Reports came in late on Wednesday 27 May 2020 that Helen Farr (nee Rider) had passed away earlier in the day at her home in Llangattock, South Wales. Her death was unexpected and sudden.
Helen Farr was "a massively committed and active cave diver" of two decades. Although you might not realise it, you will have probably seen her photo in a diving magazine, a mainstream newspaper, a cave diving book (such as the iconic 'The Darkness Beckons', third edition) or featured in a presentation.
Helen was 100% committed to the sport [cave diving]. Richie Stevenson, Underwater cinematographer
A chance encounter
The mid 1990's was an exciting time for technical diving in the UK. Leading divers were positively embracing twinsets / doubles and breathing the new technical gas, Nitrox. A number of like minded individuals formed geographical dive teams - the Northern Gas Team and Starfish Enterprise. This enabled the team to be able to hire hard boats and experienced skippers so that they could explore the deeper 'technical' wrecks off the British coast.
Teresa Telus was a southern-based diver, hence she was a member of Starfish Enterprise. She recalls meeting Helen Rider at Wittering Divers when Teresa was getting her twinset filled.
"Helen was a keen PADI Advanced Open Water Diver at the time and came over and introduced herself to me as there were very few women about diving twins, and she wanted to know what I was diving. That was Helen all over, inquisitive, matter of fact and I think she liked the idea of adventure. We became good friends although I can’t remember us diving together because we took different paths."
Helen loved 'wet rocks'
Small encounters like this can make an impact on an engaged diver. It was a time when more adventurous travel was beginning to open up. Divers with money and an interest in twinset nitrox diving were looking for different places to dive and train. Respected cave photographer and CDG diver Gavin Newman was teaching PADI cavern-diving speciality courses in the Balearic Islands. This was an ideal base for Gavin - warm water, good viz and access to some useful caverns. Gavin Newman's courses were popular, and in May 1998 one of his students was a banker who worked at HSBC. Helen Rider. She passed her cavern course at S’Algar Diving in Menorca, and in the process caught the 'wet rocks' bug. Helen never lost her love for cave diving.
Helen was very proud of the training she did with Richie Stevenson. It put her in good stead. Jason Pepper, cave diver
"Helen Farr pushed us, as she pushed herself. More importantly she became our friend" O'Three Drysuits
A year later, Helen Rider was France bound with Gavin Newman and Richie Stephenson to do her full IANTD cave course. Richie was one of the first UK technical diving trainers. He founded Deep Blue Diving in 1996, and was based out of Congleton, Cheshire. Amongst other things, he taught Trimix, Cave and DPV IANTD courses. The cave diving community is a small one - everyone knows each other - so it was quite natural for Richie Stevenson and Gavin Newman to team up in 1999 to run cave training in the Dordogne / Lot area in France. The two men had come up with a fun idea. Train with Richie and get your photograph taken by Gavin. " We had some great times diving in France." Richie Stevenson.
Helen wasn't really a wreck diver, she was very much a cave person. Richie Stevenson, Underwater cinematographer
I was a contemporary of Helen and know from personal experience that IANTD UK qualifications were earned the hard way. You couldn't cut your ticket off the back of a Cornflake packet. If you wanted it, you have to work at it to earn your good quality diving skills. Helen did.
"Helen was massively committed, into it, and very determined. We had tears and everything on her courses. She wanted to be the best she could be. This style of diving didn't come naturally to her, and she put herself through the mill to get her cave qualifications. Helen was very passionate, and she spent her free time 100% committed to the sport." Richie Stevenson.
I was taken by her energy and enthusiasm. Vas Proud
Meeting Martyn Farr
Dateline: Saturday night of the London Dive Show, 2002. The location: the Novotel Bar, Docklands. I along with a number of the usual suspects who were exhibiting at LIDS were gathered in the bar, telling long stories about short dives. Included in the group was world-renowned cave explorer Martyn Farr. Helen Rider came over to join us. It didn't take long for Martyn and Helen to start chatting over a beer because they were both mad about cave diving. The pair were to have a strong and productive partnership for 18 years. They married in August 2011.
Helen Farr photographed in Shatter Cave, on the Mendip Hills England, by Peter Glanvill
The Cave Diving Group
Helen was an outstanding international cave diver who was well respected across the global cave diving community. CDG
The Cave Diving Group is the oldest dive club in the world - it was founded in 1946. The club has four 'sections' located where there are caves in the UK. The sections are Derbyshire, Northern, Somerset and Welsh. Each section takes its turn to host the AGM and the annual dinner.
