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Early Days at Ilam, and Early Days with the Pegasus

James Cobbett

This is a story with three linked themes.  Though ostensibly about the first dives at Ilam Main Rising, it also shows how I managed to turn my life around once I moved to Nottingham, and also how the Pegasus Club Nottingham, which had hitherto “kept itself to itself”, came to welcome many from outside the area as active, and valued, members. 

In Summer 1967, two years out of a southern Public School, having learnt a lot about beer, caving, diving, and other interesting stuff, but little about Chemistry, Exeter University decided that they could get along fine without me, and kicked me out, with only a B.Sc. Chemistry (Part One, Failed) to show for it. I then took a job with Clark’s shoes, on the understanding that this would be in Street, Somerset, almost next door to Mendip, the Hunters and Swildons Hole. However, this was not to be, and I ended up as “Joint Production Controller and Costs Analyst” at their men’s shoe factory in Rothwell, Northamptonshire , which was not close to anywhere. It soon became clear that making shoes in Rothwell was not for me, so I cast around for an alternative. Pears’ Cyclopaedia, which I have by me on the shelf still, told me that for those who liked going underground there was lots of demand for mining engineers, with the Coal Board offering more scholarships than there were places to study in the UK. Having been rejected by the University of Cardiff (“Your application is too late”), got an open offer from Newcastle (“Let us know if you are coming.”), in August  I found myself sat in front of Hubert King, the Prof, and Les Morris, the Admissions Tutor, in the Mining Department at Nottingham University. After an hour and a half they said that they would be happy for me to join their department, but wondered how I could pay the fees, having already blown my “Student Grant” at Exeter. After I told them that I had high hopes of the Coal Board, they sucked on their teeth and said that they did not think I would fit well in the Coal Board, and that they had already had too many students take the Coal Board’s money, but not go on to work for them. When I asked what else they could suggest, they said “Trust us, join the Department next month, and we will come up with something”. I did and they did, and so it was that I got a scholarship from Shell, and am on Shell’s payroll, albeit now as a pensioner, to this day! None of which is really part of the Ilam story at all, but shows how I came to be in Nottingham in late-1968, looking for a band of like-minded ruffians with whom to go caving, and some sumps to dive.

However, once I was installed in Nottingham, I concentrated single-mindedly on my studies for the first term, following the advice implicit in Oliver Lloyd’s comments to me that “Few get one chance at university, very few two, and none three”, advice that  I  returned to him when he went on to study for a Music degree following retirement after decades as “Reader in Morbid Anatomy”, i.e. a “dead person’s doctor”, at the same university, Bristol. Though I did not visit any caves during the back end of 1968, I did take a drive out to the Peak District in Hugh Titley’s Austin-Healey Sprite, Hugh being a fellow first year Mining Engineering student. On this trip, we met Alf Fry, and other members of the Manifold Valley Caving Club. They showed me Ilam Rising, in the grounds of Ilam Hall, a National Trust property, where the river Manifold resurges in five discrete risings, close together in the riverbed, four miles away from the sinks, at Wetton Mill. In the Summer, this four miles of river bed is often dry, though at this time, in late-Autumn, most of the flow was via the river bed, with the subterranean flow clearly welling up into the river at Ilam. A boozy session with the Manifold Valley Caving Club crew, in the Royal Oak at Wetton, en route for Nottingham whetted my interest in this site, which interest, and I, even survived Hugh’s crazy eight-pint-driving back to Nottingham! Though I didn’t do any caving during this first term, I did contact, and visit, Barrie Parker, who clearly did not know what to make of me! My first term exam results suggested that Nottingham University were not about to kick me out in a hurry, so I took all my caving and diving gear back with me in January, to be ready for anything – even Ilam Rising!


River Manifold, Ilam Main Rising is in the river by the bank, far right (missing from this snap)

As soon as I got back to Nottingham from the university’s Christmas vacation, I returned to Ilam, on Saturday 11th January 1969, together with Hugh and Phil Collett, with whom I had dived several times before on Mendip. On arrival, we first obtained permission from the National Trust representative at Ilam Hall, who kindly also gave us a room to change in. The first “resurgence” we looked at was St Bertram’s well, which is an artificial drinking pool, in a field, with some snow on the ground around it, maybe fifty metres from the river bank, fed by two underground passages. One passage was artificial, completely sumped, and only 1ft square, so we left this alone. I dived and followed the second, some 2½ ft square, until I reached a blank wall after some 12 ft. I did not investigate the outlet from the well, as we knew this fed a hydraulic ram.  So that was that for St Bertram’s Well.

The five risings in the river bed, near the bank, at a depth of some six feet, had water emerging at such pressure that they were difficult to approach – on my first look-see,  I took a small boulder in my hand to pull me down! Three of the risings were from boulder chokes and two from impenetrable fissures. However, Phil and I dug the most promising one, under a little bridge carrying the riverside footpath, for one hour, after which we could see a low arch, still choked by more boulders falling in from the river bed as we dug. Eventually, using a hand-held “tadpole” bottle, wearing plastic sandals, and with Phil standing on my head to force me feet-first into the void, in I went, trusting Phil to keep the entrance dug out while I was away, as this was threatening to fall in, now that my body had impeded, and reduced, the flow of water which supported these boulders. After a squeeze at the entrance, the passage got bigger and led to a typical phreatic tube. I followed this to the top of a rift which led down to a small chamber below at a depth of 25 ft, with a bedding plane heading off. As my 40 ft line reel was now empty, and I had in any case had enough fun for one day, I returned to base. For some reason, Phil did not feel like checking out this rising, so we went to the pub instead – Good call!


