CAVE BIKING IN YORKSHIRE
by Macho O’Blather
After hearing about it from a friend, I decided to have a go at the new sport of cave biking. This is a loose fusion of the two activities of pot-holing and cycling which is really catching on amongst serious outdoor enthusiasts. A ‘phone call to Dick Looney of Looneytrips Ltd was all that was required to secure a place on a weekend. “No problem,” was the reply, “just bring an overnight bag and we supply the rest.”
So it was on Friday 21st March that I booked in at Throcking Squint Hostel in Dulldale. RV that evening was at the Frog and Ferret in Throcking Squint where they serve a fine pint of Gribleys and we were introduced to our instructors, Fred and Dick himself, The rest of the evening was spent learning some basic techniques such as how to fasten a snackle-plate and roping up wire trunnions. We also had a good laugh at photos of previous trips such as the descent of “Runny Bowel”. Three pints of Gribleys Old Frothy and a technicolour yawn later I was ready for bed.
Up early Saturday and we made for “Boggles Nodule”, a grade 7 cave suitable for dead-hard nuts like us. The bikes were there ready—assembled and we got our first taste of trying to ride them. A cave—bike is much the same as an ordinary bike except that it completely different. The wheels are only 7” in diameter and look rather odd perched at opposite ends of a long, twisty, tubular frame. Instead of the usual silt-up-and-beg position, one lies full length along the frame supported in 3 places by little plastic mouldings which look as if they will break off at the slightest provocation. A special aerodynamic caving helmet is provided, complete with electric light. The gears present rather a problem as the frame is built on the “gooseneck” principle and is therefore insufficiently rigid to support cables. This is got round by the ingenious artifice of having a lever directly attached to the rear derailleur. To change, one simply passes the right band down through the alimentary canal and out between ones legs from where the lever can easily be reached. With practice, this technique was soon mastered by everybody.
Then came the first pitch, a 300 foot abseil down a 9 inch square hole. The lucky bloke chosen to pioneer it naturally asked how he was to get his bike down. The answer was simple, roll it up and place it in a special socket provided for the purpose in the top of his helmet.
When we were all gathered at the bottom Fred, who was leading that day, told us to unroll our bikes and ride off down a hairline crack we could just see splitting one wall of the hole. This we did, but were stopped after 100 yards by the first sump, a black well of evil-looking, oily liquid with a dead caver floating in it (much like last nights Gribleys). We had learnt how to cope with sumps the previous evening and feeling confident I volunteered to go first. Without any further thought I took a deep breath and thrust my bike and my body down below the surface.
Well, I was beginning to panic after yards but, remembering instructions, I put my lips to the rear tyre valve and bled a little life-giving air into my heaving lungs. One more thrust and I broke through into the next chamber, rather to the surprise of the South African gold miners at work there. Afrikaans hadn’t been included in the instructions, so I hastily retraced my steps a few yards to rejoin the correct route which branched off to the right. Only a short crawl and then I popped out between two pillars in the whispering gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Here was a chance to rest quietly and have a Mars bar while everyone else caught up. A word of warning here — a filthy, black, oily, smelly cave–biker doesn’t go down a bundle with the Dean and Chapter in St. Paul’s. My advice is just to ignore the people and enjoy the ambiance.
The party was soon all together again and once Dick had rigged the abseil, we zoomed straight down from the dome and headed for the crypts, from where there is a direct route down to Number 4 outfall just past Wapping, with Fred and Dick pointing out the Victorian sewer features and the interesting variety of wildlife.
Sitting there on the mud bank at dusk watching the police launches chugging up and down, there were those of us who, quite naturally, wondered how we were to get back to Yorkshire for opening time. In reply to the voiced query, Dick pointed downstream to the tall flareestack of Thames Haven oil refinery. Then we upped and set off along the bank to a small inlet, just by the main tanker jetty where we found an abandoned discharge pipe. “Found this last year,” said Dick, “it’ll take us back via the main pipe from the Forties Field. A bit grubby, of course, but you won’t mind that will you?“
I must admit to a little hesitance as the party started to worm its way into the 4 inch pipe, but once past the rusty entrance it was a very smooth run altogether. The only incident on the next leg of the trip was an encounter with one of those mechanical devices called “pigs” which are used to clean the inside of pipes and appear to consist entirely of revolving steel teeth. Fortunately for us, the manufacturers build a certain amount of intelligence into them these days, and Freds superb Yorkshire-bred negotiating skills (the Batley Boot) were brought to bear. Accordingly the pig just apologised for getting in the way and waved us past.
From there we had just a brief halt at Forties Alpha to ask the way, and then it was back to the more familiar twisty rock passages. Soon we hit a long, hard, uphill bit and then suddenly a large trapdoor. Fred knocked, it was lifted and viola! The lounge bar of the Frog and Ferret.
Will I go again? Not bloody likely!
Copyright (c) 2009 St. Albans Adventure Group. This article was first published in the group magazine Stagger in October 1991.