chris and Judith have done an outstanding job with this.

Adventures Underground can be enjoyed by anyone; Some knowledge of caving terminology is beneficial, although a glossary is included to help.

It must have been a daunting task to try to create a follow-up to Underground Adventure; The engaging writing style is not easy to replicate. Dave Haigh and John Cordingley have nonetheless got it exactly right. As well as educating the reader on each discovery, they successfully relate the personal tribulations, the determination, and most importantly the excitement and adventure of the original explorations. This is done mostly from first-hand perspective; because, after all, they were there for most of them!

Each chapter is the right length to read over a mug of hot chocolate (or something stronger). By the end of the first page of each chapter, you are totally hooked on the story; wanting to know more and wondering what will happen next. Each chapter is stand-alone (with a few exceptions) so the book can be either read from cover to cover (the ordering of chapters ensures alternating variety), or as a selection of short stories.

Adventures Underground certainly lives up to its aim. This is a must-own, must-read book for all cavers, and looks set to help inspire cave explorers for several decades, much as the original Underground Adventure has done.

Matt Ewles
Chairman, York Caving Club
Secretary, Council of Northern Caving Clubs
17th May 2017

Offline Pitlamp

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Thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive review Matt.