Sunday, 16 November 2014

A West Kingsdale Wander

To Marble Steps and Beyond

An Autumn Stroll Along the Pothole Promenade

Blackpool's promenade can be a little bit bleak once the lights have gone.  The promenade of West Kingsdale, along the old peat-cutters' highway known as the Turbary Road, is an exciting and spectacular vantage point - full of interest: so much so that it can take me hours to cover just three miles.

Kingsdale, inhabited by Norse settlers a over a thousand years ago - once held a lake formed by the remnants of a glacier - and the lake bed can be seen clearly in this photograph.

The floor of the valley is now covered by a layer of alluvium (glacial deposits) with spectacular Great Scar Limestone benches on either side, and the lonely farmstead of Braida Garth nestled in the distance.  Whernside lies in cloud.

About 14,000 years ago, the Kingsdale glacier bulldozed a massive amount of debris along the valley - debris known as moraine.  Some plugged the end of the valley to form a barrier known as the Raven Ray (see the waterfalls walk post) while the lateral moraine was plastered on the valley sides.  Here it forms Wackenburgh Hill - the large mound blocking the base of the limestone benches in the photograph.

This morning I was heading up onto the west side of the valley - along the old peat-cutters' highway of the Turbary Road.  Very few know of it - and even fewer have been along it.  Yet it's a breathtaking place with some of the finest potholes in the UK.  Come and have a look.

As we head up onto the fell, Ingleborough peeps over the horizon to the east.  Wackenburgh hill is very prominent to the left, and Kingsdale Beck is soon to become the River Twiss, seen here breaking through the Raven Ray moraine barrier.  The original course of the river was to the extreme right of the photograph - but the moraine barrier meant the river had to find a new course.  Notice how it has broken through at the very lowest point of the moraine?  It soon plunges down Thornton Force ... but that's another story.

Here you can see how the moraine has been plastered along the sides of the valley to form Wackenburgh Hill, which itself hides a fascinating series of caves and potholes.  This view is looking north east along Kingsdale.  I took the picture in mute conditions.  No birds or sheep.  Absolute silence.

The path heads up onto Keld Head Scar, and the familiar sight of fractured Great Scar Limestone.

Then it's over a ladder stile.  This view is peeping back over to Ingleborough, Wackenburgh Hill and the Raven Ray - a lovely blend of colours in the landscape.

A green path picks its way through the limestone up towards the Turbary Road.

The limestone pavements are well weathered and fractured, unlike the vast exapnses of those on Scales Moor.  The clints are only small and this is real 'leg-breaker' territory.

As always with limestone country - things never stay the same for two minutes.  These two fellas capture the attention from a distance - the right hand specimen known as the Cheese Press Stone.

They are not erratics: to be labelled as such they would have to be composed of a different rock, lying on the pavements.  These are 100% limestone - and must have been plucked from higher up the valley before being dropped here by the melting ice.  Eventually the pavement on which they stand will be eroded away to leave them balanced on pedestals.

The Cheese Press Stone is estimated to weigh about 15 tons!!  Its companion, on the left, always sems to me to be dozing off with a 'leave me alone' mouth and closed eye on the right.  I have a weird imagination I guess.

You don't see me very often - thankfully.  I was trying out the camera 10 second timer here ... set it .. press it ... and leg it to the boulder for a self portrait.  Not bad for starters.

I love this view as it shows the wider landscape - and the slowly diminishing limestone pavement.  How do you drag yourself away from a place like this?  It's wonderful.  For a brief second, my mind wandered to all the little people wandering round the Trafford Centre.

No, I wasn't trying to push it over - I was giving it an affectionate pat - as one would do with a horse.

Don't they look great seen from behind?  Ingleborough and Scales Moor set them off to perfection.

Using a zoom you can get a different perspective of Ingleborough dominating the view - even with these two fellas in his midst.  He always demands our ultimate attention.

A layer of drift covers the limestone as we head upwards: shakeholes - correctly termed dolines, are everywhere, indicating caves and passages below in the Great Scar Limestone.

Then we meet the Turbary Road.  Peat was transported down to Masongill along this old highway.  If we turn right, towards the camera, it's along the 'Potty Prom' as I call it - to a wealth of limestone highlights, but first we head left - a little diversion off the road as we seek out Marble Steps Pot.

