Tuesday 4 June 2013

Ling Gill: Limestone Wild and Untamed

Hidden away on the heights of North Ribblesdale, between Penyghent and Whernside, is the spectacular limestone ravine of Ling Gill.  This is one of the few places left in Yorkshire where walking becomes serious exploration.  To traverse its length is to wander where few have ... witnessing a savage beauty that is unexpected in England.  

Ling Gill is so remote from the nearest large towns and villages that the first known photograph of its confines didn't appear until 1892, when James Horner of Settle managed to struggle into its slippery depths with his camera equipment.  He provided a wonderful frontispiece for Speight's classic book, later used on the cover of a more modern reprint:

Speight considers the gill to be 'unquestionably one of the wildest ravines in Yorkshire.' Early writers spoke of it with dread and fear.  More recently, Alfred Wainwright suggested that, 'Ling Gill is better enjoyed from its outer rim than its confines.'  How does one doubt the master fellwalker?  However, knowing his love of places off the beaten track, and his fear of climbing (he himself regarded caves with fear) could it be possible that AW himself stuck with opinions of early writers and didn't actually venture into this wonderful place?  I think so.  Surely if he'd witnessed what I saw today, he would have made a regular pilgrimage?

The ravine is approached from the hamlet of High Birkwith, where it is possible to leave a vehicle.  I always take the route past Calf Holes, joining the Pennine Way until it begins to skirt the gill's upper reaches.  In this view, Park Fell beautifully catches shadow across the dale, and the swathe of trees along the gill in the foreground is seemingly innocent enough.  Little drama is, at this point, suspected from above.

The lovely old bridge at the head of Ling Gill, crossing Cam Beck, dates back to the 17th century and was made of gritstone from the upper reaches of the stream bed.

A quaint, weathered stone tells of the bridge's repair, paid for by local inhabitants in 1765, suggesting its important role on a packhorse route to Ribblehead.  

Another view of Ling Gill Bridge, a popular stopping spot on the Pennine Way.

Ling Gill is a National Nature Reserve in the hands of English Nature.  Access is tricky - and though not strictly denied, is not encouraged as the gill has been completely fenced off in order to preserve a limestone habitat that appears as it might have done before sheep grazed these fells.  Those who do enter ... and most are in too much of a hurry to have the time for its tricky manouvres ... are warned on signs that it is 'extremely hazardous' to do so. You can't rush Ling Gill.  Every step has to be planned and watched with great care, but it's worth it!

There are other reasons for taking great care here ...

Our wonderful native crayfish, the White Claw, Austropotamobius pallipeshas had a stronghold in this area for years.  Unfortunately the Ling Gill population has succumbed to an outbreak of crayfish plague, largely spread into our rivers by the introduced Signal Crayfish.  English Nature are working hard to ensure that the plague doesn't spread to wider reaches of the Ribble, as this creature, once common, is seriously under threat.  Anyone entering or leaving Ling Gill is kindly requested to help prevent any spread of the disease and conserve this magnificent crustacean.  You can help by:

  • Rubbing hands with anti-bacterial handwash before and after entering the gill.
  • Carrying a kitchen surface spray in your rucksack if you intend to enter Ling Gill. Spray your boots or wellingtons and rub with a cloth that can be disposed of in your rucksack, taken home and discarded.  
  • Avoiding wading in Cam Beck unless absolutely necessary, and keeping all water contact to a minimum.
  • Avoiding entering any other water in the area once Ling Gill has been explored.
  • True lovers of the outdoors will take this advice seriously and help keep our native species, an indicator in itself of limestone water quality, protected for future generations.

On this post you can join me as we traverse the gorge to its lower limits and then return carefully to the starting point ... and a well earned rest of the muscles.  The important thing to remember is that Ling Gill harbours rare plants in a delicate environment.  Do your best, at all times, not to trample or disturb them.  Among the specialities are bird cherry, goldilocks, Alpine scurvy grass, marsh valerian, melancholy thistle, London pride, broad leaved bell flower and bird's eye primrose.

Clambering down the first waterfalls is much easier in low water conditions like this.  The round 'potholes' are caused by swirling action of stones in rocky depressions, scouring out the limestone.

Close up of a 'pothole' in the river bed.  Beyond can be seen the fenced off entrance to Ling Gill.  It is crucial not to let sheep have access to this environment, for their own, and the plants' safety.

Impurities in the limestone give it a beautiful pink effect - a granite-like appearance which contrasts superbly with mosses, algae, and the silver casacdes of falling water.

