A Conversation in Glastonbury Part Two
Caves, Despair and Passion
In which Matt comes over all Jungian and descents into a womblike cave in the ground, and afterwards has a conversation about the end of the world.
They needed me in rubber boots.
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This was a problem because I hadn’t packed any. But by one of those funny synchronicities, one of the shops along Glastonbury High Street had some in the window on sale. No tarot cards, wind chimes, crystals or grimoires for me: rubber boots instead.
Next day, early, I stepped off the bus in Wells just as it started to rain. I held the boots in a plastic bag. Probably foolishly, I gambled that the rain would slacken and decided to walk the couple of miles to Wookey Hole itself: the person at Glastonbury Tourist Office had told me it was possible. It was further than it looked along the road out of Wells and by the time I strode into Wookey itself the rain had become constant. I was in good time though, reaching the deserted public entrance to Wookey Hole by about nine. I sheltered under the awning next to the ticket office, opposite a cafe that sold Ice Cream Slush.
According to wikipedia, Wookey Hole caves are a series of limestone caverns and show caves. They’re ‘solution caves,’ formed by a process of weathering when natural acid in groundwater dissolves the rock over long periods of time. Wikipedia also says that humans have used the caves for at least 45,000 years. Forty-five thousand years is the old stone age, or Middle Palaeolithic. It is also during the last ice age when the UK was attached to mainland Europe and when glaciers covered Scotland, Northern England and Wales. In other words, it was a world so different from ours that it’s hard to imagine.
I was at the caves for adventure. I hadn’t had an adventure since before covid. Like the rest of the world, I’d become accustomed to a bunker life and too much YouTube. But in Glastonbury I’d seen a flier advertising ‘Wild Wookey,’ According to the website, this was a “multi-award winning, challenging caving experience designed for people who have an active and healthy lifestyle and who love action, confined spaces, climbing crawling and more!”
The guide, Becky, arrived and it turned out that I was the only one on this morning’s Wild Wookey. I followed Becky through the entrance to the grounds, past some buildings and model dinosaurs that growled at me from the undergrowth. The cave is at the end of a quite deep, lush green gorge that was a good home for the escapees from Jurassic Park. My guide led me to a door labelled ‘The Bat Cave.’ This housed coveralls, gloves and equipment, as well as washing machines and tumble driers. There were also informational posters on the wall, including one, appropriately enough, about the bats that hibernate in the caves. Becky told me that although it was getting late in the year, we might still see some down there.
Having donned the red coverall, a harness, a helmet with a head torch and my boots, we were ready to go. We soon arrived at the entrance to the caves, surmounted with a sign that read “Welcome to the Home of the Wookey Hole Witch.” Beyond was the official entrance, which was actually positioned higher up the cliff than the original, large cave mouth now some way below us. The cave mouth had been the general entrance in the nineteenth century, until the paper mill was built, at which point the mouth had become flooded.
But we weren’t going to to through the main entrance, either. Becky led me up and around the rock face along a pre-set rope, through to a smaller elevated crevice in which we had to crawl. I was slightly apprehensive about this, because I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be claustrophobic. I’m also quite tall, so crawling on one’s hands and knees with a low, uneven rocky ceiling can be quite a challenge. I managed to crack my head at least once: hence the need for a helmet.
We emerged into a higher-roofed tunnel and Becky had me sit before we turned the light off. As we sat in total darkness, Becky explained that it really was total darkness. Most of the time, on the Earth’s surface, there’s at least some ambient light about so our eyes can adapt. Not in a cave. I sat in the almost tangible blackness, breathing the cool and slightly tangy air. Apparently the humidity in the caves is very high, but it was cool enough not to be especially unpleasant.
After we turned our headlamps back on, we found a single horseshoe bat roosting on the ceiling. This was such a precious thing to see. Wookey Hole is within the North Somerset and Mendip Bats Special Area of Conservation and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI. About three percent of the UK greater horseshoe bat population lives in this area.
We continued our descent along the tunnel, effectively a wide fissure in the rock. Further down was centuries-old graffiti, which included ritual protection marks against witchcraft that dated from the mid 16th to mid 18th centuries. Becky told me that her boss had published a paper on these marks (Binding & Wilson, 2010). They’d been made at the height of the witch-craze in Europe, and were intended to ward off bad magic.
