From Thai heroes to diggers to tiny stalactites – the best of Hidden Earth 2018

Darkness Below’s roving reporter Peter Burgess provides a flavour of the busy weekend at the 2018 Hidden Earth conference which boasted a wide range of lectures and a busy trade hall – and he even managed to almost stay within his budget!

The Cavers’ Bar at Hidden Earth 2018. Always a popular place! Run by cavers for cavers. Photo: Peter Burgess


It is the usual custom for the opening ceremony to conclude with an audio-visual presentation, and this year it was the task of ‘Caver Keith’ Keith Edwards to provide the entertainment. Keith has a well-established and very popular YouTube channel, and the title of his chosen video was Keith’s Cavers, being a caver’s parody of the Charlie’s Angels theme. It was a great shame that the video only received a lukewarm reception, as Keith’s videos are generally highly regarded.

Mendip round-up

I believe there is one activity that sets Mendip cavers apart from other regions – cave digging. Yes, of course great discoveries have been made by diggers in all corners of the kingdom, but there is something about the Mendip digger that is somehow different. Tony ‘J’Rat’ Jarratt personified this, with all the characteristics of the many determined, verging on fanatical, diggers of Somerset distilled into one person. I am happy to say that Mendip still carries on the tradition set by J’Rat with many cavers undertaking long-term digs throughout the Mendip limestone, and each year the activities are condensed into a Mendip round-up at Hidden Earth, ably summarised by Mark Helmore. The very recent significant extension of Halloween Rift, adjacent to Wookey Hole, was a highlight of this year’s round-up, and the prospect of opening up more important cave passage here has to be good.

Caving in the chalk

The chalk hills form the largest area of UK karst landscape yet have virtually no caves. Photo: Peter Burgess

This was a very clear and well-presented lecture on the nature of chalk, the similarities and differences between chalk and other limestones, and the hydrological reasons for the presence or lack of caves of any significance in chalk were explained in terms that I could understand. We learnt why caves large enough to explore exist in the chalk of Northern France, but are almost non-existent in Britain. Dr Andrew Farrant was a pleasure to listen to and the subject was highly relevant to someone who has spent his life living in Surrey and Sussex, surrounded by all that limestone, with no caves.

Caving along the Jurassic Coast

Dr Peter Glanvill provided a good summary of subterranean features that can be inspected along the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and South Devon, which actually includes some Cretaceous coastline as well, but we’ll let that pass! Apart from a few tunnels with cave-like features near Beer, Peter focussed largely on the interesting caves of the Isle of Portland, where the famous limestone beds form an impressive cliff-line. The caves include a newly-discovered feature known as Wellington Hole, as well as those which have been visited for many years. It was a surprise to me to discover just how spacious parts of the caves are in Portland.

By midnight, by moonlight

The subject matter in Linda Wilson’s talk was not new to me, but this was the first time I had heard a detailed presentation on ritual protection marks in caves. We supposedly live in an age of enlightenment, and superstition is very rarely something that governs our actions or decisions. A few centuries ago, things were very different, and rediscovering something that was rarely documented at the time is a big challenge. It is wrong to analyse the mindset of our predecessors by applying today’s standards and rational thinking. When the belief in supernatural entities such as spirits and spells was a very real part of everyday life, people made what they considered logical and rational steps to protect themselves. If an inscription on the wall of a cave would protect you from the effects of a malevolent spirit, it was the most logical thing in the world to make that mark to give yourself peace of mind.

Mountain eye: the finest TAG has to offer

Rostam Namaghi explores one of the smaller passages in Mountain Eye Cave, Tennessee, March 2018. Photo: Paul Fairman

It was Paul Fairman’s and Rostam Namaghi’s unlucky throw of the dice that gave them the Sunday morning graveyard slot. Even so, Theatre 1 was filling up fast when I arrived, and we were treated to an eye-opener of a talk on their visit to Tennessee in March earlier this year. There are, we were told, a huge number of potential cave leads that the local grottoes have not investigated, and Paul and Rostam chose Mountain Eye as the target for their three-week campaign, exploring and surveying eight kilometres of mostly huge river passage, with a very large number of leads to follow on future trips. Paul and Rostam clearly explained the nature of the geology of the Obey River area, and by the end of their expedition they had proved that the area is ripe for further work. For just two cavers to achieve what Paul and Rostam did earlier this year is a marvel. A return is planned for 2019 with a group of 20 cavers.

Cavers’ Just a Minute

The long-running BBC radio programme of the same name was the inspiration for a cave-themed 30-minute equivalent at Hidden Earth. Dr Peter Glanvill was the instigator of this slot, and he chaired the game. The idea was sound, well put together, and the piece was entertaining. A little fine-tuning and this idea is well-worth repetition in the future, and I would not hesitate to attend another similar slot, provided the panel don’t mention any of their personal deviations! The entertaining panelists were Rostam Namaghi, Nigel Atkins, Barry Burn and Glenn Phelps.

Scottish round-up

Now, I have never really been caving in Scotland, so the only reason I look forward to the Scottish round-up is because of Alan ‘Goon’ Jeffreys’ highly entertaining presentation, and once again I was not disappointed. His passion for Scottish caves shines through, and his comfortable and entertaining manner keeps your attention to the very end. The highly decorated caves in the Applecross region featured this year, as well as successful digs and investigations throughout the country. Long may Goon continue to inspire us with his infectious enthusiasm for anything speleological.

Caves and karst of the human body

Rostam Namaghi, being a doctor of the medical variety, provided a tongue-in-cheek analysis of features of human biology with cave development parallels. This was all very amusing, but I found the unrelated anecdotes that concluded the talk highly entertaining, with a few tales of medical emergencies in remote locations.

