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.
‘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.’
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.