Kent Henderson


The management practices of British Show Caves varies widely. A large majority of caves in the British Isles are privately operated, and development has been viewed mostly in terms of economics.

During a recent trip to Britain, I visited several cave locations, met with management and gained an impression of British management practices. The caves reviewed in this paper are — in England: Cheddar Caves (Somerset), Speedwell Cavern and Treak Cliff Cavern (Derbyshire), in Ireland: Mitchelstown Cave (Co. Cork) and Dunmore Cave (Co. Kilkenny).

Cheddar Caves

The well-known Cheddar Caves provide a highly developed volume-orientated tourist venue. While clearly the capital expenditure on the show caves at this location has been substantial, there are questions as to its efficacy.

Cheddar Caves are located in a breathtaking karst valley several miles long known as the Cheddar Gorge and certainly, the surface karst is a great feature of the area. The caves have been very commercially developed. The main show cave is Gough's Cave, which has been open since the late 19th century. The cave is reasonably well-decorated, and consists of wide passageways and linked chambers.The tracking, which is basically wall-to-wall, is concreted throughout.

The cave is self-guided, but is not a through tour, although there is a large internal loop towards the rear. The lighting is 240V, and both the tracking and spotting seem adequate (particularly by British standards), though not modern. All lights are constantly on during opening hours. As might be expected, lampenflora is a rampant problem, as is the growth of a variety of fern species. Indeed, the ferns seem to be considered an adornment, and are purpose nurtured.

In several places in the cave, major modifications have been inflicted on the cave for the purposes of tourist enhancement. In a rear section, two adjacent areas have had their floors concreted and imitation false floors created so as to hold water and create various reflection scenes. Worse still, it has been done so poorly that the modification is obvious to even the most uniformed observer. The problem is, as much as one might like to remove these modifications and restore the cave, they have been in place so long that they have, in themselves, become an historical part of the cave.

The other tourist cave is the small Cox's Cave. It contains some excellent decoration, but again it suffers the same management forms of the larger Gough's Cave. Cox's Cave is linked, via a cut made in 1987, to the adjacent Fantasy Grotto, an undecorated cave which is full of holograms and strobelighting. It is fair to say that this display has not advanced the education of the British public in cave and karst values.

Cheddar also possesses quite an acceptable caves' museum, which focuses on historical and prehistorical usage, rather than on karst values.

In comparing the Cheddar Caves by Australian standards, there is no real comparison, although as we shall shortly see, by British standards they rate very high. As a tourist resort, it is very well set up and there are attempts made to acquaint the public with the importance of karst values. The indications are that the caves are saddled with the many mistakes of past 'development' which current economic considerations prevent being rectified.

The caves are the Castleton Area are located in Derbyshire in northern England and they receive about a million tourist visits between them per year. Geographically, the area is right in the middle of an axis bordered by the huge metropolis' of Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds.

There are four show caves in the area, viz: Peak Cavern, which is publicly owned; Blue John Cavern, Speedwell Cavern and Trek Cliff Cavern, all privately owned. It is these last two that were visited.

Speedwell Cavern

Speedwell Cavern is 'unique' in that it provides a boat/punt tour through a lengthy former lead mine dug through limestone, ending in a cave chamber. Its long subterranean canal is reached by descending steep steps. The boat journey passes several long-disused lead veins whereupon you reach the limestone chamber known as the bottomless pit. Lighting along the canal is by 240V placements transformed to 32V. The lighting was evidently replaced in recent years and looks reasonable to the eye. The Bottomless Pit chamber is undecorated and the pit itself a water-filled hole to the side of the chamber has historically been the repository of 40,000 tons of waste rock from the mining. As for a critique of its management, one has to decide if you are viewing a mine or a cave. As a cave, it is so heavily modified that is totally different to anything it may have been originally. Its values now are 90% as a mine which is a tourist attraction and as such management would appear adequate.

