The 250th edition of the caving magazine Descent is arriving on cavers’ mats this week and that’s a milestone in the life of Descent that deserves commemoration!
The latest edition contains headline articles on the Caves of the Kosua in the Darai Plateau in Papua New Guinea; the awful desecration of Hunters’ Lodge Inn Sink on Mendip; and diving in Keld Head. In addition, there is a vast array of news from around the regions; the latest information on the upcoming EuroSpeleo; and news hot off the press about discoveries around the country. You’ll find information on installation of the new Dales anchors in various sites including Birk’s Fell Cave in Upper Wharfedale, Rift Pot in Marble Steps and The Cupcake in Leck Fell.
There’s also a fascinating article on piping the entrance to Longcliffe Mine above Castleton that brought back memories for me of digging out the old pipes and installing new ones in Longwood Valley Sink on Mendip after the Cheddar floods a few years ago, an enterprise that was neither healthy nor safe. On Mendip we were able to get a digger to site, but in Derbyshire, the TSG went one better by getting their materials helicoptered up by the National Trust! That’s going to be a hard act to follow.
There are two pages of Irish news, including the fascinating discovery by Marion Dowd that has pushed our knowledge of the human occupation of Ireland back by in the region of 4,000 years which now takes human presence in Ireland back into the Palaeolithic, once again demonstrating the importance of archaeological material from cave sites. There’s also news of exploration in Cong and the rediscovery of Tryan Cave in Fermanagh.
International news takes us on tour through India to Papua New Guinea, with a round up of Indian news from Thomas Arbenz and Simon Brooks as well as the entertaining and informative account of the Irish caving expedition to the caves of the Kosua by Stephen ‘Jack’ Read. There’s also a tribute to the late Bert Bradshaw, President of the Northern Pennine Club. Bert, a caver, cyclist, orienteer and runner has died aged 89 and his friends pay tribute to Bert with their memories of his life. Emma Wharton provides an account of diving in Keld Head and the attempts being made to push White Keld towards Mossdale Caverns and Langcliffe Pot.
We’ve only been able to scratch the surface (no pun intended!) of the vast amount of information packing the current issue. Editors Chris Howes and Judith Calford have maintained their usual high standards, presenting information, news and views in an attractive, easy to read format with full colour throughout that is busy without ever feeling over-crowded. Photos and surveys are stunningly presented, and the amount of material they’ve gathered is, as ever, testament both to their hard work and the high regard the magazine is held by their caving correspondents.
Descent serves the caving community well, and has been doing so for a very long time. As the 250th edition is such a milestone, Darkness Below would like to take you on a whistlestop tour through Descent’s history from its humble beginnings to today’s high quality, regular production.
Like all the best – and worst – caving schemes, the idea of Descent was born in a pub. In the late 1960s, caver and journalist Bruce Bedford was still working on the struggling magazine, The Speleologist, while also writing features for Devon Life. His vision was to create a caving magazine that would be cheap enough to produce to make even the most tight-fisted of cavers willing part with their beer-money. He teamed up with a small printing company and started work on the massive task of putting together the first issue using the latest technology, namely an IBM electric typewriter and Letraset. For anyone not born in the stone age, that was transfer sheets of different sized letters that you had to rub on by hand, letter by letter. It was a huge undertaking to get an issue ready, with Bruce having to generate much of the content himself, while also relying on articles and news from others to arrive by post. And any newsletter editor will bear witness to the fact that the only thing harder than getting many cavers to stick their hands in the pockets for anything other than beer is the difficult of getting them to put pen to paper! To add to his woes, maps and surveys usually had to be laboriously re-sized and re-drawn by hand.
Despite the difficulties, Bruce persisted and Descent steadily gained a readership. Price started at two shillings and sixpence, that then morphed into 15p with the advent of decimalisation. Adverts exhorted cavers to take out subscriptions, thus providing some much needed advance cash. Bruce stuck to that price as long as he could, despite many readers suggesting an increase. The production remained very much as-and-when, with an aspiration – rarely achieved – of an issue every six weeks. Bruce’s stated aim was to provide entertainment, and he very much wanted to reflect ‘the caving fraternity’s particular brand of humour’, a tradition that is still very much evident in Descent today.
The early copes of Descent were smaller than A4 (folded and trimmed foolscap, for those who still remember their old-style paper sizes), and were published under the name of Descent Publications, which turned into The Mendip Press by issue 35 in 1977. It remained that way until 1979 when Bruce finally sold the magazine to Gloucester-based Ambit Publications, although he remained as editor, finally moving on nearly ten years later. Bruce was succeeded by the editorial team of Chris Howes and Judith Calford, who were both working full time on other jobs. Production required the burning of much midnight oil (no change there, then!), even though production had by then moved on to early computers such as the revolutionary and much-loved Amstrad PCW.
In 1998, when Ambit Publications downsized, Chris and Judith bravely took the plunge and bought Descent, publishing it through Wild Places Publishing, the company that Chris had earlier set up to publish his book Images Below. Computers and design programs steadily advanced to today’s high quality standards, but naturally that only brought a whole host of other problems, proving that there are no easy answers when it comes to publishing, only consistent hard-work. At the end of the current production cycle, Chris and Judith worked round the clock to get Descent to the printers in time, and on one occasion, he and I were emailing each other at 3am in the morning, when I was working on a book review for UBSS Proceedings and he was desperately trying to put Descent to bed.
Descent is, without a doubt, a quality publication in all respects. The cost (£5.75) remains very reasonable. It’s still produced for cavers, by cavers, and is very worthy of support. It’s also a damn good read! Get your copy now from caving shops or direct from Wild Places Publishing.
Correspondent: Linda Wilson