Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Rabbit Round Ribblehead

Exploring the Caves of Batty Moss

On my travels around the Three Peaks, I am so often asked, 'Which are the best 'first caves' to let my children explore?'  The answer lies here - at Ribblehead - more famous of course for the 24 arch viaduct. Completed in 1875 in horrendous working conditions, the structure stretches itself across Batty Moss like an invincible dragon.  If you wish to find out more about the construction of the viaduct, check out my 'Shanty Towns of Ribblehead' Post from April of last year.  However .... on to the caves ...

Ribblehead is always busy - with trainspotters and bikers, cyclists and hikers ... and it even has its own 'fourth peak' in an amazing mobile cafe, so when you explore the caves here you always feel that help is never far away - should you get into difficulties (which is highly unlikely with care).  The caves are, of course, centred on an area of limestone pavement on the barren moor beneath Whernside. I have explored these caves for many years - and it can take several visits to understand how they all fit together, but it is sufficient to say that, today we are going to go 'up' through Runscar and 'down' through Thistle - with a few diversions along the way to some very special places, but shhhhhhhh .... don't tell anybody!

A word of warning before we set out: these are active stream caves - despite their easy access - and they can .. an often do - flood to the roof in heavy rain.  Make sure the weather is fine for  a start.  Make sure also that you've had plenty to eat from the 'fourth peak' and oh, you'll need wellies and a good torch, or better still a helmet mounted lamp.  Why not hire these from Bernie's or Inglesport in Ingleton (4 miles down the road)? They are very cheap and well worth it - plus they have breakfasts there to die for.  After a 'welly filler' at Inglesport, you need not eat for 24 hours!!   Trust me on that one.

You can also hire full caving suits - but for these caves I just use old clothes and waterproofs. But if you want to make a full day of it and go in every hole (including the nasty crawly bits) it's best to go for a suit and feel like a proper caver.  Don't worry - we're not going in this one (above) as it's the downstream exit to Runscar Cave and is very tight.  The trick is to leave the car park at Ribblehead and proceed along the boggy moor until an obvious little cliff is met with a very accomodating entrance.  That's the main section of Runscar Cave and is perfect for children and grown ups alike.  The cliff can be seen easily from the car park - if you're not tall enough to spot it, jump up and down a few times and you soon will.  You get some great stares from the public when doing this .....

This is it, folks.  If you arrive at a cliff with a thorn bush on it you're actually at Thistle Cave and need to wander north a few paces.  People confuse the two.  Runscar has a big stream coming out of it and sinks into another, lower section of cave which eventually pops out at the hole we saw on the earlier photograph.  No stream emerges from Thistle.  You'll soon get your bearings!

The water today was stained peaty brown indicating that recent rain had saturated the ground.  Any more rain would soon raise the level to a dangerous depth, but the forecast was good, and bearing in mind you are never long underground in this cave, it made sense to go ahead.  Remember the slogan before you go underground with kids: 'if in doubt - stay out.'  

Once inside Runscar Cave, there's a lovely view out - following the course of the stream.

You have to crouch a bit and let your eyes get used to the dark, but there's plenty of places to avoid a wet bottom.  Notice where the floor of the cave once was before water cut through to its present level.  This is a fine example of an acitive vadose stream cave.

The water, swirling through in flood conditions, has carved out a gorgeous sweeping curve in the walls of the cave, with scalloping adding further beauty.

Even a little cave like this one has got the wow factor.  Your children will adore the place.

Here we get the classic 'keyhole' shaped passage, where water, eroding through a major joint in the limestone over immense periods of time - has met the base of the limestone and so - prevented from eroding downwards, it has eroded either side instead to create the shape so typical of active Dales cave passages.

The ceiling, typically, is a mass of 'moonmilk' believed to be formed by bacterial action.

Floodwater has also, over time, left some bizarre features such as this rib of limestone.

The ceiling in parts is over 25 feet above the passage floor.

Scalloping of the floor and walls is particularly attractive.

A massive column of limestone has been left, coated in moonmilk.

Smaller scalloping shows here that water has been forced round this 90 degree bend at great speed, carving a bowl-like pool into the floor of the cave.  It's only knee deep - so no problem for the kids.  

Then things get truly spectacular as the water moves through a higher level joint and here is still eroding downwards through the limestone.  This is a wonderful section of stream passage.

Every step gives a sense of the spectacular and it feels like being in a monster's stomach.

Only in thousands of years will this section take on the keyhole shape we saw earlier, when it erodes as far as the limestone base.  The stream is certainly having a good go at doing so.

Every cave seems to have its giant's club - but to me this is more like a chicken leg.

