Exploring the underground world of the Yorkshire Dales
The average person on the street may have an idea that peculiar people in pvc suits scrabble through holes into muddy caves in pursuit of a dark muddy adventure, but little do many people know the vast miles of tunnels and caves that lie beneath the picturesque Yorkshire Dales.
In fact the Yorkshire Dales are home to Britain’s largest collection of caves, over 2000 in fact, including around 250 miles of surveyed passages. These are split into various cave systems. The Three Counties system having 53.9 miles of passageways to itself and is the deepest cave in England at 252 metres deep.
Most of the caving is centered around the village of Ingleton. Where caving shops can be found and cafes packed with cavers telling tales of their journeys underground and refreshing their weary bodies.
There are caves that are open for public tours (where you need not get covered in mud) but for those who do not mind getting on all fours and crawling deep within, there are spectacular and extensive cave systems to explore with beautiful passages caved out of the limestone rock and stunning white calcite formations such as stalagmites, stalactites (Icicle shaped white formation that hangs down usually with a drip of water on the end that reflects like a diamond.)
Gaping Gill is one of the most famous caves in the Yorkshire Dales and one of the largest chambers in Britain, large enough to engulf St.Pauls Cathedral and hosts the tallest unbroken waterfall in England with a 328ft drop.
Caving as a sport, involves a lot more than just crawling or walking through muddy/rock tunnels and caves. The caves follow the natural path of the water over thousands of years and therefore rather that going into the hillside and back out horizontally the caves wind their way down underground, sometimes through small tunnels but sometimes down steep underground waterfalls and along underground river beds.
Of course this is only possible with ropes and caving equipment. Ropes are fixed at the top of drops, so that you may abseil into the cave system and pulled through and taken with you if you plan to exit through another exit point, or left in place so that you may return and climb back up the rope using several jamming devices. Goodness knows how many calories this burns but it certainly uses muscles in your body you never knew existed is definitely easier with good technique.
Caving is certainly not something to attempt on your own, it is far too easy to walk into a cave and yet turn around and not know which way you came from and with hundreds of miles of caves underground, many of which are affected by sudden flooding caused by rainfall it is essential that anyone wishing to explore the caves of the Yorkshire Dales, either explore one of the show caves with a tour or book a caving trip with a qualified caving instructor who will be able to show you the beauty of the underground world in a safe and controlled manner.
Many children each year for example are lead into Long Churn cave, which is great for beginners but with fantastic features such as the ‘cheese press’ (which can be bypassed!) – A 3-meter squeeze along two horizontal rocks with only a 30cm gap.
Caving can be done all year round as the caves stay a constant 8 degrees no matter what the weather outside. One of the strangest things about caving I found in the summer was when you reach your exit point, maybe 6 or longer hours after you went underground, the smell of the air above ground is smells so strongly with the scent of grass and flowers. It also feels very warm when you exit the cave on a summer day and very cold when you exit on a winter’s day.
In order to see whilst underground, cavers wear a head torch (and carry a back up!) sometimes these are battery operated head torches but often cavers prefer a carbide lamp, wearing a water bottle sized tank of calcium carbide stones which when filled with water, creates a gas that is control fed onto a flame on the helmet. Unlike the single beam of a head torch, a carbide lamp illuminates a large area with a strong warm light. Although when you are deep underground it is fantastic to take the time to turn off all of your groups torches, and stand/sit in silence, all you can hear is the dripping of water, but when you open your eyes you see NOTHING, pitch black like you have probably never experienced before.
We are very lucky to have Britain’s largest collection of caves on our doorstep. Always explore with an experienced qualified guide.
Main Image: ©Alex Anderson – Swinsto to Kingsdale Master Cave Crawl
Image: ©Alex Anderson – The way out – 60 meter SRT pitch, Jingling Pot