Trees are so rare that when you do seen one, you feel sorry for it.  It's like 'Hey look at that poor tree.' You feel like giving it a hug.  We start to get that layer of peat here, indicating there was once extensive vegetation cover.

Then a whole cluster of them appear, somewhat bizarrely.  These lie in a walled enclosure and I have never been able to work out what its use was.  Rabbit breeding? Grouse? Pheasant?  Or was it just a bull enclosure?  Answers on a postcard, please.  If there's one thing that annoys me - it's not knowing why something is there.

This stream has a more simple explanation.  Marble Steps Beck runs down of the impermaeable slopes of Gragareth behind - and as we know, once an active stream meets limestone, well , we're in for something special, because sooner or later it meets a joint in the rock - and down it goes!

And down it goes indeed!  The clump of trees were planted as a warning, for there's no ordinary pothole here. This one is a monster in every sense.

The stream rushes into the massive gash of Marble Steps Pot - named after the slippery black limestone staircase it tumbles down.  Take extreme care here - and keep children under lock and key.

According to Wainwright, Marble Steps Pot 'looks almost inviting, the setting having a beauty in contrast to the desolate moorlands around.  But amateur explorers should not be tempted to approach the hole to closely ........' he warns us ...

'Anybody falling in is likely to come out, if at all, as a corpse.  It is 430 feet deep.'

I have always loved that description: it's brilliant. Actually the pothole does descend that far, but only in a series of stages - and your first drop would only be about 100 .... 120 ish ... so not too worrying! These lads were from Sheffield University: the first time I've ever met anybody else here.  Oh, and they didn't fall in.

That black hole is the 120 foot bit I was telling you about.  Lucky fallers might land on the ferns, and hopefully not bounce down the hole.  Beautiful though, isn't it?

Rather than fall in - these cavers decided to take the sensible route - roped up and a stage at a time.

I managed a great shot of the last caver to descend - giving a sense of scale to this magnificent, humbling place.

This pothole is up there with the very best.  Certainly in the top 5 in the UK.

The gully leading down into the depths can be explored for a short distance by ordinary mortals.  This western entrance was actually the first part of the pothole to be formed, the former main inlets now being blocked.  Marble Steps pre-dates the last last glaciation - as the hole was completely filled with glacial debris during the 'Ice Age', which were later penetrated by the entering streams.

But the pot gets its name from the polished, marble-like steps down which the beck tumbles on its way to the darkness.

The effects of this water action on the exposed limestone are superb.

Sculpted by thousands of years of water action.

This photograph shows the stream sinking into Marble Steps Pot - where a major joint, affected by faulting, has been exploited by the stream running off Gragareth.  The pot has an amazingly complex history.  At one time a totally flooded passage connected with Ireby Fell Cavern and Leck Beck to the north - but the stream has since found  a new route at lower level to emerge, as with all the Kingsdale potholes, at the deep pool of Keld Head (see the last photograph in this post).  The size of the 'v' shaped valley seen above indicates that this was scoured out my meltwater.  At first, when the hole was blocked completely by debris, the meltwater cut a channel below the pot to Low Douk Cave, which we'll visit another day.

Here's our route so far, showing how it all fits together and how we are about to visit Rift Pot before swinging round onto the Turbary Road.  Notice how the meltwater, unable to find its way down the blocked Marble Steps Pot, carved the channel toward Low Douk Cave, which I've shown with a blue dotted line.  Fascinating as well to see that Ireby Fell Cavern lies so close, but the stubborn water still manages to find its way through the limestone and shale layers all the way to the deep pool of Keld Head.  Underground Yorkshire is full of surprises - many still only just being understood.

The last few seconds of daylight for the stream before it vanishes into the pot.  Hundreds of feet down is a massive Main Chamber - followed by a crawl and further drops into passages known as the Intestines.  All cavers who do brave it have no choice but to come out the same way, as the pothole terminates at a sump which eventually emerges in Kingsdale.

I suppose this is what Wainwright meant by the beauty on an otherwise desolate moor. Marble Steps Pot lies hidden by the cluster of trees. Notice the old meltwater channel on the left?

Just south of the pot we meet a cluster of gigantic dolines or 'shakeholes' indicating the chaos going on in the limestone beneath the surface.

The most impressive is Rift Pot - and it has a very special guard at the entrance ...

