Northern Spain Part 1

For many years, Plymouth Caving Group members have been caving in Northern Spain. This is not really surprising, seeing that just be jumping on the ferry at Plymouth, 24 hours later one is delivered on one the edge of one of the best caving areas in the World. In the 1970's members were part of British expeditions to both Cantabria and to an attempt to push the bottom of the Pierre St Matin system in the Pyreneas, straddling the French border.

In the 1980's Bob Cawthorne, who had been a member of Manchester University Speleological Society, began going to Matienzo, which MUSS had discovered in 1969. This was followed by a number of "tourist" trips organised by "Jean's Tours".

From about 1989 onwards, PCG members have been caving in Matienzo every year, and often several times a year.
The following is an account of PCG trips, extracted from the PCG Journal and elsewhere. It must be stressed that the vast majority of these were with other cavers, including British, Spanish, Dutch, Danish and others, and that in most cases we were just making a small contribution to the efforts of many.

Full details of the caves in the various areas can be found in Journals, Websites (eg the Matienzo site), and should be consulted by anyone thinking of visiting the area. Northern Spain is becoming more popular with British cavers wanting a cheap trip to do some tourist caving, particularly since the appearance of publications including a guide to the classic through-trips in Spain. New exploration in most areas of Spain is governed by a permit scheme, so is best done by joining in with an existing group already established in the area.

Any further contributions, photos etc would be welcome, particularly regarding the earlier years.


Matienzo is a depression in the province of Santander, some 20 km inland, from which there is no valley exit. This means that rivers have to travel underground. It was this feature which attracted Lank Mills of the Manchester University Speleological Society when returning to England from the MUSS expedition to the Picos de Europa in 1969. Since then successive expeditions have explored caves in an area similar in size to the Ingleborough region of Yorkshire. Matienzo wins as there are over 300 caves giving over 75 km of passage.

We joined the MUSS camp in Matienzo in August and met an ex flat-mate Barry Davies who was camping there with his wife and children. While Julie and Julie went to the beach, Barry, Lenny and I went to visit Cueva Arenal to do some digging.

There is a large entrance at the bottom of a cliff, some 15 feet wide and 60 high, narrows quickly down to a five foot square. What is of interest is the draught which can be felt thirty feet outside. The passage leads down a slope to a pool some 15' square and up to 4' deep, with lots of glutinous mud, and on good days 2" waves caused by the draught! The draught spills in to here and a low crawl in mud (8") leads to the left for some thirty feet to as higher bit. To the left were higher passages but our route led through a series of crawls, squeezes and chambers into a boulder choke. The way on was blocked by a boulder 4ft by 4ft by 1ft in a 5ft by 2ft passage, in a 45º slope, on a corner. Half an hours hammering saw Barry through but as Lenny was as much larger than me as Barry is smaller, then this was no help.

A further hour saw the boulder completely dismantled, and there we were in new territory. The passage leads for less than 100 feet before the draught becomes too elusive. I found a 25ft climb up a rift, and there before us was blackness. The disappointment was that it was a large oval chamber with all exits in broken rock. I went to go for a hole in the roof, and as I found it didn't go both handholds and footholds fell to pieces, and I did a small plummet to the floor juggling with bits of rock.

We searched every nook and cranny in a chamber about 150ft by 50ft but to no avail, the draught was gone. We departed somewhat disappointed for Barry and Lenny, but not for me - we had found 300 ft of passage.

Arenal is near the upper end of Renada, and would be useful as a short cut. The draught is so big as to indicate a huge system - it was much greater than the one we followed the day after next in Uzueka, which is 14km plus long (the day before we arrived it was only 12km!).

We emerged into evening sunlight after 6 hours of fun, and went to drink lots of bear at 33p per pint.

Bob Cawthorne.


We had promised to return and were rather surprised to find it only took one year to do so! For the record it is just 34 miles of driving from the Santander ferry terminal to Matienzo, or around £10 by taxi! (or one can get the train or bus to Beranga and walk/hitch 15 kilometres).

