Who is our Chairman?
Like many others at the recent AGM I was surprised to learn of Allen Ockenden need to stand down from his post as Chairman, as his work will be taking him overseas for an indeterminate period. As can be imagined, this caused a minor stir. I was approached by several members of the club during the interval, expressing their desire for me to stand as Chairman. After due consideration I accepted the nomination and have had several weeks to reflect on what you might expect of a Chairman.
Looking down the current membership list it is apparent that many of you may not know me in person so perhaps I should take this opportunity to introduce myself....
Whilst anything underground had always held a fascination for me it was only in about 1986 that I started entertaining any serious thoughts of caving as a pursuit having read "Caves" by Tony Waltham. The concept of becoming a Caver appealed though seemed a distant and unobtainable goal at the time - particularly as Bromley was not exactly famous for its magnificent tracts of cave bearing limestone. Thoughts of caving had to smoulder in the back of my mind.
Having left the venture scouts in 1980, I found myself yearning for some outdoor activity and eventually approached my local library for help in finding a caving club. At that time the Club met at the Catherine Wheel in South Croydon every Friday evening. On my first visit I remember meeting Ron Smith, Bernard Charlesworth, Paul Selby, Ed and Sheila Poole and many others. I was even given a copy of Pelobates and was made very welcome. My overall impression was one of a friendly, busy, enthusiastic Club and I soon found myself under the wing of Ron Smith for a trip down the "Merstham Mines". To say that this first trip made an impression on me is something of an understatement. I couldn't stop thinking about stooping, running, crawling about in the dark with just a local pool of light to make it all possible. A feeling of having been where perhaps we shouldn't have - of "cheating" in some way. Despite the fact that I could hardly walk for the next 3 days I was hooked!
In those days the Club owned no accommodation of its own and had been allowed the use of the barn opposite the New Inn on 12 weekends each year in return for having fitted it out and an annual fee of about £100. Consequently the emphasis was on club trips away although small groups of members would still visit each of the caving areas on "unofficial" trips. Soon I was participating in these club weekends to South Wales, the Mendip hills and eventually Yorkshire. It was on just such a new year trip at the beginning of 1982 that I unfortunately found myself trapped by flood waters in Simpsons Pot for the best part of 24 hours leading to a protracted and highly public rescue callout. This put me off caving for some months and has given me a very healthy respect for flood-prone caves. A Pelobates reference of the period puts me on record as having stated "I'm trying not to think too much about caving at the moment". By the Summer of that year however, I found myself on a 3 week trip to the Vercors in France - my first foreign trip.
By 1984 I was getting interested in finding new cave and turned some time towards assisting with digs initiated by other members. I was warned that serious digging can almost become an end in itself! How this then proved to be the case with the Ogof Cul saga - even giving a weeks summer holiday to digging OC3. Still anxious to discover miles of new caves it became apparent that the best option was to get onto foreign expeditions.
In 1985 I found myself co-opted onto the committee as Secretary which lead to me producing a regular infamous newsletter. This was the year in which the club first started making use of Godre Pentre and almost every other weekend I seemed to be visiting South Wales caving, digging or working on the cottage and assisted in raising funds for the purchase of the property.
In 1986 I participated in my first foreign expedition - to the Dachstein region of Austria with cavers from BEC, NCC and Croydon and had the thrill of locating and beginning the exploration of an entirely new cave. As I am not particularly inclined towards vertical caving I didn't involve myself in the deeper explorations but was content to process the survey data and search for yet more entrances. The cave was still going so I was compelled to be present on the 1987 expedition when it was bottomed at almost 700m. Participation in expeditions to Ireland and Northern Spain followed.
Sadly in the late 80's my level of participation in actual caving declined and I found myself either unwilling or too unfit to do the trips I once enjoyed, though I still had a great desire to travel, taking me to Yugoslavia, Peru, Venezuela and eventually Borneo to visit the fantastic caves of Mulu with other Croydon members in 1992.
It was at about this time that I expressed a desire to get back into mainstream caving and with the support of other members found myself participating in more frequent trips to South Wales and the Mendips and even expedition caving in Spain again, and enjoying the experience as much as ever before.
So here I find myself as Chairman of a sizeable club with a respectable pedigree, its own popular accommodation, and a membership that has remained steady in recent years despite an accepted decline in caving nationally. How should we move forward and build upon what we have already achieved?
Well, there is a hell of a lot going on in South Wales at the moment. The incredible rate of exploration of Ogof Draenen during 1994/5 surpasses even that of Ogof Daren Cilau in the mid 80's. South Wales Caving Club are now beginning to find significant cave on the Black Mountain. Other sites such as Carno Adit still show great potential. Individuals of the club have been involved in some of these explorations but since the discovery of Ogof Igam Ogam we don't seem to have had any projects that have really pulled the club together. There is clearly much cave to be found, even within a few miles of Godre Pentre. Unfortunately finding new cave can take a lot of hard work and often disappointment - but you can't win the lottery without buying a ticket!
So what else should we be doing in order to be ready to explore the next Welsh mega-system? Well, one approach might be to treat each tourist trip as a training trip. Encourage other members to join you and take part in your projects. Open others eyes to future possibilities and new techniques. In short cave more as a Club rather than isolated cliques. Sooner or later you might be relying on your fellow members whilst exploring caverns measureless, either in the UK, abroad, or even assisting in a rescue and it is as well to be sure of each others capabilities. Enjoy your caving, share your experience and we will all reap the benefits.
I hope as your new Chairman you will find me approachable and open to your concerns and ideas, and will be found in the Blacksmiths Arms and Godre Pentre as often as other commitments allow.