She also told me about the human bones discovered by Herbert Balch in 1912. This discovery trigged more rumour and speculation, partly because of a legendary story of a witch being turned to stone when a monk blessed the cave using holy water. The bones were speculated to be the witch. They were about 1000 years old, were actually male, and currently reside in the Wells and Mendip museum.
There’s no doubt that the cave had been seen as an uncanny place by our ancestors. In prehistoric times, it had been inhabited by animals, and prehistoric humans had left their dead in the caves. When some of the caves flooded, bones would sometimes be washed into the river Axe, which flowed out of the main entrance. This must have seemed pretty spooky to people in the past. The cave, too, had an otherworldly feel, as if it was a place apart from the outside world. A sense of heavy timelessness hung within the inner, rocky spaces.
The witch’s kitchen was now below us, lit by multicoloured lights. We’d reached the end of the tunnel, and Becky handed me a carabena attached to an abseiling rope, fixed to the ceiling of the cave. The cave mouth at which we stood was about ten metres up a sheer wall and overlooked the visible portion of the kitchen. The witch’s kitchen was named after a stalagmite that is a simulacra of a witch’s head, and which was visible beside a portion of underground river with a boat.
My next mission was to abseil down into the kitchen. This was quite fun, although I have a probably too vivid imagination and had to suppress the thought of the rope breaking. I landed a few metres from the witch stalagmite. The underground river was to my right, and looked deceptively stagnant, but it fact had a powerful current. Apparently it would be easy to get swept away into unknown depths if one fell in. Becky ascended and pointed out some of the other formations, including the Giant, the largest stalagmite in the hole at 3 metres and apparently 100,000 years old.
We passed through into another chamber, the witch’s parlour, which occasionally hosts weddings. The parlour had another pool, the visible portion of a sump or submerged cave. There was also a plaque commemorating the first cave dive ever, on 14th July 1935 by Graham Balcome and Penelope Powell. Becky told me about the modern cave divers who regularly explored Wookey Hole, including the ones that hadn’t made it out. I have scuba dived in the past, but I’m not sure I would do cave diving, which qualifies as a dangerous sport, if ever there was one. Nonetheless, I understood the attraction. Becky told me they are still discovering new passages and chambers in the Hole.
We wove our way in and out of the tunnels that had general public access, and at one point had a go at traversing above a sump, which we crossed via a rope. The route had been set out, which was a good thing because it would have taken hours to set up in the first place. Then we ascended another tunnel, using some chimneying techniques. This is where you span a vertical tunnel with your body, edging up the surface.
Towards the end, because I was the only one on the tour, Becky took me into a newly opened cave. This was accessed via chamber 20, a part of the cave that was actually underwater until 2015. Chamber 20 is accessed via 70 metres of new tunnel that was excavated using dynamite, and is on the official tour. The chamber is notable for some fluted rock structures called Rillankarren.
The new cave system had quite small but fresh, crystalline stalactites that were as yet uncontaminated by dust. Our tour of that cave ended at a pile of rocks, beyond which was a new tunnel system that the avid cavers on the team were still exploring.
At the end of the tour, Becky took me into the cheese storage tunnel, with rows of large, cylindrical cheeses that smelt like stilton because of the mould that had grown in the outer wrapping, but were actually cheddar. Apparently there’s nothing like cave-matured cheddar. Finally, we returned to the witch cave and crossed the sump in a boat. I spied a life-size model crocodile hovering in the water below us, which had apparently been placed there by a work-colleague. The crocodile would probably start drifting through the sumps, to be discovered by the divers conducting their explorations.
Emerging into the outside world again was a little bit jarring. We abseiled down to the original cave entrance, where one the the divers was checking his rebreather. We talked for a few minutes before he plopped into the cold waters.
Afterwards, dazed but happy, I waited in the cafe for the rain to stop. Eventually it almost did, so I ran for the bus, clutching a witch of Wookey cup intended as a gift for my friend. I was immensely glad to have done the trip. That sort of adventure pretty much always manages to disperse the dark cloud of angst that for me tends to dog everyday life. And in a funny sort of way the brief respite had cleared the way for the conversation that was to come.
