Cavers, no matter how carefully they abide by access arrangements, should always be conscious that for some of our most treasured caves, access can never be taken for granted. One of, if not the best preserved cave in South Wales, which cavers have had the privilege of exploring for decades now, is a case in point. Access has been possible into the Dan yr Ogof caves in the Upper Swansea Valley for many years, courtesy of an arrangement between the show cave owner and cavers, an agreement based on mutual trust between both parties. There is a common desire to see the cave both appreciated by cavers for its impressive features, and protected from uncontrolled and irresponsible actions.
Currently there are concerns that access to Dan yr Ogof (DYO) may be seriously affected should illegal digging create an alternative entrance to the system. At present, access is possible via the show cave, which is the long-established practical working arrangement currently in place. This article explains why there is a risk of loss of access to DYO. It is important that cavers understand the possible consequences of disregarding the wishes of cave owners, and that working arrangements that are of benefit to cavers, owners and of course the caves themselves, are respected. The tale of DYO access that has developed gradually in recent years has involved an illegal dig within a Site of Special Scientific Interest above the cave, worries over the cave owner’s liabilities and possible invalidation of their insurance, and the installation of a lockable grill underground at the boundary of the show cave.
The owner of Dan yr Ogof has told Darkness Below that he is extremely keen to maintain access for cavers. Nevertheless, the owner’s and cavers’ concerns are that if a second entrance is opened, access to the cave via the show cave will end, as the owner is forced to permanently lock the area beyond the show cave to meet the insurer’s requirements.
At a recent meeting of the Dan yr Ogof Conservation Panel, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) revealed that a dig thought to be above the Mazeways area of the cave may have been restarted. Even a simple rumour that this may have happened could have serious consequences.
Dan yr Ogof is not just a show cave but also one of the UK’s best preserved caves – the majority of the formations are in pristine condition. The far reaches of the 11-mile (17km) system near Penwyllt in South Wales have long been protected by a combination of factors: the cave has only one entrance,the Long Crawl provides a natural barrier, a warden system is in place and the work of the South Wales Caving Club and Dan yr Ogof Conservation Panel has kept conservation high on the list of priorities while exploration has taken place over many years.
Cavers say that the cave is truly a great place – the further reaches (the Far North) really do feel remote and there are some fabulously decorated sections en route, including Cloud Chamber, Flabbergasm Chasm and The Mostest.
Ashford Price, representing the National Showcave Centre for Wales, told Darkness Below just how strongly he feels about the situation.
“For over 45 years I have been working with cavers, and actively encouraging caving at Dan Yr Ogof,” said Ashford. “I am proud to say that three cavers have gained their PhD from research carried out within the caves, and several of our staff have become geologists after their interest in geology being first stimulated by their time with us as guides. We like to see cavers around the complex because our tourists have always been fascinated by seeing them, and cavers have always engaged with visitors when asked about their sport. I would be the most frustrated show cave owner in Britain if access for cavers had to end.”
A dig was discovered a few years ago, estimated to be directly above an area in Mazeways on land forming part of a SSSI and National Nature Reserve. The land was formerly owned by the show cave owners, the National Showcaves Centre for Wales, who retain the mineral and underground rights in the area. Consent for a SSSI dig had not been obtained from NRW and digging was stopped. Both the farmer and show cave owners were threatened with legal action at the time. Landowners are responsible for any unauthorised works on SSSI sites and potentially can face heavy fines even if they are unaware of work being carried out.
Following publicity around other illegal digs, such as the ones which opened up new entrances in Ogof Draenen, the show caves’ insurers made contact with DYO owners in 2014 to ask what would happen if a similar dig allowed cavers access to the DYO system via a second entrance, potentially allowing cavers to access the show cave without permission. This triggered a series of events:
- The owners confirmed that such a dig had been attempted
- Several risk assessors and surveyors from the insurance company visited the cave to consider the situation
- Detailed statements explaining how access for cavers operates were provided
- New requirements were then introduced by the insurance company.
- The show cave owners were instructed to install immediately a security grill at Lake One
- This grill would be permanently locked with access allowed only to cave rescue should a second entrance be made into the system
- They were advised that insurance cover would be withdrawn if the the request was not complied with and required to confirm their agreement in writing
- The grill was installed, and for the time being remains unlocked
Dan yr Ogof show cave is a significant employer in the area, employing 62 local people, and clearly cannot operate without insurance cover. If a second entrance to the cave is opened the owners will have no choice but to end access for cavers.
The owner’s commitment to ongoing caver access was demonstrated a few years ago, after the rescue of two cavers in 2008, when communications, electric and lighting to the food dump beyond Lake Four were installed, ensuring that any cavers trapped by flooding would be able remain safe and warm until floodwaters receded.
Exploration, including diving and digging, is allowed in the cave. Although there are some conditions to be met – BCA insurance is required – access is available at any time (not just when the show cave is open) and permission isn’t required. The main requirement is that a warden leads every trip.
The grill at the first lake now stands as a salutary reminder of how fragile our hard-won access agreements can be. The best way for cave access to be maintained and improved is for all cavers to be fully aware of how important it is to work with everyone who wants to preserve caves as the exceptional places they are, while at the same time being allowed the privilege of being able to visit and explore them.
Access to Dan yr Ogof
Access to DYO is subject to conditions but overall is fairly easy to arrange:
- BCA membership required
- No permission required
- Trips can be arranged with any warden
- All trips must be warden-led
- Digging, diving exploration trips can be arranged
Cavers wanting to explore beyond the show cave at DYO can find full details at: http://www.dyo.org.uk/access.html