Visiting The Cave

If you only want to know about my visit to The Cave and not the nonsense about my aracde boards, feel free to scroll down to “Three Wise Men

Note: I’ve embedded some posts from Twitter (where there’s engagement with other Tweeps) and other posts from Mastodon, because, y’know.

Yesterday I had cause to visit Bristol in the west of England. I live in Farnborough, in the South East of England, so it’s a two-hour journey each way. Ok, it’s about one and a half hours, but I need to factor in a recharge point because I’m an insufferable EV owner who crowbars it into the conversation at every opportunity. Anyway, moving on.

I needed to drop a family member off with friends, then pick up later. I didn’t fancy a two-hour journey there and back, then the same again later that day to pick up. I like driving, but eight hours on a Saturday isn’t my idea of funzies.

My plan was to drop off a family member in Bristol, find things to do all day, then pick them up again later. I didn’t plan this very well, but thought I’d spontaneously look for interesting nerdy things to do nearby.

Last time I did this it worked out very well. I dropped off in Chepstow, where I visited Chepstow Castle where I chatted to a guide who kindly recommended an additional place to visit. So in the afternoon I popped up to Goodrich Castle. I also had an opportunity to visit a nearby library, do a bit of walking.

Ask the audience

I don’t know Bristol, wasn’t sure what there was to do, so I asked in the Ubuntu Podcast Telegram Channel if anyone had ideas. Mark suggested microbreweries, which I’d be up for if I wasn’t driving. I also found Four Quarters Arcade Bar which has some games I fancy playing.

Chris pointed out there was a free spot available to visit the RMC Retro “Cave”. Perfect! I’d known about The Cave via Neil’s RMC Retro YouTube Channel, but it had slipped my mind. At roughly thirty minutes drive from Bristol, this was a perfect idea.

I booked my ticket at £12.50 for a morning session from 10am to 1pm, then started planning the journey using A Better Routeplanner to take into account my car charge state etc etc.

Obviously I tweeted about it, and got a reply from Neil - RMC himself.

Arcade!? I had no idea there was an arcade there. There may have been videos about this on the RMC YouTube channel (there is), but I must have missed them.

I have a few arcade boards, but don’t often play with them as I don’t have the space for an arcade cabinet, and they’re just super unweildy to setup and play with ad-hoc. Here’s a photo of the boards which I posted on Twitter back in 2020 during the pandemic. I’d taken them all out of the loft to play with and test.

Off the top of my head there was R-Type, R-Type II, R-Type Leo, Salamander, Salamander 2, Side Arms, Ghosts & Goblins, Bomb Jack, Scramble, The New Zealand Story and Nemesis. They’ve mostly been sat on that shelf ever since.

Most work, but some need a little repair. I sold a few working ones on eBay over the last couple of years, but the bulk were still on that shelf, nagging me every time I walked past them.

The boards have been in my loft for almost twenty years now. Nobody plays with them, or appreciates them. In the past I had a real problem with hoarding old stuff like these boards, 8-bit computers, and yes, even ThinkPads.

It’s time for me to let this stuff go, and it makes sense for them to go somewhere where they’ll be appreciated, repaired, cared for and more importantly, played with!

Ask the Host

As I don’t have time or space to set them up, I figured I could donate some of them to the RMC arcade museum. I messaged Neil late on Friday, spamming him with photos of all the boards. He said they’d love some arcade game donations. I wasn’t sure how many I’d be happy donating, as I’m aware a few of them are worth a few quid in solid working order.

Neil canvassed the team to see which boards they really fancied. I said I’d have a think about it, and depending on how many glasses of wine I’d had that night, would determine how many he got! :)

Fifty Fifty

That evening I got a large box, and started wrapping up the boards. Neil and the gang were interested in a few of them, which I packaged up, and were ready to go. It only took one glass of wine, and a little introspection to figure out I should just let the museum have them all. I wasn’t using them, and they were just annoying me on the Edmund Trebus Memorial Shelf of Unloved Items.

All packaged and ready to go, I put a silly photo of the box as a tease on Twitter.

Three Wise Men

My ticket for The Cave was for 10am-1pm on Saturday. Due to the long journey and other errand, I got there a little late at 10:30. The car park was full, so I had to leave my car out on the road nearby. The Cave itself is actually on the top floor of an old mill.

It’s not hard to find, and the journey there through the area is very picturesque, with many stone walls and buildings lining the roads and fields nearby. I took a bit of a hilly route, which was quite fun in the Mini.

The gate has a couple of RMC logos attached, so you know you’re in the right place. There’s also a sign outside showing the way to go.

It’s a sign

Around the corner is a sign of foreshadowing…

It’s another sign

Up a few flights of stairs, you’ll find The Cave itself. There’s a small desk as you enter, staffed by volunteers. Next to that is a kitchen where you can order drinks and snacks. Behind the counter are items for sale including apparel, books and other memorabilia. Once checked in, you’re free to wander around, pick up, touch and play with everything out on display.

