I am not afraid of being afraid, in fact I quite enjoy it in smallish amounts. It reminds me that I am still alive, and more importantly that I have the desire to keep it that way.
So it was with a little pleasurable trepidation that I found myself sitting in a very basic metal chair waiting to be winched 320 ft down into a cave beneath the Yorkshire Dales.
For a few weeks every year Gaping Gill is open to the public. No turnstiles or ticket offices here though – this phenomenon lies at the end of a 2.5 mile walk up the side of a mountain in Ingleborough. And it holds the records for the highest unbroken waterfall in England and the largest underground chamber naturally open to the surface and which it is said could house St Paul’s Cathedral.
My partner is a cave diver amongst other things; not content with exploring the rocky arteries that lay deep beneath our feet, he likes there to be water involved too. Lots of water. So not surprisingly, experiencing the Winch Meet at Gaping Gill had been on his Bucket List for a few years. I may not be the most enthusiastic person when it comes to going underground but I am damn good at getting things done, especially things ticked off of Bucket Lists.
And that is why we left South Wales at 4.30 one morning and headed for the little village of Clapham in Yorkshire. We arrived at the car park at 10.00 am, still relatively bright eyed and bushy tailed and hot-footed it up the trail through the Ingleborough Estate to Gaping Gill. The website had warned that there was no booking system and descents were on a first-come-first-served basis. It was quiet in the car park. We were confident, but not confident enough to dawdle. Although I must admit to holding up proceedings a little by insisting on photographing the most amazing yew trees that flanked the stone pathway. I was happy – hadn’t had a sniff of a cave but gnarled old yew trees, deep gorges, natural stone seats and a magical stone folly are very much my thing and here they were framing our route. It was an auspicious sign, I was sure.
We passed the entrance to Ingleborough Cave and a few other walkers as we wended our way up the snaking mountain track. I had had to put my camera away; the scenery was far too tempting. As the terrain levelled out, we passed a few potholes, apparently all of which lead to Gaping Gill. A warren of tunnels provide a variety of routes to and from the huge cavern itself, making the site hugely popular with intrepid potholers and cavers year round.
A nest of tents and little white marquees cwtched into a crease of the moorland eventually indicated that we had indeed arrived at the site entrance and the parallel universe of the Craven Pothole Club. Being a practical person (and a landscape gardener), my first instinct was to unravel the logistics of getting all the equipment to the remote site – tents, generators, winch, scaffolding, people, and food. Steve’s first instinct was to sign in and get in a queue. We were lucky, we had arrived just as the ‘closed’ sign was being propped against a trestle table and managed to secure two numbered wristbands and our place in the queue. Our numbers were 96 and 97; we could expect to descend at around 3.30 pm we were advised by the amiable Day Leader, Andrew Lister. A glance at our watches revealed it was 11.30 am. Andrew also explained that people are often queuing by 7.30 am in order to secure a descent and people are often turned away from as early as 9.30 am. And that would be mightily disappointing, so my advice would be, don’t rely on the ‘luck of the yews’, get there early. I doubt many people endeavor to travel 500 miles there and back in a day.
Thankfully it was a sunny day and after a quick mooch about and Steve sharing, ‘Do you know So and So’ with fellow cavers who were on site volunteering for a couple of weeks, we curled up in the sun and slept off the early morning drive.
It is worth mentioning for the less feral members of the public, that there is no food or drinks available on site, so you have to bring your own. Although also worth a mention is that the only ‘facility’ is a very basic long-drop toilet, so you may want to choose what food you do bring carefully!
Before you could say, “What on Earth am I doing in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, waiting to be winched into a cave,” it was indeed time to get ready for just that.
Steve had his caving kit with him so made a quick ‘Mr Benn’-esque change into that whilst I put my motorbike waterproof suit over my jeans and fleece. “Put on everything you have,” laughed Andrew when I asked him about suitability. The website warns that it will be wet and cold in the cave – you will need waterproofs to be comfortable.
The blurb also advises that you will descend the 320 ft in just under a minute – don’t try to work it out! But on our visit the diesel generator had broken down and the winch was being operated by gas, which slowed it down – whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your perspective.
Whilst sitting in the basic metal chair 320 feet above terra firma, I was advised to keep my elbows in and not to push off from the rock, which would be about 6 inches from my knees in places. Ye Gods.
And the lurch of the winch began. It is not a natural environment to be in. I freely admit to indulging in a little prayer-muttering, whilst refraining from pushing against the rock was harder. It is very close.
My prayer-mutterings were drowned out by the crashing of the two waterfalls to my left. Waterfalls which are twice the height of Niagara Falls apparently and the result of the stream Fell Beck being diverted by the Potholing Club from it’s natural pathway down through the shaft, in order to allow the public access. They do a damn (pun intended) good job, but you will still get wet!
Once in the cavern itself and out of the chair, the breath I had held for so long was immediately taken away. It is bloody awesome. Basic lighting rigged up by those clever cavers, provide just the right amount of atmosphere and the semi-darkness and crashing water completely hold the attention of your senses. This is nature playing underground. It is her private, exclusive club and you are a guest. It is an unforgettable experience.
If you’re anything like me, it’s probably best not to dwell too much on the fact that you are actually 320 feet below the ground, just soak it up, enjoy the experience and etch those memories in your mind. For most of us it is a one-off experience to witness the subterranean environment that proves so addictive to those mole-esque people called potholers and cavers. And will happily stay that way.
Of course there is the obligatory historical narrative that will be shared by grinning, mud-covered, carabineer-clanking volunteers (which I won’t spoil now in case you do make the pilgrimage yourself) and do keep an eye out for the seasoned subterranean sorts who take the winch down and then disappear mysteriously into one of the crevices in the cave wall as they exploit the opportunity to travel underground to one of the many other cave exits; one of those tiny rabbit-hole type openings you will have passed on the way up the mountain.
Do be prepared to wait a little while before being winched up as it is a one-down, one-up system and I would say that probably half an hour under ground is plenty, although we were down considerably longer as a result of chatting and messing about trying to get some arty photos. In fact we were down there long enough to get cold – and that’s best avoided.
We had our descent at about 4.00 pm and came back up about an hour later, so we were ‘the last to leave’ – and no, we weren’t asked to switch off the lights! But should you get to descend and ascend earlier I recommend staying a while to watch the faces of people coming up – they are joyous!
A heartfelt thank you to all the volunteers who take it in turns to do shifts at various posts to enable the subterranean-averse public to experience one of the hidden wonders of nature. Even Max the terrier took his turn in returning the wristbands to the main tent. I never cease to be impressed by the complete and utter dedication and commitment displayed by those totally devoted to and passionate about their chosen paths – even if those paths are underground. A huge thank you to you all.
My final piece of advice: Don’t attempt to drive 250 miles home afterwards. Stay the night, enjoy the scenery and a beer.
And my final thought: I have no immediate desire to take up caving, as there is still too much I want to explore above ground, but I adore the word ‘spelunking’ (to explore caves, particularly as a hobby). I will therefore be talking about my experience of Gaping Gill at every opportunity, not just because it was a memorable experience but also in order to use my new word!
More details of Winch Meets at Gaping Gill at http://tinyurl.com/j9r7wmn.