By the time I reached the last cave in a series of fascinating caverns at Wookey Hole, Wells, I found myself flanked by two ladies in their seventies. Within 15 minutes of us meeting, one had told me she was having an affair and the other admitted she never wears knickers.
In my campervan (Groggy), I pulled up in the large carpark of what looked to be nothing short of a small theme park. My fears were confirmed when the next vehicle to enter the carpark was a coach carrying 59 French school children. Word of advice: The caves are exceptional but the surrounding circus is the very essence of ‘gimmick’.
Fortunately, there were enough adults assigned to my tour group that I was able to avoid wrestling any trans-Channel minors. Escorted by our informative tour guide, we trod carefully into the depths of this incredible cave system, seeing stalagmites, subterranean lakes, maturing cheddar cheese stores and a beautifully rare undulating rock formation.
The tour, which lasted less than an hour, was over too soon. I wanted to spend longer underground, exploring the darkest corners and donning an oxygen tank to follow the guide line into the black underground lake. I learnt that in the 1940’s, a few individuals accessed impossible places using primitive oxygen equipment barely recognisable as scuba gear. They adapted their basic apparatus using the likes of bicycle pumps.
Thanks to these courageous (and completely mad) pioneers, we are able to visit the caves and glimpse prehistoric geological phenomena. Fast-forward to the present day and you don’t need to be a caver or a cave diver, you simply need to be able-bodied enough to duck through a few low tunnels. My two new acquaintances (the elderly lady in the floral skirt with no underwear and the adulterous pensioner) steadily navigated the uneven cave floors.
We emerged in daylight and our recently formed trio spent a few moments talking about how we had all come to meet less than an hour before. ‘I have just returned from backpacking in Asia and I am now travelling Great Britain in my campervan’, I told them.
Floral Skirt had driven to the South because she had two grown sons who lived nearby and she had lost her husband in the January after 52 years of marriage. He had died of cancer, she told us, and she had never been anywhere or done anything on her own. She had never been abroad (not even to Wales or Scotland) and didn’t own a passport. That very morning’s solo trip to Wookey Hole was the bravest step towards independence she’d ever taken.
Toy Boy was here with her husband because it was a nice day out. Not only was she seeing a younger man without her husband’s knowledge, she also confessed to a few affairs in previous years, including having once slept with her skydiving instructor. She loved skydiving and all things aeronautical, and had enjoyed flights in a Hurricane, a Spitfire a hot air balloon and Concorde.
We were three very different women who had met by chance; strangers who had shared details of our lives without hesitation or fear of judgement. When you stand in a crowd at your child’s school or at the train station or in the local shop, how many faces do you recognise? How many silent judgements do you form subconsciously?
There are people who I saw everyday on my commute to London (brief though it was!) and I knew nothing about their lives. One or two looked stressed, most looked tired, all avoided eye contact.
For all you know, the person in the crowd beside you is a hero, or a drug dealer, or a horse whisperer and they once climbed Everest, or danced in a cheesy music video in the 80’s or solved a Rubik’s cube in record time. They may even be Britain’s most daring cave diver.
As a society, in general, we enjoy reading biographies and watching documentaries about the fascinating lives of other people. We follow their stories with admiration and awe and imagine what it would be like to meet the subjects of these travels, adventures and dramas. Why is it, then, that we avoid talking to the people around us?
I can guarantee that the next stranger you see will have a story to tell. It’s up to you if you want to know their story (it may enrich your life) or if you want to tell them your story (it may enrich theirs), but if you don’t talk, you will never get the chance to find out. We can live in our insular bubbles with our noses mere inches from a device designed for communication, or we can put down the technology and communicate the old-fashioned way.