How do you get your fun? Does the prospect of spending a couple of hours crawling on hands and knees through freezing cold water sound enticing?
Or squeezing into a gap so tight you have to turn your head sideways? How about battling against a torrent of water in the dark, soaked to the skin? Sounds awful? Well, you’d be wrong. It is fun, fun, fun!
A caver enters Upper Long Churn Cave
We’re talking caving, of course. Or potholing. There is a technical difference, but many people use the terms interchangeably. grough received an invitation to Try Caving, courtesy of the Yorkshire Subterranean Society (YSS) and, despite my avowed aversion to tight spaces, I took up the speleologists’ challenge and ventured into the hidden underworld beneath the Yorkshire Dales.
Try Caving is the British Caving Association’s (BCA) scheme to encourage novices underground, to get a taste of caving and hopefully to join clubs and continue the pursuit.
After a couple of days of bright, crisp, winter weather, the skies above the Yorkshire Dales had turned leaden as a front swept south, lashing the landscape with heavy rain and blustery winds. The streams were in spate, the skies still brim full of rain. Surely caves flooded in these conditions. Would the meeting still go ahead?
There was no sign of panic at the headquarters of the YSS, just a quiet calm among the gathering, perhaps the aftermath of an extended evening in the pub next door.
Asending a scramble in Lower Long Churn: leader Stuart Anderson belays one of the caving novices
The base of the society is a converted school near Horton-in-Ribblesdale, with bunks for 42 people. It’s well used, not just by cavers, but also walkers, Scouts and other groups taking to the outdoors. During the weekend of grough’s visit, there was a party of Dutch cavers who had returned to the Dales to explore the delights of the limestone labyrinths. The YSS was founded in 1964 as the Undertakers’ Subterranean Society, but soon renamed itself. Today, it has 140 members.
12 novices had taken up the challenge to Try Caving, and we were split into two groups. Three of the group had travelled up from Bedfordshire, and two friends made the journey from York. A half-hour briefing followed: we would be descending into the Long Churn system near Selside, a few miles up the valley from the club’s base. We’d be issued with protective gear: an oversuit, wellies, helmet and lamp. For those lucky enough to be the right size, there were some fleecy undersuits – woolly bears – available too. Otherwise, the advice was to wear underneath warm clothes and thermals, such as you would wear on the fells.
Leader for the day was 39-year-old Stuart Anderson who, as well as being a YSS member, is an outdoor education centre manager on the edge of the Peak District. He’s been caving about 10 years. He’s also a paddler, climber and walker.
So it was into the cars and up the road to Selside. First stop on the short walk to our portal to the underground world was for a brief look over the wall at the gaping chasm of Alum Pot, an 80m drop accessed by abseiling: not for us.
At this point, I should explain the difference between potholing and caving. It sounds simple: potholes are vertical; caves horizontal. But, like many things in life, it’s not that simple, many systems have a combination of both. There’s a rating system too, running from 1 (easy) to 5 (super-severe). Our route will be in a system that was about grade 2. Stuart told us it would be mainly a combination of walking, hands-and-knees crawling with a few sections on our bellies. Hmm…
A couple of hundred metres higher up the hillside, below Simon Fell, we reached the entrance to our subterranean home for the next two hours. There was a tremendous amount of water tumbling into the low, dark opening. Stuart disappeared into it. Moments later, he re-emerged to say it was OK to go in. The cave we were using is used to access Diccan Pot, but we would bypass the more serious prospect of the pot and head into Lower Long Churn Cave.
Within seconds of ducking into the cave, I was having second thoughts. The route involved crawling over flat rock into a low slit. Progress was achieved by shuffling on my belly, head on one side. I’m not the greatest fan of confined spaces and, if the whole day was going to be like this, I didn’t think it would be that enjoyable.
The Try Caving novices who got a taste of the subterranean world of the Yorkshire Dales
However, the seemingly impassable way soon opened up and we were able to progress by crawling and walking.
Long Churn’s most widely-known feature is the Cheese Press, a three-metre pass with a height of less than 30cm. It’s an awkward shuffle and entirely voluntary! There is a way round, avoiding it. One of our party attempted the manoeuvre but retreated. As Stuart said: “You can get stuck, but it’s hard: you have to really work at it.”