Massive falling blocks indicate the power of meltwater as it eroded out the ravine, though it is just possible the upper reaches represent the remains of a massive, collapsed cavern.

Witness the scene ...

This plunge pool is the first major obstacle.  See that hole on top of the rock on the right? Well, believe it or not, we're going to slip through that ... are you ready?

Let's slip through the hole .. great things lie in store for us.  This is the window into another world.

Looking back at a moss-lined cascade, with the bed of Cam Beck adorned with potholes.

Reviewing our first real tricky move.  I slid down that chair-like boulder on the left, stepped back and slipped through the hole, landing in shallow water.  This view is looking back upstream.

Things then become gigantic.  These are some of the largest boulders I've seen anywhere in the Yorkshire Dales.  They rest magnificently against each other ... dominoes of limestone ready to topple.

The safest option is to avoid the big boys .... and clamber over these slightly easier options to the right.  The stream. all the time, can be heard rumbling below.

At this time of year, cascading branches of fresh foliage add a gentle touch to the savage scene, as we once again join the stream on its journey.

Some caves deserve a real name.  This one, up in the left bank of the gill, has a remarkable entrance with two heads locked in eternal conversation.  I call it 'The Division Bell'.  If you like Pink Floyd, you'll understand ...

Get the idea?

Beyond, things continue to be a natural assault course, with small caves popping up almost everywhere.  How special a place is this?

A particularly stunning section of Ling Gill, with water-worn rocks including an eye-hole piercing the left banking as we glance back upstream.

Fallen trees add a harshness, providing further obstacles to the adventure.  

Yet delicate carpets of greenery are never far away.

Looking back upstream over another major boulder section.  In flood, needless to say, this section is impassable.

There is then the choice of clambering over a massive boulder pile on the left, or taking this delightful natural doorway on the right.  We'll take this option now - and try the boulders on the return.  Best of both worlds ...

Looking back on the doorway having just emerged.  The block forming it is a monster indeed.  Great care must be taken on that final step where a small cascade makes things slippery.

Looking back upstream.  The doorway we have just passed through is hidden in the trees on the left.  You can see why I chose it ahead of the boulder option!

A view downstream gives the false impression that all is coming to an end.  How wrong impressions can be ...

A low bedding plane cave is passed on the right bank, with most of the stream seeming to be underground at this point.

Then there's the superb 'Hermit's Cave' on the left bank.  This is the view out.

Still hazardous and slippy, but at least it's a little more level at this point.

A touch further downstream and, looking back, another cave can be seen in the cliffs.

High drama then hits big-time as we reach the double waterfall.  Note the former floor of the gorge jutting from the cliffs, the beck having worn beneath it before it has finally collapsed.

The falls are Ling Gill's reward: a gift for the intrepid limestone explorer.

A gift worth seeking out ...

The falls from the right hand bank.  The plunge pool is hemmed in by high cliffs and is impossible to pass without climbing gear.  This is the only time we need tread on the vegetation.  Nature has kindly provided a lush shelf, high on the cliffs above the falls, as a way of by-passing the obstacle and returning to the beck further downstream.  It requires great care, but moving cautiously is the key ....

The falls can be viewed from above, through a screen of vegetation and foliage.

Looking over to the opposite bank, the cliffs tower hundreds of feet above the beck.

At top centre of this photograph can be seen a 'notch' or stairway in the cliff which allows access back to the river.  The small cave is a signpost to this important by-pass on the return journey, as it is the only way to get beyond the waterfall and back to the upper reaches of the gill.

Once back at the level of the beck, there is a lovely series of potholes in the bed.

Leaning trees and flood debris provide varying views round each and every corner.

Sheer limestone cliffs are then the dominating feature.  Ling Gill seems crammed with endless natural surprises for the adventurer.

White cliffs and dazzling green foliage - a perfect picture.

A close-up shows large bedding planes in the limestone, caused by variations in deposition when the rock was formed in a shallow tropical sea some 340 million years ago.

A wider perspective of the scene.

This pool marked the limit of my exploration of Ling Gill.  It was deep, and I was wet, tired, and ready for food and drink.  Time to be sensible so no mistakes were made.  After all, I was alone, with no mobile phone signal.  Each and every step of the return had to be carefully planned.  I was aware of that.

Looking back at the pool before the long return to 'base camp.'

Passing another bedding plane.

The cliffs and large detached boulder come back into view.

As wild as it gets in Yorkshire.

Potholes decorate the river bed.