The space is divided into a few zones. Starting from the back of the space is a display area, which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever watched Neil’s channel. The box-crate shelves contain a wide variety of retro machines. I personally felt some joy being able to pick up and fiddle with an Amstrad NC100 and Toshiba Libretto, having not seen either for over a decade. There’s a lot to see and fondle back there

There’s also a couple of glass cabinets containing some classic hardware, rare machines and disassembled computers. One glass unit is full of Sinclair items, which particularly took my interest. A ZX81, multiple ZX Spectrums and even a ZX Spectrum Next were on display. It was lovely to see the family together in once place.

Next to that is a big CRT TV on a cabinet full of playable consoles and Mister systems. There’s controllers, and chairs, so you can just plonk down and start playing like it’s your own lounge. I can imagine just grabbing an N64 controller and playing Goldeneye for the entire morning, but I resisted!

The next section over has an array of playable machines on desks with period-correct displays through the ages. Many of the systems have cards or boards attached to allow instant loading of ROM, tape or disk images. That made it very easy to try out a few games on any system.

Each system also has a laminated card giving some details about it, so you can learn a little while you play.

One system I’d never even seen in person was the NEC PC-Engine. I lusted over this as a kid, poring over magazines like ACE and TGM, drooling at screenshots of arcade classics on the diminuitive home console. Now I could play with one. So I busted out R-Type and had a play.

I have previously written about how formative receiving a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas in the early 1980’s was for me. So when I saw one in the The Cave, attached to a black & white TV and tape deck, I had to play with it.

I even loaded a game from tape in real time for the full effect. While loading (see picture below) the ZX81 can’t update the display, so all you see is mad flickering bars. Amusingly one of the visitors came over and thought the TV was on the blink. “Nope, that’s normal” I said, and we had a little chuckle about ye olde times.

While I waited for something to load on the Sinclair ZX81, I grabbed the Vectrex controller and had a play with that. As a kid growing up with these systems back in the eighties, the very idea that I could have two systems and switch between them instantly would blow my tiny mind.

I also played Chuckie Egg on the BBC micro and had a fiddle some of the other machines I’d not played with before. It was a real joy to be able to just sit down and mess about with the systems laid out on display.

Nearby these systems is a library containing a wealth of magazines and books from the day. There’s also a few round tables with hand-held systems scattered around to fondle and enjoy.

One really superb part of the museum is the mock-shop behind the library. Built like the interior of a 1980’s shop, chock full of video games, this is just wonderful. For those of us of a certain age, where buying games meant schlepping into the local town to browse tapes in a carosel in WH Smiths, Martins or Boots, this triggered wonderful memories.

The games are all shrink-wrapped to preserve them, but that won’t stop you picking them up, checking out the cover art & enticing (and often misleading) description & screenshots. There’s even a system in there where you can scan the barcode of selected games and immediately start playing them on a Mister system built into the wall. It’s so very well done.

In a quiet moment I found Neil and mentioned the box full of arcade boards in my car. We quickly went down to get that and move it into the safety of the dungeon basement arcade. Neil, Alex and Richard gathered round to “unbox” the games. It was lovely to see their faces light up when they spotted some of their favourite classics.

Maybe they’ll turn up in a repair or restoration video in the future, look out for them! If the team get some of them working well enough, maybe they’ll feature in the arcade museum itself.

As I’ve said, I had no idea this existed until Friday night, so had no expectations set. It’s quite a small room, with a few (currently) empty or disfunctional cabinets. But that’s the way with all arcades these days. There’s always something to repair!

There’s a great video below showing the build process of the arcade museum. They’ve clearly put a lot of work into this.

Plus one

The idea of visiting the cave has been on my ToDo list for a while now. Only now the stars aligned to make it easy to trek over there. I’m so glad I made the effort. It was delightful to visit a place I’d only ever seen on YouTube.

There weren’t too many people as to make it difficult to get on something. While the space isn’t enormous, it’s big enough for the number of ticketed visitors. I rarely had to wait long to play with a device, and if I did, it’s also fun to watch someone else play.

There is never really a point at which you’re unable to find something to pick up and touch, read or play with. The museum is stuffed with wonderful exhibits, both familiar and not.

The other thing to note is the friendlyness of everyone. I went on my own, but I didn’t feel alone while there. Plenty of chats about systems, lore and other topics that us old folk chat about when we get together. It was a great morning. I would recommend visiting if you can.

As I left at 1pm I picked up a charity calendar, and a copy of Neil’s book. It now sits on the shelf where my arcade games used to languish.

It’s a sign

I’m looking forward to going back, to play with systems I missed, but also to see my donations working in the arcade museum too. Maybe see you there.