The wooden gate is to prevent sheep from being too nosey - but how about that for a miserable, forbidding looking skull?

Two crescents of moss make his eyes: you certainly wouldn't bet against him screaming at you for entering.

Rift Pot has some lovely limestone sculpture - and here's an example at the entrance.

Below the skull is the entrance itself - a series of shafts leading into the moor. The mosses and ferns are a welcome sight at Rift Pot.  The shafts descend to link up with other pots emerging at Keld Head, and the Temple of Doom and Pleasuredome (great names) link up through totally flooded passages to ... you've guessed it ... Ireby Fell Cavern.  It's like the London Underground beneath these fells.

Returning to the Turbary Road, it's now time to head north and pick up a quick succession of spectacular features along the peat-cutters' highway.  Here begins the Pothole Promenade in all its glory.

Our first port of call - or 'pot' of call, is the beautiful and ancient shaft of Kail Pot.  It's just down to the right off the Turbary Road.  Jump up and down a few times and you'll soon spot the fence and protruding saplings.

 Kail Pot is a contender for 'most beautiful pothole in the dales.'  It is a virtual hanging garden of sylvan splendour.

It doesn't lead down very far - its forming stream has long since found a new route into the limestone, and just a quick glimpse shows how it has been plugged with glacial debris, almost filling it.  Kail Pot was once clearly much more impressive - but I love it how it is.

As we continue north on the Turbary Road, the drab grasslands of Gragareth progressively give way to the emerald greens that make limestone country so special.

The pavements have had a tough time here, having been reduced almost to nothing by successive glaciations, meltwater and the elements.

Each and every gateway on the Turbary Road has its own special character.  This one marks a well-known wall corner giving access to what I always call the Swinsto Field.

As the gate is passed, look out for a lovely area of pavement just off to the right.  Walk down onto it and in a few yards you'll see another ancient hole.  This is Thorney Pot.  It is superb as it has a backdrop of the Braida Garth woodlands and Ingleborough to set it off.  A picture of it is everything that is good about the Dales.

As with our previous pot, Thorney Pot has long since lost its creating stream and it, too, is blocked with glacial debris.  It is better seen in summer when the tree is flourishing.

By the way - the Thorney Pot pavements are gorgeous - like gently lapping waves of white limestone.

Thorney Pot boasts being able to include two mountains in her midst.  This view is looking north over Whernside.

Another irresistible view of the pavements in the vicinity of Thorney Pot.

Gragareth itself is rarely celebrated but it's a mountain in itself - and when the Autumn sun catches its slopes, it's a thing of beauty.

Now then!  Things get really interesting here.  Just off to the left on the Turbary Road, a major stream is Swinsto Beck, and a few yards up it, and off to the right (left as you come downstream) is one of the most famous of all Yorkshire caves, though it is an awkward place to enter!

This is Swinsto Hole.  You have to enter it head first and it's well worth a look for the spectacular split passage inside.  However, it soon becomes for experts only as it drops down a series of underground shafts which eventually emerge in the Kingsdale Master Cave. Believe it or not this seemingly obscure place is the most popular way in!  The route drops into the Master Cave and the caver must face a very tricky climb into the 'roof tunnel' away from the main water to emerge through the 'dustbin lid' of Valley Entrance.  The trip is known as the 'Swinsto Pull Through' as the cavers effectively pull all their equipment through with them as they descend each pitch, so they can emerge at Valley Entrance, exhausted, and pack away the gear without having to come back up onto the moor for it. Makes sense!  I know of many who have been  had to be rescued when attempting it.

A thin layer of soil topping a thin layer of alluvium or glacial deposit, nicely exposed at Swinsto Beck.    Looks like the inside of a Mars bar.

Simpson's Pot, in the next field to the left of the path, has an easier crawl-in entrance but again it soon drops down pitches to unite with the Swinsto water in the Master Cave.

A close-up of the innocent looking entrance to Simpson's Pot.

Inside it's an easy crawl over a floor of limestone before the cave suddenly drops down 5 sporting steps, eventually leading to the Great Aven, a massive 40 metre high shaft dropping into the final chamber.  Most of us just sit back and shudder.

More pleasant thoughts, as we leave the pot for the experts and see Whernside catching the late afternoon sun.

