Exploring Devon Caves: Little Caves on Dartmoor
Or perhaps not just caves in the exact sense of the word. More hollows or man-made features.
In my Dartmoor wanderings I usually found some hollow to crawl in, which saved the need to take a tent or a bivvy bag – there are so many such places, nearly every Dartmoor tor has at least one. I had favourites. I spent many a night in the long crack atop Great Links Tor,a grand Dartmoor bedroom which needed a bit of mild rock climbing to access. Another was the niche under Cuckoo Rock, not far from Sheepstor, which offers one of the best views on Dartmoor. It was always a strange feeling lying there, in the very roots of the great rock pile. I would always make a point of scrambling to the top on nice evenings to see the wide view over south-western Dartmoor.
Not far away, above the brook in the Deancombe (Dennycombe) Valley were several potato caves, dug as storage to keep the spuds dry by the local farmers. Their farmsteads are ruins now but the caves remain. I used to sleep in those too on wilder nights when the south west gales battered the moorland.
One of my favourite caves was the Pixies Holt, not far from Dartmeet. A lovely dry place to camp out right in the centre of Dartmoor.
I’ve always been fascinated by caves.
As a small child I spent a lot of days at Kinver, exploring its rocks and hollows. They say it’s a subconscious desire to recapture the warmth and comfort of the womb. They may be right. I never get claustrophobia – perhaps a genetic legacy from all those coal-mining ancestors.
Once upon a time, when I was seventeen, and had a motorbike, and petrol was about 3 bob a gallon, and a tank of it lasted a couple of weeks, I took up caving as a change from rambling and rock climbing. In those days I had the build for it, being skeletally thin. Every Saturday we would go out, find a hole, go down it, and get plastered in mud. We had plastic helmets, lights, magnesium flares – appropriated from my old chemistry set – and boiler suits.
Now these caves weren’t the dramatic potholes of the Peak or the Mendips, though those came later, but the milder holes of Devon.
We started on our old rock climbing ground at Chudleigh Rocks, in a marvellous cave called the Pixie’s Hole, once the haunt of prehistoric man, a Palaeolithic shelter. I had first explored it as a schoolboy as an exercise for my CSE geography field work notebook, going no further than a long ascending slope known as the Toad’s Penance. Now we went further high into the rock, then down into a ravine, full of bats who never seemed very bothered by our explorations. Climbing up on a homemade rope ladder we found that the cave exited through a smaller hole on the far side of the Rocks. Had we firsted a Himalayan summit we could not have been more thrilled.
Soon afterwards, crossing the pretty little Kate Brook, we found a tiny tunnel at the foot of the opposite cliffs. We crawled in a few yards and found it blocked by a fall, but were convinced it must go further. We dug enough of a passage to slip through. It ran for what seemed about a hundred yards, ending in a circular chamber. It was decided to remove the surplus earth to make the passage easier. While the boys did that I explored the far chamber, starting digging in what could be a continuation. For several hours they blocked me in completely, entombed under thousands of tons of rock, a weird feeling. I often wonder if modern cavers have found a way through into a greater cave system.
The last time I visited the Rocks, the caves were barred. They say to protect the bats, though I think that’s a lot of nonsense. Local word is that the powers that be don’t want the homeless living there, as our ancestors did a million years ago.
Young Cavers in Devon now must head further afield to appease their hunger for adventure.
There are several caves in the vicinity of Buckfastleigh, on the southern edge of Dartmoor. Back in the 1970s, we made quite a study of the Pridhamsleigh system, not far from the farm of the same name.
The approach to the cave has now been ruined by the construction of the A38 trunk road. In those days it was much quieter, with farm fields leading up to a much more modest old coaching route. Nearby there was a lovely brook in which we bathed after caving, to get the glutinous Pridhamsleigh mud off our bodies. The stream as I knew it is no more, its lovely natural course destroyed by the new road, its waters trapped in concrete culvert – a horrible thing to do to living water.
You needed the brook. Prid was a filthy old cave to explore. You would be cleaner if you took up mud-wrestling. I wonder how today’s cavers manage to clean up for the journey home?
There was a quaint system of access to the cave in those days. You went to the farm first, rang a great bell, told the farmer you were going underground, and tipped him a shilling each. Terribly civilised, I thought. I hope it is not too bureaucratic in modern day nanny-state Britain.
The cave boasts an underground lake, a long, narrow stretch of water, of rather sinister aspect. I half-expected some troglodyte monster to emerge from its dark and muddy depths. The first time down we all took a wrong-turning returning from the lake, and it took us a few minutes to puzzle out the way to the exit.
Not far from Prid itself is a modest and much cleaner cave called Dog Hole, a welcome relief after a couple of hours muddy scrambling in the main cavern. I recall that it had a beautiful crystal floor.
To this day, I think of the dark depths of Prid when I want to imagine a muddy cave. I hope young people still have a chance to explore it as we did, free of care.