Rarely visited, except by those who know the route up to it - and lying at over 1200 feet above sea level, Dowkabottom Cave (formerly Dowkerbottom) is one of the majestic hidden places that make the Yorkshire Dales so special. Used as a home and place of storage by humans for centuries, it is a site that makes the 21st century itself seem surreal in comparison. Its atmosphere and mystery is centred around the discovery, in the 19th century, of a tiny child's skeleton - tucked away in a grave chipped out of the stalagmite floor and covered in stone slabs. Those with a feel for the past won't be able to resist the climb up.
Sleets Gill - a series of steps in the limestone - is usually an important indicator for cave explorers. If there's any water at all coming down - then don't go in the cave beyond.
At the head of the gill is a site to make even seasoned cavers shudder at what could happen. Sleets Gill Cave is, without any doubt, the most spectacular walk-in cave entrance in Yorkshire, if not the country, and it has a unique character. For here the ground slopes at an acute angle, clothed in scree, into the very depths of the limestone. It can be a frightening place - and for every casual passer by I will give a word of warning: don't go in if it's raining; don't go in if it's forecast to rain, and don't go in if its rained significantly in the last week.' This advice was recently placed on the cavers' forum - and it should be adhered to!
There's nothing necessarily wrong with venturing a little way inside. The problem comes at the bottom of the entrance slope where the tube-like passage narrows to a crawl so tight that the caver must kick cobbles out of the way to force his way through. It is this constricted 'neck' that can suddenly flood completely and unpredicatably, trapping the unwary in the confines of the cave beyond; and it doesn't need to be raining. Sleets Gill has a sinister reputation for flooding as long as three weeks after heavy rain. it could be a perfectly sunny day and you could be trapped down there. Knowing that we had experienced thunder storms on the Thursday - I decided to play safe and just wander as far as the 'neck'.
In March, 1992, Roy Deane and Les Hewitt, two smashing cavers, wandered down the entrance slope and slid through the neck into the superb tunnel of the Main Gallery - a move that at most probably took them no more than 20 minutes. They expected to be in and out in a couple of hours. At the far end of the main passage they heard a strange booming noise and the cave began to flood. Dashing back to the entrance slope, they realised they were completely cut off from the outside world and the water was rising all around them. The two men made their way to the end of the gallery and waited ... with the water edging upwards, inch by inch. It must have been an experience of terror quite beyond the imagination - and no-one can enter the cave without thinking about it! Imagine their joy, many hours later, when - as if by magic - two divers appeared through the waters, which, despite the flooding, had remained astonishingly clear.
Once the two men didn't return home, the alarm was raised on an awful night with, appropriately, driving sleet and pitch black conditions. The brilliance of the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association was such that, by studying diagrams of the cave and the current water level, they realised there was just a tiny chance that Roy and Les might still be alive. The best cave divers in Britain were rushed to the scene. Climbing down the entrance slope above, they then kitted up and swam through the flooded passages expecting the worst - only to find the two men alive with the water still rising. The only way Roy and Les could get out was by diving - and both had never done it. In one of the most dramatic rescues ever seen, the divers not only went back to report the men were alive - but they dived two sets of gear through for them so that they could, shivering with cold, get into diving suits and have a slim chance of making it out. The story seems too far fetched to be true, but such is the determination of the Cave Rescue and its organisation. A miracle seemed to have occurred when, in the early hours of the morning, Roy and Les were helped down to waiting ambulances. Scores of people had been involved in the rescue - and it was probably, up to that point, the furthest that non-divers had been forced to swim to safety in full gear when trapped inside a cave. Imagine Roy and Les, freezing and totally exhausted, being helped up this slope in the early hours of the morning. It's a fascinating thought - so next time you see a cave rescue collection box, put your money in ! Within hours of Roy and Les getting out ...... the cave flooded completely, with water gushing out of the entrance and down to the parking spot! Someone was smiling on Roy and Les that day.
This is the narrow neck at the bottom of the entrance slope in Sleets Gill Cave. In dry weather, it requires a little nerve, and a few minutes placing all the cobbles to one side to slip through. After that - it's like sledging on your back down into the magnificent Main Gallery - a London Underground sized tunnel formed entirely underwater, but now left dry (most of the time) as the glaciation of the valley has lowered the water table. I was aching to show you the Main Gallery - but that Thursday thunder storm was niggling on my mind so we'll come back in a dry spell. I don't fancy a Les and Roy experience.
The dramatic rescue of Roy and Les is even more remarkable when you consider that all the diving gear had to get through this gap. It's tricky enough in normal circumstances.
Here I am lying with my legs in the gap and my head sticking out, looking up the steep slope to an arch of daylight. It's a dramatic, nervy and unforgettable situation and I can think of nowhere else to match it. Hard to imagine that, in flood, water rises all the way up the slope and pours out of that tiny entrance.
Even when you know it's risky - you can't resist just going through the gap - especially when you're growing larger round the middle in your 40s and want to convince yourself you're losing a bit!! But this is as far as I went. 'Warning', says Northern Caves, ' the entrance slope can sump rapidly in wet weather. The whole known cave except the ramp floods to the roof.' That doesn't mean this ramp is excepted! At the far end of the cave the notorious Hydrophobia and Hypothermia passages, chin deep in water and with a tiny amount of air-space, lead through to a unique underground slope (the Ramp) climbing up over a hundred feet and at a steeper angle than the entrance slope. I've never seen it .... and it would need a drought for me to attempt it!! (as well as company) This is England, after all.
A superbly preserved series of Iron Age enclosures is soon reached - which may be linked with the peoples of Romano-British times who deposited jewellery and valuables in Dowkabottom Cave.
A panoramic view over the Iron Age settlement, showing the rectangular hut in the background and the dividing wall down the centre.
Following the edge of the scars westwards from the first settlements - we reach yet another example. You can make out the main enclosure walls beneath this rocky knoll. Up here it is usually mute - unless there's a wind: one of the most remote spots in all England.
Remains of the Iron Age walls in the second settlement. Many people at this height will have taken refuge from the Roman invasion. As we know - the Romans didn't like hilly places where the wind blew up their skirts!!! The British were tough, boys!!!
Once the plateau is reached, the Great Scar Limestone starts to take on its familiar look - reminding the explorer of the uplands around Malham to the south.
These fortress-like crags of limestone are very similar to the Warrendale Knots, near Settle.
The massive depression of Dowkabottom is an interesting place in its own right, with ancient settlements around every corner - but the cave is the big attraction - not easily seen until you are right upon it. This view is looking to the north chamber - a superb passage requiring a rope handline to descend. If you want to have a go - you really need a rope as the rock is slippery and the step down just a fraction too big for most people. The south chamber, beneath the camera, is an easy walk-in after a scramble down. The original entrance was believed to be to the west but it has filled in with debris. This present entrance is a collapse feature and luckily the collapse has been kind, allowing ordinary mortals a chance to scramble down and explore.
Just nearby, to the west - is this restored hut - which is probably linked to the history of the cave in some way. It appears to be Bronze Age in origin - and I'm not sure if has been dated.
This place is rarely photographed: the massive 'stadium' of Dowkabottom itself: not a sound - no wind today, no sheep, no calling curlew. Mute and completely isolated. Shout here, and your voice will echo back from left to right on the picture as if from an army of ancient watchers doing the Mexican wave. So isolated - a nudist camp could go unnoticed for a long time (though I wouldn't advise trying it)!
View of the hut circle with the entrance to Dowkabottom Cave lying beyond. The gap in the wall, seen in the background, is where we entered the field contining the cave for the first time, and marks the route back down to Sleets Gill. Enough of the background; let's get in the cave!
First fully explored in August, 1859 by a Mr Denny - along with Joseph Jackson of Settle - the cave looked much different in those days and it wasn't quite as easy to squeeze inside as it is now. Clambering down over collapse debris with care, it's a case of descending these mossy, slippery boulders into South Passage. The cave was later explored by James Farrer, of Clapham.
Flowstone features are met almost immediately on the left as we enter.
As with many dales caves, the lofty ceiling is encrusted with Moonmilk.
More moonmilk in the ceiling.
The passage is in all ways attractive.
Out of the chamber, the cave steps upwards on a golden floor of stalagmite.
Boulders have, over many years, been coated superbly in flowstone.
Formations at higher level are never far away - such as this razor-edged example. Lovely.
One chamber after another - and they are all superb. The squeeze through into this one is easier than it looks.
We then meet the pool chamber, surrounded by flowstone on all sides. It's a beautiful sight in good light.
A choked passage leads off on the left, possibly excavated.
Every cave as its own bizarre sculpture.
No wonder the 19th century explorers were ecstatic about this cave.
Because it's harder to get to - naturally the formations are even better.
Then a step up leads to this: a gorgeous gleaming floor of golden stalagmite: one of the finest in Britain.
In places, this beautiful sight looks like a mass of dripping honey.
My breath streams down the passage in front.
The dug-out stalagmite has created a dripping feature which becomes a small fall in times of flood.
North Passge, Dowkabottom Cave.
Pillows of stalagmite on the cave floor.
Here's another example of what the grave may have looked like - though this hole has been made by water action.
It's difficult to put the camera away. This place is tremendously photogenic.
Looking back down a stalagmite staircase.
Moving into Long Passage, things become stunning indeed.
Beautiful flowstone fingers decorate the walls.
And curtains of flowstone hang over pools of clear water.
The curtains, perhaps, of the theatre to come ahead.
How about this for a passage?
Dripping, lime rich water forming a gour pool on the cave floor.
A clenched fist bars the way on - as if to warn of the obstacles ahead.
Details at the head of the gallery.
Because of its more difficult access - stalactites have survived in these far reaches.
Wedged boulder in North Passage. Looks like ET to me. You see that?
Back out to daylight, and we say goodbye to this very special cave, alone in a vast amphitheatre.
Heading off the fells at last, with the strange collection of cairns to the west.