By Corinna Leenen
Winter, fading light and snow on the ground. The grey limestone outcrops and stepped hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales, so characteristic for this area, are moving past the window. My hands are stuck in gloves, and I’m nervously tearing up an empty sweet wrapper. The limestone scar on Ingleborough’s plateau is just visible. With the heating on full blast and a folk band providing jolly background music, we’re heading out to Ingleton. Sell Gill Hole is our destination.
No one seems the least startled as I walk into the Spar in a full caving suit to pick up some snacks. This is, after all, Yorkshire’s prime caving hub, where cavers meet in pubs, line the small country roads with their vans and walk over hills and moorland to find hidden cave entrances. It all seems to have an air of slight secrecy and madness.
Further south in the Mendips, information plaques map out the extensive systems hidden beneath visitors’ feet, alongside signs telling cavers off for getting changed out on the village Green. Caving seems a ubiquitous but quiet pursuit with a closely knit persevering community of serious enthusiasts. Unlike mountaineers, cavers face their challenges where nobody sees them, only making headlines when something goes wrong.
But alongside the study of geology and archaeology, which accompanies cave exploration, there’s vast expertise around the tables of established caving pubs. The owners of small caving shops turn out to be seasoned explorers who, in their time, discovered new connections and passageways in old systems and tell elated stories of near escapes. The community wrapped around this activity and the amount of study, knowledge and history that comes with it make caving exciting and unique.
Cave exploration in the Dales began in the 1890s with more and more clubs and universities joining in on notable explorations and the production of cave surveys, which are now invaluable for guiding cavers through the systems. By now, more than 500km of cave passages have been mapped and documented in the Dales alone. Becoming a member of a caving club is easy, and you can have keys for cavers bothies in most areas – rough and basic places which are, however, well-adapted to muddy caving suits and wet kit.
We park up next to a pub behind other vans. Another group had just headed out; we can see a string of lights moving across the hillside. I’ve had my fair share of pep talks and jokes to make me feel at ease, but the usual thoughts of “I could be sat on the couch watching a film instead” keep recurring, as I’m waiting for the others to put on their harnesses.
It’s a 40-minute walk-in, and I’m starting to sweat in my four layers. As we’re walking in the dark with a patch of light marking out lumps of heather and icy puddles, I’m astounded at the thought that there is an endless system stretching out beneath our feet – the longest in Britain. The Ease Gill system makes for a nice caving fact: extending over three counties, the system has an impressive 88km of connected passages so that it is possible to walk through Yorkshire, Lancashire and into Cumbria – underground.
Finding the cave entrance in the wide limestone pavement, following streams sinking into the ground or looking for deep pothole shafts sealed with metal lids can be a challenging task, but we’re lucky this time. An old stream way drops down to the first entrance pitch; it is unmissable. A pitch, in caving terms, is a section of vertical cave. A short daylight shaft leads down into a big chamber, to a stony slope and the second pitch.
Old photographs show members of the Craven Pothole Club go down the shafts in tweed overcoats and felt hats, using rope ladders, up to 28ft long. Tweed suits thankfully gave way to Cordura oversuits, and dangling from my harness now is a 326g Petzl Stop Descender. Squeezing the red handle, I can lower myself down the rope – piece of cake.
Below is a vast room, the main chamber, from where we go lower and lower. It is hard to grasp the fact that there is now 50 to 100m of solid rock above our heads, separating us from the surface. Once at the bottom, we have done the easy bit – now we’ve got to climb back out using the same ropes.
Walking back at 3 a.m. with water in my Wellies, I’m freezing but in high spirits. I’m exuberantly proud of what I’ve done and feel like I now belong to an elect group of a daring few, to whom this underground world is accessible. The far reaches of some systems have been seen by fewer people than have walked on the moon. Childhood curiosity has waned and at times given in to fear, after concerned parents have throttled the exploratory ventures of their children, lured by mineshafts and cave openings on Sunday walks and holidays. But now, with the right equipment and some tuition, these places are suddenly open.
I’m enthralled by what those ‘dark muddy’ places have to offer. The caves of the Dales are extremely varied, from trench-like muddy crawls in which your caving bag gets stuck every few metres to staggering canyons, the clean-washed stream ways of Lancaster Hole and deep vertical shafts of Cow Pot. Silent galleries of relic passages, where the water has found a different way through the bedrock, lead into huge boulder-strewn chambers which dwarf the light of our head torches. There are forests of straw stalactites hanging from the ceilings, 12,000-year-old stalagmites in White Scar Cave, curtain-shaped waves of calcite, and tall column stalagmites, nearly 2m in height.
Experiencing the unexpected glow of light shining down a daylight window underground, or emerging from the darkness into the bright surroundings of white limestone scars is intriguing, and the ever-changing variety of the cave systems will make you ask for more.
Fancy exploring a cave for yourself? Book a caving weekend in the Yorkshire Dales with Exped Adventure. You will learn some of the techniques for moving safely through a horizontal or vertical cave system, try out cave navigation, and learn about cave geology. Find out more at expedadventure.com