A beginner's guide to caving by caver and cave diver Martyn Farr

May 30, 2023 9 min read

A beginner's guide to caving by caver and cave diver Martyn Farr

This is Brewery shaft in Nenthead Mines. © Martyn Farr

Caving has been my passion ever since my father introduced me to the sport when I was ten years old. Initially I visited the caves close to my home in Crickhowell, South Wales and then, following a really motivating talk delivered by an experienced local caver, I began prospecting on the moors nearby. I found my first big cave when I was seventeen and this fuelled my enthusiasm to explore further, to feel the incredible excitement of being the first person ever to tread on pristine floors, to view a section of passage, or some magnificently decorated chamber, previously unknown to the world.

During my years at university, I frequented Penwyllt, the cottage and caving headquarters, owned by South Wales Caving Club in the Swansea Valley. There I met truly inspirational pioneers who were pushing forward the exploration of some of the largest cave systems in Britain. The stories; wow! Not only did they pursue dry passages but some also pushed into flooded tunnels giving me my first link to the world of cave diving. It wasn’t long before I joined them, and there began my own long association with this most challenging facet of caving.

I soon realised that cave diving was a way to discover new sections of dry passage, places which were inaccessible to non-amphibious cavers. I was supported by other young enthusiasts who would help carry the heavy diving kit to remote locations and wait patiently to accompany me out at the end of a long and tiring day.

The lake in Smoo Cave, Scotland. © Martyn Farr

I began to photograph the places I found as a way of both documenting and sharing the wonders I saw; talented friends helped by developing new equipment to use underwater. In the '70s it was clear that our explorations were some of the most audacious in Europe.

I have been lucky enough to travel widely exploring and diving in caves from Russia to Australia, the Bahamas to Japan. I have written books and given talks as well as guiding and training countless aspiring cave divers. During this time, my perspective may have changed but my passion for caves and the world beneath our feet has never waned. Covid curtailed travel for all of us, but for me it also opened up a wonderful opportunity to focus once again on my fantastic local caves and then on the best caves and mines to be found across Britain and Ireland. I revisited 100 of the underground places which are most special to me, honing my use of the new and better lighting and cameras which are now available. After two years of hard work and the support of many generous and
helpful people, I have recently been delighted to see my latest book, Hidden Realms, published. It is a book which I hope will find a wide readership and through this inspire and intrigue those who are not yet familiar with the world of caves and mines; to prompt them to delve into this fascinating world and perhaps become as passionate as I am about the special places they will encounter there.

At the bottom of West Mine at Alderley edge. © Martyn Farr

So, what is caving?

I firmly believe that caving is the most adventurous sporting activity of our age. Anyone interested in challenging or exploratory pursuits really should check this out. In essence, and very simply, the term caving incorporates just about every activity under the ground, be it exploring natural water worn passages, old, abandoned mines, urban exploration of man-made conduits and negotiable
places beneath towns and cities, old railway or water tunnels, etc. In North America such enthusiasts are known as spelunkers. Strictly speaking its original meaning was the exploration of natural cavities underground, whether these are gently sloping passageways or deep vertical shafts. To me, today, the bottom line is that it’s an all-round sporting activity that takes you into the dark and mysterious world below ground. Down there you’ll be using muscles you never thought existed and if you’ve been underground more than an hour or two, you’ll think you’ve had a really good sporting workout, possibly better and certainly a lot more interesting than any session in the gym!

Caving is also about the people you are with. Camaraderie and teamwork go hand in glove and will be a reality on almost every trip underground. Alongside the more serious aspects of safety and conservation, cavers like to have fun! Whether this is a laugh and a joke during the course of a trip or later in the pub; there’s a good social element. At whatever level you pursue this sport you will undoubtedly be absolutely amazed by the sights and experiences you will have along the way.

Clearwell Caves – the show mine at Christmas. © Martyn Farr

How do I get in to caving?

The first approach to an underground experience is perhaps to contact a local caving or mining club. Depending upon where you live you may find yourself heading underground with a group of enthusiasts from either area of interest. Such groups will provide a responsible introduction and a sound foundation for you to build upon. These clubs, bodies or organisations are found right across the UK and Ireland and clubs are generally keen to recruit new members. There are plenty of adventurous activity providers and these again can point you in the direction of a safe and responsible approach to the sport. Some youth clubs, scouts and guides may also have leaders or contacts who can set you on a safe path.

The internet, of course, is a good source of information, but tread carefully. Seek out the websites of the Regional Caving Councils; there are five in mainland UK; these are an excellent source of information, especially concerning cave access. They deal with various aspects of caving on a regional level, such as implementing conservation works, administering access to caves, organising training initiatives, overseeing anchor installation, among various other functions. The over-arching national body, the British Caving Association (BCA), provides a range of services for members and has a website which is freely available to all. This body has a close liaison with the National Association of Mining History Organisations (NAMHO) for those with an interest in the man-
made underground environment; check out their website as well.

The Regional Caving Councils:

  • The Cambrian Caving Council – covers Wales, The Marches and The Royal Forest of Dean.
  • Council of Northern Caving Clubs – North of Britain including Scotland.
  • Council of Southern Caving Clubs – Mendip Hills, West Wiltshire and The Isle of Portland.
  • Derbyshire Caving Association – Peak District, South Yorks, North Notts & Cheshire.
  • Devon and Cornwall Underground Council – Devon and Cornwall.

