Monday, 7 April 2014

Dowkabottom Cave
A Lonely Stalagmite Grave

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.

And this is it!  Turn into Littondale (heading for Arncliffe) when driving through Wharfedale - and after half a mile or so a lay-by will be noticed on the left near an obvious plantation of conifers and with a rocky 'dry' streambed just beyond it.  This is Sleets Gill: the place to leave a car.

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's my son, Joe (seven at the time) climbing out through the gap after a trip into the Main Gallery during the dry summer of 2005.  He had no fear for the occasion!

And here he is in the Main Gallery itself.  I wonder how many young children have been down there?  He's now 16 and six feet tall.  Not as easy to get through the gap these days!!

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.

This place has the wow factor!  'Awe-inspiring' doesn't do it justice.

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 steep path rounds the scar to the right of the cave entrance and heads up onto the limestone uplands.

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.

The main enclosure, with the uplands of Old Cote Moor lying beyond, separating Littondale from Langstrothdale.

Looking back to the Iron Age enclosure, at centre, with living accomodation for those who made a living at these heights.

More evidence of settlements, looking up a hazy Littondale towards Arncliffe.

An Iron Age wall clearly dividing the area into enclosures.  A special site with hardly any disturbance.

A panoramic view over the Iron Age settlement, showing the rectangular hut in the background and the dividing wall down the centre.

Beyond is this well preserved cairn - its remote location meaning it has never been excavated.  Wonder who lies under there?

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.

The limestone sculpture is ... as you might guess - superb.

Looking north to the prow of Knipe Scar with Great Whernside in haze beyond.

Clints and grykes on the plateau as we approach Dowkabottom.

These fortress-like crags of limestone are very similar to the Warrendale Knots, near Settle.

Views back to the merging point of two dales.  I wished for better light!!!

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.

Another view of the hut circle, sheltered under the west slope of Dowkabottom.

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)!

Settlement remains near the south end of the Dowkabottom depression.

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.

An alternative view of the entrance - taken with a different camera.

Flowstone features are met almost immediately on the left as we enter.

Looking back out from the entrance to the South Passage.

As with many dales caves, the lofty ceiling is encrusted with Moonmilk.

The signatures on the right wall are fascinating - just look at the word-art on show.  In the middle you might notice 1857, which pre-dates the original excavations and for that person, it would have been considerable effort to get this far. Amazing to think that, in pre-car days - it seems that more people were wandering up here than is the case today.  Mind you - no sky tv or other distractions.  In those days the landscape had pulling power and people were still half frightnened by the mystery of the caves.

Speight (1892) tells us that this passage was originally stunning - but has been ruthlessly changed by visitors.  I beg to differ.  Have a look at this for example.

Every time I've visited Dowkabottom Cave, I've never failed to see a bat in this passage, and at viewing distance (though bats should NEVER be touched).  His little chest was going up and down and he looked totally fed up in my caving lamp - so I moved on and left him in peace. The cave is a mass of bat droppings, but I only saw this little fella today.  I think, though I'm not certain, he's a Natterer's Bat.  I was careful to keep him out of my light on the return journey.

More moonmilk in the ceiling.

In this chamber were discovered the antlers of a gigantic Irish elk of Prehistoric times, as well as a perfectly preserved skeleton of the gigantic red deer.   Was everything gigantic in those days?  Most famously, under a layer of debris a tiny grave, covered by slabs, was found chipped into the stalagmite floor - only a foot long and eight inches in width.  In it, in a curled up position - was a child of no more than 2 years old .... 

I'm not sure if the bones were Bronze Age or later - but like many objects from Dowkabottom, they were mixed with objects from other caves in their various trips around the country when making their way to museums.  In the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, caves were often used for bodies with deformities of some kind .....  This, by the way - is the fabulous 'organ pipe' formation in the West Chamber, which, to me, always looks like a group of roosting barn owls.

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.

The horn of the Dowkabottom Rhino?  We always used to refer to this as a rhino when I brought my children here - and why not?  It's in keeping with the prehistoric theme - and keeps them interested (not that they need any more excitement in a place like this).

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.

Caves are precious - and every caver that passes through this stunning place must inflict some wear and tear on that flowstone.  It's best to cause as little disturbance as possible.  I never, for example, wade through the pools unless I have to.

The entire chamber: a stunning place by any standards.  The child's body was described as being located in the west chamber - but that tiny pool in the stalagmite at left gives some idea of what the child's grave might have looked like before it was covered by slabs.

Every cave as its own bizarre sculpture.

No wonder the 19th century explorers were ecstatic about this cave.

Back to daylight.  If you don't have a rope - that will be your limit unless you are a confident, experienced climber.  I always tie a caving rope around that boulder, sticking  out into the darkness.  There's a metal bolt in situ, too - but they can't always be trusted.  It's only about 15 feet down.  The cave we have so far explored lies underneath our feet behind the camera.  So down we shall go then, into the north passage!

Because it's harder to get to - naturally the formations are even better.

This always looks, to me, like a giant hairy elephant - Mr Snuffleupicus, from Sesame Street.  Remember him?  He's even got his sad face and trunk looking to the left.

The first chamber has a lofty ceiling over forty feet high, and the floor is a mass of stalagmite that has been completely dug out.  Skeletons of wolves, goat and deer were found here by Mr Farrer - as well as, at higher levels, Roman coins from the times of Trajan and Constantino. Twenty four bronze fibulae (brooches) were also found, as well as various human bones.  It's fair to say that this chamber was a chronology of British history in a nutshell: everything from Neolithic (3000 BC) to medieval times.  

A copper-alloy dragonesque brooch found in this chamber - just one of many finds from the cave now in the British Museum.

And here it is: a full view of this historic spot - looking back towards the daylight at the entrance.  The home of 'cavemen' and an important storage point and place of refuge thereafter.

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.

Pools - looking like caramel - cover the clean washed floor. Despite the slippery appearance - no light means no moss or algae - and it's surprisingly grippy.

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.

The walls close in - and now it's time to get the feet wet.  It's not often more than knee deep - but it's worth it for what lies beyond.  I always take my wellies in my rucksack and have a small towel and change of socks!  I'm a creature of habit.

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.

This is my favourite part of Dowkabottom Cave.  A slender spire of flowstone with a wider, cylindrical base, reaching up like some gigantic champagne bottle, spilling out its flowstone contents.

And this is the best view.  It may well be christened the Golden Gallery, with the champagne bottle up on the left hand shelf.  What a place to be alive.

Details at the head of the gallery.

Because of its more difficult access - stalactites have survived in these far reaches.

Wonder how long it'll take these to reach the floor.  Carbon dioxide diffusing from soil water into the cave air, causes minute amounts of calcite to be deposited with each drip - and so the process continues. 

Stalagmites, of course - build upwards.  As my teacher used to tell me: 'When the mites go up - the tights come down.'  Useful one, that.

Wedged boulder in North Passage.  Looks like ET to me.  You see that?

All comes to an end at the sump.  Well , actually it is not quite a sump (totally flooded passage) now - as it has been blasted to allow brave cavers to wade through up to their chins in water.  And believe me - the water is FRRRRREEEEEEzing!!!!!! It makes your voice change pitch, unless of course, you've a wetsuit.  Beyond the 'duck' lies twice as much cave again.  Believe it or not, in hot summers this pool dries up completely and the way through is then blocked by glutinous mud!  Beyond the pool, the reamining cave is beautiful beyond words, as so few have ever seen it - but it's also an easy place to get trapped in heavy rain.

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.

It's a long way down, but you can just see my little silver brum brum tucked in the lay-by to the left of the trees.  I'm aching now, but what a day it's been.

