Wessex Cave Club
The Wessex Cave Club was officially formed on November 4th 1934, following an earlier foundation meeting held at Ashley House, Croscombe, near Wells. The founder members were Messrs. C.W. Harris, J.W. Duck, H. Murrell, N. Clark and K. Griffin. The late H.E. Balch, MA FSA, pioneer of cave exploration on the Mendip’s, became the Club’s first president; November 4th 1934 being his 65th birthday. He retained the position until his death in 1958. Twenty members joined the Club at the first meeting, thus underlining the opinions of the founders that a local organisation was needed for those unashamedly interested in caving just for the sport of it. Those clubs already in existence were primarily concerned with scientific objectives, or by their nature, open to a select few only: namely the Mendip Nature Research Committee, Wells; the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, and the Sidcot School Spelaeological Society near Winscombe. By the outbreak of the Second World war the membership was 175. Inevitably the number of members declined during the war, but the tireless F.W. Frost kept the Club in being and saw it grow into the largest such organisation in Great Britain in the post-war years. Frank Frost became the Club’s second president in 1961, and held office until his death in 1981. The third president was Luke Devenish, a long standing caver and Wessex member. Richard Kenney became the fourth Wessex President until his death in 2001. He was succeeded by Donald Thompson, who passed away December 2023. Today the Club has around 300 members.
Since the Mendip Hills are the Club’s main area of operation, hostel accommodation has been provided for members and their guests from as early as 1935. Prior to the War, rooms were rented at the Grange, near the Castle of Comfort Inn. Through the generosity of Gerard Platten, the Club acquired a small wooden shed near Eastwater Cavern in July 1946, at the end of the war.
The attractively sited Eastwater hut gave sterling service to the Club up to the end of 1968 and additional hut type accommodation was obtained at Beechbarrow Farm, Priddy, in the summer of 1947. However, the growth of membership and activities necessitated more spacious premises, and so a new headquarters was erected at nearby Hillgrove farm to replace “Beechbarrow” in 1952.
Hillgrove was essentially basic and homely, with a tank for water collected off the roof and a shed with an Elsan toilet. The stove was the one currently at Upper Pitts. Hillgrove became the centre of Wessex caving on Mendip throughout the great period of activity and new discoveries during the fifties, and early sixties. In 1962, in view of the ever increasing numbers requiring residential facilities, the Club began thinking of acquiring more permanent freehold premises on Mendip . Subsequently, a suitable site was purchased near Eastwater Farm, Priddy, in 1965. With the assistance of a Department of Education and Science grant, and with the generosity and hard work of members, a new headquarters was completed in the summer of 1969.
An extension to house the workshop, thereby allowing better changing facilities, was completed in 1978, and then converted to a changing and shower-block in 1988, (a drying room was incorporated in 1997), leaving the previous changing room for conversion to the Ladies dormitory (now a second smaller general dormitory). The headquarters building is known as Upper Pitts and is a fully equipped, centrally heated, bunkhouse with a very well stocked library, tackle store, luxurious bunk rooms and a well equipped kitchen. As well as being extensively used by the club members, the cottage is also available for groups to stay and is regularly booked by visiting caving and university clubs. Hut bookings are arranged through the hut bookings officer.
The Upper Pitts H.Q. off Eastwater Lane is ideally sited in the heart of the Priddy area which contains the best-known and most extensive cave systems on the Mendip’s. Although Upper Pitts ensures the continuity of the Wessex as a Mendip based club, it has long been a feature of the Club that members are spread widely in this country and abroad. The Club’s interests are therefore diverse, and understandably include a considerable original contribution to the more scientific aspects of caving, or speleology. Nevertheless, the principal aim of pursuing and encouraging the sport of cave exploration and discovery remains uppermost. Many members have played important parts in the collective organizations which have proved necessary to further the aims of the bona-fide caver. These include the Mendip Rescue Organisation, Mendip Cave Registry, Charterhouse Caving Company Ltd, and the Council of Southern Caving Clubs. Yet, although the Wessex is so large and active, it claims no particular cave as its reserve, and, unlike other large clubs in the area and elsewhere, does not exclusively control access to any cave system. While recognising the difficulties often raised by the ownership of land, the Club has always endeavoured to ensure that as many caves as possible are freely accessible to as many as possible, whether members or not. It will thus continue to further the aims of all those who enjoy the sport of caving.
The Club’s activities and achievements are fully recorded in its Journal and a series of Occasional Publications. By tradition, the Journal has grown to be the medium through which the Wessex has become best known to the caving world. Successive editors have maintained its somewhat unique mixture of news, reviews, exploration accounts and serious papers, to establish the Journal amongst the best and most widely read of British caving periodicals. Since 1950, following the completion of the early “Circulars”, (which have been collectively re-printed as Journal Volume 1), Journals have been published regularly. They are now issued up to six times per year, and are professionally printed. Wessex publications not only provide a complete record of the Club’s and member’s activities and interests at home and abroad, but also are significant in maintaining the loyalty to the Club of those who, by absence or age, can no longer venture underground. The Journal is also a significant contribution to the history of Mendip caving. A complete collection of Wessex Journals can be found in the Bristol Central Reference Library, and the Somerset County Archives as well as in the library at the Club Headquarters.