Travels beneath the earth: University of Bristol Spelaeological Society

Image: Linda Wilson and a team of cavers explore the GB Cave in the Mendip Hills.

The University of Bristol Spelaeological Society (UBSS), founded in 1919, is the longest-running student society at Bristol. As the society celebrated their centenary in 2019, husband-and-wife duo, Bristol alumni and UBSS members Linda Wilson (LLB 1982) and Graham Mullan (1972) reflect on the magic of caving and the significance of alumni and student partnerships for sustaining a society.

On 31 December 2018, members of the Spelaeological Society sat round a glowing fire in their field headquarters, known affectionately as ‘The Hut’, in Burrington on the Mendip Hills near Bristol. They were entering their 100th year as a University of Bristol student society, celebrating the new year in the same way they have done every year since their initiation: a fire, drinks and a communal dinner.

‘The tradition dates back to 1919 and has not since been broken,’ says Linda Wilson. ‘Although this year it was a tiny outside gathering in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.’

Linda is a Vice-President of the society and museum curator of  the UBSS collection. She joined the society in 1979, where she met  her husband Graham Mullan, a fellow long-term member who is  also Treasurer and editor of the society’s peer-reviewed annual  journal, Proceedings.

‘“Go straight on” is our society motto,’ Graham explains. ‘It relates to an incident where two students were lost and one of them, at every turning, proclaimed “go straight on!” That was fine, until they both ended up in a ditch! In caving, going “straight on” is as good an option as any other, though!’

UBSS members have always used The Hut on the Mendips as their base for archaeological digging, caving expeditions and explorations. Known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Mendip Hills  is a significant caving spot and is the site where the caving society was first formed.

Image: UBSS members enjoy a campfire by their headquarters, The Hut.

‘When the Bristol Speleological Research Society found human remains at Aveline’s Hole on the Mendips, they realised it was a site of huge archaeological significance. After the First World War, the group  re-formed under the aegis of the University to continue their research, and the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society was born.’

Initially made up of a mixture of people – some already associated with the University and others who weren’t – UBSS has always welcomed people with different relationships to caving and it is this unique formation that generates its distinct character. Part of its success, Graham describes, is the partnership between alumni and students.

‘Having the long-term knowledge and history to pass on and make available to new members and new cavers is one of the society’s strong points,’ says Graham. ‘Absolutely,’ Linda agrees. ‘Right from the beginning the society has always had alumni, student and staff members and a small number of outside members. The partnership between alumni and students gives it continuity and equips us with the knowledge to fully engage with the historic parts of the society and run our museum, library and publications. While the longer-standing members bring insight, the newer student members bring fresh perspectives while continuing the traditions. It’s a special dynamic.’

The cavern at GB Cave in the Mendip Hills, which was discovered by UBSS during World War II.

Delving the depths of the subterranean world is an intricate business. It requires technical skill, scientific knowledge of the region and a brave taste for adventure. For Graham, the friends you make on an expedition are with you for life.

‘It’s easy to become close to the people you cave with very quickly, especially on an expedition. I’ve been doing this for a number of years and the friends I’ve met while caving and through the society are some of my oldest friends. I went on a caving trip to Yugoslavia in 1972 at the end of my first year, and of the ten others on the trip, I still regularly see six of them.’

‘The strength of the friendships formed through this society adds a special dimension,’ Linda reflects. ‘And of course there are the relationships, too – there have been so many caver marriages!’

Linda was 19 when she started caving with Bristol’s Spelaeological Society. ‘The one thing I didn’t have with me was a pair of boots. So Graham offered to lend me some, which lasted precisely two caving trips. Forty years later and we’re happy to say we’ve stayed together slightly longer than the boots did!’

While the Mendips are a particularly significant site for UBSS, the society have also travelled all over the world, to countries such as Indonesia, China, Thailand, Slovenia, Austria, Greece and across the UK. Their first overseas caving expedition was to Ireland in 1948 and there have been trips to County Clare almost every year since.

‘It was a difficult trip to organise last summer, given COVID regulations,’ Graham tells us, ‘but we managed to adhere to the necessary guidelines and were delighted that six undergraduate students and three alumni members were able to go. We have surveyed many kilometres of cave passage in County Clare, and made significant discoveries, including a 2km stream cave in Poulnagree. To be somewhere that very few others, sometimes no one else, has seen is just incredible. It is a very vivid experience.’

Celebrating 100 years of the society is an enormous achievement. In March 2019, UBSS hosted an annual dinner and drinks reception underground in Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset. In October they published their fourth book, The Caves of Mid-West Ireland, which was edited by Graham. This was followed by a two-day Centenary Symposium, ‘Travels Beneath the Earth’, hosted by the University’s Geography Department. For Linda, the important thing about the centenary was celebrating the partnership between alumni and students:

‘It’s so nice to see generations of students involved. Making friends in different age groups was so important for me when I was a student and now, it’s nice to be able to give back.

‘University is an abstract concept. When people arrive here, it is the smaller things such as their course, their department, the societies they get involved in that really make a difference to their experience and allow them to form memories. People like ourselves are still so engaged with the University through volunteering and our work with UBSS and I hope that helps inspire the same for other generations.’

So what will UBSS cavers look like in another 100 years? ‘The classic Bristol caving student hasn’t changed a huge amount!’ Graham and Linda chime. ‘We regularly get replies to our monthly e-newsletter from older members telling us how familiar everything looks!’ says Linda. ‘Students still enjoy going to The Hut, sitting around the fire, singing caving songs and playing games.’ And, of course, going caving.


8 thoughts on “Travels beneath the earth: University of Bristol Spelaeological Society

  1. When I was at school in Bristol in the 50’s, I spent many hours down Swilden’s and Goatchurch. It was challenging given the limited equipment we had

  2. I didn’t have the chance to discover the speleology club of the uni when i studied there on 2010-11.
    Few years later I joined the local club SPOK at my home town Heraklion, Crete, Greece and have been exploring since then the wonderful caves of the island.
    You should come visit them.

  3. I started caving with a trip down Swildons in early 1961 with David Pearce, my roommate in digs during my first year in Bristol. I seem to remember a submerged sump passage at the end where you just held your breath and swam through. I never looked back and caved regularly in Mendips, South Wales, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It made my time at Bristol, special especially caving with Dr Oliver Lloyd, Dave Savage and Johnny Squires. I sincerely hope that fresher students will get as much pure unadulterated joy out of it as I did. Good Luck to the Society and to Linda and Graham for running it!

  4. As a dental student in the late 50s and under the tutorage of Prof. Tratman a group of us caved in the Mendips and especially before exams to relax. Is it still called Tratman’s temple? We have wonderful caverns here in Tasmania.
    Martin Bastick. grad 1961

  5. As a dental student in the late 50s and under the tutorage of Prof. Tratman a group of us caved in the Mendips and especially before exams to relax. Is it still called Tratman’s temple? We have wonderful caverns here in Tasmania.
    Martin Bastick. grad 1961

  6. I was involved with the underwater cave diving group in 1972. I spent Many an hour documenting underground caves in South Wales with Dr Oliver Lloyd using an inclinator and a piece of rope To measure and survey the caves. ( modern Technology in those days !!! )We celebrated his 60th birthday underground. Is the underwater cave diving group still active.

  7. John and I met in the Caving Hut in 1959 and came to appreciate each others finer points and endurance while squeezing through Swildons and wading and swimming through underground rivers in Yorkshire and Devon. We are now octogenarians and have been married 55 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *