Thee Dan-yr-Ogof caves, ideally situated for easy access between Swansea and Brecon, are one of the great tourist attractions of Wales. Thousands flock there every year to marvel at the stalagmites and stalactites and to enjoy the wonders of a major geological phenomenon.
But back in 1912 they were unexplored, virtually undiscovered. And it took courage of an exemplary sort to open them up for viewing by the public.
Dan-yr-Ogof cave entrance (photo: BeeOrchid)
The caves lay on the land of two brothers, Tony and Jeff Morgan, who made their living at nearby Dan-yr-Ogof Farm. Of course, they knew that there were caves under the rocky outcrop above their farm, as did other locals from the area, but no-one had yet explored underground. And therefore, nobody knew quite how long and deep the caves really were.
The cave openings had obviously provided shelter for animals and men at one time or another. But nobody had ventured inside – or come back out to say what they had done!
In 1912 the brothers decided to take a look at the unexplored cave system. It was a brave – some would say foolhardy – thing to do. They had no equipment and little idea of what they were liable to be facing.
Using candles to light their way, they carved arrows on the sandy floor to show them the way back out. Getting lost in an underground warren was a terrifying thought, even for brave men like the Morgan brothers.
It is easy to imagine the quiet and the stillness of the caves on the first entry of the two brothers – quiet and still apart from the constant drip of water from the roof above their heads. The candles would have given little light and what lay beyond their reassuring yellow glow was a matter of imagination.
What was revealed, even at this early stage, was an absolute wonderland of stalagmites and stalagmites – stalagmites from the floor up, stalactites (where they have to hold on tightly) from the roof downwards. Instantly, the brothers realised that they had stumbled onto something magnificent – and rare – and promptly named the caves Dan-yr-Ogof, after their farm.
Their progress, that first visit, was stopped by a large lake. It was only a temporary delay. The brothers came back, this time with coracles to paddle across the stretch of water.
Beyond the lake they discovered dozens of narrow passageways and echoing chambers. Their progress this time was halted by what became known as the tight crawl, a narrow and seemingly impassable passageway under the hill.
The narrowness of the passageway prevented further exploration of this part of the cave system until 1963 when Eileen Davies of the South Wales Caving Group managed to squeeze through. And then, beyond the obstruction, over 10 miles of caves and passages were revealed.
Ten years earlier the SWCG had blasted a way through the boulders at the mouth of a cave above Dan-yr-Ogof Farm. It revealed the great Cathedral Cave.
These days the cave system is known as the National Showcaves Centre for Wales with over 17 miles of caves available. Most of this is not open to the public; only recognised members of caving clubs are allowed into the furthest dark reaches of the caves. There are some famous parts to the cave system, notably the Long Crawl which involves courage and gymnastic ability to navigate.
Ancient man clearly knew this cave system and used it for warmth and shelter. The bones of over 40 men and women, as well as many animals, have been discovered inside, and there are probably many more waiting to be revealed.
It has been said that when fully explored – something that has not yet occurred – there could be as much as 100 miles of cave available, narrow tunnels that snake and zig-zag inside the hillside. It is a mind-blowing thought.
Dan-yr-Ogof caves are already the largest cave system in Europe. Who knows what lies waiting when they are fully explored.