Four Non Cavers, Paul Thompson, Unknown and Hugh Titley on the bank. Barrie Parker and James Cobbett in the water.


Hugh Titley, Barrie Parker, Paul Thompson and Patricia Cast on the bank. James Cobbett & Cheg Chester in the water

A couple of weeks later, on Saturday 25th January, I returned with Hugh, Phil and Barrie Parker, for a second look, to find snow still on the ground, but no ice on the river. Having first dug out the entrance again, in the riverbed, I was able to enter the resurgence, albeit feet first, with help from a boot on my head, pushing me in. In spite of the visibility being down to only two feet, due to recent rain, I was able to follow the bedding plane below the rift until I encountered a small restriction. I then attached the line and headed out. Phil dived to confirm my findings, and recover the line and reel, which showed that some 86 feet of line had been run out from surface. The local National Trust representative had witnessed what we were up to, and was fascinated by my reports of blind white trout in the sump, and said that he would make an under-water camera for next time.

Three weeks later, on Saturday 15th February, Hugh Titley and I met Barrie Parker, Cheg Chester, Paul Thompson, Mick and Patricia Cast at Ilam, for my third, and final, dive at this site. Cheg first dug out boulders from the entrance till it was big enough for me to enter with two dive tanks. Once I reached the previous limit of exploration, the sump soon resolved into a wide bedding plane, varying in height between 6 inches and three feet. I carried on until I reached a constriction, and then tied a knot in the line, and returned with my line reel. After about twenty feet, the line had pulled over into a section of bedding too tight for me, so after a few minutes of thrutching around, I had to go back in – keep in mind that “Snoopy Loops” had yet to be invented, and diving lines were fixed at both ends, but where they went in between was up to them! The second time, I managed to find a way out, after a fifteen minute, and 119 foot, 35 foot depth, very scary, dive. My conclusion was that “It is unlikely that the “Master cave” will be entered from this end”, plus a warning that it would be best to leave this site alone, as a less competent/lucky diver would be at considerable risk of drowning, after failing  to find a way out.

[What James has forgotten to mention are his first words after exiting from this dive "Not for Man, Beast or even Oliver Lloyd shall I enter that place again" (Cheg Chester)]


Two Non Cavers, Cheg Chester in wet-suit side-on, Mick Cast leaning over the rail, unknown behind Mick Cast and Hugh Titleey on the bank. Barrie Parker and James Cobbett in the water.


Barrie Parker with the home-made under-water camera constucted by the local National Trust representative for James Cobbett to take photos of the blind white trout. Mission not completed.

Following my advice, this site was avoided by divers until 1977 when Mick Nelson took a look at it. On his sixth, and final, dive, on 24th September, aiming to get further than his previous, circa 100 feet, personal limit of exploration, he dived with two independent tanks and a 30 metre line reel. After half an hour, large clouds of silt were seen coming out of the entrance. When he did not return, back up divers were called, and, after five hours, his body was found by Ken Pearce, circa 19 feet beyond the end of the diving line – that is at about the limit of my 1969 exploration. His body was recovered the next day.

Ilam Main Rising has since been extended by the Cave Diving Group to some 267 metres, and 53 metres depth, in 1997, and is still one of the longest, deepest and most intimidating sumps in the UK, the only thing easy about it, being the five minute walk from the car park!  To date no “Master Cave”, or other dry cave at all, has been found, though diving continues sporadically at this site, but with no significant progress since 1997.

Back to 15th February 1969.After apologizing for failure to take any under-water snaps of the blind fish, and concluding our business at Ilam, we all returned via the Pegasus hut at Peak Forest, to the Dev, and then to the Stags, where a boozy time was had by all. After this, I soon got in the habit of spending week-ends with the Pegasus, involving both mob-handed club trips to caves and mines in the Peak District, and also occasional week-ends in Yorkshire. The Pegasus encouraged and helped me with my various other diving projects, such as P8 and Giants, with Barrie (“I don’t want to be the best cave diver in the World, just the oldest”) and Cheg  also diving. In spite of the disadvantages that I came with, such as being a student, and ex-Public School,  once the Pegasus realized that I was OK underground, and knew the words to the songs (Example : “The hippopotamus so it seems, Hardly ever has wet dreams, But when he does, He comes in streams”…), we got on fine, so well in fact that they even allowed me to introduce to the Pegasus some of my fellow Nottingham University student cavers, who I was teaching to cave dive, including RatArse Webb and Admiral Howes, and later a whole gang of miscreants from Mendip, including Mac McManus, Tony Jarratt, Martin Bishop and Pat Cronin, who soon became frequent visitors to Derbyshire.

As for me; Well in spite of a very active three years caving-wise, I ended up with a First Class Honours Degree in Mining Engineering, and just about every available university prize – One way and another, Nottingham did well for me!
And the rest, as they say, is history!

Panama City, Panama, 11th May 2020

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