The Man Who Found Wales' Underworld

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), November 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Found Wales' Underworld


Byline: Tim Lewis

IT was a true journey of discovery, an ascent into the unknown which led to a find still recognised today by cavers across the country.

In 1946 at the age of 25, Peter IW Harvey, along with his good friend and fellow caver Ian Nixon, discovered the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system, which runs beneath Penwyllt at the top of the Swansea Valley.

After identifying a promising location, they started digging and soon unearthed a blocked entrance, allowing exploration of about a mile of the previously-unentered cave system. Further explorations have revealed the cave system as totalling more than 30 miles, making it the deepest in the UK and the third longest. It became the first underground National Nature Reserve to be established.

Peter was one of the founder members of the South Wales Caving Club and was the last Peter IW Harvey's Diary Whitsun Holiday 1946 DURING the Whitsun Holiday [of 1946] we visited the Swansea Valley once more.

The Gwyn was already the centre of the caving activity in the Swansea Valley although at that time the number of cavers was very small, usually not more than ten at the most.

In the forties and fifties the mining industry was still very active in SouthWales and there were a number of collieries in the vicinity. Among the miners who used to visit the Gwyn on a Saturday night were some very fine singers. Some of the singers in the valleys of those days, with a bit of training, would have been the equal of any opera singer.

Ian and I spent most of our time in the vicinity of the spring at Ffynnon Ddu.

Ian [Nixon] and I had a discussion with BillWeaver to see if he had any ideas as to the best spot to start a dig into the cave behind the rising at Ffynnon Ddu. Bill recollected that Cyril Powell had told him of a flood in the valley where there had been an outburst of flood water in the field at the bottom of the little surviving founder before his recent death. The club he served as president for 33 years from 1976 is now the largest caving club in the UK and has more than 300 members.

Friend Jem Rowland first met Peter in 1967. He said: "Peter was a great friend, a great character, and one of the greats of the caving world.

"For most of his life Peter was a fit, capable, and inspirational caver with an uncanny ability to find new passage.

"On his 60th birthday, accompanied by Bob Radcliffe, he completed the challenging trip from one extremity of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu to the other, and back, determined to be the first person over 60 to do so.

"The fact that he completed it in not much over eight hours is testament to his fitness at the valley known as Pant Canol behind the rising and that near the edge of the field was a small cliff face.

We had not considered this place before because the field belonged to Jeffrey Morgan, one of the owners of Dan yr Ogof. I wrote off immediately and asked Mr. Morgan if we could dig a hole in his field and he replied giving us permission.

July 1946 - The dig SO it was during the first weekend in July that Ian and I arrived in the valley complete with some digging tools.

The day was one of those glorious summer days without a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind. It was one of the hottest days for years.

At the foot of the little cliff there were some nettles growing on glacial drift. I pulled these away, roots and all, and it was immediately obvious from the very strong cold draught coming up through the boulders that we were digging at an old entrance to a large cave system. The draught was so strong that grass and dust were blown straight out of the excavation.

Every boulder we moved loosened grit which, instead of dropping down, was blown up into our eyes. The temperature of the draught made it necessary to leave the dig every now and time. Bob tells me that, to ensure success, Peter had insisted on rehearsing it two weeks before "Peter caved regularly until the age of 85, when he and Iwent into Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, on what was to be his final trip into the cave that he had dug into almost exactly 60 years before. …

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