Pen Park Hole
Southmead, Bristol
History of Exploration (cont.)

Sturmy's account of the cave

Captain Sturmy's account, published by the Royal Society (Southwell, 1683) is as follows:


Upon the second of July 1669. I descended by Ropes affixt at the top of an old Lead Oare Pit, four Fathoms almost perpendicular, and from thence three Fathoms more obliquely, between two great Rocks, where I found the mouth of this spacious place, from which a Mine-man and my self lowered our selves by Ropes twentyfive Fathoms perpendicular, into a very large place indeed, resembling to us the form of a Horse-shoo; for we stuck lighted Candles all the way we went, to discover what we could find remarkable; at length we came to a River or great Water which I found to be twenty fathoms broad and eight fathoms deep. The Mine-man would have perswaded me, that the water Ebbed and Flowed, for that some ten fathoms above the place we now were in we found the water had (sometime) been, but I proved the contrary by staying there from three hours Floud to two hours Ebb, in which time we found no alteration of this River; besides its waters were fresh, sweet and cool, and the Surface of this water as it is now at eight fathoms deep, lies lower than the bottom of any part of the Severn Sea near us, so that it can have no community with it, and consequently neither flux nor reflux, but in Winter and Summer, as all Stagna's Lakes and Loughs (which I take this to be) has. As we were walking by this River thirty two fathoms underground, we discovered a great hollownes in a Rock some thirty foot above us, so that I got a Ladder down to us, and the Mine-man went up the Ladder to that place, and walk'd into it about three score and ten paces, till he just lost sight of me, and from thence chearfully call'd to me, and told me, he had found what he look'd for (a rich Mine;) but his joy was presently changed into amazement, and he returned affrighted by the sight of an evil Spirit, which we cannot perswade him but he saw, and for that reason will go thither no more.

Here are abundance of strange places, the flooring being a kind of white stone, Enameled with Lead Oare, and the Pendant Rocks were glazed with Salt-Peter which distilled upon them from above, and time had petrified.

After some hours stay there, we ascended without much hurt, other than by scratching our selves in divers places by climing the sharp Rocks, but four days together after my return from thence I was troubled with an unusual and violent Headach, which I impute to my being in that Vault. This is a true account of that place so much talk'd of described by me.


Thus it would seem that the discovery was of sufficient interest not only for the King to be informed, but for him to command its exploration. There are two possible explanations of this. The first is economic, in that a potential new mine would be an important source of revenue. The second, probably the most likely, in that a mariner, and an inquisitive type, rather than a mine captain was chosen to explore and report on it, is that Charles II, the first patron of the Royal Society, was "a monarch fascinated by novelty and prodigy - tropical birds, exotic fruit, scientific experiment and the academic discovery of the Avebury stone circles all equally delighted him." (R. Hutton, pers. comm., see also Hutton, 1989 pp. 448-50 for a more detailed description of the King's character and intellect.) Either way it is unlikely that the discovery would have caused much interest at court had it been mined in the relatively recent past, as suggested by Rudder (1779) and Tratman (1963).

It is easy to see why Sturmy himself was appointed to this task; he was then at court, having just presented his book, the "Mariner#39;s Magazine", to the King. This work had shown him as a diligent and reliable observer and he probably knew the area, having been born in Gloucestershire and having lived for most of his life in and around Bristol, where he was a Burgess and a prominent member of the Society of Merchant Venturers (Manwaring, 1924). Captain Sturmy's account is written in the first person, but, in fact was written for him, by a Mr. Thomas Alcock (Hooke, 1678). Four days after his descent, Sturmy suffered a severe headache, which he attributed to his being in the cave. This turned into a fever from which he died, which apparently deterred anyone from repeating his exploration for some years (Southwell, 1683). He was buried on the 21st September, at St George's Church, Easton in Gordano. There is a memorial plaque to his name in the church, near where he lived and to whom he had recently presented a copy of his book. In 1970, the local bell ringers recommenced the tradition of ringing a peal on the bells on his birthday, 5th November.

Sturmy's descent of the Hole and his subsequent death, as well as having been properly recorded, seem to have entered into local folklore, for in 1911 a newspaper article was able to quote part of a rhyming account of his adventure, including his meeting with "the Goblin of the Hole" (H.V., 1911). Only a brief extract of verse was printed but it has recently been possible to trace the full text of the poem. The full text is given here but the following quotation gives some of its flavour:


On, and still on this path they follow
Through many a chasm and gorge and hollow;
Until from a passage narrow and small
They enter what looks like a monster hall;
And then as a sudden turn they take,
They see before them a spacious lake-
There are knackers, and gnomes, and frightful shapes
From which no trespasser ever escapes.


This article goes on to describe Sturmy's meeting with the Goblin, and says that this creature predicted his early death and that of the miner, here named Dick, who accompanied him.

The conclusion is that Pen Park Hole was first discovered by quarry workers and was first descended, by Captain Sturmy, on 2nd July 1669. Sturmy's own description of the cave as an old mine therefore needs to be explained. This can be done by comparing the site with other underground sites then known. The well-known caves of any size were all horizontal stream caves, such as Wookey Hole, or Peak Cavern. The cave most similar, quite close to Pen Park Hole and incidentally, actually discovered by lead miners, is Lamb Leer in Somerset. This, however, is not known to have been descended any earlier than 1676 (Shaw, 1962) and was not therefore available as a comparison. Numerous mines of anything up to 30 fathoms (180 feet) in depth were known, however, so the comparison was obvious.

By 1682, the assumption that the cave had been discovered by miners was already being made. Sir Robert Southwell (1683) wrote, in his preamble to the publication of Sturmy's account in Philosophical Transactions, "where some Miners for lead discovering a large Hole in the Earth". That miners worked in the cave is undeniable, but at a much later date. The evidence for and dating of this will be given later.

The second known exploration was that by Captain Greenville Collins, commander of the Survey Yacht Merlin, on the 18th and 19th September 1682. Collins produced the first survey of the cave, which was published the following year, along with both his and Sturmy's descriptions (Southwell, 1683). According to Shaw (1979), this was the first survey of a natural cave to be published, although an earlier unpublished one is known, of a cave at Cheddar (Boycott, 1992).


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