Tragic Incident: The Loss of Keith Potter in the Wookey Hole Cave

Incident LocationDiver’s Full Name
England, Wookey HoleKeith Potter

Welcome to Wookey Hole, a small village nestled in the beautiful Mendip Hills just outside the historic city of Wells. With a population of just 450, this tranquil village seems like an idyllic escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. But there’s more to Wookey Hole than meets the eye. This is the Wookey Hole Disaster of 1981.

Exploring Wookey Hole

Sandwiched between the Somerset Levels and the Mendips, Wookey Hole village offers lovely places to explore. In high summer, Wookey Hole Village is thronged with visitors, all seeking entrance to the showcase, not to mention the glorious mix of scenery with the hills having woodland and reservoirs, where you can find habitats for wildlife. Have you ever felt the magnetic pull of a place that seems to have a personality all of its own? That’s exactly how Keith Potter, a fellow OUCC diver, felt when he first discovered the small and secluded town.

Keith’s Fascination with Wookey Hole

So Keith, there was something about this town that set it apart from all the others. Perhaps it’s the way the sunlight filters through the trees, casting a warm and inviting glow over everything. Or maybe it’s the way the river that flows through the heart of the town glistens and sparkles in the sunlight, tempting you to take a refreshing dip. But as mentioned before, there’s more to this town than just its picturesque scenery. For Keith, the real allure lay beneath the surface. As an experienced cave diver, he was drawn to the hidden depths of the nearby caves and underground rivers, eager to explore their mysteries and secrets. And as we follow in Keith’s footsteps, we too begin to uncover the hidden wonders of this town that he was so mesmerized by. From the dry massive caverns to the beautiful submerged sections, Keith knew this town was a true gem waiting to be discovered.

Keith Potter: A Man of Many Talents

Young, charming, and smart are all words used to describe Keith Potter. On paper, he seemed to have a one-way ticket to a successful life filled with dreams and aspirations. Being only 22 years old, he was a man of many talents. Outside of caving, his scholarship in medicine at Exeter College, Oxford, was surely the first step towards realizing his ambition to become a consultant physician. To those in the Oxford University Cave Club and others who knew him, his limitless enthusiasm not only for life but for expeditions, be they to Mendip, Yorkshire, or Spain, was unmatched. Keith’s contribution to caving, especially in the OUCC, was enormous. During the 1980 expedition to Posa Del Shitu, he took part in many pushing trips, offering his companions encouragement and showing determination to continue where others were prepared to turn back. Even in the most difficult circumstances, he retained his humor while remaining absolutely reliable. Most notably, in 1981, after emerging from a 35-hour pushing trip into severe passages, in which he sustained a knee injury and suffered agonizing friction sores in his groin, Keith was the first to reach G2’s terminal sump. Despite being injured, tired, and thoroughly wet, he showed his determined character by spending hours searching for a bypass. Without Keith, the Oxford University Cave Club might still be trying to bottom the G2 cave. Keith never took unnecessary risks. Indeed, his thoroughness and caution in unexplored passages could frustrate those less experienced team members carried away with exploration fever. But that is exactly what made him an excellent cave diver, which brings us to the Wookey Hole cave.

Cave Diving: The Origins

Keith still had one more year to go before finishing the pre-clinical part of his medical training and decided what better way to unwind from the pressure and stresses of medical school than by taking a respite trip to Wookey Hole on November 15th, 1981. Cave diving was in its infancy during the 1930s. In the beginning, explorers did not look at cave diving as a form of sport or a diving method. Rather, it was more of a means to reach a specific end. While dry caving, particularly in the United Kingdom, dates back hundreds of years, the water-filled sections of many caves kept explorers from making progress. In the case of the Wookey Hole caves, the original dive crew’s goal was simply to get through the cave, bypass the water, and reach the next dry section. Thus, cave diving was born as a technique used to further cave expeditions and has since transformed into both an activity and exploration tool in its own right.

The Pioneers of Wookey Hole Cave Diving

The first divers to take the plunge in Wookey Hole on July 14th, 1935, were Graham Balcombe and Penelope Powell, affectionately known as Mossy. It is worth noting that Powell was the only female diver on the team and today is considered one of cave diving’s unsung pioneers. Unfortunately, she has been left out of several surface-level records, including the Wookey Hole caves Wikipedia page, which states that fellow crew member Jack Shepherd, not Powell, made the first dive with Balcombe. Powell and Balcombe’s first dive had them wearing the standard diving equipment at the time, which included brass helmets, chest plates, canvas suits, and lead boots. They had to walk on their hands and knees along the cave floor in near-zero visibility, dragging their breathing hoses and lifelines behind them as the unsettled silt flew all around them. Luckily, the details about the equipment they wore were well documented, and we have a fair understanding of what their dives likely looked like. It is interesting to note that the suits worn back then were made for male Navy divers, and Powell’s did not fit her as it should. To fix the problem, tape was used in various places to ensure her suit was properly sealed.

