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Gordon Clissold

by PCW ~, 30 May 2012

from Jem Rowland and John Harvey

I have just heard, via John Osborne and John Harvey, of the sad death, on Monday (28th May), of Gordon Clissold. Gordon was a very active member of SWCC in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. He served for a number of years as the Cave Rescue Officer, when rescue was run by SWCC itself, and also Tackle Officer.


Gordon engaged in surveying Balinka Pit in 1966

Perhaps Gordon's most significant SWCC contributions were to the two Balinka Pit expeditions in which he played a key role in relation to the 'clockwork caving' aspects - the winches etc. - and also, as a professional surveyor, to surveying the cave. He maintained his SWCC membership almost until his death.

We extend our deepest sympathies to Gordon's family at this time. Jem Rowland

Memories of Gordon. Read by John Harvey at Gordon's funeral.

I knew Gordon for over 50 years. We first met when I was a miner working in a West Wales colliery and he was a surveyor for the Ordnance Survey and the common connection was of course caving. We were both members of the South Wales Caving Club-Gordon since about 1954 and I from 1961.

He was well established in the club by the time I joined and had been the Cave Rescue Officer since 1956 where he had frequent rescue incidents to organise -usually late on a Saturday night- often involving searches for overdue caving parties but others with a more serious outcome. In the early 1960's Gordon was asked by the emerging cave rescue service of the Forest Of Dean, to advise on the formation of what is now the Glos. Cave Rescue Group - an organisation that still thrives and whose services are required where life and limb are at risk underground in both caves and mines in the Dean and South Wales.

But it was his surveying skills that were put to good use in the early 60's when he was asked by the SWCC committee to be the lead surveyor in the mammoth task of completing the survey of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave in the Swansea Valley. Its many miles of huge stream passages and intricate natural passageways all on many levels were a huge challenge and the survey was only completed after many years work. That survey is still the official version and is displayed on the walls of the common room in the club HQ at Penwyllt high in the mountains at the top of the Swansea Valley. This plan, and therefore his work, has been copied many hundreds of time and sold or given to caving groups in the UK and around the world.

Caving and pubs seem to go hand in hand and when we gathered in the Gwyn Arms in the Swansea Valley on a Saturday night, Gordon could always be persuaded to sing in his tenor voice the song Alouette and it always echoed around the pub towards the end of the evening aided of course by Evan Evans Bevan Vale of Neath Ales (or as cavers called them the Vale of Death ales as they tasted quite awful). Gordon was an accomplished and experienced singer and I'm reliably informed that he sang with the Glen Miller Band when he served in the Fleet Air Arm at the end of WW2.

Gordon's achievements in caving and underground surveying were many and varied and I've chosen one that involved us both over a 4-year period between 1962 and 1966. These were the years of the Balinka Pit expeditions to Yugoslavia where caving friends there told of a shaft high in the mountains that was exceptionally deep and had never been descended and would probably lead to a huge cave system - the dream of all cavers. At that time Yugoslavia was a communist state ruled by President Tito, but gaining permission for the expedition to explore the shaft was fairly easily obtained. The depth of the shaft was unknown and we decided to descend it using a mechanical winch or winding gear -the same as I used, in my day job in the mines. There was a mass of gear to design and build and Gordon was heavily engaged in constructing it but this effort was largely for nought as the first attempt in 1964 failed to bottom the shaft although we then knew that it was at least 750 feet deep as one of our team had descended the shaft with great difficulty. The main problem was that the shaft was not vertical so the small cage that could hold 2 people at a very tight squeeze, dragged against the rock face for most of its journey. (Later note-Bill Birchenough descended in the cage and walked it over an overhanging part of the shaft wall that was bisected by a deep crack. Bill jammed a piece of wood in the crack to prevent the cage wire rope jamming in it!).

The next attempt in 1966 was successful although the cave shaft was only 1000 feet deep with no significant cave passage at the bottom. Nevertheless it had to be surveyed and Gordon came into his element. The shaft varied in dimensions from about 6 feet square at ground level to over 100 feet in diameter and 1000 feet deep. This was some extreme surveying challenge and Gordon with his extensive experience of cave surveying coupled with the information gained from our previous expedition, devised a means of measuring the dimensions of the shaft with inspiration from a device similar to that used on the Dam Busters raid in WW2. He mounted 2 powerful spotlights on a calibrated horizontal bar so when the beams were adjusted to coincide on the shaft walls there was a direct reading of distance on a scale on the bar (see photo above). Ingenious and bear in mind that this survey work was done balanced in a tiny cage on the end of a steel wire winding rope that was only inch or 6mm diameter. Incidentally, the rope had been upgraded from the 3/16th of an inch (5mm) diameter one used in the 1964 expedition as the stretch in the rope when one stepped into the cage over a 1000 foot drop, was intimidating to say the least. Both ropes had a telephone cable as a core so allowing continuous communication between the winch operator and the person in the cage. Gordon spent many hours surveying the shaft from this precarious platform and of course produced an excellent survey.

Early in 1964 our Yugoslavian friends told us that there was a hidden purpose to our caving exploit (hence the ease in obtaining the original permission to explore the area) and that was to recover the mortal remains of 3 partisans executed in WW2 and whose bodies lay at the shaft bottom. These were recovered and the Yugoslavian government lavished awards on the club, the expedition and several key members of that expedition. These were presented by their ambassador in London and proudly displayed by the club. Shortly afterwards there was a letter from the HM government that told us that the awards might not be worn in public in the UK. Nevertheless it was the thought that counted and I know that Gordon was always immensely proud of the part he played in these expeditions.

I moved away from South Wales in the early 1970's but returned in 1975 and often met up with Gordon in the cavers' pub in Clearwell where we reminisced about our caving exploits-from the comfort of armchairs of course.

When I was appointed Deputy Gaveller in 1997 I was cataloguing the many hundreds of plans held in the office and guess whose name I came across on the bottom of several? One plan that comes to mind charted the historical tramways of the Dean but I'm sure Ian* will elaborate further, on this part of Gordon's work.

John Harvey 6 June 2012
(*Ian was the curator of the museum in which GC spent a lot of his time after retirement. Gordon was very well regarded by them.)