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