THE DIG IN BALCH CAVE.
Balch Cave is situated in Fairy Cave Quarry near Stoke St Michael, Somerset, UK, National Grid Reference ST 6577 4764. The cave is part of the complex of passages feeding to St Dunstan's Well and was broken into by quarry blasting in November 1961. At the time of its discovery, the cave contained such outstanding formations that it was decided to name it Balch Cave in honour of Herbert Balch - "The Father of Mendip Caving".
Unfortunately, quarrying activity soon began to destroy the cave that it had revealed and by the end of the 1960s, major sections of the cave had been quarried away. The situation today is that the quarry is not longer active and Balch Cave is divided into four major separate fragments, The Streamway, Coral Grotto, Aven Chamber and the Pool Passage / Erratic Passage complex, (the site of the present dig).
The cave passages that survive show damage by blasting, some formations are shattered and there are some really impressive cracks in the rockwalls. However, despite this and despite also the damage caused by some cavers, it is still possible with a little imagination to get some impression of the original cave.
The cave was surveyed during June and July 1962 by the arch Mendip surveyors Alan Surrall, Jim Hanwell and Dennis Warburton. This was before the cave was damaged by quarry blasting and the survey provides a valuable record of the original state of the cave. The dig area and the approaches were re-surveyed by Rob Taviner in 2007.
The survey below shows the
Pool Passage / Erratic Passage complex in more detail.
The dig site is at the bottom of the 10ft diameter phreatic tube which descends for about 35ft at 45-50°. The tube ends in a sand choke and, being wonderfully straight and regular in section, it is ideally suited to an overhead cableway (sometimes known as a "Blondin").
The skection below shows the digging
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A cave was discovered on Mendip on the 3rd of November 1961, by a workman inspecting the rock face of a quarry, and the hole was first entered by members of the Cerberus Club who made arrangements for some members of the B.E.C. to see and photograph this very beautiful system the following week.
The party made one abortive visit to the cave entrance on the 12th November, working for four hours to get the entrance sufficiently stable without success. 'Gardening', in this case meant touching rocks of many hundredweight with a twelve foot crowbar which then fell out of the roof and crashed terrifyingly to the floor about fifty feet below. The quarry owners kindly blasted away some of the worst rock for us during the week, and a further three hours gardening on the 19th of November enabled us to face the roof hopefully if not optimistically. Morale was not improved by the comments of the quarry foreman who said very definitely that we were crazy to risk it; that fifty tons of rock at least had fallen in the day before, and finally went off muttering "Tha's bad rock, mister' - tha's baaaaaaaad rock".
The party, consisting of Gordon Selby, Brian Prewer, Jim Giles, Mike Thompson, Alfie Collins and myself, decided to risk it. Entry is made by an awkward rope climb up to the entrance, which opens immediately to the Main Chamber which is of almost G.B. proportions except for length and can hardly be more than ten feet below ground level in places. A fifty foot ladder climb down a steep slope, exposed all the way to any falling rocks, leads to the bottom which is piled up with large newly detached boulders. A traverse round a pitch in the floor and a scramble over boulders leads into stable cave beginning with a wide, level passage; wonderfully decorated with pure white and transparent stalactites. Straws, fantastic helictites and fine pillars are abundant and the floor is crystalline with some rimstone pools. At this point Messrs Giles and Collins decided simultaneously that this was it, and began to set up photographic gear.
The passage ends abruptly in a twenty-foot ladder climb into a small chamber with two exits, one disappearing in a pool of water after about twenty five feet, and the other leading into the further reaches of the cave. A short scramble up a stalagmite bank brings you to a T-junction and an old stream passage which contains dead water at most times. The water was motionless and knee deep on this occasion, but must have risen over eighteen inches over the last fortnight, as Brian Prewer said that the Cerberus party he had been on had originally found the passage dry at this point.
The stream passage to the left leads through a series of decorated rifts, mainly of sparkling flowstone, but there is a fine grotto fillet with pure white stalactites and pillars and a magnificent set of organ pipes - also white - about ten feet wide and fifteen feet high. The main rift in this passage may lead up into another passage but it was not possible to explore without spoiling the formations. Voice connection was made between the next rift and the photographer's paradise above the twenty foot pitch. There is at least one bypass and the route ends where the roof meets a stalagmite floor, where a good set of gours can be seen. A particular feature of the whole cave is the crystal on walls, roof and floor which sparkles in every beam of light.
The stream passage to the right is often only eighteen inches high, but is again a series of rifts richly decorated with, curtains and flowstone, very white. After a while a large, chamber is entered, about four times as large as the Old Grotto in Swildons - very attractive - with two passages leading off. One is nearly filled with water and the other is the route down via a mud slide to the true stream passage and the sump.
Mike Thompson made the trip especially to dive the sump and passed it successfully. Unfortunately, he then encountered a second sump about ten feet beyond which has temporarily halted progress, but this second sump does not appear to be a difficult one and may well be dived in the near future.
Anyone wishing to visit the cave should get in touch with our Cerberus representative, Brian Prewer. Unauthorised visitors to the cave - which is named in honour of "Herby" Balch - will antagonise the quarry owners, who have been more than obliging, and also expose themselves to some danger from loose rocks.
Editor's Note: It has been pointed out to me that Balch's Hole is very similar to Stoke Lane Slocker in some respects. If the entrance to Stoke was at the other end of the cave, and one went through the large chambers to the stream passage and thence to the sump, you would have a state of affairs very much like that in Balch's Hole.
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In January 1962, rumour had it that another 1,500 feet of passage, thick with stal, had been discovered in Balch's Hole after entry via a maypole pitch and a trip was arranged for interested B.E.C. members - mainly, photographers.
