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Monday, 22 February 2016

University of 3rd AgeIn the Footsteps of Norbert Carteret

Tod U3A, with speaker Professor Ian Barclay

On 18th February, 132 members of Todmorden U3A attended the talk given by Professor Ian Barclay about his expedition as a young man to the Grotte de Casteret in the Pyrenees. It was a chilly day in Todmorden, but not half as chilly as it was in the Pyrenees when the intrepid (and possibly barmy) Norbert Casteret put a candle and some matches under his rubber diving cap and went sump diving in freezing water in unknown caves without light and without SCUBA gear. They were made of stern stuff in 1928 when Casteret discovered the cave named after him.

Evidently, Norbert Casteret and his wife, Elisabeth, were of a similar bent. She was an adventurer in her own right, and meeting Casteret simply allowed her to enjoy the dangers of caving and mountaineering in good company. Professor Barclay emphasised their toughness with a series of photographs that showed them in stout boots and a sensible pullover in icy conditions with few other accoutrements as if they were out for a stroll. There was no sign of what we would call protective clothing: no goretex, no fleeces, no hard helmets, no lights for pitch dark caves. They did have rope, however, hemp rope, and plenty of it – all the better for absorbing water. Nothing like dragging 200 feet of waterlogged rope around an icy unexplored cave!

Professor Barclay's own youthful expedition to Casteret's cave was better equipped. Nevertheless, as one that went in 1965, it lacked the hi-tech gear we associate with modern explorers. He had sponsorship, however: Fray Bentos threw in some bully beef, and he and his friends combined that with dehydrated vegetables and potatoes (which they grew heartily sick of). And whereas Casteret was just exploring for exploration's sake, Professor Barclay had a scientific mission – to collect chough droppings from the cave entrance and bring them back for analysis at the University of Leicester. (Apparently, they hoped to solve the mystery of what choughs found to eat in such a barren landscape.)

As you may imagine, Professor Barclay's tone was often engagingly self-deprecating, but when he spoke about the caves themselves he was evidently still excited by and in awe of them after so many years. He gave us a quick account of the origins of the Pyrenees, as limestone deposits that have become mountains through tectonic movements, and showed us how remarkably similar the landscape of northern Spain is to that of Todmorden. That's because the Yorkshire Dales are formed from the same geological stratum as the Pyrenees.

And so, to the caves. Starting in Ordessa National Park in Spain, Professor Barclay's group based themselves in Torla, from which they walked the long valley leading to their destination. They noted the frequent waterfalls tumbling from the cragsides (more echoes of Todmorden), one of which would, many years ago, have issued from the cave they were headed for. They paused in the Goriz refuge hut where they enjoyed some awful wine; they admired the Breche de Roland, and they proceeded to their cave.

Although the cave is south facing, even in summer the approach is a snowy one, and once you arrive there is a rockfall to clamber through at its western entrance. (Moreover, you have to remember to collect your chough droppings.) But once inside, you are presented with a Main Hall of crystalline splendour with a floor of solid ice at least 100 feet deep. In the centre of the tower is a Crystal Tower of ice formed by water and snow dripping and falling through a hole in the roof, a tower which collapses every 10-15 years and which slowly rebuilds itself. On his visit, Professor Barclay was lucky to find the tower standing, as fallen lumps of ice suggested it was on the edge of collapse.

A tiny space leads down a frozen waterfall from which one can proceed to the exit from the cave on the eastern side of the mountain. Descending the waterfall, however, requires a ladder, one which was constructed by Professor Barclay's expedition from aluminium tubing 'loaned' by a factory in Bacup.

This really interesting lecture was concluded by an account of 'The Blue Dye Incident'. On leaving the caves and walking back through France, the mayor of a small town entertained them one night. He mentioned the fact that the town fountain had recently mysteriously turned blue for a short period of time. Professor Barclay expressed bewilderment. Actually, it was proof that the blue dye he and his friends had been asked to pour into some mountain streams on behalf of a project researching the course that Pyrenean water might take had eventually made its way into France. More recent research involving isotopes has shown that Pyrenean water reaches as far as Paris and the Canary Islands, evidence of a massive limestone system of underground water courses.