Perhaps not from the opposite side - and it's only just hanging on, each flood adding a minute amount of erosion.  Don't think I'll ever see it collapse!

You could almost bed down on this attractive terrace of limestone - well above the main stream level.

Daylight beckons at last.  Take great care here as, once in light, the rocks grow slippery mosses and algae, making a slip quite easy.  Now to emerge, in true rabbit fashion, onto the moor!

Well, this is where we've just emerged from ... and we're now looking across to a Bank Holiday at Ribblehead. Park Fell is on the right, with Penyghent off to the extreme left.  Behind the camera is a mass of loose boulders leading into Scar Top Cave, but this is for competent cavers only as there are some really intricate squeezes.  Before heading back down through Thistle Cave, let's have a wander in the sunshine ....

How about this for a classic view of Penyghent - the Lion of Ribblesdale?

Not to be outdone, of course, is the entire Ingleborough massif: Park Fell, Southerscales Fell, and the master himself on the right.  No mountain does it for me quite like this one.

This is Runscar itself: a welcome slice of white limestone adding colour to an otherwise barren moor.  This area was a major centre of ice accumulation during the last glaciation, with the glaciers splitting in two here : one branch heading down Chapel-le-Dale, and one down Ribblesdale.

Man and nature work in perfect harmony at Ribblehead, as illustrated by the Settle-Carlisle Railway.

Once you emerge from Runscar Cave, look northwards (the opposite way to the viaduct) - jump up and down a few times - and you'll spot a tree! A tree???  Yes, that's right - the one and only intruder on this barren wilderness, and it shoud be visited, as it shelters the lovely little hanging garden of Cuddy Gill Pot.

There is beauty here - and much of interest for the botanist.  It is one of the very few potholes where children can actually scramble down into the depths, where water rushes into the pot from Cuddy Gill Cave, nearby.

Another view of Cuddy Gill Pot - one of the places few people have ever visited.

A few paces above the pot leads to an obvious sink into the limestone, and the variety of entrances into Cuddy Gill Cave.  'Warning', says 'Northern Caves' - 'Floodwater backs up from the Cuddy Gill Pot sump and can fill the cave to the roof.'  Nice!

Here's one of the ways in.  It's amazing how many cave entrances you can stand at in Yorkshire and have Ingleborough's brooding presence watching over you.

This false entrance into Cuddy Gill Cave is actually a bridge of rock, and it should be passed through (your kids will love it) as it leads to what I consider to be one of the most beautiful scenes in the Yorkshire limestone.

How about this for natural sculpture?

Ferns - new and old - provide wonderful contrasting colours.

Looking back under the rock bridge at Cuddy Gill Cave: there is acually a bridge on the left, too.  The entire place is a catacomb of tunnels and bridges in the limestone.

And the climax of the scramble is this: a stunning view of the hanging fern garden, looking back to the bridge from the actual entrance to the cave.  It's like a film set for 'The Lord of the Rings.'

Alternative view in different light.  Go there and experience it - it's incredible.

And here at last is the actual entrance to Cuddy Gill Cave.  It is interesting to see, but the walls are of very sharp rock and the passage is very narrow.  It's worth a peep inside, but a massive boulder blocks the way to the pothole we visited earlier.

All in all, Cuddy Gill Cave is a forbidding place - with a flood risk not worth forgetting!

Yours truly having another look at the bridge as he emerges from Cuddy Gill Cave.

I promised you we would go down through Thistle Cave - so let's head that way.  Retrace your steps over the moor to the exit from Runscar Cave, then a few paces beyond, on the same contour and towards the viaduct, is this unmissable hole with exposed earth at one side.  This is Thistle Cave - and it has two ways in: both of which are great fun.

Scramble down to the bottom of the hole.  The main way on is through the easy doorway to the left, but to the right is this daunting looking entrance to the Upper Cave.  It's only like sliding under your bed, and once through - feet first - you emerge in an easy walking passage in the stream.  Go for it!

Moving upstream in the upper part of Thistle Cave - things begin to open out impressively.

Then we meet the Thistle Cave Skull - on the wall of the main stream passage.

Embryonic, perhaps - but nonetheless impressive.

After only a hundred yards or so the cave emarges into a choked boulder chamber, and if you have a flask - it's a great place for a brew!

I once spent a lunchtime in here with over 20 cavers from the Craven Pothole Club; a bizarre restaurant.

The choked chamber at the upper limit of Thistle Cave.  Many years ago it was rich in stalactites.

Another view of the chamber in Thistle Cave.

Flowstone coating the boulders in the chamber.