The extension is a high level passage, entered from Pool Chamber. It is necessary to climb about fifteen feet on the maypole ladder, and about a further fifteen feet up a steep and difficult rift. At the head of the rift is a narrow chimney about ten feet deep which leads into the FOURTH CHAMBER, which is richly ornamented with white and cream flowstone, several narrow curtains, and miscellaneous white stalactite. To the right can be seen a slope covered with tiny peach-tinted gours and a fine growth of red "flowers" in a pool - now dry but with remains of a false floor. The rock appears to be hardly more than compacted clay, and I was glad to move to the next passage which has obviously been shaken in the distant past (possibly by fault movement) but looked a little more reliable. Here there is a pillar-cum-boss about five feet tall and two and a half foot in diameter which has been cracked into three pieces and moved about a foot out of alignment. The break has not been caused by recent quarry blasting since new stalagmites about four inches tall are growing in the old position.
The FIFTH CHAMBER, which slopes at about 60 - 70° with a steep boulder scree on the near side, leads to a sump about sixty feet below, and the SIXTH CHAMBER which is angled at about fifty degrees and ends in a bedding plane with two sumps at the bottom. Stalagmite formations are plentiful in both chambers.
I was a little disappointed with this series after the enthusiastic reports which had been given, because I did not think it as attractive as the rest of the cave, but the formations, which have been compared, with those in September Series in Cuthbert's, are certainly well worth seeing.
It must be regretfully reported that within these few weeks of the cave's discovery, many straws have been broken and flowstone ruined by mucky hands - all thoughtlessly and completely unnecessarily. It is impossible to blame anyone except members of recognised, clubs, since these are the only people who have been invited to visit the place.
Note 1. The Maypole has now been replaced by a fixed wood and wire ladder.
Note. 2. The water filled passage in Pool Chamber described in the previous article has been tested by diving and proved to be merely a pool.
The Belfry Bulletin. Secretary. R.J. Bagshaw, 699, Wells Rd, Knowle,
Bristol Editor, S.J. Collins, 33, Richmond Terrace, Clifton, Bristol 8.
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Balch Cave was discovered in November 1961 in the course of quarrying operations in the vicinity of the St. Dunstan's Well rising. It was the second major cave system to be discovered in Fairy Cave Quarry, and within a year over 500m of well developed passages had been explored, some of which were considered amongst the finest decorated in Britain. Sadly, this was not enough to prevent the inevitable, and in January 1966, continued blasting breached the central chambers of the cave. Although only some 130m (425ft) of passages were completely destroyed, the remaining portions of the now truncated cave took a terrible hammering, with huge rockfalls destroying many of the remaining formations, and rendering other sections of the cave inaccessible. Regrettably, final stabilisation work at the end of the quarry's life resulted in the destruction of a further 100m (300ft) of passage, including the original entrance series and Great Chamber. Whilst such destruction is of course lamentable, it must be remembered that the cave was only discovered through quarrying and continued operations were later to reveal Shatter Cave and Withyhill Cave, two even more exquisitely decorated caves, which were subsequently saved from a similar fate.
Although most cavers will understandably limit the benefits of the new access agreement to visiting these two caves, the purists will find equal attraction in the potential further exploration of the lesser caves - Balch Cave included. So, just how much of the system remains accessible?
Close to the point where Great Chamber joined Erratic Passage, a large entrance (1) at the top of a steep rubble slope is all that remains of the entrance series. Only a few metres of dangerously shattered passage can be visited before it becomes totally blocked with boulders.
Erratic Passage remains accessible and is best entered from the highest and most northerly of three entrances (2) in the eastern face of the old quarry. This fine, large passage is now devoid of formations and terminates after some 35m (120ft) in a rockfall beneath entrance (1). From Erratic Passage, a route can be found through the dangerously shattered remains of Cascade Chamber, past another entrance (3), to a 3m climb down into Pool Passage, but this whole area is best avoided, the same point being more safely reached from entrance (4). This is by far the most commonly entered section of the system, where roughly 120m (400ft) of pleasant and liberally well- decorated passage - from Pool Passage, through Bulrush Way to Gour End - remains intact. Near the end, a tube to the right all but connects with exit (5), a constricted duck at quarry floor level.
Back in the quarry, gour and flowstone on the quarry walls bear testimony to the destroyed central section of the cave, where Pearl Way, Pool Grotto, Maypole Chamber and Crystal Chamber have all gone. In the quarry floor, a manhole (6) - also known as Conning Tower Cave - gives access to most of the old stream series of Balch Cave. Originally entered through the floor of Maypole Chamber, roughly 50m (160 ft) of loose, muddy passages can be explored, which are interesting in that they represent a later stage in speleogenesis in the quarry.
Two further sections of the original cave remain accessible. High up above W/L Cave in the South East corner of the quarry, an oil drum (7) gives access to the Aven Chamber Series, where a handline assists exploration of 105m (350ft) of impressively large, liberally decorated chambers. Nearby, an awkward slot in the quarry face (8), leads via an exceptionally tight squeeze and 3m pitch to the roomy Coral Grotto, where fine ribbon curtains offer probably the best remaining formations in the cave. A bolt in the quarry face provides an anchor for an 8m (25ft) ladder.
Although Balch Cave may be a pale shadow of its former self, it is far from being 'largely destroyed', and offers a sporting hour or two's caving in varied, moderately decorated and much underrated passages. Of the original 580m (1900ft) of passages, roughly 350m (1150ft) remains accessible. So, when you're queuing up for trips into Shatter and Withyhill, don't overlook Balch Cave, which if nothing else offers a salutary lesson on the effects of quarrying on cave passages.
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