Keith Potter’s Exploration

With a goal of further exploring the Wookey Hole caves in mind, the divers set up a base in the third chamber and eventually made their way past the previously discovered fourth chamber to the fifth, sixth, and seventh chambers. They were unable to go any farther as their base-fed airlines and weighted equipment restricted them from traveling more than 61 meters or 200 feet. Cave diving originated there with Powell and Balcombe. Since then, thousands of tourists and very few divers have traveled to Wookey Hole in hopes of discovering more than their predecessors and pushing the boundaries of technical cave diving. One such diver was Keith Potter.

The Fateful Journey

Keith Potter and fellow OUCC members arrived at Wookey Hole on November 14th, 1981, hoping to push the boundaries of this undiscovered cave. The team parked their vehicles and began the trek to the cave. The parking lot is located at one end of the village, so in order to reach the cave, it must be crossed by foot, which is about a 10-minute walk. The first part of the village is full of shops, kiosks, and fish and chips. Then, at the paper mill, the Wookey Hole theme park starts. The cave tour is only one of numerous features of this theme park. The cave is on the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills and is the resurgence that drains the southern flanks of North Hill and Pen Hill. It is the second-largest resurgence on Mendip, with an estimated catchment area of 46.2 square kilometers or 17.8 square miles and an average discharge of 789 liters or 208 US gallons per second.

The Journey Into Wookey Hole Cave

The caves have been used by humans for around 45,000 years, demonstrated by the discovery of tools from the Paleolithic period along with fossilized animal remains. Wookey Hole lies in the same Limestone Ridge as the famous Gorge Cave, only a few kilometers to the south. The limestone is covered by a layer of dolomitic breccia, which is less prone to solution. There are fewer cracks, and the chemistry of dolomite is different from limestone, which makes it a little less soluble. This difference explains many details of the cave formation. With helmets on, Keith and the OUCC team began the penetration of the cave. The entrance to the Wookey Hole cave is on the right side of the valley, which means it is at the end of a gorge cut into the limestone by the River Axe. As the team stepped into this natural wonder through Chamber One, they were immediately mesmerized by the River Axe that gracefully flows through the cave, creating a stunning and unique landscape that left them awestruck for the eyes, but also a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) for both biological and geological reasons, due to the Britier limestone. The River Ax is formed by the water entering the cave system and flows through the third and first chambers. From Chamber 1, it flows to the Resurgence through two sumps, the first being 40 meters or 130 feet, and the second being 30 meters or 98 feet long, where it leaves the cave and enters the open air. The river is maintained at an artificially high level and falls a couple of meters when a sluice is lowered to allow access to the ninth chamber and beyond. It should be noted that the first part of the cave, as far as the third chamber, is open to tourists and lit by permanent electric lighting, but beyond that, it is accessible only to cave divers who, as I mentioned, have still not probed all its secrets.

Setting Up Camp in the Third Chamber

The first and second chambers pose no difficulty for Keith and the OUCC, and they navigated through them with ease. Upon reaching the third chamber, the team set up camp, following in the footsteps of many previous explorers who had rested there. Chamber 3, or the “Parlor,” is famous for its size, a huge solution dome dissolved by the groundwater when the water level was much higher in the past. After setting up camp in the third chamber, the team prepared their diving equipment and went over the plan to ensure that everyone was up to date on the purpose of the exploration, which was to explore the deepest recesses of the cave located in Chamber 25.

Keith’s Ulterior Motives

In addition to diving as far as possible, the team also planned to map new undiscovered sections of the cave. Unbeknownst to the group, Keith had ulterior motives for the dive. With all checks in place, the group continued deeper into the cave, equipped with their diving gear for the sumps further down. Subsequent chambers presented a stark contrast to Chambers 1 and 2. From here on out, the chambers were characterized by low and narrow clefts. Starting from Chamber 3, tight tunnels connected the subsequent chambers to each other. The total length of passages in this area was about 820 meters or 2690 feet. The group navigated through the twisting tunnels, maneuvering past the narrow squeezes of Chambers 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 until they arrived at Chamber 9, also known as the Cathedral.