Stephen x


  1. Superb as always !
    if we ever meet I'll buy you a pint
    the last time I was at the end of Sleets Gill cave
    was back in the 60's, there used to be test tubes
    in clips at the end, all full to the brim with water !
    I posted some Dowkerbottom cave information here :-
    and another rhyme for you -
    Stalag-tites stick tight, Stalag-mites might
    cheers thanks again Danny

    1. Yeah we'll have to meet up one time pal. Yes I've seen your Teddy trip up there. It's spot on - with the snow pics. Many thanks for the comments. I wastired out by the time I'd finished that blog post - it waslonger than I intended!!! :) Great rhyme by the way!!

  2. Fascinating reading. I might not get down into the cave, but I've definitely put this one onto my list of places to visit. thank you.

  3. Thanks a lot. The south passage will be easy enough for you - just scramble down and make sure you take a head torch. Take care on the scramble down - but it is well worth it.

  4. Excellent post - I really enjoyed reading it. As a caver myself I have explored both Sleets Gill and Dowkabottom. The time we did Sleets had been dry for a few days and we spent awhile in both Hydrophobia and Hyperthermia. We were down the cave for about 4 hours photographing it. The main tunnel is superb. When I got home and after a bath I remembered I had left a lens near the entrance - so I got in the car and drove the 25 mile back to the cave. Getting to the entrance slope I was horrified to see water about 10 ft down...and watched it amazement and terror as the water gradually rose up the slope and poured out of the entrance (I have a photograph if you want to see it - although there is also a uTube video of the same thing)..

    Dowkabottom is also superb... and a trip to the end chamber which is huge is well worth it.

    You have an excellent blog and your photos are superb. I thoroughly enjoy reading it.



  5. Hi James - Many thanks. Comments like that are very motivating. Brilliant tales there about Sleets. I have just been given the publishing contract today for the book 'A Three Peaks Up and Under' and I am sure the blog has helped in that direction by getting a market. So if posts go less over the next few weeks it's becauseof the proof reading as the book is 360 pages long and I don't fancy the prospect of wading through it. My next post is on Ibbeth Peril which I'm hoping to get in Wednesday. Once again, many thanks .... it's those little things that keep you going!!! Love to see the photos by the way. Stephen :)

  6. Congratulation Stephen! Well done - you must let me know when it is available. I too am a blogger - although on Wordpress. Here is my post on Sleets Gill - it is one of my first posts and very rambling, but the pics are there - especially of the one with the water coming out of the entrance. Ibbeth Peris is one I haven't done so I shall look forward to reading that. It is supposed to be a cracking cave.



  7. Fantastic blog post and a great read, James. Really enjoyed it and will be back to read the rest. The pictures of the main gallery are stunning. I won't go in there unless we've had a really hot dry spell - and looking at your pictures convinced me that I was right not to do so!! Can you put comments on your blog ? I didn't see to see a space for them? My book will be out In 2015 and is being published by 'Scratching Shed' based in Leeds. It is not a repetition of the blog - I was careful to make sure that the blog is a supplement to it and really started writing the blog to get an audience for the book. Ironically I enjoy the blogging very much now .... I would say tha the book is a detailed travelogue of a landscape rather than a walking book - and it is full of humour which makes it a bit different, hopefully. We will have to meet up one day. :)

  8. I didn't find it a rambling post by the way .... I thought it was written with an audience in mind and there wasn't a boring sentence in it.

  9. Thanks Stephen...glad you like the blog, and I think you can comment it by using your email - (comments are usually shown on the bottom if you click on the post title). I have a friend who told me a tale about a couple of school teachers who took some kids on a 'adventure weekend' caving trip to some local caves - Dow Cave, Manchester Hole - and (yes, you guessed it) Sleets Gill!! Madness...I have started getting into the archaeology of the moors (I live in Otley so the moors are close by)...and just loved reading your posts on Malham and surrounding areas...I just didn't know there was so much up there! We must meet up and you can show me around sometime. I am busy for a couple of months with various projects but after that would be good.