Hungerhill Swallet - Alan Brentnall

Tuesday, 28 March, 2017

Some time last month, while discussing future midweek caving options, Katie suggested Hungerhill Swallet. As this is a great cave (it's actually a late '80s TSG success story - see TSG Jounal 13 pp 26-33 for an interesting tale of its discovery by John Beck ) there was general agreement, but we weren't sure of the current access or parking arrangements as we knew that Hungerhill Farm had changed hands since any of us who had been there in the past had done it last. Fortunately Katie managed to call round at the farm when someone was home and found out that access was still allowed (but please call and let them know what you're doing) but parking was a bit restrictive. Best to use the village car park opposite Eyam Museum and walk up to the farm. The free car park isn't much use for evening trips, as the gate is locked at 8:00pm, but the pay-and-display car park, which is fairly expensive during the day, charges only a pound for night-time use.

Another issue with Hungerhill is the fact that it is quite a gnarly trip, involving a squalid, muddy entry series, awkward squeezes and a fairly deep and serious wet pitch on what are merely rock screws. Consequently, when we finally managed to agree a date for the trip, I sent out an appropriate email, accurately describing the nature of this candidate for the forthcoming Peak District version of NFTFH, adding that I was prepared to negotiate a parallel, easy trip nearby for those not wishing to partake of the main course - I did get one such request, but, alas, it came so late on Tuesday that there was hardly time to organise anything. Despite my "appropriate email", an excellent team of seven cavers turned up at the Eyam car park at the appointed hour. As I'm DC this month, I quickly dumped the controller number on Pete, got changed and we set off up the main road to the farm.

After a quick hello and access request at the old house, we crossed the small paddock to the tree-lined doline and dropped down to the wood which marks the still-collapsed entrance of the timbered shafts. Skirting around this, we crossed into the western half of the doline, and began to search for the Mined Entrance. Treading carefully in the middle of the deep layer of fallen leaves, I suddenly found what felt like a metal edge, and, digging down into the leaf mould, we slowly uncovered the sturdy grill which is bolted to the top of a sizable, vertical, corrugated sewer pipe equipped with a ladder leading down to the mined level. The grill bolt required a Derbyshire Key, and, luckily, I had brought a mole wrench along, as I remember that last time I had problems with a recalcitrant screw-gate on a deviation. Once down the ladder, we met the squalid, muddy passage which is flat-out for a few meters over some very nice conveyor belting to a larger crawl, followed by a coffin level. This led us to a small chamber containing access to some further coffin level and a downwards sloping crawl from which emanated the beckening sound of a fast flowing stream. Our way on.

As well as the stream, the crawl also leads to the squeeze. Having passed through this particular obstacle with absolutely no problems several times before, I simply slid feet-first into the jaws of the squeeze, only to get stuck fast. As this appeared to be very entertaining to Jess, who was just behind me, I decided to use my usual tactics of brute force and ignorance to get through. Only to discover that I got even more stuck. Reversing the move was no joke either, as entry to the squeeze is gravity assisted, and the other side of the constriction is a drop of a metre or so, with no footholds or other purchase. But using chin hooks, wriggles and extreme peristalsis, I was eventually able to return to the slightly larger crawl. I decided at this point to get Katie to come forward, seeing that she is currently in a pre-natal state, and, hoping that the size of the squeeze and the nature of her condition might give us a good excuse to call the whole thing off and retreat to the Miners' Arms. But, "No, that looks fine!" was the response, so I had to remove various bits of SRT gear and rigging tackle before I could slip through in the fashion to which I had previously become accustomed. The crawl that follows has its moments too, but these are much more aqueous, as the passage and the stream have now become united. But, eventually, we popped out into a wet, black alcove at the top of a cascade which snaked downwards into a black chasm - Deep Space.

Just before the exit to the wet crawl, there are a couple of pretty bomber rock thread belays, and I chose the most substantial to thread my tape around for a backup for the rope which then connected via a skewed Y-hang to two in-situ bolts. A word of warning here, these bolts look OK, and probably will do the job but they are neither spits nor P anchors; they are in fact rock-screws or thunderbolts, as Jim calls them, which have been in-situ for several years now, and probably ought to be replaced sometime (soon I hope) with decent P hangers.
Not only are the anchors expo-fashion, but the whole pitch is the sort of thing that you may have done as a matter of course in the old days of ladder-and-line, but you normally only get wet pitches like this during initial explorations. In addition to this, the rough rock which adorns the pitch all the way to the bottom, requires at least two rope protectors and a deviation to reduce the damage to a single rub. Considering that the original explorers traversed this pitch by simply rock climbing diagonally down it, it must surely be possible for the pitch to be rebolted safely for a dry passage.

The rigging as it currently stands is well documented in the Crewe rigging guide, but I'll attached copy here for your benefit:

Deep Space Topo

The description in the rigging guide includes mention of a small stalactite thread which can be used to deviate the route below the worst of the rubs. This was passed to me from Nigel Atkins, but I could not find the thing tonight, largely because of the volume of water, and I'm having to pay the price by cutting one of my best Gleistein ropes to remove the damage. Because of the rope-protectors, deviations etc, the pitch was quite slow work on the way down, and the group of cavers waiting up-slope from the foot of Deep Space were gradually getting colder and colder, until somebody suggested that we split a party off to go and view the Bag of Worms, thereby getting the earlier descenders warm again, and staggering the exit rope-climb. So I climbed up the huge pile of boulders with Jess, Bernie and Julian, leaving Katie to guide Alex and Brendan once they had descended Deep Space. What followed was an enormous chamber, with a few pretty bits, leading to a odd-ball boulder climb into a further chamber, the Bag of Worms (so named because of the helictites). At the back of this chamber was a further muddy climb which I didn't think went anywhere - but Katie tells me that this is an Eldon extension to further pretty chambers higher up. So there's a good excuse for a repeat trip sometime in the future.

Back at Deep Space, Brendan and Alex had arrived, the former agreeing to de-rig after their visit to the Worms. We kitted up and, one-by-one set about prussicking up the pitch. It was very wet, and very cold. For the first time ever I used the hood on my AV suit, but it didn't improve the ascent greatly. A neoprene hood might have been better - and a wetsuit!! But, eventually, the deviation, the re-belay and all the rope protectors were passed, and I could huddle and shivver to myself as I watched Jess's lamp slowly negotiate the cataract below. Once Jess was up, we waited for Bernie before the two of us headed back to the squeeze. We waited on the far side of the squeeze until Bernie and Julian appeared and, once Bernie was through we headed out and back to the cars to get changed. By the time we were all out, it was pushing 11 o'clock. But this is Eyam, and we were still welcomed in to the local hostalry where we devoured various drinks, crisps and nuts, and talked about caving trips past and in the future. All agreed that Hungerhill had lived up to its reputation, and had been an interesting trip. Whatever next?