Restoration of "The Bung"

Speedwell Cavern

The Bung, Speedwell Cavern, summer 2010

Brian Edmonds

The first we heard of a problem at the Bung was in the TSG Chapel getting ready for a normal Peak trip. Ralph, key holder for the day, was buttonholed and the poor state of the pointing and masonry was discussed. As Ralph was going in Speedwell later to check on the condition of the JH choke we left it to him to assess the problem.

For those of you that don’t know, the Speedwell canal was driven at depth in the late 1700’s to intersect deep lead workings that had located the Speedwell stream way. Dewatering wasn’t an issue, but transport of materials and ore was, and at this time “canal fever” was sweeping the country. The stream was eventually met at what is now known as the Bung, where the natural was about 20’ lower than the canal. A masonry dam with a drain plug (“The Bung”) was constructed to maintain the water level. This can still be seen by ducking under a low arch in the dam behind the base of the ladder. Further upstream as the bed of the river gradually rose up gradient a false floor was built with a loading dock at the Whirlpool. The false floor can be followed as a line of stemple holes in the cave walls all the way to the Boulder Piles under JH. The Boulder Piles are probably a mostly man made dam in the river underneath choked connections to Leviathan shaft in JH, upstream from here the walls are very dull and mud coated, the floor buried in silt. Just before the very deep Main Rising is a side passage leading to Cliff Cavern with a poor lead scrin and graffiti dating back to the 1780’s (“The Miners Toast”) commemorating completion of the canal and other significant events in the history of the greater Peak cave system. There are also carved initials at the bung, including a “JH” presumably the same one who had the mine above...

Subsequently it was confirmed that the top three courses at least were in a parlous state, including the large capping slabs. A small team was organised and quantities of sand and cement and various other accoutrements were portaged down the canal level. While Ralph and Len worked with the dam, some of us went upstream to examine the entrance to Cliff Cavern. Here there is a small lead scrin just by the climb up from the main passage near the Miners Toast. At some point in the recent past this had been damaged, possibly with a hammer or rocks, and was looking rather sorry for itself.

Returning to the Bung we found Ralph and Len had done what they could, but doubts were now voiced about the state of the ladder. It was in three sections, held together with fish plates, and looking at it the pronounced banana curvature looked distinctly unhealthy. Some returned upstream to assess the Bathing Pool ladder as a temporary replacement, and also to look at the JH choke again which was reportedly getting worse.

After a few days of thinking and debating, it was decided a new ladder would be required, and during a return to add a final paving slab to the top of the dam measurements were taken. More notes and details were gathered on other trips, and a volunteer in the form of Ade Pedley was found to construct the ladder in stainless steel. Cash had been sourced from the Peak fund that each caver contributes to as part of the usual fees. One “final” detail was how long a section could be delivered and installed, so another trip was undertaken with a long wooden pole and a saw. On this trip the water level was very low, and the top of the pump installed at the bung was exposed and was seen to be leaking a bit.

Measurements taken, plans made; cutting and welding commenced. Fixing brackets for the bottom end were created, and a system for the top designed and built. Once complete a cast of several disreputable people gathered with large chunks of shiny steel and loads of other bits in the car park outside Speedwell. After what seemed an age in the hot sun we were away. The first test was would the sections turn the corner into the top of the incline shaft? Air door opened, ladder sections jiggled... easy fit, no problems! Next issue was transporting the sections along the canal beyond the Bottomless Pit. The longer section was carried by two, the shorter dragged by one. So far so good. Once at the Bung the first, lower, section was lifted onto the top of the dam and the second section loosely fitted, but allowing it still to bend. The whole articulated mass was then lowered over the edge and down the Bung, where we found that the ladder was indeed short enough to fit round between the top of the dam and the roof. While Ade and the others wrestled in the confined space with the steel work we made a quick check of the Miners Toast with a side visit to Bathing Pool. On return we met the rest also going to check upstream and at JH. The top fixing for the ladder needed some remedial work in the factory as it was a bit too short, other than that the job was finished. We took some photos of the works then we carried the old ladder out to Bottomless Pit. This was in two sections and a lot lighter than the new one. The show cave was busy, and by the time a boat arrived the whole crew had caught up and were waiting. Luckily all the kit and people bar three fitted in board, the remainder wading behind the boat. Back in the sunshine it was clear that waders that leak are a nuisance, better off just getting wet Ralph!

The last job was finished off a week later and now the shiny new ladder is fixed top and bottom and solid as a rock, well better than the rocks under JH which is the next task... more steel lugging and boulder prodding to come!

Special thanks to Ralph, Len and Ade and the cast of several who helped out measuring, carrying, fitting, photographing and measuring (you know who you are), and to the management of Speedwell for allowing access and use of the boats.