Helen Farr was a member of the Welsh section of the Cave Diving Group. Helen was not only a caver and cave diver, she enthusiastically gave back to the cave community, by serving in a voluntary capacity on the CDG Central Committee, as the Treasurer.
Martin Grass, Chairman of the Cave Diving Group said "Helen's background was in banking and she controlled the finances superbly. She had done this since 2007, providing excellent financial guidance to the Group for the last 13 years. We are going to miss her because she was an asset on the committee. She helped organise the Welsh section dinners and AGM and she did an excellent job."
...a force to be reckoned with...cave diving has lost a profound woman. Mandy Hammond, Light Monkey
"Helen was sporty, and willing to try anything and push herself. She was a very competent caver. We had some good trips together. I remember one trip we did together in St Cuthbert's Swallet. This is the second longest, and most complex, cave on the Mendip Hills, Somerset. Helen and I ended up exploring in the Maypole series, where there is quite a lot of rope work and abseiling. It was a fun day." Martin Grass
Helen Farr diving Jug Hole in Florida, USA by Jill Heinerth
A Passionate Diver
Helen Farr was a diver who was female, not a female diver. There is a fundamental difference. We are divers first and foremost. Our sex is irrelevant. Refreshingly, Helen Farr also didn't have an ego. She didn't need to make social media posts saying 'look at me, a female cave diver, and what I'm achieving', even though she was naturally involved in some really interesting cave exploration.
"One of the things that always struck me about Helen was that there was never any question that she was a passenger on Martyn's adventures. She was always a passionate participant", remarked Jim Standing of Fourth Element. "She behaved under the preposition that you didn't have to 'make note' that women were doing this kind of diving. It was perfectly normal. She was a diver, not a female diver. In her own way she did a lot for women in diving."
She was a diver, not a female diver. In her own way she did a lot for women in diving. Jim Standing, Fourth Element
Mandy Hammond of Light Monkey had similar thoughts when she paid tribute to Helen Farr. "You were a force to be reckoned with. Your boldness and fearlessness and unbridled confidence made you one of the fiercest roll models professional women have in cave diving. Cave diving has lost a profound woman. It was an honor to have known you, and a pleasure to call you friend."
Jill Heinerth, RCGS's Explorer-in-Residence said "if I had one word for Helen, I would say 'thoughtful'. She really cared about people, Martyn, about her time underwater. She always sought improvement and knowledge, loving the opportunity to travel with Martyn and have new experiences."
Martyn Farr posted this image on Helen on social media on 8 December 2019 with the caption "Without a doubt, a very talented diver and an all time best underwater model - Helen Rider"
She loved it so she made it her own
PADI's Vikki Batten first met Helen Farr after she had just passed her full cave course.
"Helen had recently completed her full cave training and, along with other’s in a similar situation was doing some guided diving and taking their first jaunts into caves with fellow newbies. As a fellow Brit I was invited to dive with them and joined their group on several dives. I was used to being the only 'girl' in groups like this, so it was great to have another woman around, and we soon discovered we enjoyed each other’s company both above water and below. Most memorably, on a wonderful dive to The Bone Room in the Devil’s System, Ginnie Springs.
One evening, probably the first and last time I ever did this on a cave trip, we were getting ready to go our for dinner when Helen offered me the use of her hairdryer! Wow, I thought, that’s very organised, so I dried my hair - what a treat! I even spritzed on a squirt of perfume! Helen immediately asked what it was and said how much she liked it. So I shared and off we went to the usual post cave diving bun fight at a local diner.
Helen felt no need to parade her own experience and input. Vikki Batten, PADI
I didn’t see Helen for a few years after that, but the next time I did, she greeted me like no time had passed and, in amongst the cave diving chatter she thanked me for introducing her to Issey Miyake, Eau D’Issey perfume. She said it was her absolute favourite and always made her feel amazing. This might seem like a daft memory to share, but it encapsulated Helen’s lack of ego. She wasn’t worried about 'copying' or following someone else as other might have been. She loved it so she made it her own.
Over the years, Helen became an extremely accomplished cave diver, but felt no need to parade her own experience and input. I often felt that she had the same attitude towards cave diving as she did towards perfume: ego and politics didn’t matter, she loved it so she made it her own."
Helen Farr and Brian Kakuk kitting up at Crystal Caves, Abaco, Bahamas. Image Credit: Martyn Farr
Cave explorer Brian Kakuk met Helen and Martyn Farr when they came to dive and shoot images of the Crystal Caves of Abaco for a dive magazine story.