The trick now is to head back out - and when you reach that narrow entrance, keep crawling forwards unit you emerge into daylight before this: the entrance to the 'main' or middle part of Thistle Cave.  This is a twin to Runscar, and is equally interesting to explore.

It soon opens out into an impressive canyon passage.

The the way on is down through this remarkable 'pothole' which has been scoured out by swirling water to form a rounded feature almost like  a font.

It is remarkable to see how water has been slowly eating into this feature on the left side - and there are several exposed gastropod fossils on show.

The passage is higher on the whole than Runscar Cave, and perhaps even more impressive.

One section resembles the gaping jaws of a great monster, with stalactites forming its teeth.

The golden flowstone is at its best as we reach the middle of Thistle Cave.

And a variety of colours display themselves in the main stream passage.

Red ochre formations add a touch of glamour to the place.

Can you see the figure here - hiding in the recess with outstretched hand?

This oxbow on the left is what I have always called 'The Snake'.  I well remember my friend getting stuck in here.  One lad was pulling him from one end, while we were all pushing him from the other.  Something had to give!!  He shot out like a cork from a wine bottle. Your children will fly through it - but don't kid yourself as an adult unless you're confident!!

Just beyond is this truly exquisite gothic archway: the highlight of Thistle Cave for me - and worth the (free) entrance fee alone!

It's so stunning - it's worth a second photograph!

Here's another complicated oxbow on the right.  All these provide excellent opportunities for children to have a go at crawling in one end - out of the other.

The Thistle Cave Pillar is an enormous column of limestone left as the water has eroded joints at either side.

What's that? Daylight again?  It really is like being a rabbit at Ribblehead ...

This time it's a tighter hands and knees crawl out - usually accompanied in the summer by a bed of nettles!!!

Let's have a look back at where we just emerged!

A panoramic view of where we just emerged, below a small cliff, distinguished from Runscar Cave's cliff by having a prominent bush growing on it.  In the immediate foreground, beneath my feet, is the narrow entrance into Thistle Lower Cave: the most challenging entrance for the novice explorer to attempt. Let's have a look at it ..

This cave, Thistle Cave Lower - is truly stunning inside, but the first 100 feet or so consists of a flat out crawl on cobbles - really uncomfortable on the delicate bits.  The trick is to keep right inside, and the passage swings round to join the stream - gradually getting big enough to walk in.  The stalactites and flowstone features are gorgeous indeed.

Floods are constantly washing more cobbles inside - so if you see the entrance as clear as it is here - you can bet that cavers have recently been through and cleared the way.  Knowing the water levels, I didn't go all the way through today as I was keeping a careful check on the darkening sky ...

I did, however, get to the middle, with this passage way leading off into the stream.  We'll come back in the sunshine and show you the full length of this superb cave.  It eventually emerges through a hole so tiny you have to take your helmet off to get out - but today that hole was blocked by water.  

A rather strenuous crawl out - and my last port of call was Roger Kirk Rocks - another outcrop of limestone this time further south and closer to the viaduct.

Here lie two superb caves: though they are much harder to tackle for novices than Thistle and Runscar.  This is Roger Kirk West Sink - a cave where you NEVER stand up!!!

And here's my son, Joe - having discovered just that, back in 2004.

Roger Kirk Cave itself is my favourite of all the Ribblehead Caves.  It's an underground assault course of squeezes, crawls, shuffles, traverses and just about everything that makes caving exciting - and it has four different entrances.

This is what it's like for much of the way - as Joe demonstrates - hands and knees crawling and shuffling - until the cave's most spectacular (or dreaded!) obstacle either makes or breaks the day for most people ... 

And so we end with a 'bottoms up' view of Joe disappearing gallantly into 'The Tube' - a  constricted passage through Roger Kirk Cave with more water than air - and a terrifying obstacle for first timers!  He's less than five feet tall on this picture - so trying it at over six feet is a different prospect altogether.  'Northern Caves' cheerily says: 'as airspace is limited this is best tackled on one's back - and in ordinary weather presents no problem.'  I can tell you - the water is the coldest I've ever experienced, and even on my back - with one arm in front and one behind I recall swallowing copious amounts.  But I'd do it again ... course I would. The things you do for adventure!

The Ribblehead Caves are easily accessed by parking near the viaduct.  They are active stream caves so choose a fine, settled day.  Roger kirk Cave requires a full caving suit and someone who knows the system - but Thistle and Runscar are perfect for young children to have their first go underground.    The caves will give the whole family a day to remember, but please treat them with the care and respect they deserve.  Hope you've enjoyed the adventures.

Stephen x