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Daunting, but rewarding: introducing Oxford’s caving scene

From depths of 1.2km to expeditions across Europe, Thomas Lyne discusses a lesser-known Oxford sport with Rory Rose, Chair of the Oxford University Cave Club.

First things first: let’s get our bearings! What’s caving, what’s pot-holing and what’s spelunking, and difference between them? 

Caving is one of the most unusual sport clubs you might find at university! It’s a team activity that involves walking, crawling, climbing, and abseiling through underground passages. The sport’s main appeals are the sense of embarking on an adventure in a team, the variation of the underground architecture, and the incredible formations that uniquely grow in caves. There are lots of opportunities for those seeking to challenge themselves physically and mentally. Crawling in confined tunnels or abseiling through lofty chambers can certainly be daunting, but it’s also remarkably rewarding.

Terminology-wise, “caving” tends to imply going through horizontal underground passages while “potholing” usually refers to ascending and descending vertical shafts. Most cave systems have both vertical and horizontal sections, so the activity of going into them is usually referred to as caving! Spelunking is an American term for caving.

It seems like there’s a long history of caving in Oxford. How did the club get started, and where have been the traditional go-to locations? 

Geology Professor Marjorie Sweeting started the club in 1957 with the help of some students who had some caving experience. The first trip for the club was to a cave in Somerset called GB. This is a cave the club continues to visit today.

Over the years, the club has thrived, and during term time, we do a rotation of weekend trips to the main UK caving areas: Somerset, South Wales, Peak District, and Yorkshire Dales.

What’s the social scene like at OUCC?

During term time, we have weekly pub catch up socials, which are also used to refresh on skills such as knot-tying, rigging, and to plan which caves we’d like to visit on the next upcoming trip. Alongside this, we host talks about caving and expeditions that members have been on. We also have an annual dinner and a Summer BBQ and punting day, which are always fun events.

How much scope is there for competition, then? Do we just have to take your word for it that you’re better than Cambridge?

We usually run a varsity match of caving-related games on our joint trip. I am happy to report that we shoed the Tabs at the last varsity 4-1.

It looks like one of the big things the club has got up to over the years is exploring, and mapping out new networks of caves, both in the UK and abroad. Can you tell me more about this, and about any projects you’re working on at the minute?

OUCC ran expeditions to the Picos de Europa in Spain from 1962 – 2014 where the club found extensive caves that are among some of the deepest in Europe. The current depth of the cave system is 1.2 km. The Club does not currently run any expeditions, but members are very welcome to join the expedition that still runs to the area ‘The Ario Caves Project’, which is a great experience. There are also many other expeditions that students can get involved with using the skills that they learn with the club to places such as Austria, Borneo, and China.

Do you have any recommendations for caving-related books and films to introduce people to the sport while they’re locked down?

There is a film about the OUCC’s exploration in Spain called ‘The Ario Dream’ which can be accessed at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ariodream, and there’s a book entitled Beneath the Mountains available on our website, http://www.oucc.org.uk, which are both excellent introductions to caving.

How did you get into caving? What’s the beginners’ scene like in Oxford, and how do you get involved?

The university Caving Club is probably the easiest way to get into caving that there is. Nearly all of our weekend trips are suitable for complete beginners and on most trips there is at least one person who has not done it before. We have all of the gear that you need for caving in our hut, so you don’t need to buy anything to come along. To get involved, you just have to rock up to a weekly pub meet or email a leader. Weekend trips cost £40 which includes accommodation, food, transport, and caving kit.

For more information on what OUCC is up to, or if you’d like to get in touch with them, check out their instagram page (@oxford_uni_caving), their Facebook (Oxford University Caving Club) or their website (http://www.oucc.org.uk/).

This introduction to Oxford’s caving scene was written with contributions from Rory Rose, Amelia Steane, Nick Adams and Rebecca Miller.

Image Credit: Thomas Leung, 2019

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