The party was even more mixed than last year, a few MUSS, only one original - Barry Davies, some Northern Pennine, some Derbyshire CC, Bradford PC, Disley, Birmingham University SS, about half the Ingleton CRO "A" Team, and very quietly in the corner - me. We had a couple of days in the sun aclimatising; August 1st was our wedding anniversary so 16 of us went up into the hills to an amazing restaurant. After wining and dining we returned to the Snows Bar where a game of fizz-buzz developed with penalties being drunk in Soli-Sombre, a lethal brandy/anis mix.

The following day - clutching our heads - a small party of Barry, Len, and I decided on a quiet easy trip to Cubio de la Reñada (the Foxes' lair). On hearing that it was a post-hangover trip, two other cripples, Martin and Rick, decided to join us. Unfortunately one Frank who had missed the party and was all fresh and healthy came and gave us a list of instructions of things to do and search for, and the tackle needed, etc. etc. Eventually we were ready, a 3-4 mile drive, we changed, and had no excuses left.

The snag was that only Barry had been there before, and in a post-alcohol stupor, and mindlessly following someone's boots, it took us a quarter of an hour to find the entrance which was only one hundred yards from where the car was parked. Eventually we found it and were into the old part of the cave, 400 metres long, consisting of 6' high, 20' wide, flat sandy-floored passages with the odd big chamber and side passage. We came to the point marked "FIN". Even in the wettest weather (water flowing out of the entrance) this would have meant a pool 4' deep in a passage 10' wide and 12' high.

You can see that the Spanish and the English definition of "FIN" of a cave are markedly different. In dry weather one walks past the "FIN", up a gentle slope and the chamber inside the upper entrance, fully ten metres square is entered. In searching for the way on we found most of this three or four times, eventually resorting to common sense and looking for the draught. This was located in a chamber below the upper entrance, emanating from a slot/crawl in the floor.

This is about 10' long and in it the draught coming out was easily strong enough to extinguish a King carbide lamp. I, being electrically lit, was sent through first. It led into a highish flat floored rift. A few stooping sections, one or two climbs up and down slippery slopes, walking along wide, high sand floored passages, and - we were lost again! We had discovered a climb down bypassing a 15' pitch, and had found a bypass returning us to the start! There were some muddy bits in the floor and Ric lost his wellies in a couple of places.

The elusive draught had in fact split, one crawl over pebbles led us up a climb to the head of a 30' drop. A second crawl, parallel and not ten feet away led around and down to the bottom of the same drop. This led to a rope pitch, an easy 20' slither and slide to a 10' drop. More walking along nice easy passage led us to the next obstacle - the duck. Barry cocooned in a nice furry suit etc, had assured me - in jeans and boiler suit - that this was definitely not a wet suit trip.

The duck was only 20' long with three feet of water and one foot of air space, so who was I to complain? Walking in large wide passage, a couple of short hands and knees crawls, and we were into large passage. One could now ignore wondering where the roof might be. A long slope upwards past a cairn led, after about a hundred feet, to a junction; straight on was "Blood Alley", and to the right was our route. This was Eagle Passage, fully 20' high 10' wide and containing some quite big stalagmites, stalactites and columns. This led after about 150 feet to Stuffed Monk Passage, which was really big - up to 3o' square. This contained even more spectacular pretties. We wandered along for 400 or 500 feet looking for our route - a right hand junction. This turned out to be 3' wide, 20' high and steadily descending. It too contained pretties, and we had to be careful in places to avoid damage. The far end of the passage contained our objectives, chambers leading off to the left which were reputedly not fully explored. We had a quick look at the first and third (Do not try to understand Frank's numbering).

Having decided we were in the right place and that time was against us we set off out. We left the tackle in a suitable corner for a return trip. The exit, now that the route finding had been "sussed", was quite straight forward, and we emerged into slight rain after some five hours.

The following day - Friday 3rd - was designated beach day, sun and sun and one or two tiny sea caves. We had however decided to return…

CUBIO DE LA REÑADA Saturday Aug 4th.