Keith’s Curiosity and Determination

The sense of anticipation and curiosity about what lies ahead is a feeling that most cavers experience, and Keith was no exception. Today, though, he was driven by an especially strong urge to venture further than ever before into Wookey Hole, eager to uncover new mysteries in its depths. This may be due to the fact that Keith had heard rumors of a hidden underground river system that flowed deep beneath the caverns of Wookey Hole. Unaware of the exact location, he spent countless hours studying maps and reading about the geological formations that lay beneath the surface. He was convinced that he was on the brink of a groundbreaking discovery.

Keith’s Ill-fated Dive

After regrouping in Chamber 9, without waiting on the group, overcome with a youthful bliss, Keith inserted his mouthpiece and proceeded to attempt the sump dive between the 9th and 19th chambers along a 200-foot, but now well-traversed, route which he had successfully navigated before but never gone beyond, which he was determined to change. There are two routes through the sump, and Keith set off first through the lower, deeper passage, leaving Martin Farr, one of the best cave divers in the country, to follow along the shallower route.

Keith’s Fatal Decision

Overcome with excitement of the unknown and emboldened by his previous experience diving the sump, Keith threw all caution to the wind, ready to navigate the passage with an intense surge of adrenaline coursing through his body. As he hurried and viciously pumped his legs through the passage, the speed of his movements made him increasingly light-headed, while drastically increasing his heart rate. Suddenly, his vision was engulfed in total darkness, as if a switch had been flipped. As Keith pushed deeper into the sump of the cave system, his sense of excitement began to give way to fear and uncertainty.

Keith’s Struggle for Survival

He swam uphill from the elbow of the sump, which was 70 feet deep. The water grew colder, and the current stronger, making it increasingly difficult for him to swim. As a result, he couldn’t breathe in enough air to sustain the strenuous exertion on his body. His lungs burned for air, but he refused to turn back, convinced that he was so very close to the end of the sump—a wishful way of thinking that was attributed to the disorientation he was experiencing. Despite his growing desperation, Keith continued to press on until he could no longer ignore the warning signs of his body. He was beginning to shut down. His vision began to blur beyond a point of no return, and his muscles grew weak. Rather than taking a break, he made the ill-fated decision to push on. He was determined to make it to the end of the sump, reaching airspace in the 19th chamber and continuing his exploring until he found the underground river. In the end, Keith gave it all he got until there was nothing left to give.

Keith’s Tragic End

His determination proved to be his downfall. His lungs were completely depleted of air, causing him to essentially suffocate to death. When Farr finally reached the end of the sump, he discovered Keith lying in 10 feet of water, motionless, with his air tank mouthpiece floating free. Keith was in plain sight of airspace at the very end of the flooded section. Farr immediately dove to retrieve him, and other members of the group soon joined in the rescue effort. They desperately attempted artificial respiration for nearly an hour, but unfortunately, it was too late, and Keith had already passed away.

The Aftermath

In a panic, the group rushed out of the cave system, exiting the left side of the valley close to the spring of the River Ax, below a steep limestone cliff face. The way back is following a tree-lined canal path, a trail along the paper mill canal, which was built in 1857. After reaching their vehicles, they called for help, and the body recovery for Keith Porter began. Keith’s funeral was located in Wedmore, not five miles from where he died. To those in the Oxford University Cave Club and others who knew him, his death remained almost incomprehensible. Not even his funeral, held near his parents’ home at Wedmore, really brought home the fact that the Oxford University Cave Club would never see him bounding into the bar during a midweek club meeting or share his limitless enthusiasm for future trips.

The Memorial Plaque

Although the OUCC had all agreed to a Richter Memorial in honor of Keith, they felt a little uneasy about doing so because they remembered how Keith himself had been dismissive of a similar plaque commemorating a caver in Black Shiver Pot, Yorkshire. Keith had once said that the caves were permanent while cavers were transitory. Despite their reservations, the group ultimately decided to place the memorial at the bottom of Jitu’s steep entrance climb, where it would be visible to future cavers. The plaque was crafted from stainless steel and bore the following inscription: “1139 meters, Keith Potter, who died diving in Wookey Hole, 14/11/81, the first man to bottom this cave.”


What is Wookey Hole?

Wookey Hole is a small village located in the Mendip Hills near Wells, known for its beautiful scenery and caves.

Why is Wookey Hole famous?

Wookey Hole is famous for its cave system, which has been explored by divers for many years. It is also a popular tourist attraction.

Who was Keith Potter?

Keith Potter was an experienced cave diver and member of the Oxford University Cave Club. He was fascinated by the caves in Wookey Hole.

What happened to Keith Potter?

Keith Potter tragically lost his life while diving in the sump of the Wookey Hole cave system in 1981.

Is Wookey Hole open to visitors?

Yes, Wookey Hole is open to visitors who can explore the accessible parts of the cave system and enjoy the surrounding natural beauty.

Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
All diving accidents