Jonny McCambridge: The stalactite which I have never forgotten

There are few things which stay with you throughout life as clearly as a childhood memory.

Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 6:00 am

While I may struggle to remember events which occurred last month, or last week, or even this morning, the water remains clear in my recollection of many happenings from early years. Or, to put it another way, a persistent version of those events, whether entirely accurate or not, remains firmly stored somewhere within my brain.

It is for this reason that I suspect, when I am older and my mind has begun to fail, that it is these earliest memories which will be among the last things to go.

As a boy growing up in north Antrim in the 1970s and 80s there were few things which aroused as much excitement as a school trip. To the well-travelled youths of later generations these may appear as modest and quaint affairs. There were no skiing trips or weekends away at camps back then. It was a day trip to a local visitor attraction on a coach. But, for me, with my narrow spectrum of experience, such occurrences seemed impossibly exotic.

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The magnificent Marble Arch caves stalactite

I remember three school trips from primary school.

There was the day my class went to the Grand Opera House to watch Joseph and ended up so bored by the whole affair that, sitting in the upper tier, we amused ourselves by dropping pieces of popcorn onto the heads of the audience sitting below, earning some of us a stern rebuke from our teacher.

There was the day we went to Belfast Zoo and I left my pocket money on the coach. When we reached the confectionery booth and I realised my error, I was saved from being reduced into a blubbering mess of tears in front of my classmates by a kind trainee teacher, Miss Hegarty, who lent me money so I could buy a packet of Rolos. I duly gave her the last one.

But the trip which left the deepest impact was the day we went to the Marble Arch caves in Fermanagh in P7. Much of the magic of that sunny day was in the excitement of sitting beside my best friends on the bus journey. Then, in what seemed to us to be an act of almost Homeric daring, we descended steps which took us under the surface of the earth and crossed the black water of an underground river in a little boat.

I was fascinated by the shapes which had been created in the caves, the effect of how water can alter stone over many thousands of years. The creamy rocks shone under the artificial lights and I was left with the impression that the surface was like warm clay which could be finessed and manipulated under my hand. What we were seeing was the illusion of change which had taken place in the stone over countless years being presented to our imagination as if it was happening rapidly. It was too much for a juvenile mind to consider that a stalagmite or stalactite may grow by as little as 1mm over a century.

The jewel of the caves was a huge stalactite which hung like a giant icicle or a great spear in the main chamber. But something was not right. A large chunk had been chipped off the end, leaving the impression of a tusk which had been crudely broken.

Our guide, who was called Johnny, explained to my class that a group of vandals had broken into the caves in 1984 and thrown stones at the formations, knocking the tip off the great stalactite. A workman had discovered the broken end intact in the water below the next day. Johnny told us that scientists were trying to formulate a solution which would enable them to re-attach the tip, but also ensure that the stalactite would continue to grow.

As we left the cave on that distant day my mind was filled by the story I had just been told, a troubling feeling of how something which had been created and shaped over hundreds of millions of years could be forever altered within seconds by an act of brutality.

In the summer of 2021 we are again holidaying close to home due to Covid. As I drive towards the caves that I last visited almost four decades ago, I can sense an anxiety within my son about the prospect of going underground. So I tell him my old memory about the stalactite and the vandals. The story captures his attention in the same way that it did for me. He begins to show interest in what is ahead.

Soon, our eyes are adjusting to the half-light and the little camera on my phone is struggling to do justice to the majesty of the stone formations. Every so often my son will point out a stalactite and ask if that is the one which was broken. Over and over I shake my head.

Then, as we are about to leave, our guide Ross gathers our group on the steps and shines a light at a huge drooping pale stalactite. I see that it is whole and my son excitedly clutches at my arm.

Ross tells us the story about the vandals. This time there is a new ending. He tells us that a team of scientists at the Ulster Museum created a solution using calcite to reattach the tip. It looks seamless to me, although the truth is that it might be a few thousand years before it is known for sure if the formation will continue to grow.

Then, for the second time in my life, I find myself emerging from the caves blinking as I readjust to the natural sunlight. Again, I am thinking about the giant stalactite. This time my son is with me.

‘Daddy,’ he asks. ‘Why did the vandals throw stones at the stalactite?’

‘I have no idea son.’

He is a little quiet as we drive back to our hotel. I like to think that he is considering what he has seen, digesting the information somewhere within his brain. I hope that a special memory has been created for him. A memory which will prove as resilient and permanent as the stalactite in the cave.