THE manager of the Marble Arch Caves and Global Geopark, which takes in Cuilcagh and Navar, Richard Watson was a busy man last week as he supervised arrangements for last Sunday’s opening day to mark the 30th anniversary of the caves being opened.
But, nothing like in the days and week before the actual opening to the public on 29th May 1985 when he was spending 10-12 hours underground and had to see his doctor.
“He diagnosed a vitamin B deficiency, but once I got a bit of sunshine I was fine, but God almighty, the things that had to be done, not only by me, but by others.”
Together with Geraldine McGovern (reception), he was there from the start, having joined the staff of Fermanagh District Council six months earlier.
“I was brought in basically to get the thing up and running. In fact, the workmen were there when I started. They were there, till 2 in the morning until the night it opened, and some were still there afterwards.”
From being visited by the odd group of cavers, the new-look cave last year saw 61,000 people go through reception for the underground boat tours. “The actual work started in 1982 and was completed five months after the caves opened.
In the first phase, jetties, footpaths, handrails, stairways and, above all else, electrical lighting were installed, and weirs put in place. “All safety procedures were worked out so, all in all, it was a hectic time. I went for six months without having a day off, but it was satisfying at the same time.”
As for staff numbers, Richard quipped: “Not enough”.
“We only had six or seven and it was envisaged we might need 15 within three years, but, after the first week, we needed those 15 and we had to take staff from the Townhall.”
In the intervening years, there were only two deaths, of visitors who died naturally while at the Caves. Readers may recall an underground tragedy in 1995 when three cavers died but, as Richard explained, this was in a remote part of the cave system, not in the area covered by the centre.
As for visitor numbers – 61,000 last year, and 350,000 in the wider geopark – he firmly believes that word of mouth is still the biggest promoter. “We open around March, depending when Easter is and, in latter years, we have been running through to the end of October. “Staff-wise, we have eight full time and during the season we take on 24 full-time equivalents.
Richard, who was born in Derrin Road, Enniskillen lives with his wife, Aileen, in Monea.