Somerset's Wells and Mendip Museum follows the stream to reveal ancient Wookey Hole caves

By Richard Moss | 26 October 2010
a photo of a diver in a dark udnerwater enivironment
A modern diver explores the deep cave systems beneath the Mendips at Wookey Hole© Gavin Newman 2010
Exhibition: Follow the Stream - the search for the connection between the caves of Priddy and Wookey Hole, Wells and Mendip Museum, Wells, until November 9 2010

Readers with a fear of enclosed spaces stop reading now. The current exhibition at Wells and Mendip Museum tells a story of deep underwater streams and caves and the people whose idea of a weekend's leisure is to plunge into them in search of sumps, holes and caverns.

Follow the Stream has been put together with the help of the area's passionate caving community, and offers a fascinating glimpse into this murky world by charting the ongoing search for the connection between the caves of Priddy and Wookey Hole, deep beneath the Mendip Hills.

Underwater caving is not for the faint-hearted. Many of the photos on display show potholers and divers edging their way through fissures which offer only an inch or two of breathing space between the icy water and immovable rock above. 

a black and white photo of a group of divers and explorers underground
Wookey Hole divers in the 1950s© Bill Darby
Little wonder, then, that two men have died in the course of exploring these dark and dangerous subterranean waters, which began attracting a steady stream of adventurers at the turn of the 20th century - despite their inherent dangers.

As well as a series of stunning, never-seen-before photos, visitors can see original equipment in an exhibition which covers more than 100 years of exploration to take in dramatic underwater discoveries, set backs and tragedy deep under the earth.

Wookey Hole and the caves at Priddy have long been a Mecca for cave divers. They were the site for the first successful cave dives in Britain in the 1930s, when diving pioneer Graham Balcombe fashioned a breathing apparatus made largely from old bicycle parts.

This Heath Robinson-style device, which is on display, allowed Balcombe and his colleague Jack Sheppard to descend into the deep gloom of Swildon's Hole, the largest cave system beneath the Mendip Hills. Since then a procession of audacious cavers have discovered a series of caverns with evocative names like Hell's Gate, Paradise Regained and the Black Hole series of caves. 

For those of us who would who would rather read about it than experience it, this exhibition is grimly absorbing. Mendip cavers and cave divers have risked life and limb exploring these treacherous underwater streams – their story is a spellbinding exploration in itself.

Find out more about Wookey Hole with these two books telling the story of this extraordinary place and the people compelled to explore it: 

Wookey Hole - 75 Years of Cave Diving & Exploration and  Swildon's Hole - 100 Years of Exploration

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