And now the greatest of all West Kingsdale potholes is upon us.  Impossible to miss - and as 'in your face' as a pothole can be.  This is Rowten (or Rowan Tree) Pot - and the first hole we encounter is merely a window into the system (see my post from September 2013) where the water from Rowten Caves to the west is making its way into the pot.  You can see and hear it thundering below.

Nearby is the awful 'eye-hole' - four feet wide and 200 feet (at least) in one drop.  It offers for cavers a straight descent into the depths - but keep dogs and kids well clear.

And of course Rowten Pot itself is just awe-inspiring.  Open, noisy and downright dangerous.  It has the thrill factor and just look how close it is to the path by the gate!

Harry Speight (1892) calls Rowten Pot 'The most awful open fissure on this side of the dale.  It is a terrible looking hiatus about 30 yards long at the surface - 12 yards at its greatest width, and barely four yards at its narrowest.'

Rowten Pot's shaft can be entered, as I did in September 2013, by way of Rowten Caves to the west, which pass beneath the window we saw earlier.  Cavers can descend a series of noisy, sporting pitches into the bowels of the earth - but only divers can penetrate through to the Kingsdale Master Cave.  Rowten along with Marble Steps, is one of the truly great potholes of Britain.

A lovely view of Rowten Pot backed by Ingleborough, Scales Moor and the slopes of East Kingsdale.

If  Rowten tops the charts in Kingsdale, the candidate for 'most dangerous to go anywhere near' must be Jingling Pot - located through the gate and off to the left of the track - its rowan tree giving away a sinister presence.  The ground slopes down on one side, with a slippery limestone outcrop on the other - and a sheer drop of 150 feet.  Dropping stones into the depths produces a strange 'jingling' sound - but never drop stones down if there are ropes present as this could seriously harm cavers below.

Jingling Pot doesn't lead into an extensive system and is choked with shingle in its depths, but it provides a superb challenge and is one of the best daylight shafts in Britain.

Notice how a caver here has attached his rope to the overhanging tree.  His view back up to daylight must be superb indeed.

As daylight was fading I decided to leave the attractions of Bull Pot for another time, and I returned to Rowten Pot before descending to the floor of the dale. This lovely view opened up of High Pike leading up to Whernside.  On the bank of the river, to the left, is the 'Apronful of Stones' - a classic Bronze Age burial mound (see April 2013).

And an even better view - over Braida Garth (Norse for 'broad field') to Scales Moor and the stunning presence of Ingleborough.

As we get lower - Ingleborough seems to peep over the horizon.

Kingsdale Beck flowing across the bed of the former lake.

Beautiful Autumn colours, with light catching the beck.  In flood it can be a ferocious sight - and I have actually witnessed a flood pulse or 'wall of water' running down what was a dry stream channel only minutes before.

As we return down the Kingsdale road, pleasantly free from traffic, opposite the Braida Garth turn-off we find the famous 'Valley Entrance' where the roof tunnel above the Kingsdale Master Cave emerges into daylight.  It's a great place to explore and I'll take you in one day.

Finally we pass the sinister pool of Keld Head, where all the water emerges: Marble Steps, Swinsto, Simpson's and Rowten all pop out here.  Divers often pop in!

West Kingsdale is one of the most fascinating parts of Yorkshire.  Before long we'll have a wander along the east side, where there are many other surprises. In the meantime, get yourself up on the Pothole Promenade.  It doesn't need lights to be fantastic ...

Stephen x


  1. Simply must do this trip myself after reading that! Thank you for sharing with me!

  2. hi there - this is spooky because I did this exact walk the day before you. I know the area quite well as I am an amateur caver so I decided to explore on foot more of the area I see normally only from underground. love reading your blog - I took up caving to learn more about limestone geology but often the answers to questions I have are given whilst dangling above a 30 ft drop, so reading your information is great, and you do it in an easy to understand way. thank you

    Carol of Harrogate

  3. Carol - many thanks indeed. I guess my simple style comes from teaching 11 year olds !!!!!! (and also a frustration that many books make the geology so tricky ... except Tony Waltham's which are amazing!! )Your comments are really appreciated and keep in touch. There is also plenty to look at on the Facebook Page - and the book 'A Three Peaks Up and under' is scheduled to hit the shelves in 2015. Many thanks again and strange coincidences!!!!

  4. I love your posts, I'd think I'd like to visit the area and stay above ground, and I mebbe will one day. :-)