200 feet down to be precise. Beneath the anicent woodland of the Forest of Dean, at Clearwell Caves. Not being a lover of confined spaces, I was apprehensive about joining a couple of my batrunning friends and their spouses on a 3 hour caving adventure on a cold saturday morning. But seeing as Jasper was bringing his 12 year old lad along, I reckoned that I should 'Man up' and tag along.
It costs £20 for a 'deep caving session' which lasts approximately 3 hours and is led by an experienced guide. The weather was absolutely brassic - minus 7 or so early morning, but the beauty of caving is that it's the same constant 10 degrees underground all year round.
They provide Guantanamo bay type caving overalls and helmets with headtorches, plus wellies are available if required. As this cave system is pretty dry until you get 600feet down (!!) most of us just wore walking boots.
Our guide was Mike, a really laid back and thoroughly nice guy, who really knew his subject.
The entrance is through a small hole beneath an old tree. One of those 'you'd never know it was there unless you knew it was there' type of cave entrances. This small gated entrance is no clue to the many miles of tunnels and caverns lurking below.
In the first small cave where the above ground temperature was able to penetrate, strange ice formations had risen from the rock surface, where water was dripping from above.
And there were big Cave Spiders!
Clearwell is apparently the country's only working Ochre mine. Ochre is used mainly as a pigment for painters. Being the bunch of jovial pranksters that we are (rolls eyes) we decided to apply some of the ochre as Joe Montana eye make up.
Very fetching, eh?? The overalls do come in very handy, because the red dust from the rocks gets on everything. One of the highlights of the visit was the bats - Lesser Horseshoe Bats, smaller than mice, were hibernating in the caves and they literally just hang off the rocks enclosing their whole bodies with their wings. You're not permitted to even take photos of them, because they are so protected, and the heat from a flashlight may disturb them if up close. But I snuck a quick photo in from a distance - hope the Bat Police don't come knocking...
After descending to nearly 200feet, we had to go through a couple of crawls - the first called the Rabbit Hole, the second called The Mousehole. The Rabbithole wasn't too bad, although it looked a tight squeeze from the start point. Here's Screech going in...
And here's me emerging with a look of terror/relief/concern/whythef***didIcome on my face.
The Mousehole was worse, or better if you're an avid caver. It was about 8" high and maybe 4 feet wide. It was only around 3 metres long (I know, I know, mixing metric and imperial measurements) and then turned a corner for another metre before emerging into a cavern. I got a minor feeling of panic as soon asI crawled in, but I managed to quickly drag myself through and wait for the others with camera poised.
After that we got to a large cavern with an old railway track, that apparently runs for a quarter of a mile! This was at 200feet below the surface and as deep as we would be going. Years ago, children woul d be sent to work down here for 10 hour days by light of candle for a pittence. Think of that when you're sat there on your PS3. The route back was a bit easier than the descent, avoiding the Mousehole! Some clambering and stooping was still essential.
All in all, a really enjoyable and well priced mornings fun in the Forest of Dean. Highly recommended, providing you're not claustrophobic, or don't like spiders. Or bats. Or Ochre.