The great attraction of the system is its variety. Yes, there are short sections on your belly, but there’s a bit of everything. We used short, roped sections to descend, scrambled up a couple of not very difficult sections and, of course, slithered along Baptistry Crawl and through The Font. The hint, as Stuart said, is in the names. It’s your christening into the wet world of true caving. The journey was accompanied by the familiar ‘tock, tock,’ of half a dozen caving helmets regularly hitting the roof of the cave. Don’t venture underground without head protection.
We stopped short of the Dolly Tubs and turned out our lamps. The faint light emanating from the shaft of Alum Pot slowly grew in intensity as our night vision improved. My favourite section, I think, was the walk up the Upper Long Churn underground river, battling against a roaring torrent. Think gill scrambling but without the slime. Where there is no daylight, there are no plants, moss or algae, so underground rocks tend to be grippier than their topside equivalents.
The cave ends with the impressive Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a noisy underground waterfall plunging into a deep pool. We retraced our steps all the way to the exit of Upper Long Churn. The cave’s popularity was now becoming evident. We passed a succession of other potholers, some heading for serious vertical routes, others, like the other half of the Try Caving party, trying some ‘sport caving’. Note from Stuart: for ‘sport’ read ‘wet’.
There was also a party of schoolchildren from the nearby Ingleborough Hall outdoor education centre. It sort of knocks the pioneering spirit out of you a bit when you realise this is a cave accessible to young children too!
Unanimous decision of all six of our Try Caving party: great! Debbie and Sally are both in their forties, having a ‘mid-life adventure’ after each becoming independent again. They started climbing six months ago and searched out a potholing club through the BCA Try Caving website. Debbie, an office worker, had tried one trip underground earlier this year but she rated this more highly.
She explained she had been in the same system but she felt this had been more rewarding. “There was more explanation, before we set off, of what we were going to do. I felt safer.”
Sally, who runs a mobile toy library, thought it was a very well run weekend. “I didn’t feel panicky at all. I felt very safe with them.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to be walking through rapids! The beginning bit, where it was really low down, was exciting.
“I expected, with the weather, to feel a bit panicky about it flooding, but I didn’t have any sense of that.”
Debbie agreed, recalling that Stuart had pointed out a typical flood area, and the fact that, even today, they were safe from flood danger.
Was it the start of a caving career? Debbie said: “Maybe. We want to go tomorrow, and see what that’s like, and take it from there. But I think we’re both keen to get involved.”
The YSS was planning a second day of activity on Pen-y-ghent’s potholes the following day.
Sally declared that climbing and caving were the perfect hobbies for someone who lived, like them, in Yorkshire.
Joining a club such as the YSS lets you into a social life as well as the chance to go underground. The club also organised trips recently to the Gouffre Berger near Grenoble and to the Pierre St Martin system on the French-Spanish border.
Having tried caving, would I recommend it? Undoubtedly. My trip underground provided more than two hours of sustained interest. It’s fascinating to crawl through a world unknown to the thousands whose feet tramp just a few metres above these underground rivers and chambers.
It’s not a glamorous hobby. There’s nothing fashionable about the suits and wellies cavers use, and you certainly won’t see a parade of potholing gear on the streets of Ambleside or Fort William. The other side of that coin is that you can bag a complete beginner’s kit for little more than the cost of a single top-of-the-range mountain waterproof. If you want to dip your toe in the underground pool before committing yourself, you can hire gear from shops in Ingleton, a few miles from the YSS base.
Neil Brooks, of the Yorkshire Subterranean Society, takes a mountain bath after the trip underground
I left the group looking forward to the evening’s stew to be followed by a fireworks display. My experience of the Try Caving weekend was very positive. My claustrophobic fears were never really realised. Yes, it was cold from time to time and it was certainly wet. But I have vivid memories of the labyrinths of Long Churn, sore knees and aching shoulders. Makes a change from the usual burning calves and stiff thighs!
The Try Caving website has a calendar of events and a list of caving clubs in each area.
The YSS website is not operating at the moment, but its members assure me it will be up and running again soon, so keep trying.
See more pictures from grough's trip underground at our PhotoBox gallery