Treak Cliff Cavern

Treak Cliff Cavern is famous for its Blue John Stone - a singular variety of calcium fluoride (fluorspar). The cave was discovered in 1750 and has been worked for its Blue John Stone for over 200 years. Mining has long since been discontinued. A new series of caverns, later linked in to the show cave, was discovered in 1926.

The cave itself has a separate exit to its entrance, although about half the cave needs to be backtracked to exit. Compared to Australian standards, the cave is at best very poorly managed. The tracking is poorly graded and maintained. The lighting is a disgrace.

The cave is 240V lit. Although there is limited switching, most lights are on throughout the day.

The lighting itself consists mostly of stringing conduit anywhere between two points and inserting light globes when the mood takes you. It did seem that great care was taken to cover even conceivable decoration with wires. Some wire netting/barriers were used in the cave, although with little apparent effect, especially when children are actively encouraged to 'pat' selected formations.

The worst eyesore is a massive big plastic tube which runs the length of the cave and pumps fresh air to the rear. This was forced on management by authorities which considered Treak Cliff had unacceptably high radon. Another interesting adornment is the large water storage tanks at the rear of the cave, which provide all the water to the cave complex. Several large plastic sheets are suspend near the cave ceiling which collects dripwater from speleothems, which is then conveyed by little canals down to the storage tanks. This, of course, is a major modification to the cave environment.

To top it off, the tour inflicted upon us was remarkable. My family and I were the only people on our tour. I promptly introduced myself to our young guide, Andrew, and we had a good chat. Then when we got inside proper he started the tour. "Good morning, my name's Andrew and I'd like to tell you all about..." The quality of the information ranged from a trite description of Witche's Cave, to Aladdin's Cave, Dream Cave, the Dome of St Paul's, the Seven Dwarfs, and of course, Fairyland. I think he did mention stalactites and stalagmites somewhere along the way too.

We did find out something of the Blue John deposits, which were quite impressive despite the commentary. Calcium Fluoride has calcite-like cubic crystal structure, with a hardness of 4 on the Mohs Scale. It is, however, quite brittle and as a result, hard to work.

Dunmore Cave

Dunmore Cave is publicly-owned. It is a collapsed doline of some size and is managed as a self-guided circuitous tour. Officially, the cave is termed as a National Monument. Management can be describe as adequate though there are a number of problems. On the plus side, the interpretation of the cave is excellent. The above ground display in the visitor's area is excellent and would be hard to beat anywhere. Each visitor receives a descriptive pamphlet which is quite instructive.

The cave itself is well tracked and marked, the track lights are a bit overpowering and the placement of power transmission boxes through the cave is not aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, lights are continuously on, lampenflora and fern growth is heavy and general cave cleaning would appear unknown. Nonetheless, by British standards, Dunmore Cave is adequately managed and by wider standards, it is certainly well interpreted given its self-guided nature.

Mitchelstown Cave

Mitchelstown Cave is a one-owner cave which has been developed with care, particularly given the problems of clearly insufficient developmental capital. The owner is a singularly likable Irishman called Jackie English. Jackie loves his cave. He rarely talks about anything else and we were quite lucky to escape his clutches under about three hours! It seems the cave has been in Jackie's family for eons. It is quite well tracked and the lighting adequate.

One of the biggest problems is not the lack of good intentions of the owner, but a lack of good information. Cross- fertilisation of management knowledge and ideas appears to be greatly lacking in Britain. Britain does possess the British Association of Show Caves (BAS). While outwardly analogous to ACKMA, the BAS is primarily an economic pressure group. It holds no conferences, and no papers are presented. In short, it has no educative/management training function.

A major modification forced on Mitchelstown Cave was the installation of a secondary battery-operated emergency lighting system. This system is an eye sore and its placement was determined by a public inspector with no consideration to aesthetics or management principles.


Overall, the British and Irish caves inspected were managed at a standard quite below that of Australia. Given that, it needs to be acknowledged that historically most British Caves are not publicly owned and have been under-capitalised. Other factors in lower management standards are the baggage of historical far further than in Australia, and the relative lack of management knowledge and structures to provide it. Management knowledge is far from uniform, as are the standards.