A larger party of ten of us chugged over to the Vega valley in the Derbyshire Caving Club truck, a BMC thing of possible GPO parentage. The party - Barry Davies, Len Gee, Martin Delamere, John New, Helen Gould, Phil Boardman, Pete Ward, Pete O'Neil, Ian Roland; mainly DCC, some MUSS - was to be followed later by another five including my cousin Pete Smith. Pete, now known as Pedro, is also ex-MUSS but is now married and resident in Spain. Our object was once again the chambers off the passage leading from the end of Stuffed Monk Passage.

Frank looked at them in order 1-2-3-4 on the survey, the second (diagrametically?) in order had not been spotted. So in fact they they are met in the left hand wall in order 1-4-2-3 (groan). The first (as met) took the most attention. It is met up a side passage, some 50' from the main passage.

The attractive feature initially of the three largest chambers was the existence of enormous gaping voids in the roof (in Northern parlance - aircraft hangers in the sky). Sure enough, on inspection, the first chamber we looked at had a completely out of sight ceiling. One possible route lay up the far left hand wall. Hand and foot holds there are aplenty, but the rock was very fractured and the climbing was not exactly safe. One lunatic pair reached a height of about thirty feet before finding some small phreatic side passages which divided and became smaller.

We had also been sent to inspect pitches going down in a rift in the floor. After some widening a suitable descent was made. This turned out to be 35' deep, ending at a blockage on all sides. To the right the chamber was some 10' wide and the way on was up over a big boulder. Flakes in the wall were suitable footholds until they too fell off. Over the boulder the passage continued for all of 15' before reaching another pitch in the floor. The way up into the roof gloom was quite unclimable. The way down was depth tested. Boom! Over one hundred feet deep. Across the pitch was a bit of a ledge, and arch, and again blackness. From being in nice friendly 20' by 30' passage with lots of pretties we were suddenly in something 200' by 10' with loose rock everywhere.

I had a look at the next junction. A window 4' up in the wall led to a small passage which went for perhaps 50' before closing down. A crawl off to the left had a draught coming out of it, but was heading straight for the 100' pitch. Not useful!

We reassembled and had a look at the next junction. Here a short crawl led to another large chamber, again with an aircraft hanger in the sky. Climbs up would require scaling poles. We did find a hole behind a boulder in the left hand wall which looked promising. A few minutes work with a lump hammer gave access to a small chamber. This had a hands and knees crawl leading off! We were away - after 40' back to the main passage. Yet another disappointment.

We had tied up a number of loose ends, found perhaps 100' of passage and a promising 100' pitch. It was time to go. We collected up the tackle and set off out. Instead of going directly out along Eagle Passage, we decided to go further along Stuffed Monk Passage and across into Blood Alley. This was amazing……….

xxx more to be added xxx

The next day was a beach day followed by a barbeque. What a grand affair! 72 of us were now on the camp, and ate our way through 35kg of steak, and large quantities of rice, potatoe, and traditional salads. We also consumed 4 dozen litres of wine, a punch containing 5 litres of spirit, and 6 crates of beer.


The next day, after the barbeque, we were woken by a hooting of horns and shouted requests for a French speaking translator. A party of French and Spanish had gone into a cave near Ramales de la Victoria some 15km away the day before. A French diver had gone into the sump at 2.00pm and had not returned. It took till 3.00am to raise the alarm. Two divers were flown from France to Bilbao, and we were requested to help. Our two divers and a back up team were soon on their way. There was then 24 hours of chaos. The cave - four shortish pitches- was rigged for SRT and our ladders were not allowed in. The distance involved lengthened from 4km to 7km.

The French were very good at preparing meals, and packs to carry underground weighing up to 70lb. Diving sets (twin 100s) were assembled on the surface. Dry gear for the dry cave, wet gear for the river sections. Food, sleeping bags, more and more time wasted.

The stretcher eventually went in 12 hours after the first team. Parties were sent in including one non-English speaking Frenchman with two broad Yorkshire non-linguists.

We kept getting bits and pieces of information as cavers came and went, returning exasperated and disbelieving.

He was eventually found in an air-bell, apparently the victim of bad air. Don't expect prompt rescue in France! (or anywhere other than GB perhaps). A back up team including some of ours went in to retrieve the body.


xxx more to be added xxx

Bob Cawthorne.


This year the Matienzo MUSS expedition was attended by PCG members Andy Bennett, Jane Evans and Alasdair Neill. Other PCG members called in for a while on their way to the Picos, and did some caving. We were accompanied on the ferry out by Phil and Lilian Romford, late of BAT Products, on their way to a new home in Portugal. They were to turn up unexpectedly in Matienzo some time later, their car having blown up not far from Santander! We arrived in Santander on 1st August, and drove over the pass of Puerto de Alisas, where we met Paul Stacey and Terry Whitaker and others, who were in search of a back entrance for Valline. This cave, of which more later, was the big discovery of the year, with over 12km discovered so far. It had been discovered a week before (23rd July), and has enormous potential, a link with Reñada seems likely. We then carried on to Matienzo and set up a new camp -on a new site, immediately behind the bar!, then went caving.


Some of us carried on for a look at a limestone area not many miles to the west of Matienzo, the Picos de Europa…

xxx more to be added xxx


The 1991 Matienzo expedition was attended by PCG members Bob, Julie and Lloyd Cawthorne, Graham Lindsay, Jeremy Masters and Alasdair Neill. The last three took the Poole to Cherbourg ferry on 6th August, then took 14 hours to drive down through France and Spain. They arrived at 3.30am, just after the bar had shut - typical! - about the normal kicking out time. The campsite was the same one used since 1989, immediately behind German's Bar - wonderful! The drinking sessions this year seemed to last longer than ever - until 3, 4, 5 or later in the morning.

On August 10th a Fiesta was held to celebrate the 21st Birthday of the Matienzo Expedition, and to thank the locals for their hospitality and help. This was held on the Passobolo pitch near the bar, and was attended by about 200 people, members of the expedition and locals. Large amounts of food and wine were followed by presentations and speeches. A bar was provided, and a Spanish band laid on which led to some rather crazy dancing. When the band finished many returned to the bar, and when finally thrown out carry-outs were taken to the barbeque fire. The last revellers were seen trying to test the strngth of the stage roof, some time after 7am! The Cawthornes were discovered asleep somewhere, not quite having made it home - and they had to drive back through France the next evening.


This year Hugh and Trish Browning and Alasdair Neill represented the Club in Spain, while the Cawthornes paid a fleeting visit on their way to find a new home in the south of the country. The summer expedition saw about fifty people present, including the Catalans and some Swedish cavers who had also visited a few years previously. In all about 4 km of new passage was discovered. This included at least two break-throughs in caves that had been looked at for years without much progress. These occurred right at the end of the expedition, leaving great scope for next year. Also further discoveries were made in the Four Valleys System on just a handful of trips - mostly at no great distance from the entrance. In fact no major system saw any pushing at the end of the cave.


The PCG were represented by Ali, Hugh, Trish, and the Cawthornes. As well as some pleasant tourist caving trips, much new cave was found (largely in Papa Noel) and a number of new sites were found. Exchange rates make the cost of living in Spain away from the tourist resorts incredibly cheap, so many of us ate in various local restaurants most nights at bargain prices.


Over about four weeks this summer saw caving by at Matienzo by a small number of cavers, with the usual families etc in tow, probably about 50 people come and go, mainly from Britain, with some Canadians, a Dane and our Catalan friends joined us for the last week of the expedition. The PCG were again represented by Ali and the Cawthornes. Over 1.5 km of new passage was discovered. Bob and Lloyd Cawthorne were out from the start and managed to locate a considerable number of new caves, and visited Agua, Arenal, Coberruyo, Patatal, Comediante and other caves. Bob's brother Ted travelled out on the same ferry from Plymouth as Ali.

Added 23-10-04 CGS