Waterways Swallet - Alan Brentnall
Always a brilliant trip which never disappoints, action all the way to the bottom but care needed at all times. No place for novices and not for the faint hearted! With a depth of over 400 feet, this Staffordshire gem makes it into the top ten deepest caves in the Peak District area, along with Peak Cavern, Rowter etc, but, unlike the Castleton super caves, this one has not one bit of SRT - but you have to earn every inch of depth. As usual, we met in the car park in the little wood opposite Waterings Farm. The car park is very overgrown now, and we remembered that the person who used to keep this place tidy was Mel, who sadly passed away the other week. DCA will be keen to get volunteers to look after this place, as parking arrangements are all part of the access agreement with the Okeover Estate.
The public footpath down to the stream bed where the entrance lies was also overgrown, although you'd think that this area would be popular with ramblers, but we easily found the stile and entrance, and were soon raising the lid to gain access. The entrance series can be very off-putting, despite the fact that that it has been the main route to the main chamber for around 40 years, but perseverence pays off, as usual, and the surprising landing in the large Main Chamber was as impressive as ever. Swirling passageways riddled with fossils and many-coloured stones led intriguingly downwards to the start of the Keyhole extensions - digs which gave rise to Waterways Swallet's great depth.
Compared to the entrance series, the extensions are relatively benign, but the ease of passage might lead the unwary to think that such progress is safe. However the dangers are ever-present, and we needed to move very carefully through the well-scaffolded boulder chokes as we made our way downwards. Eventually we came to a short overhanging climb, rigged with a knotted pick rope which led underneath the climb into a low crawl downwards, the rope terminating abruptly some 3-4 metres above the foot of the climb. This was Room 101, a comparatively new discovery, and one of the larger chambers within the series.
The exit from Room 101 (Richard's Kennel) is not quite so big, however. Nor is it quite so solid, and we were very careful as we made our way further into the system. Reaching a circular "pothole" we were presented with two routes forward. The upper route is a low crawl over a cherty floor which, ultimately debouches through the roof of Toad Haul via a knotted rope, while the lower route is larger and less stable, going to Toad Haul more directly, but involving a loose climb through a boulder choke. We chose the latter route and were soon in Toad Haul, examining ways onwards.
Ignoring the obvious, but blind, passageways at the base of the large chamber, and opting to give the "other " ropeway (known as the Tourist Trap) a miss, we took the tight squeeze at the foot of the knotted rope which led us down into the delightful Wotno Streamway, with its multi-coloured cobbles, and thence to Wotno Sump, currently the deepest point in the system. After letting Bernie have a brief look at the sump, we returned via Toad Haul, using the knotted rope exit. We also skipped Room 101, opting for the more solid Bloor Street, and Floodgate Pot, with its fixed ladder.
Eventually, we surfaced into the dark night after a very satisfying two-hour trip. As I said earlier the maintenance of all the facilities (entrance gate, fencing and stile, car parking etc) are a condition of the Okeover Estate access agreement for Waterways Swallet, and I wonder now who will take over the management of this now that Mel has gone. This is an unusual and major cave in an "out-of-the-way" part of our caving region, and it would be a pity if cavers were to lose access to it.