The self-created ecological catastrophe through which we are living seems to me a lot like a chronic, potentially terminal illness. For a time, it’s possible to disengage from our predicament and forget. I’d forgotten about it for a bit in the cave. But the rolling catastrophe is still there, and it doesn’t take much to bring it to full consciousness. At least, for quite a few of us it is like that: I can’t speak for those who are not tuned into this reality.
By the end of the day, the rain clouds were gone, the sky was blue, and I found myself on another longish walk from Premier Inn through Glastonbury. I was heading for the house of an old friend of mine, who’d invited me to dinner.
I’d come to know this friend quite a few years previously, at the annual conference for the Society for Psychical Research in Durham. That was a good conference, where I met several people who’ve remained friends ever since. I remember sitting on a bank on the campus of Durham University and watching the birds on the ornamental lake. At that time, we’d discussed the 1972 Limits to Growth study, and wondered why green values had failed to penetrate more deeply into society. Over a decade and a half later, that’s become an urgent question.
My friend had just been re-elected as a green councillor to Glastonbury council. I think she found it very frustrating, especially when the Tory and Labour council members insisted on playing the adversarial politics game. She would rather practise cooperation.
I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit on a local council. From what I’ve seen and heard, the political games played can be toxic, indulgent and counterproductive. But my friend was doing her best. She’d been helping push through measures to help ensure that Glastonbury remained resilient and adaptable into the future. She felt that this was very necessary.
It became clear, over the course of the conversation, that my friend anticipates collapse. She had for long resisted this conclusion, but the relentless destructiveness of the last few years especially had pushed her to the conclusion that the game was basically up. Ecologically speaking, she believed, it was too late. Too late to prevent runaway climate breakdown, the sixth extinction, and the collapse of civilisation. Some humans might survive, along with rats and pigeons and cockroaches. But those survivors would not be living anything like the life that we know.
What she said resonated very deeply with me, because I’d been feeling the same things for quite a long time. I, too, had reached this point with some reluctance. But with ongoing reports of extreme weather pretty much everywhere, news of ice melts, the relentless, wanton burning/felling of the forests, pollution of the oceans, the heartbreaking stories of extinction, threats of multiple breadbasket failures, threats of disease, the official reports on climate and biodiversity, each gloomier and more apocalyptic than the last…. What other conclusion, really, was it reasonable to reach?
Then there had been the political shocks — Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, the bloody war of aggression against Ukraine, the threat of nuclear attack and the growing, ongoing menace of right wing populism mutating into full-blown fascism. A good chunk of humanity had, it seemed, responded to its self-made disasters by embracing dangerous, malign and authoritarian political fantasies, and those who enabled such fantasies.
We both felt, I think, that the right had the advantage because people globally were frightened. Frightened people tend to opt for right-wing, authoritarian leaders whom they hope will save them from worse disasters. Unfortunately, this is a dysfunctional strategy at best because right wing authoritarian leaders will pretty much invariably make things much worse for everyone.
So the last few years have indeed been relentless. Those years, I think, had taken their toll on both of us. On our bodies and our minds, and on our spirits. The thoroughgoing soul-weariness I’d been feeling for at least the last year was the end-point of this ongoing, worsening progression of really bad events.
I think there comes a point where hope begins to seem not only naive but unrealistic. There is a word for that point: despair. My friend was ahead of me in this. She said she’d moved beyond despair about twenty years ago. Now she was in grief. For me, though, despair and grief are intertwined. Anyway, the conversation brought these feelings into full consciousness. Weirdly enough, it fell necessary. Almost a relief to admit that this was how we both felt. That we were no longer hiding behind comforting lies.
Next day, on the way back home from Glastonbury, I boarded a crowded tube at Paddington Station. A homeless young man stood in the middle of the carriage and begged for help. He was about twenty, and half his teeth were missing. He needed money to stay in a hostel that night. I gave him some, and wished him good luck.
My friend has a quote on her board, which she lives by: ‘“When hope dies, passion still remains.”
Binding, C.J. & Wilson, L.J. (2010). Ritual protection marks in Wookey Hole and Long Hole, Somerset. Proc Univ Bristol Spelaeol Soc 25(1), pp. 47—73.
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