U3A is grateful to our February speaker: not only did he furnish us with an enjoyable talk, but he left us with a reflection that a mountaineer, whom we probably consider an athlete of outstanding strength and stamina, goes up and then has the pleasure of coming down; whereas, a speleologist will become exhausted by crawling downwards through small, wet, dark spaces only to have to climb upwards to get out. Perhaps we won't be so grumpy in future when we climb up to the Tops for a good blow.

Three new groups were announced: yoga, golf and mah-jong. Peter Gibson spoke about the excellent Talking Newspaper for Todmorden, and The Town Twinning Association is taking bookings from anyone who might want to visit Bramsche for 8 enjoyable days in the middle of a German beer festival.

Our next speaker is Penny Dean whose talk on Thursday, March 17th is titled 'Small in a Big Person's World'. Our contact details are (website) www.u3atod.org.uk, (email) enquiries@u3atod.org.uk or (phone) 01706 839175.

Many thanks to Anthony Peter for this report


Previous U3A reports on the HebWeb

HebWeb News:Gallivanting on Public Transport - a Bus Pass from Berwick to Land's End (30 September 2015)

HebWeb News: Magna Carta - A (Mostly) Light-hearted look at 800 Years of History (1 September 2015)

HebWeb News: Summat a' Nowt - talk by Steve Murty (28 April 2015)

HebWeb News: My Convict Ancestors (12 April 2015)

HebWeb News: Aquaponics Lab - A Radical Solution (16 January 2015)

HebWeb News: British Professional Cycling – Tykes and Le Tour de France (11 December 2014)

HebWeb News: Life in La Serenissima, Venice - Kathryn Ogden (9 July 2014)

HebWeb News: University of the Third Age: The Machine that Changed the World (25 February 2014)

HebWeb News: University of the Third Age: Music and the Deaf (12 February 2014)

HebWeb News: University of the Third Age: Psychology and You - Part Two David Groves made a welcome return as a speaker at the October Todmorden U3A (26 October 2013)

HebWeb News: Hebden Bridge Little Theatre, A Short History was recounted by Ray Riches to the University of the Third Age. (28 Aug 2013)

HebWeb News: John Sheard, retired land agent to the Duke of Devonshire, gave his third talk to members of the U3A, this time on Sir Joseph Paxton, Knighted Gardener (26 July 2013)

HebWeb News: Off Stage Choices: Andrew Rawlinson recounts his theatre experience from Tod Operatic to General Manager of a leading Theatre Group. (18 July 2013)

HebWeb News: The Story of the Hebden Bridge Calendar (April 2013)

HebWeb News: Changing Times in the Press (March 2013)

HebWeb News: Cancer from Both Sides (Nov 2012)

HebWeb News: Steve Halliwell outlined the history of the Woodland Trust (Sept 2012)

HebWeb News: Ray Riches talks on Walking the Pacific Crest Trail (Aug 2012)

HebWeb News: Pitch and Pythagoras - Pulse and Prison (July 2012)

HebWeb News - Lord Shutt explains the workings of the House of Lords (May 2012)

HebWeb News - Claire Benedict talks acting to Todmorden U3A (April 2012)

HebWeb News - Kate Moreton-Deakin spoke about her day job as Associate Director - Corporate Social Responsibility with Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust. (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Fair Trade Movement (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Fancy a cruise to the Antarctic? (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Gail Allaby, U3A's Queen of the Underworld (Dec 2011)

HebWeb News - September meeting report - Report of meeting about Walking the Pacific Crest Trail

HebWeb News - August meeting report - Bolton Abbey

HebWeb News - May and June meeting report - Keep Learning: Live long and prosper and the role of the Lord-Lieutenant

HebWeb News - April meeting report - Belt and Braces - An Everyday Guide to Risk and Chance

HebWeb News - March meeting report - Growing Old in the Twenty-First Century

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