Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sleets Gill Cave

A Subterranean Spectacular

Some places in the dales are pretty, others memorable for their history or geological interest - while a select few are just downright spectacular; fit to rank with anything of their category on a national or European scale. This is one of them: the unforgettable and daunting Sleets Gill Cave - a name that sends a shiver down the spine of even the most experienced cavers and explorers.  Here, on the flanks of Littondale - a steep slope of scree drops 52 metres at an acute angle until a narrow squeeze, just enough to allow a body to pass through, leads the caver through to  the awe-inspiring sight of the Main Gallery. This is a huge natural tunnel formed entirely under water - and though largely dry these days - it is still prone to sudden and catastrophic  flooding - to the roof and beyond!  Today - having had a perfect week of dry weather - was the ideal time to visit .... 

We dropped into Littondale by taking my favourite road over the moors from Settle - a chance to see the impressive limestone canyon of Yew Cogar Scar - one of the biggest masses of limestone in Britain.

The Yew Cogar has to be seen to be believed - its terracing jutting into Littondale like the prow of a gigantic liner.  It is one of the great sights of Yorkshire.

A glance up the glaciated valley of Littondale - one of the most beautiful of the dales.

Daughter Emily and friend Jed have done a few caves before ... but nothing quite like this one.

Sleets Gill is a low arch leading to a bizarre slope giving one the impression of descending a giant rabbit burrow.  This entrance once lay near the floor of the valley - but it has been left high and normally dry as glaciers have since lowered the valley floor.  

(Picture source: UK Caving)

Sometimes, however - the entrance looks like this!    It's a different ball game altogether and enough to put most people off venturing even a few feet inside ....

The infamy that surrounds Sleets Gill Cave is well deserved.  The passages below are sufficiently deep underground to lie very close to the water table - and it can take rainwater weeks to seep down through the surrounding limestone.  Without warning - even on dry days and up to a week after rain ... the cave can suddenly flood to the roof.  So bad is the flooding that water is forced out of this entrance and gushes down the normally dry limestone gill towards the valley below.   Worse ....  the first part of the cave to flood is the bottom of the entrance slope ... so anyone beyond it would be trapped in the passages beyond.  This most famously happened to two cavers in 1992, when they had to be rescued and dived out by the cave rescue team (see my April post on Dowkabottom Cave for more details).

Even for those who intend to go no further -  a trip to the bottom of the entrance slope is a fantastic experience.  There is no other cave entrance like this in Britain.    Lying on your stomach - in clothes that don't matter - there is this fantastic view back up the steep 52 metre slope to daylight.  Sleets Gill is just awesome.

As we reached the constricted section at the bottom - I jammed by feet into the crack and managed to get this shot looking back up to the entrance.  It is an unworldly feeling ....

Most people would look at the crawl at the foot of the slope - shudder and retreat!  However, if you spend a good 20 minutes kicking cobbles away and widening the crack ... you just lie on the scree and almost sledge on your back under the rock .. wondering where the hell its going to all end!  Coming up - as you will see later ... is amusing indeed!

Meanwhile - as you await your turn to descend into the bowels of the earth ... have a look round at the fine calcite walls.  Why not?

Once through the low section there's a chance to sit up in a small chamber.  Jed is taking a breather - with Emily emerging through the crawl just behind him.

Then there's yet another low crawl under the rock.  Knowing the amazing sights that lie ahead, and having come this far - it would be daft to turn back!

Standing up at last!  My word - a luxury ....

A series of low archways present themselves as we head in anticipation towards the Main Gallery.

Just under here - and then we're in.  There are huge mud banks everywhere that have been built up by flooding and they are very slippery underfoot.  You have to take care here.

The first sight of the Main Gallery is a humbling experience for a mere human.  Your ears feel a strange kind of pressure and there is this feeling of being really deep underground.   The world outside seems a mere dream.

The scale of the place is enormous - and as you keep heading forwards it just gets more and more impressive.

Emily negotiating the mud banks in the Main Gallery.  The floor is often of calcite and gour pools - so 'Golden Gallery' would aptly describe its beauty.

Stalactites are few as the cave still floods to the roof with regularity - but there are some fine flowstone formations along the walls of the gallery.

The floor of the Main Gallery often consists of attractive calcite sculpture - as can be seen here.

Jed posing in the Main Gallery, with a calcite pillow and the passage big enough to drive a train through.

Attractive pillow - though I wouldn't like to fall asleep down here.

The best known feature in the cave is this fabulous flowstone column in the far reaches of the Main Gallery.  

At the far end of the Main Gallery - a drop leads down to the notorious Hydrophobia Passage - a low tunnel containing a fast flowing stream where the caver literally has his face in the water.  Beyond that is a massive underground ramp even larger than the entrance slope - but these require full caving gear and nerves of steel. After a couple of hours underground - we sensibly turned back - knowing the challenge of getting back up the entrance slope was enough to think about!

Even though it hadn't rained for more than a week - and before that for a condiserable time - water was still flowing in a sinister way along the floor of the Main Gallery.

In places the pools were knee deep.

This is perhaps the classic image that pops into mind when most cavers think of Sleets Gill Cave: the wonderful railway tunnel-like profile of the Main Gallery - a phreatic tube in caving terms, formed completely under water.  It is so difficult to photograph as the air is full of water droplets.  A lot of image processing is needed !!

Heading back through that same tunnel.  it is a privilege to see it.

Jed dwarfed by the scale of the passage and the mud banks of the Main Gallery, Sleets Gill Cave.

Beginning the long crawl back up the entrance slope.  The angle is steep and as you grab at the rocks they just move with you.  It is a battle against gravity and the roof is only inches above your head.

I was about fifty feet above Emily when her light first showed itself where she was crawling up behind me. Wish I could have tape recorded her voice!!!

Yes - that yellow helmet is approaching slowly.  Five minutes of struggle can perhaps get you ten feet higher!!  Such is the challenge of the crawl out.

Jed was somewhere behind ... but at this point Emily just rested ... unable to turn her head.

Some idea of the severity of the crawl.  I've known it a lot easier in the past - but the recent wet winter has played havoc with the cobbles.

And just when she thought she had finally done it .....

It was all too much for my poor daughter - and she curled up in a ball for five minutes of reflection!

At last - they both emerged ... with just a fifty feet climb left back to daylight.

And here's your truly .... heaven knows how he got himself through there.  He'll suffer tomorrow!

Sleets Gill Cave lies just east of Arncliffe.  It should be explored only by confident cavers and with someone who knows the system.  However, it is worth a visit just to saunter down the entrance slope in clothes that don't matter.  Just treat this cave with the greatest respect.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


Sacred Hill of the Dead

Yesterday I wandered into truly enchanted country: a land of fairies - of crouched skeletal burials and ancient animal hideaways: the environs of the mysterious 'reef knoll' of Elbolton, towering over the quaint old hamlet of Thorpe.

To get there I parked in Hebden - and took the path alongside Hebden Beck down to the River Wharfe.

Attractive bridges in sylvan settings present themselves everywhere.

The stunning River Wharfe is first met at the elegant suspension bridge - allowing access to a bridle track up towards the hidden hamlet of Thorpe.

From the bridle track - I had fine views back over towards the bridge - the fields decorated with ancient lynchets: terracing by medieval farmers for easier ploughing.

This was my first glimpse of the famous reef knolls: Kail Hill, at centre - with the head of Elbolton just visible on the right.  These are the remains of a massive 'barrier reef' and once lay where shallow waters of a tropical sea met the deeper water beyond.  Deeper water?? All you can see now is the massive rampart of Rylstone Fell - composed of darker gritstone ... and the reason?  Well when sea levels dropped, almost to marsh-like conditions - great rivers washed in huge banks of sand and gravel to form those high fells.  They also covered the reef knolls which have since been exposed again by glacial action.  Hope that makes sense!

Kail Hill is a superb example of a reef knoll and its limestone is made up almost entirely of fossilised remains of the reef of which it was once a part.  More about those later.  Behind it can be seen the great 'wave' of gritstone making up the northern ramparts of Rylstone Fell - the contrasting grass colour giving away its acidic nature.

Another great view of the contrasting rock types: limestone in the foreground with rich grassland, and the great ridge of Rylstone Fell behind.

Quaint old sign pointing the way to the ultimate destination.

Thorpe Manor: one of several grand old houses in the village.

In the centre of Thorpe is the ancient village green - where a maypole stood for generations. It is a site of special archaeological interest in its own right.

Thorpe's unique hidden position - between the reef knolls of Kail Hill and Elbolton, has given it the old name 'Thorpe in the Hollow'.  As many authors have stated, it never seems to change: with old barns and bricked up windows looking like they haven't seen humans for several generations.

Everything  comes from another age: a better time in many ways.  A sleepy, carefree time.

This unique little cottage seems to personify 'Thorpe in the Hollow'.

The feline version:  fairies and mysterious happenings are common around Thorpe. This moggy had real personality and seemed to look me up and down like he owned the place.

The bovine version: all four legged animals here have a presence about them.

The great sacred hill of Elbolton is revealed as we head up an ancient trackway out of Thorpe.  Two centuries ago a man met a band of fairies on the hillside here - and when approaching them he was rudely kicked and spat upon.  Hiding one in his pocket to convince his daughter of their existence - he was startled to find an empty pocket on returning home. The hill has been the scene of many strange happenings ever since.  Even climbing it - you can feel someone watching your every move - even though the sense of isolation is also very real.

The rustic lane along the base of Elbolton - with the steep slopes of reef limestone towering up on the right.

Thorpe nestles snugly in the hollow between the two reef knolls as we scale Elbolton's eastern slope.  It is a battle against gravity - and clearly the ancient folk who dragged their dead up to the cave near the summit must have had serious intention in mind when burying them at such an elevated spot.  Just look at that view over Kail Hill!

Elbolton Cave itself - properly called Navvy Noodle Hole - lies hidden beneath a limestone scar near the summit of the hill.  Not many visit - even fewer go inside - as this cave is tricky to enter.  The supernatural activity around the entrance is legendary.

The cave - better described as a pothole - has a metal cover to keep out sheep.  This is easily lifted to give the same view that Neolithic people will have had some 4000 years ago.  

A close-up of Elbolton Cave.  A 20 foot vertical drop leads into the chamber.  

Preparing to descend.  A very tricky climb down even with a rope - as the sides are slippery and awkward. Presumably weathering has reduced the footholds of the ancients - unless there was another way in which has since been blocked.

This is where it all happened in 1888.  The Reverend E. Jones of Embsay lowered himself into the cave for a full investigation.  Twenty feet down he hit a layer of debris but could hardly have expected what lay in store for him.  Here he initially found three human skeletons in a sitting position - knees drawn up to their chins and for all the world appearing as though sitting around a crude fire.  These days the finds are considered to be, in a sense, Europe's oldest 'mummies'.  The skeletons were actually surrounded by a rough stone wall - and there was evidence that dogs or wolves had been deliberately released into the cave to remove the flesh before being removed by their supervisors!

Slumping down the hillside is the spoil heap that Mr Jones dug out of the cave.  In the debris below the initial three he eventually unearthed at least nine more human skeletons - while beneath these was an 'animal layer' containing the bones of bears, reindeer, wolves, badgers and other mammals.  Pottery was also found containing diamond-like patterns - as well as the remains of fires, where peat had been used as fuel.  Clearly, Elbolton Cave was history in a pot: a unique and fascinating treasure trove ...

Even so - the history of living things here dates back 300 million years.  Examining the reef limestone outside the entrance we meet crinoids from the great barrier that once lay at the margins of a shallow, tropical sea.

Some of the fossils - like this gastropod - are stunning indeed.

All manner of creatures can be made out with a careful inspection.

The structure of the reef limestone is much different than the traditional Great Scar Limestone we are used to in the Yorkshire Dales.  The rock is much more brittle and looser in structure.

There are other pots on the summit of Elbolton - and one of them links through to the main cave itself.  There is also evidence of early mining.

Stebden is another reef knoll - just to the north.  Strange how the distant Pendle Hill is associated with so many of these ancient sites in the southern dales.  

The cairn on the summit of Elbolton - looking north to Grassington with Great Whernside and Buckden Pike in the distance.

Close-up of Stebden - a beautifully conical reef knoll - from the summit of Elbolton.  The great gritstone ridge of Rylstone Fell can be seen behind - consisting of much younger rocks formed by rivers washing in sand and gravel.

Wheatears have been at home here for centuries no doubt.  Their calls - like clashing pebbles - resemble those of the stonechat.

Solitary barn in a rustic setting as we head towards the village of Linton.

Linton is an attractive village - with the old clapper bridge spanning Linton Beck, a tributary of the Wharfe.

I later rejoined the Wharfe at the lovely Linton Falls, just below Grassington.  It hasn't rained much this year - so the rocks were more exposed than usual.  The limestone here has a pinkish glow.

As far as beauty goes, Linton Falls are difficult to beat.

The last stage of my journey through history was a delightful stroll back towards Hebden, along the banks of a sedate River Wharfe.

From every angle, this crystal clear river is just stunning on the eye.

Whether from a gap between the trees ....

Peeping through fresh foliage ...

Or lingering on the longer stretches ...

Avenues of chestnuts line the banks, casting their shadows over the water - where trout and crayfish thrive.

Finally - it was back to the stepping stones by the suspension bridge - to put the finishing touches to a  great afternoon.

There is free parking in Hebden.  Follow the beck southwards to the Wharfe.  Once over the suspension bridge a bridleway takes you to Thorpe, cosily hidden between the reef knolls. Get the muscles ready for the stiff climb up to Elbolton Cave but take great care at the entrance to this sacred place.  Follow delightful meadows to Linton, and enjoy a pint in the Fountaine Inn before enjoying the falls and a lovely riverside stroll back to Hebden.  This adventure has a bit of everything - and stunning widlife.  Watch out for fairies ....

Stephen x