Thailand cave rescue

Nobody who attended Hidden Earth 2018 will forget the main event of the weekend. This was a 90-minute monologue by Rick Stanton, describing the rescue operation to bring 12 boys and their football coach to safety from the inner reaches of the Tham Luang cave system in Thailand during the summer. The main lecture theatre was full to capacity, with a further 90 people, I am led to believe, watching a live stream in an adjacent room. This was a gripping story. Many little facts and stories emerged about how the drama unfolded, and the role played by various parties at the scene. We were immensely privileged to hear first-hand many things that had probably never been revealed widely until this talk. The most exciting revelation was that Rick and his fellow diver John Volanthen accidentally came across four stranded water company workers on their first dive into the cave, who had not been missed by anybody and had to be taken to safety as a matter of urgency. This hitherto unreported rescue was the subject of a news story on Darkness Below on 24th September 2018.

At the end of the talk, all the British divers involved in the rescue were invited to the stage for a brief question and answer session, and the final act of the session was a presentation by Les Williams on behalf of the BCA of a tankard to each of the divers, engraved with the simple but heartfelt message “To Rick Stanton (or the relevant name) from your fellow cavers, cheers.”

The delegates gave the rescuers a two-minute standing ovation.

Trade hall

A busy trade hall at Hidden Earth 2018. Photo: Sue Morton

The trade hall is a very important part of Hidden Earth. I suspect there are many delegates that spend more time in the trade hall that attending talks, and I am not referring to the people who dutifully staff the various displays. I had allowed myself a modest budget to spend on some new equipment this year, and the unhurried atmosphere of a trade stall is very conducive to browsing, comparing different brands, and seeking advice from other cavers. I was pleased to discover that I only exceeded my planned budget by £5! Some of the regulars were present as usual: South Wales Caving Club, Robin Gray’s artwork, Moore Books, Descent Magazine, BCRA, Scurion Lamps, as well as some more recent additions to the ranks such as the UKCaving stand and, for the first time, our own Darkness Below table. Apologies for omitting any group or business not mentioned that was also present – it was a pleasure to see so many diverse and interesting displays again.

Dinner event and Sid Perou

On my previous attendances at the Saturday evening dinner, food was dispensed from the kitchen counter, in the classic school dinner style. While this provided much entertainment for Les Williams as he relished the power of nominating each table in turn around the room for going up to receive and be truly grateful, this did take ages. This time, it was good to have our food brought to the table by the catering staff. Compared to previous years, when the meal was wholesome basic good food in sizeable portions, the meal this time was, I think, of very good quality and smaller in volume. It was enjoyable and well-presented.

Sid Perou trying hard to control his cast during the after-dinner event. Photo: Sue Morton

Sid Perou was invited to make the after-dinner speech. Sid opted for a bit of interactive drama which, intentionally or otherwise, developed into a chaotic farce rather than a simple anecdotal presentation. Sid attempted to demonstrate a filming session underground, variously using a number of volunteers from the diners as helpers or bits of cave. Whether or not what then took place was part of Sid’s plan, I have no idea, but of course cavers being cavers, there was a great deal of over-acting, playing up and general messing about. It was all very entertaining, and if we didn’t learn anything about cave-filming, we did at least see some well-known members of the UK caving world acting the fool. I can’t help wondering whether, when several of the volunteers stood in line with legs apart for two cavers to crawl through, there was a missed opportunity to comment on the tiny stalactites in the passage!

We are fortunate to be able to use Churchill Academy in north Somerset for Hidden Earth. It is a very good site for a multi-lecture event, and to have camping on-site is an added bonus. I am always pleased when I hear that the event is to be held here, not just because it means a shorter journey for me, and I do appreciate how far many other cavers have to travel when northern venues are unavailable, but because it is such a good place in its own right.

Paul Fairman checks out the Survey Salon, Hidden Earth 2018. Photo: Peter Burgess

Cavers’ contributions
Each Hidden Earth event includes opportunities for cavers to demonstrate the best of their creative skills, with photographic displays, a video salon, and a survey salon. Another opportunity to express your creative side which has been part of Hidden Earth now for some years is the art salon where many forms of artwork are on display, from drawings to sculpture. It is always worth setting time aside to look at what is on display, and this year was not at all disappointing. There were, unfortunately, rather few surveys to be studied, and the display was away from the floor area of the trade hall, up some stairs on the gallery area. This was a shame as I suspect fewer people will have gone up to look that might otherwise have been the case had the surveys been displayed alongside everything else. Entries in the Video Salon are now available for us to watch again, and have been brought together in a Darkness Below report from Andy Freem.

The organisation over the weekend was pretty seamless and excellently managed which is a huge accomplishment given the short time that elapsed from confirmation of venue to the event itself. This can in large part be put down to the enthusiasm and experience of the team of volunteers that work every year to this end. The event and lecture timetable is issued separately for each day, so on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the first task, after tea of course, was to go and pick up the timetable from reception.

This year, we had the choice of two Sunday timetables! An alternative timetable had been smuggled into the event and widely distributed before the real one was ready, and it raised a good many smiles. Darkness Below was not immune from the rib-poking, with “Fake News in Caving: Our confession” scheduled for late morning. We are of course proud to be up with the best of the fake news outlets, demonstrated a few days later when the American newspaper The Washington Post was one of several so-called fake news publishers to spread the news of the extra four people rescued from Tham Luang in Thailand, which was first made public by Darkness Below, following the revelation to the Hidden Earth delegates.

Beermat challenge

Lydia Brooker on her way to win the Hidden Earth 2018 Beermat Challenge at the Darkness Below stand in the trade hall. Photo: Sue Morton

Darkness Below invited delegates to try their hands at the Beermat Challenge – how many could you flip? Well, it turns out that 44 was the greatest number that our winner Lydia Brooker succeeded in flipping. What more is there to say?