Shining a light on Buxton’s underground emergency service

Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation. Photo contributed.
Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation. Photo contributed.

They’re an emergency service that only get called out around six times a year.

Crews have gone to the aid of more than 400 people, as well as dozens of animals.

Yet this Buxton-based organisation receives no funding and very little recognition for the life-saving work they do.

They are the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation.

Volunteers made headlines last week when they rescued three cavers from Gautries Hole, at Perryfoot, near Sparrowpit, after they became trapped underground by rising floodwater.

But there was nothing unusual about the call out for members, who did not flinch at diving into the cave and guiding the cavers using breathing apparatus through the flooded section.

One of the first teams of it’s kind in the country, Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation was founded more than 60 years ago, in 1952, by a group of cavers.

It lists 150 experienced cavers as members, of which 50 are core members, and even predates the Peak District Mountain Rescue Team.

Since their creation, they have been called out more than 360 times to operations in and around Derbyshire, as well as provided support as far afield as Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and south Wales.

One of 15 teams in the UK, members are predominantly tasked with rescuing trapped or injured cavers, but they also help those who are lost or too exhausted to get back to the surface.

In addition, volunteers provide assistance to tourists who have fallen ill in show caves, searches for missing persons and save dogs, sheep and calves who have fallen down disused mine shafts.

In the past, the volunteers have rescued a bull who wandered into a cave in Kniveton, a goat who fell down a shaft in Elton and a dog who had marooned itself swimming along the shoreline of Ladybower Reservoir.

The organisation, which includes teachers, outdoor instructors, shop keepers, businessmen, engineers and students, see themselves as self help insurance for cavers.

It was not uncommon for the group to come to the aid of its own members.

Chairman Bill Whitehouse, who joined the organisation 50 years ago and is one of the team’s six controllers, said: “It’s not an unsafe hobby. It’s not as dangerous as people perhaps think. But if anybody or anything gets into bother underground, we’ll do our best to get them out.”

He explained that the extent of call outs could vary greatly, for example in September, 50 members spent eight hours rescuing a solo caver who had fallen and broken her heel at the James Hall Mine in Castleton.

Although injuries are often minor, such as a broken ankle, rescues are complicated by the fact they are carried out both underground and underwater.

As mobile phones do not work underground, the alarm is raised either by a member of a party of cavers who has safely surfaced or by family and friends who report cavers as “overdue” if they are late to return from the expedition.

One of the controllers, who are each on call for two-month stints, then presses a button which sends a text message to all members.

Operating from a garage at Buxton Fire and Rescue Centre, on Staden Lane, the group meet monthly for training in first aid, breaking down rocks and using special communications equipment.

The charity, although manned by volunteers, requires about £6,000 to operate every year, due to the high level of wear and tear on equipment, and relies solely upon donations.

Although the organisation provides a lifeline for hundreds of people every year, it is seldom placed in the limelight. They truly are the underground emergency service.

To make a donation, or apply to become a member, visit