The Hermit's Cave from the opposite bank.  I must return with my caving gear!

Marvellous views as we head back upstream.

Looking back on our journey as we re-enter the upper section of the gill.

As promised, it's a wander through the boulders this time, instead of the bridge.

There's the bridge on the left, with our route up above the little cascade, noting the delicate little 'spear' of limestone.

The boulders are tricky, but with care there's a way through.  

No choice here but to clamber over these monsters.  Luckily the fallen tree helped the climb up and was very welcome in the scene.

Approaching the upper reaches - and a beautiful scene opens up ahead again.

An inclined, giant letter 'P' can be seen here.  'P' for 'perfect' - as this scene undoubtedly is.

Portrait view, showing more of the foliage to give a contrast.  Perfect.

Close-ups of the hole, worn by water action over thousands of years.

Flood debris are wedged into the cavity beyond.

The gorgeous, fluted upper pool of Ling Gill: three mothers with their little babies beneath, and, just in front of them - a friendly green Kermit the Frog.  Meanwhile, there's a singing man's face at top left.  This place is fantastic.

Just for fun this time, I crawled under the bridge between the boulders.  They didn't mind.

Close-up of the pool, with the singing man on the left, though froggy has lost his eye from this position.

The area of the Division Bell is like something from a fantasy movie.  The natural design is superb.

I decided to risk wet feet for an intimate acquaintance.

'That's another nice mess you've gotten me into.' The fatter guy on the right, by this time, was Ollie, and Stan was whimpering on the left.  Two of my heroes in limestone. Ollie was most exasperated when I jammed my boot into his mouth to climb up ...

As I peered inside I could hear him shouting, 'Will you keep off of my head?!'

Don't think this guy was too bothered about visitors.

Heading back through the hole at long last.  

Home territory looming.

The first boulder section on the return journey.

Back to the start.  I can hear the waterfalls again ....

A welcome sight.  Hope my rucksack's not fallen in ...

Back to normality.  Cam Beck above Ling Gill.

Penyghent and an old barn.  Which do you prefer ... this one?

Or this one?

Woolly friends, ruins and Ling Gill from the west.

Nether Lodge is an old farmstead passed on the way back to High Birkwith.  It is well known to Three Peaks walkers on the route from Penyghent to Whernside.

Beyond is a footbridge crossing Cam Beck, strictly speaking now Ling Gill Beck, as it plunges westwards towards the River Ribble.

Nether Lodge and Ling Gill Beck seen from the south east.  Nearly all the names of farms and hamlets in this area originate from Norse - when the Vikings lived in Ribblesdale.

God's Bridge is a natural slab of limestone over the beck issuing from Browgill Cave, a little to the south of Nether Lodge.  Children will love this little adventure, as they can safely pop in one end, and out of the other!

Ling Gill is the ravine running north east/south west from top centre.  To reach it, park at the hamlet of High Birkwith, bottom centre beneath the two small pinewoods.  A courtesy call at the farm to ask for parking is a good idea.  Do not block the way for farm vehicles.  High Birkwith is reached from Horton by following the lane up on the right once the bridge over the Ribble has been crossed just after the Crown Inn.  


Ling Gill is a National Nature Reserve.  If you intend to explore in large groups you should contact English Nature for a permit.  Please avoid damaging fences surrounding the reserve and help prevent sheep from entering the site.  Ling Gill is suitable for experienced and confident scramblers only, who do not mind getting wet, dirty and stretching new muscles!   Enter Ling Gill strictly at your OWN RISK and use common sense at all times.  Know when enough is enough and you should have a safe and enjoyable adventure.  Do not, on any account, enter Ling Gill in high water conditions when there is a risk of flooding.  The ravine is safe only in dry, settled weather.

Please try very hard to help conserve our wonderful native crayfish.  This is a special place, and it's a very special creature that has set up home there!!

Stephen x


  1. Amazing i gota do it .A top blog thanks for sharing

  2. What fun we've just had, sitting in bed on a Sunday morning and following your exploration of Ling Gill! We live at Old Ing just along the track from Ling Gill, and regularly walk there with our dog, Mollie. We've only ever seen and admired the Gill from the Pennine Way, so it was a great treat to see what lies beyond! A word of caution - High Birkwith Farm is now under new ownership, and parking may be problematic.

  3. Beautiful photos Stephen and a credit. Your dad would have loved them. By the way had your link sent on to me from a mutual friend Andy Holden - keep up the good work hope your book is doing well.