Otter Hole, Forest of Dean - Wayne Sheldon
We all met at the village of St Arvans before we drove to the car park to meet the guide. Myself and Mark went in one car, leaving the other car parked in the village, as we weren't sure what the area is like for thieves. Simon turned up minus Rachael who dropped out due to a back injury.
The guide, Mike, was waiting for us when we arrived. It had been raining for most of the morning but it was quite mild. The start time was 12.45pm from the car park for the between tide trip but the guide said there was no rush, as the tidal sump wouldn't break until 2pm. We got ready and stood around chatting, before descending the track through the woods to the entrance, just above the banks of the River Wye. You could see that the tide was in.
The gate was opened after an initial problem with the handle, and we entered the cave at 13:25pm. The entrance series is smallish, just inside the entrance is a climb up into a smallish bedding plane. "If you can make this", said the guide, "you won't have any problems in the cave". At the end of this, a couple of climbs down led into a further bedding plane, following a thick plastic pipe put in for rescue purposes, only leaving it in two places to climb over a boulder and through a squeeze. The bedding emerged into a chamber. Fossil Passage to the right was followed over a slippery climb and a bold step to a section of muddy passage involving walking and crawling passed mud stained formations to the tidal sump.
We arrived at the tidal sump at 2pm and the sump had started going down, the eyehole was above the water but we didn't want to get wet. Fifteen minutes later, the water had dropped so we could wade knee deep through. The noises the sump made while it drained were incredible as you heard the water draining away below. The passage beyond was a muddy wallow, this led to a fixed ladder upwards; further climbing upwards from the ladder brought us to a rescue dump. A few squeezes, drop downs and traverses through boulders brought us back down to a pleasant section of streamway. Another boulder pile was soon reached, climbing, squeezing and crawling eventually returns you to the stream, wading through the stream until some brushes could be seen hanging ahead of us. These were used to wash the worst of the mud from us before a climb up to the pretty section while further ahead is sump 2.
The Mendip Way is on the right, a narrow rift leads upwards to bottom of a choke, and a slightly strenuous route through the choke is followed, climbing up climbs, through rifts, crawls eventually breaking out into a large boulder floored chamber with enormous curtains in the roof. Following a route between the tapes, over slippery boulders eventually leads you into the impressive Hall of Thirty, with its large and impressive stalagmite bosses, following the taped path around to the left to the top of the chamber gives you the best view.
We decided that we wouldn't go further and would take an ambling journey out rather than a race to beat the tide. The trip felt a lot easier on the way out than it did on the way in, it probably helped as a lot of the passages were easier out due to them being downhill. The passage underfoot is very muddy so we had to be careful to keep your balance. The tidal sump was low, we made a rapid exit out and the entrance series didn't feel as bad on the way out, than it did on the way in. On exiting, it was raining quite heavy. The tide was out; the river was substantially lower than when we went in. The walk back up the hill was quite strenuous, not what you want.
It was a great trip with good company, the formations are very pretty, and the tidal sump and guiding system ensures they stay as they are. It's a dry system so I would recommend carrying water and ensure you are properly hydrated before you go underground. We were told by various sources prior to this trip that we would be coated in liquid mud that is a pain to remove and that it gets into places that you don't know exist. I found that my suit was easily cleaned afterwards. The guide did add that it's drier than usual, the dry / sunny spell from the spring and early summer as benefited the cave.