Presenting caving’s future

CavedIn … Helena Trewhitt, Michael Rossiter, Daisy Ferreira and Olivia Evans (Photo by Sharon Wheeler)

Third year PR students at UWE Bristol were asked to come up with ideas for raising the profile and diversity of the BCA in the wake of the Thai rescue story. BCA newsletter editor David Rose reports back on the opening presentations.

Most older cavers are aware of an uncomfortable fact: that the average age of active participants in our sport is increasing. In one way this is positive: it suggests that cavers are staying healthier for longer, and indeed, some are able to enjoy the underground world into their seventh, eighth and even ninth decades. A few years ago, George Cornes, the original discoverer of Lancaster Hole, famously did a Lancaster to County Pot through trip on his 80thbirthday.

However, this demographic phenomenon has a less cheery aspect, too. The supply of young, new recruits seems to be diminishing. Some once frenetic university clubs – long a crucial source of fresh blood – have shrunk to become mere shadows of their former selves, and in some cases, have closed altogether. Inexplicable as it may seem, it appears that fewer young people want to spend their downtime down caves. Earlier this year an analysis of British Caving Association members established that their median age is 49, with those in their 50s the biggest decadal cohort – considerably more than those in their 20s and 30s. Almost a fifth of BCA members are over 65. 

The BCA has been trying to address this problem, with a new working group set up to determine a vision for the future, and proposals to redesign the website to make it more attractive. Recently I got a glimpse of what a solution might look like of a rather different kind. 

Journalism and Public Relations lecturer Sharon Wheeler – also a contributor to Darkness Below – had given her third year undergraduate class at Bristol’s University of the West of England (UWE) a fascinating assignment: to research, write and deliver presentations, as if they were bidding for a contract with the BCA aimed at making caving more attractive to young people, and more socially diverse.

Meet the experts … David Vickerman (UWE), Linda Wilson (UBSS) and David Rose (BCA) (Photo by Sharon Wheeler)

Sharon invited me to attend the first three presentations, and I found them all both eye-opening and impressive. Only one of the 12 students in the three groups had been caving, although many of them said – encouragingly enough – that having researched the subject, they’d love to try it. Also present was Darkness Below co-editor Linda Wilson, a long-time stalwart of the University of Bristol Speleological Society, and she promised to try to facilitate their initiation by setting up a meeting with their UBSS counterparts.

But while they were not experienced cave explorers, what these students represented was still very relevant to caving’s demographic dilemma. For this was about as media-savvy a bunch of smart young people as you could hope to find anywhere, and their message, for those tempted to feel complacent, was compelling.

Each group differed in its ideas and possible solutions. What they shared was a brutal, bleak diagnosis. The current BCA website, they agreed, was dull and old-fashioned, and as a shop window for British caving, mediocre.

Worryingly, none of the students seemed to have found their way from the BCA homepage to the New to Caving website, with its stacks of useful information and alluring photos – although the site was designated as an ‘official’ BCA partner more than a year ago. 

A to Z PR … Alice Bakewell, Amy Walters, Zachary Quek, Hong Chin Han (Photo by Sharon Wheeler)

As for social media – the critical means of communication for anyone under 30 – caving as a whole, caving clubs and the BCA might just as well be invisible. ‘The BCA doesn’t even have an Instagram account!’ one of the presenters said. Well, er, no, it doesn’t. ‘On the day we checked, the BCA Facebook page only had 841 likes!’ said another, evidently astonished. According to the students, if cavers and our national association are serious about trying to widen the sport’s appeal, we need a revamped website, to get an Instagram page up and running, maintained with frequent, fresh content, and in general, a transformed, much bigger social media presence.

Another common theme was the need to generate awareness that women both enjoy and derive great benefit from caving. The first of the groups developed some imaginary profiles of young women cavers to convey the new image caving might try to emphasise, emphasising ‘female empowerment’. Along the way they came up with some slogans that could be applied both on social media sites and on the front of T-shirts, such as ‘Not all heroes wear capes – some cave!’ and ‘I caved – did you?’ Above all, they said, caving needs to ‘break the boundaries of caving stereotypes’ – that it tends to be the preserve of gruff, bearded men.

The second group began their presentation with a memorable formulation: ‘You know caving is cool. We know caving is cool. But not everyone knows caving is cool’ – and part of the job of the BCA should, they said, be to ensure they do. The Thai cave diving rescue could, they added, be a ‘light at the end of the cave to bring the BCA out of the dark’ – an event so positive in its impact that it could be exploited to generate wider interest in the sport. They also suggested the BCA website could contain some virtual reality videos to show casual visitors what the sport is like.

MK Comms … Koray Blem, Dan Markham, Sophie McGuckin, Molly Triscott

The third group said strong social media is the ideal way to maintain interest once it has been sparked, with YouTube a potentially important resource. They also suggested cavers should begin an outreach programme with inner city schools as a way of making caving more diverse. They had, it seems, realised that at present, the proportion of black and minority ethnic cavers is embarrassingly small. Social media could also be a way of generating interest in particular caves or trip – with links through to surveys and descriptions to whet readers’ appetites. 

I came away with a sense that caving really does have a lot of work to do to attract future generations – and at present, little understanding as to how this might be done. Not every suggestion the three student groups made was on target: their idea of ‘scavenger hunts’ to pick up litter from inside rubbish-strewn systems was one example that was a little wide of the mark. But overall, they had many constructive ideas – and by revealing just how out of touch older cavers are, a diagnosis we ignore at our peril.