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Fifty Years Below Ground

Updated: Mar 5

Given that we live in such a scenic area; with its mountains and fields, wildlife and wonder, it can be quite easy to lose ourselves in what we can immediately see. Perhaps the cry of a buzzard catches our ears and we see it soar over, or the scurry of a vole in the grass makes us peer closer. In this area though, there is also a whole wealth of a world underground, beneath our feet and Cris Ebbs, a local caver, spoke to us about his fifty years below ground exploring the caves and mines of our local area.

"Having been kindly invited to describe a little about my caving years, here goes:

Whilst working in the harbour town of St.Ives in 1972, I wondered into the local library. Browsing the Sports &Pastimes section, “Caving Beneath the Northern Pennines” mildly peaked my interest. It fell open at a double-page survey of a 22 mile long cave in Yorkshire. I was fascinated that any cave could be so complex and extensive, and immediately felt the urge to explore underground places. I read the book from cover to

cover that night. Next morning I purchased a torch, spare batteries and set off to examine a mine level leading into the hill from the nearby Carbis Bay beach. And so began a 50 year fascination with all things underground.

If I had to pick a favourite underground site, it would I think, be Ogof Hesp Alyn at Pantymwyn. This unique cave system was entirely flooded throughout its evolution and only drained after being intersected by miners driving the Milwr Tunnel in the 1930s. It was discovered in 1973 when cavers walking along the dry river-bed one calm Summer’s day, noticed a strong draught rising up from the ground. Cavers began excavating, and some months later, after creating a 20ft deep vertical shaft in the riverbank, boulders at the bottom fell away revealing a large passage leading off into the unknown.

Although an exceptionally muddy cave, I was lucky to have been involved in its early exploration. These early trips were exciting and some of my most memorable, as on each visit we extended the cave further and deeper than before.

Many of my underground trips were excavations aimed at discovering new caves. Not merely digging, but engineering projects, often requiring the work of a dedicated team over many months or longer. I was privileged to have been amongst good friends who were experienced in this work, and taught me correct methods and techniques. One such project was inside the Park Day Level at Gwynfryn; a mines drainage tunnel shown on old mine plans to connect with a cave 1.5 miles upstream. A major roof collapse blocked progress one mile upstream. After gaining full permissions, the team began by making our own mine waggon and relaying half a mile of rail track in order to transport many heavy concrete lintels upstream, and all waste material downstream.

After two years labour, a lengthy section of tunnel had been restored, and we broke through into open passage. Our initial excitement however was soon extinguished, as a hundred metres beyond, we encountered a further even larger collapse! A large part of the cave system we hoped to find, has luckily now been accessed from a different location altogether, and is now North Wales’ largest system, Ogof Llyn Parc.

Photos by Brendan Marris

If anyone reading is interested in knowing more about caves and mines of the area, or considering taking an active interest, plenty of useful information, photos and several local clubs are listed in my two websites:

Caves of North Wales and Flintshire Lead Mining.

The excitement of caving drew me to limestone areas such as the Yorkshire Dales, The Burren on Ireland’s west coast, The Mendips and the Derbyshire Dales. The greatest part of my years underground however, were spent excavating and searching for ‘new’ caves, and re-opening old mines, in north-east Wales. Today over 200 caves have been found and documented in this area, the largest being near Minera and along the Alyn Gorge. Despite the hard work by cavers over the last 50 years, many more await discovery…..."

Cris Ebbs

February 2021

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