Journey to the centre of the Earth

What is a starlet doing wriggling through a hole in the ground? Clive Tully digs deep to find the answer

Oh, f---, I've broken my nail!" It would be an exaggeration to say there are howls of laughter, but the reaction certainly carries down the passage. Aspiring Bond girl Anna Waddington-Feather has just discovered that crawling full stretch along a narrow cave passage not only challenges you to confront your fears of dark confined spaces head on, it takes its toll on your hands as well. Come to think of it, I'm not too impressed with the rate at which my knees and shins pick up bruises, either. No wonder Cheddar Caves guide Chris Castle has gardener's kneeling pads strapped to his legs.

This is Anna's first crack at caving, as opposed to simply wandering around the slightly more predictable, if no less dramatic show caves such as you'd find at nearby Wookey Hole. Having confided in me that she goes unusually quiet when she's not comfortable with risky situations - real or perceived - her tight-lipped demeanour speaks volumes as we pull on our boiler suits, helmets and lamps, and Chris delivers his pre-trip safety briefing.

But the nerves diffuse somewhat as we stride past the impressive calcite formations in Gough's show cave, attracting admiring (or maybe pitying) looks from the "tourists". Then we branch off into a small passage to begin our mixture of scrambling, climbing, stooping, crawling and swearing through the Mendip limestone.

Having visited a number of caves sporting chambers with names like the "Eiffel Tower" (because you look up and get an eyeful), I immediately assume that Mushroom Chamber had earned the name on account of its size. But no, apparently the cave guides in the 1950s actually thought it would be a good wheeze to try growing mushrooms. The experiment was a dismal failure when the mushrooms died - all that remains now are a few scattered remnants of peat on the floor.

The equally imaginatively named Boulder Chamber is noted for its short moment of glory in the 1960s, with David Laferty's world-record 130-day stay underground. "He had no idea of the time," Chris tells me. "He became quite bored and depressed, and he slept a lot - 30 hours at a time." The fame was short-lived, however, as a Frenchman broke his record just a month later. These days, the most striking accessory in Boulder Chamber is a bright yellow BT telephone - surely one of the least accessible and doubtless least vandalised telephones anywhere.

"So how long do you think it'll be before your eyes get used to the dark and you'll be able to see something?" asks Chris when we all switch off our headlamps. An embarrassed silence follows as nobody dares speak in case they get it wrong. The answer, of course, is never. This isn't just gloom, it's total darkness.

As caves go, Cheddar is pretty dry. Some of my previous caving trips have had me paddling in streams, even wading neck deep in icy water. Of course, the real enthusiasts (or head cases, depending on your point of view) go for cave diving, exploring flooded tunnels and chambers with the aid of sub-aqua gear. But for now, I'm quite satisfied to follow Anna's example by joining the line through one particularly damp passage behind the other members of the party, so the really puddley bits are mopped up by the boiler suits in front.

Just when you think you're getting into the swing of things, along comes the final surprise, "April Fool's Squeeze", a small passage which has to be taken at full stretch, with head down, and feet up. It helps to be thin - actually, I reckon it helps to be double jointed as well - but I gather this particular squeeze does take people with chest measurements up to 48in.

The beauty of the Adventure Caving Trip provided by Cheddar Caves is that it's one of the few places in the country where you can just book up and go caving. In the normal run of things, you'd have to seek out your local caving club. "We get all sorts caving with us," explains Chris. "We take children as young as 12, and we've had people well into their seventies." You need to be relatively fit to do the trip, but even so, you'll almost certainly find one or two muscles you'd forgotten about reminding you of their presence afterwards.

Martin Ridnell came here from Northampton with his daughter Hannah, 13, so she could pick up a badge from the Guides. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience. "Great value for money," adds dad. Jonathan Clark and Gill Orme, recently moved to nearby Glastonbury, booked their trip into the cave as part of getting to know the area - what most might regard as a somewhat extreme piece of reconnaissance. Gill had been visibly quaking at the start of the trip, but once we got going, she was scurrying about, investigating different tunnels each time the rest of us stopped for a breather. In fact, she and Jonathan enjoyed the experience so much they decided to join their local caving club.

Even wannabe-Bond-girl Anna, once she too overcame her initial flutters, had as much fun as the rest of us, admitting afterwards that she "felt like a kid in an adventure playground".

CAVING IN THE MENDIPS

GO CAVING

Cheddar Showcaves' Adventure Caving Trip lasts one hour, and costs pounds 10 for adults, pounds 7.50 for children. Boiler suits are provided, along with rubber boots, although you can choose to wear your own walking boots. A helmet and lamp are supplied, along with a belay belt and karabiner for safety on a couple of sections where a slip might result in a fall. Cheddar Showcaves (tel: 01934 742343).

WHERE TO STAY

Clive Tully stayed as a guest of The Crown at Wells, Somerset (tel: 01749 673457).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more information and a free guide to the area and available accommodation, write to the Mendip District Council, Cannards Grave Road, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, BA4 5BT (tel: 01749 343027). Or email them at: lofthousem@mendip.gov.uk.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit