Friday, 3 May 2013

Thorns Gill:  A Paradise in Limestone

Wainwright called it 'a paradise of exquisite beauty' - and he was right.  Thorns Gill, a hidden limestone ravine near Ribblehead, has everything that is great about karst landscapes:  a youthful stream, great rock sculpture, waterfalls, pools, amazing perched boulders and, of course, caves.

This brilliantly clear afternoon was spot on for photography.  After parking at Ribblehead, the first feature to capture attention was Whernside, highest of the Three Peaks, with the 24 arch Ribblehead viaduct spanning Batty Moss below.  

Ingleborough, however, always wins hands down in any contest between the mountains.

With a zoom, Ingleborough and Simon Fell are more dominant than ever.  A tiny pocket of snow can still be seen hanging on between the tree and the building.

The flood prone Conduit Spring Cave lies beside the road on the way to Thorns Gill. The description in Northern Caves is ever so pleasant: 'Warning' it says. 'The cave floods severely and without warning, making both downstream and upstream ends impassable.'  Enough said ...

Every step brings a new perspective to the Ingleborough massif, with Simon Fell at centre, and Park Fell to the left.  This area was a major 'snow' centre during the last ice age - with glaciers flowing from this central hub down Ribblesdale (left) and Chapel-le-Dale, to the right.

An isolated limestone pavement on Batty Moss, swept clean during the last ice age.

Ribblehead's best known inhabitants .. that is, along with the many 'navvies' who died building the viaduct in appaling conditions. Their bodies are buried on the moor.

This scene, near the route from Gearstones to Thorns Gill, contains a perfect mixture of the works of nature and those of man: rustic barns and farmsteads with small drumlins backed by magnificent mountains.

A little closer with the camera for a different perspective.  The sky was perfect for this shot.

Approaching Thorns Gill.  The derelict hamlet of Thorns itself can be seen in the trees.  Both these features are completely hidden from the road.

Limestone boulders are littered in the surrounding fields - and the path drops to cross the gill's most famous feature, the delicate little packhorse bridge - just a few feet wide, which spans the ravine.

Limestone 'non-erratic' boulder by the bridge, perched on a plateau of the same rock - most of which has now been weathered away since the last glaciation.

The bridge is truly beautiful: In Wainwright's words: ' a gem for the canvas and the camera.'  Man and nature have achieved perfect harmony here.

How it has remained standing all this time in such ferocious weather is a testament to the skill of its creator, many years ago.

The bridge from another angle, with the boulder perched in a noble position above.

Looking into the shadows - down the gill from the bridge.

A small cave forming in the lower reaches of the gill.

Elevated view of Thorns Gill from the east bank of Gayle Beck, showing the packhorse bridge and limestone boulders.

Unusual perched limestone boulders, transported during the ice age.  They haven't moved for at least 12,000 years!

The lower section of the gill showing attractive structure in the limestone.

More perched 'non-erratics' - the central example containing deep grooves formed by water action. Erratics themselves, of course, have to be of a rock contrasting with the type on which they have been placed, such as on Norber, on the south side of Ingleborough.

Looking east just before the foot of the gill - to a fine perched boulder and lonely hawthorn.

The beautiful pool at the foot of Thorns Gill can only be reached by a careful scramble down the right hand banking.  A mermaid wouldn't be out of place here.  This is a stunning spot.

A small beach of pebbles and shingle contrasts superbly with the dark waters of the pool.

The lip of a waterfall can be seen on the left.  It cascades into the pool only in high water conditions. This scooped out hollow on the right has been formed by swirling water action when the stream is in flood, eroding the limestone over many years.

Stunning views in the lower reaches of Thorns Gill.  A magical feature of the Dales karst.

They don't see many humans - and can't you tell?

Gayle Beck has eroded the limestone into a series of attractive little pools.  Clambering along them is great fun.

The fabulous Thorns Gill 'Mushroom' on the east bank of Gayle Beck - with a typical Dales crow for company.  The pedestal height gives some idea of how much limestone has been eroded away since the ice age ended.  

Penyghent, another fine boulder - and a customary crow.  A view looking east.

Looking south from the same spot to Gauber quarry, Park Fell and the inevitable Ingleborough - the Lord of the Limestone.  

The upper section of Thorns Gill contains some lovely small cascades in the sculpted limestone.

A typical sight of limestone country:  a grand old ash presides over a section of drystone wall, on the east bank of Thorns Gill.

Approaching Katnot Cave, with a fine grooved boulder in the foreground looking like a limestone 'monster munch.'

Katnot Cave was famously visited by the Reverend John Hutton in the 1780s, when he penned his 'Tour to the Caves.'  It once contained a wealth of stalactites and wonderful formations.  'We had not gone in very far,' he wrote, 'when we were obliged to wade up to the mid-leg.'  Just inside, over a boulder pile, the stream turns right to emerge into daylight. This is a long-abandoned entrance but it can still become active in the heaviest floods.

The entrance to Katnot Cave, shyly hidden away in the depths of Thorns Gill.

The fine view from the entrance, looking west to the opposite bank of the gill.  It was refreshing to cool off from the sun's rays for a few minutes.

The boulder pile just inside the entrance to Katnot Cave is getting nastier each time I visit.  It requires great care when scrambling over to the inner reaches of the cave.  There are lots of loose rocks around ...

Katnot Cave, in its quaint little dry valley on the east bank of Thorns Gill.  A lovely little spot.  I didn't have my gear today, so we'll wander inside another time.

A pool and cascade near Katnot Cave.  Wainwright, who didn't like humans, famously included a picture of his wife, Betty, beside this pool in Walks in Limestone Country. She was honoured indeed!  

The upstream section of Thorns Gill, with more small cascades.

Above the gill, Gayle Beck widens out, with the hamlet of Gearstones up on the left.

Gayle Beck is stunningly attractive in this section, upstream of Thorns Gill - the infant stages of the River Ribble on its long course to the sea.

The dark pools, green turf and pale white limestone contrast superbly.

Heading back downstream - eroded bedding planes indicate something special is just around the corner ...

And here is is - Thorns Gill Cave itself - and it swallows a substantial portion of Gayle Beck even in normal conditions.  In flood, it fills quickly to the roof and is a deathtrap!

Just inside the entrance, a normally dry bedding plane cave branches off on the left, with fine scalloping on the limestone floor.

The main cave itself swallows the water in a sinister looking passage.  It's possible to explore, but you need caving gear - and a tolerance of cold water as you must, several metres inside, crawl through a pool into a chamber beyond.

The view out is magnificent.  Limestone country at its very best, framed by the dark walls of the cavern.

A view from further inside Thorns Gill Cave captures a little more light glinting from the ceiling.

Back to daylight, and a stroll down the east bank of the gill has many highlights.  These two fellas I call 'The Two Ronnies.'  'It's goodnight from me .... and it's goodnight from him.'

The Thorns Gill Mushroom in close-up. Two beady eyes seem to stare at the few people who pass this way. Nice hairstyle, too!

Lined up together, the two great boulders appear to be a pair of recently landed aliens.

Each and every angle is impressive.  They're photogenic, and don't they know it?

A graceful butterfly perhaps - or the shell of a giant marine creature?  This attractive boulder is one of my favourite features of the Thorns Gill area - its sloping position having allowed running water to carve out the grooving over many years.

A small doline or shakehole close to the gill, formed by subsidence of the ground beneath.  These are typical of limestone country.

Approaching the lonely and abandoned hamlet of Thorns - a place of great atmosphere.

Heading into Thorns - with much evidence of former occupation.  It was deserted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The last remaining cottage ruins in the hamlet of Thorns.

A sad place - slowly being reclaimed by the harsh nature of its position.

Thorns Gill can be seen running diagonally from the top right corner of the image.  Parking is available at Ribblehead (near the walkers symbols).  Proceed along the Hawes road (north east) for about half a mile until you reach a ladder stile heading for Gauber on the right hand side.  Ignore this and just beyond it is access to another path by a sheep pen.  Follow this path south east over a small hill to the packhorse bridge of Thorns Gill, exploring sections both up and downstream.  Take a picnic and a camera - and its a place to linger for hours.  

Stephen x


  1. August 2016. Thanks for superb photos of Thorns Gill area.
    It's a long time since I passed that way. Pix very nostalgic.
    The boulders are correctly associated with glacial movement. In geological terminology these are known as "erratics".
    Basically, this means much older rock deposited on top of younger rock. Good examples are the Norber Erratics near Clapham, where much older limestone rests on significantly younger gritstone. Dozens of examples exist.

  2. Lovely photos of a place I visited many years ago, when I also took my family down one of the caves (I used to be a caver) Judy