"I didn’t know Helen very well or for very long. I did my best to impress on our first dive together. I was showing her and Martyn the amazing cascades of crystal in the massive rooms of Dan’s Cave. Afterward, I could tell that Helen, like so many others, was overwhelmed with the beauty and intricacy of the cave. She was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get back in the cave after lunch. I also could tell she was a little frustrated as she was Martyn’s photo model and was committed to posing for images instead of being able to spend time just taking in the amazing surroundings. But she kept focus on the tasks at hand and they went back to the hotel that evening with amazing images and memories.
Helen was overwhelmed with the beauty and intricacy of the cave. She was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get back in the cave after lunch. Brian Kakuk, cave explorer
As the week went on, and she and Martyn were able to see even more delicate and fascinating parts of the cave, it was easy to see that Helen had fallen in love with the cave, already talking about booking a return trip. The next visit would be a year later with her friends Eyal and Amy Lemburger. The trio came for a 10-day trip. This time, Helen would be free of the burden of her role as a cave diving model and was able to completely focus on taking in the majesty of the Crystal Caves. She was in her element. Waiting patiently for her turn to dive each day, and surfacing an hour or so later, literally bubbling with excitement and wonder over what she had just experienced. I was so happy to see Helen’s elation grow each day over the duration of their trip.
My hope as a guide and conservationist is always that my clients and friends will end up having the same fascination and passion for these amazing places as I do. When I saw the look on Helen’s face after every day, and listened to her recount her dives here, I knew that I had accomplished my mission. I am happy that I could, for a short time, play a small part in Helen’s passion for the part of this planet that she loved so much."
Helen Farr pictured in Trou Madame, the Lot, France by Martyn Farr
Helen was Martyn Farr's muse and she featured in many of his cave and cave diving photographs. These photographs - especially the ones in the UK caves - take a lot of setup.
UK cave diving tends to be conducted in low or no visibility conditions and the passageways can be quite small. This style of caving and cave diving will more often than not be a bit of a team effort, because you need to carry or sherpa equipment in and out of the cave. And depending on what you are diving, and the duration of the dive, it can take a fair amount of support to put a diver or two in the water. This is because cylinders and other associated pieces of equipment need to be carried up or down pitches, pushed across flat bedding planes, or staged at key points. It is a lot of fun though.
Without a doubt, a very talented diver and an all time best underwater model. Martyn Farr
Once in situ, cave / cave diving photo shoots can be hard work for all involved. The model, the photographer and the lighting minion. Fellow cave diver Jason Pepper told me that Martyn Farr had asked him to assist on several photo shoots. "If you look at several cave diving shots you will notice the subject is often lit from behind because it is a very effective lighting technique. You can achieve this in two ways. Use remote strobes or a lighting assistant. I knew as a light monkey that I wasn't meant to be seen, so I spent what seems like hours hovering behind Helen, pointing a seriously bright light at her bottom. At the same time I had to watch Martyn's gestures, manoeuvre so that I was hidden behind Helen, whilst timing my breathing with hers. She had seriously impressive buoyancy skills, her kit was always squared away and she was on point."
Helen Farr ended up diving around the world. Naturally, she dived Wales (Porth yr Ogof) because it was on the doorstep. She also explored and dived the likes of the longest underwater gypsum cave in the world (Ordinskaya is located in the Urals, Russia), Kefalonia, France, Florida and the Bahamas.
There are few people who haven't been inspired by Helen and Martyn Farrs exploits, both at home and abroad. Stephen Ainley
A typical Helen shot featured in a story published in SCUBA by Alan Purcell. Image Credit: Martyn Farr
A thorough Ms Moneypenny in organising and business. Izzy Ismet, Underwater Explorers
Helen Farr didn't only carry Martyn's kit into the Silica Mine in South Wales. She supported him behind the scenes in other ways, doing the heavy lifting. Helen ensured that the very necessary and mundane paperwork was properly completed. Jason Pepper recalled that he first met Helen in 2006 when he did his cavern course with Martyn.
Helen was organised, really organised and good at it. Teresa Telus, Starfish Enterprise
"Helen was always warm and welcoming. It soon became clear to me that she was the organisation behind FarrWorld. She did all of it. Arranging trips, getting payments in, booking people onto courses, making sure the insurances were in place. Without that admin oversight, Martyn would not have been as well placed and organised as he was. She enabled Martyn to do his job.
"That course made me realise I didn't know as much as I thought I did, diving wise. I then went on to do a number of courses with Martyn and ended up doing my instructor course with him. I then had a period where I was teaching in Wales with Martyn every other weekend, bringing along students who are now friends."
Helen was also a wonderful foil for Martyn's humility. Jim Standing said "Martyn doesn't really go around blowing his own trumpet - he had Helen. She delighted in doing this."
