Book Review: Hidden Realms

Cave diver and photographer Martyn Farr has produced a tempting array of descriptions and photographs of 100 cave and mine sites.

Hidden Realms aims to shine a light into some of the most alluring caves and mines in Great Britain and Ireland. One hundred sites have been chosen, in keeping with the recent vogue for examining the world and its history through carefully chosen places or objects. As a format, it’s proven popular and provides a convenient hook to hang a muddy oversuit on.

Martyn’s stated aim was to capture images of the underground world to captivate and inspire others and his usual high-quality photos ensure he succeeds admirably in that aspiration. A short introduction sets the scene for his work, conducted over two and a half years to ensure he had as many modern images as possible. The sites were chosen for various reasons, including sporting challenge and historical or archaeological significance and all the photographs were taken by Martyn, who acknowledges the help of numerous people, including his long-suffering models, who contributed to this project.

The book is divided into seven sections, each covering a caving region of the British Isles, with Wales divided into two, separating South Wales from Mid and North Wales, then Mendip and Southern England grouped together, followed by Peak District and Central England, then Yorkshire and Northern England, with Scotland and Ireland having sections of their own. Each entry covers two pages, with one main photo and some smaller ones, interspersed with enough text to provide context for the photos and to whet the appetite for a visit. My dominant reaction throughout was: “Oooh, I want to go there!” In some cases, I then read the accompanying entry and decided maybe that one wasn’t for me, but there were also plenty of times where I wondered why I hadn’t been there already.

For my local area of the Mendips and Southern England I thought the selection of 17 caves and mines/quarries provided an excellent representation of the region, ranging from well-known and popular classics such as Swildon’s, G.B. and St Cuthberts to unusual caves like the hydro-thermal Pen Park Hole (next to a large a Bristol housing estate) and Emmer Green Chalk Mine (in a Reading garden) with its profusion of historic graffiti, some dating back to the 1700s. Martyn has done a good job throughout the book of finding a balance between well-known sites and some hidden gems, Everyone is likely to find at least one surprise within its covers and I very much enjoyed the guided tour around regions that I’m less well acquainted with, whilst muttering “been there” when browsing other pages. The descriptions of the caves I know well I found to be concise and accurate, and throughout the book, the images are all well chosen for a balance between large, impressive passages, superb formations and unusual features.

Mendip’s Withyhill Cave is displayed in all its glory, with the models simply incidental shadow for scale, whereas in Swildon’s Hole, the focus is on a caver climbing the ladder at the Twenty Foot Pot, with a lovely interplay of movement, light and water amidst the formations. Accompanying this are smaller shots of a caver poised at the top of the Cascade Climb beneath the Forty Foot Pot, and one captured emerging from Sump 1 with water streaming out of her helmet.

Each section is prefaced by a very brief introduction, a whole page photo and a handy map, with major towns noted for context and each cave numbered against a list, although the numbering doesn’t appear elsewhere in the book, nor are page numbers given here for the later entries. The maps provided a useful overview of cave locations. All photos are clearly captioned at the bottom of each page. Naturally, Yorkshire caves feature prominently, with a good balance between pictures of cavers on impressively deep pitches and numerous shots of some very beautiful formations. The highlight here for me was a photo featuring the calcite boss in the main chamber of Sleets Gill Cave, with a superb relationship between light and shadow in the shot.

Hidden Realms is aimed at a general audience and does not set out to provide guidebook descriptions or access information. Anyone interested in visiting the sites will need to do their own homework, and although certain inferences can be drawn, it’s not easy to work out which sites are not, as Martyn states in the introduction, currently officially accessible and to which he was given special access. I do have some reservations about the inclusion of Mossdale Caverns as the tragedy on 24 June 1967 when six cavers were killed by flood water still casts a long shadow and I felt uncomfortable seeing what amount to tourist photos as the cave still remains a grave for some, although the images do help to explain its fatal attraction. My other very minor niggle relates to the number of photos with the model full face to the camera. For me, this often detracts from the surrounding scene, placing the caver at the forefront of the image, rather than the cave, but I think this is very much in the eye of the beholder and is no reflection at all on the various models who all manage to hold a natural pose despite almost certainly having spent a lot of time hanging around, often cold and wet, during multiple attempts to capture the perfect shot.

As I expected, the photographs are superb throughout the book and are complimented by high production values from Vertebrate Publishing. In some ways, for me the mine entries were amongst the finest and most interesting, and so the North Wales section was a particular treat, showcasing an area I would very much like to get to know.

Hidden Realms is a fine testament to both the sporting and aesthetic aspects of caving and mine visits and is the perfect book to thrust under the noses of often incredulous and horrified friends and relatives, to show them, in the words of the song, ‘the reasons we go caving, and why we’re always there.

Reviewed by Linda Wilson

Vertebrate Publishing
1 June 2023
Paperback: ‎224 pages
Price: £25 (A discount code is available to cavers, please email us for this.)
ISBN-10: ‎1839810815
ISBN-13: ‎978-1839810817

For anyone who would like to know more about Martin, he has written a blog offering a beginner’s guide to caving and has also released a video interview about his book.