A window overlooking the sea at Ogof Gofan,  Pembrokeshire. © Martyn Farr

Is caving safe? What equipment do I need?

I am often asked if caving is safe. My answer invariably is that if a few basic tenets are followed then most definitely you will have a safe, enjoyable and thoroughly rewarding experience. If not, the consequences can be dire. It’s dark underground, so you will need a good robust and waterproof light, one that needs to be securely attached to an appropriate helmet. It goes without
saying that you need your hands free to provide good balance, negotiate obstacles, and allow you to scramble over rocks and up, or down, short climbs, etc.

The next consideration is what to wear. Yes, wearing old clothes might suffice for a very brief excursion but you’ll quickly discover its not the best attire. In Britain the temperature underground is distinctly cool, varying from perhaps six degrees in the northern hills to a balmy ten or so down south. Given that body temperature is 37 degrees some appropriate warm and protective clothing is required. Ideally this will be a one piece undersuit and a one piece oversuit.

Outdoor or sporting equipment shops, may stock some suitable items but by and large you will need to find a specialist supplier if you really want to purchase the most appropriate equipment for the challenging world below ground. Many caving clubs will have sets of equipment that they are prepared to loan to beginners and you will quickly appreciate that it is superior to the gear you may have selected yourself.

A diver in the flooded levels of the Dinas silica mine. © Martyn Farr

It’s often wet in our caves, especially if you’re visiting an 'active' cave – one with a stream or other stretch of waterway. You quickly come to understand that water can be compromising! Heavy rainfall and consequent flooding is perhaps the most serious hazard in the British underworld. These wet challenging caves can literally become death traps after heavy or prolonged rainfall, so plan your ventures with this in mind. Wet caves are always sporting and invigorating and at places like Swildons Hole on Mendip, P8 in Derbyshire and Porth yr Ogof in South Wales, it’s always a great feeling returning to the surface with a clean set of equipment. But in all these systems the bottom line is clear; if there’s water in your chosen cave you can be certain that its level will rise in the event of rainfall. Take a weather forecast, make your plan and act appropriately.

Other hazards to contend with in the underworld include deep holes or shafts in the floor, areas of loose rock and constrictions or climbs to be negotiated. Getting disorientated or perhaps lost in some labyrinth is not uncommon given that some caves, and certainly many mines, extend for many tens of kilometres. In mines and in some caves, poor air quality may be of concern or perhaps critical. Old, abandoned coal mines for example should never be entered.

Undertaking your first few caving trips with a club and an experienced leader will give you a good understanding of these and other hazards and set you on a safe path to the future. Follow that old adage: if in doubt stay out!

While safety is of paramount importance it is also essential to consider the underground environment. Your club mates will stress the need for conservation from the very beginning. The cave environment is unique and some of the places secreted in the darkness are extremely vulnerable to damage. Some of the formations we find there, like stalactites (these hang from the ceiling) and stalagmites (which grow up from the floor) have taken thousands of years to develop yet may be destroyed by as little as a gentle touch. Other fascinating structures include crystal pools and weird and intricate gravitationally defying helictites or erratics. Some caves are gated and locked to protect their inner wonders. Some also require a leader to supervise the visit and some caves, for example Lechuguila in the United States, are sadly only accessible for scientific study. Mines too, need to be carefully preserved as they are full of historical interest and frequently have ancient artifacts which must be respected and treated with care by all those who visit.

Very clear water in the downstream sump of Kingsdale Master Cave. © Martyn Farr

If you find yourself captivated by the sport, sooner or later you will probably become drawn to specialise in a specific area. The scientific side of the pursuit is referred to as speleology and there are many learned individuals working in the fields of geology and biology. Other people are drawn to surveying, archaeology, art or photography. At this stage, it would be well worth exploring the work of the British Cave Research Association (BCRA) or other specialist groups which cater for these varied aspects of caving. Or you may wish to put something back into the sport by joining a local rescue team or become a trainer.

Caving is a pursuit that you can safely follow in a variety of ways and at different levels for many years. You will meet some amazing people and visit some astonishing places. It won’t be long before you find yourself travelling beyond your local caves to other areas to experience different, but equally fascinating, places. As illustrated in Hidden Realms, each caving region has its own character and enchantment. In time, your sights will fall upon some stunning places overseas.

Almost every country has something to offer but one extremely important consideration nowadays is that of appropriate insurance cover. Joining a club will furnish you with public liability insurance whist caving in the UK, which is highly desirable; accidents can happen to anyone. While specialist cave rescuers will turn out promptly to assist you in this country, the situation is complex and different in Europe and further afield. You will need to plan very carefully for any overseas trip, where rescue, hospitalisation and associated measures will prove expensive. But don’t let that deter you. Overseas caves in places such as Europe and southeast Asia for example are fabulous.

I started caving in 1961 and these subterranean activities have been my passion ever since. I thoroughly commend this pursuit to anyone. For a healthy sporting lifestyle, unique opportunities and wonderous sights you will find nowhere better.

Team up and work with the right people and you may be privileged enough to explore underground environments never seen before by any human or to make some ground breaking scientific discovery. Caving is very much the last frontier on earth. For magical enchantment, untold secrets and great fun – this is the sport.