Lady in red - Helen loved the colour. We knew her for about 26 years, and were proud to sponsor her. She was a lovely lady who was keen to learn and understand. O'Three Drysuits
Helen Farr diving the Ordinskaya cave. It is special because it appears as though it has been sculpted in ice and snow. The water clarity here is unparalleled. Image Credit: Martyn Farr
Jason Pepper kindly shared a couple of stories about Helen involving the French cave dive 'Font del Truffe'.
"As you enter the Truff there is a little sump pool that is almost an inverted 's'. You go forwards, down, then under. I was teaching and Helen had popped in for a bimble. She'd signalled to me that she was heading back home. As I came out I found the end of a Poseidon Cyclon regulator lying on the cave floor. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and came out. I saw Helen and showed her the piece. 'Look what I found!' She said that someone would have had a bit of dive with the end of their reg missing. Then she looked at it closely and realised it was off one of her regs.
On the same trip it was my turn to lose something. I had a metal key for the back of my truck, so I had a habit of clipping it off in my drysuit pocket. We'd done the dive and come out, and I discovered to my horror that the truck key was missing. This wasn't only a disaster for me, everyone else had locked their keys into my truck. Helen and Martyn started winding me up. I didn't have much gas left, I was busting for a wee, and I knew I had to find the key. 'Please let it be at the start of the cave', I thought as I started to head back. I had kitted up and was about to get into the water when Helen appeared. 'You might need this' she said with a twinkle in her eye. Dangling in her hand was my key. She'd found it in the cave, picked it up, and let me stew for a few minutes.
Helen was an accomplished cave diver and a true ambassador for the sport. Stephen Ainley
Martin Grass recalled a happy afternoon splashing about in Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. "It was the last time that the Welsh section hosted the CDG annual dinner. I seem to recall that Helen wanted to have a go at canoeing. I along with my wife, and Scoff and his wife joined Helen and Rick (Stanton). Rick had brought along his canoe and we paddled on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal near Llangattock. Martin walked and jogged along the canal path and took photos. Naturally there was a pub and beer involved somewhere. It was a nice day out."
The cave divers table at EUROTEK.2012. From left to right Claire Cohen, Michael Thomas, Vikki Batten, Martin Robson, Britan Kakuk, Jill Heinerth, John Buxton, Audrey Buxton, Ken Smith, Rick Stanton, Helen Farr. Photo Credit: Martyn Farr
I only found out whilst writing this that Helen Farr was 62. Several of my contemporaries and I knew she was older than us, but she also seemed ageless to us. She was a kind soul with some lovely old-fashioned values, such as remembering birthdays and sending handwritten cards. In a digital age, receiving a card through the post means so much more today.
Helen is an absolute treasure. What a loss! Jill Heinerth
"Helen was a very loyal friend, passionate cave diver and caver, wonderful host who loved her social activities and travel and nature and friends. A big loss to a lot of people." Natasha Mitchell
"Helen had a beautiful and cheerful personality, as well as a great sense of humour coming from the depths of a brilliant mind. A thorough Ms Moneypenny in organising and business, she often made me feel I was with an elder caring sister when together. She had such a bright and positive approach, I still can’t believe she’s left us." Izzy Ismet, Underwater Explorers
"Helen was a customer who became an ambassador and served us well for over two decades. Helen pushed us, as she pushed herself. But more importantly during that time, she became our friend." The team at O'Three Drysuits
"Helen ensured that every year she had one or two holidays booked. She loved the history of Egypt. But after a few years she started to spend them on cave diving courses as she loved the sport and the challenge. Helen was organised, really organised and good at it. She thought of all the practical things that expeditions needed like the logistics of feeding everyone and she loved to cook. I have great memories of roast dinners at Helens, which she always cooked and I happily always enjoyed. Over the years we had great fun in pubs and at parties as I know she did with many people." Teresa Telus
I am acutely aware that this article only gives you a small flavour of Helen Farr. There are many voices absent from this article because her friends are beyond upset and just not able to share memories. I think however she would have been surprised at just how many lives she touched, and what fond thoughts we have of her. Helen, you are and will continue to be deeply missed by many.
Helen Farr exploring Totara Cave in New Zealand in 2017. Image Credit: Peter Glanvill
Helen Farr's funeral will be held in her home town, Preston, on Friday 19th June at 13.45. Due to the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic the funeral will be a quiet affair and limited to a handful of attendees. If you would like to make a donation in lieu of flowers or in Helen's memory, a 'Just Giving' page has been set up with the donations going to the mental health charity 'MIND'. To date £798 has been raised on donations.
The author is most grateful for the help from the cave community in kindly sharing their stories and images of Helen Farr.