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Friday, 5 April 2013
Alum Pot and the Long Churn Caves
An Appointment With Doctor Bannister
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Today was perfect for caving as there was virtually zero flood risk; the snow was showing no signs of melting. In order to take field notes for my book, 'A Three Peaks up and Under', I packed my rucksack with wellies, caving helmet and trusty 'wet socks' before heading up the onto the fells from Selside in Ribblesdale. Here lies what Harry Speight (1892) described as 'without doubt the most terrific natural opening in the ground that is known in Britain.' It is hidden (above) in the clump of trees and guarded by a wall.
And here it is: Alum Pot - a massive fracture in the limestone dissolved out by water from both above and below - and once believed by local folk to be the gateway to hell. 'Alum' may well be a corruption of his satanic majesty's residence. This is one of the classic places in Great Britain by any standards. It lies on private land, and to visit it, there is a small charge payable at the farm in Selside. It's worth a hundred pounds in my book.
First impressions, including that enticing tree on the very brink of the shaft! Alum Pot is one of the oldest potholes in the Dales. It is sobering to think that the limestone in Ribblesdale was hidden by other rocks for some 200 million years until it was uncovered a the start of what we call the Pleistocene, about 1.3 million years ago, when the series of ice ages began. Alum Pot may be even older than the great Anglian 'ice age' that began about 476, 000 BC!! Back then, a torrent of water rushed directly off the rocks above and, when it met the limestone at a major weakness aligned on a fault, carved out the massive pothole over thousands of years. Why only a small waterfall now then? The reason is that later 'ice ages' and erosion have widened the limestone benches so the water meets the limestone earlier and has found a new route underground - carving out the famous 'Long Churn Caves' in the process.
Peering down the immense 230 feet deep shaft from the brink is always risky business. Here the ledge 100 feet down can be made out due to a covering of snow, and a colossal boulder which, ages ago, dropped down and wedged itself in the shaft: the 'Bridge'.
This is a better view of the Bridge with the black abyss either side being a further 130 feet plunge to the very foot of the shaft. Cavers usually enter at top right from the Long Churn Caves, having already descended this far by rope or ladder. Next they slide down the 'Greasy Slab' pitch onto the ledge and make their way anti-clockwise to the top of the Bridge along that precarious ledge.
I managed this shot by holding a precarious ash tree with one hand, and my camera with the other. Cavers slide down the bridge using a rope - one of the most exposed situations ever in caving - then it's left along the ledge to that snowy balcony just above left centre, before a final rope or ladder to the very bottom.
I went down with the Craven Pothole Club in 2006. This is not my photo - but is replicates exactly my most vivid memory: the moment I unclipped my rope and walked, alone, through a 'window' and onto a ledge 100 feet below the surface. A waterfall once plunged through this hole from Long Churn Cave - down a 40 foot underground shaft now called the 'Dolly Tubs' (the caver has just come down it as I did) - but now the water has taken a different route through the notorious Diccan Pot to enter the system far below. The Dolly Tubs is a dry, underground pitch, except in flood, and marks the limit for cavers without gear. No photo can really do this place justice.
This little video clip might help to do so. (best viewed in original small format)
This is the astonishing view that grips the first time visitor emerging from that same 'window'. A hands and knees crawl along the right hand ledge leads to the Bridge. The water at the bottom of the pot eventually finds its way underground, travels underneath the River Ribble, and emerges in the dark pool of Turn Dub - over a mile away. This was proved by dye-testing.
Picture by kind permission of Paul Whittaker
In heavy rain, two cavers emerge from the Dolly Tubs and witness the astonishing spectacle that is Alum Pot: steam billowing out of the depths of the great shaft.
Picture by kind permission of Paul Whittaker
Tackling The Bridge. This is a massive slab tilted across the shaft at an acute angle and, back in 2006 when I last did it, it gave me a touch of the eebie-jeebies! I don't usually mind heights, but a 150 foot drop on each side of a moss and algae covered boulder can test even the strongest nerves! Northern Caves pulls no punches: 'A rope is necessary to tackle this obstacle since a slip is invariably fatal.' Think we get the message!
Slightly less intimidating, but equally beautiful, is this Silurian 'erratic' resting on the limestone on Fell Close Moor nearby. I went in search of Fell Close Cave, only to discover the entrance was snowed under! This boulder was dropped by the Ribblesdale glacier about 14 000 years ago. I don't think it's about to go anywhere now!
Freezing didn't quite describe it. Fed up at missing my beloved little cave, I huddled amongst masses of sheep and rabbit muck for my butties, inside this ancient sheep shelter.
A gulp from the flask and it was back to the limestone. There are some stunning pavements up on Fell Close and here is one of them. Note the famous karen grooving caused by water action on the clints, with the deep grykes in between. These pavements were swept clean by the Ribblesdale glacier removing all the material that once lay above.
The top entrance to Upper Long Churn Cave. Both Long Churns connect with Alum Pot. Just inside this entrance is the 3 metre water chute into 'Doctor Bannister's Handbasin' - a deep pool 20 feet wide where the stream has carved through a joint in the limestone to meet the next bedding plane just below the surface. The source of the name is unknown, but it has been in place since at least the 18th century. We'll leave our 'doctor's' appointment for later and reach the handbasin a far less risky way - by the bottom entrance.
Snow cornices overhang the entrance to Lower Long Churn Cave. The bottom entrance to Upper Long Churn can be seen to the right of the hawthorn. These dry, collapsed entrances mark a former route of the beck before it changed its direction and found a new route underground.
Three great limestone country wonders: Penyghent in the background, Alum Pot, and the gaping entrance to Lower Long Churn Cave. These caves flood easily and dangerously - so it is essential to choose the correct weather conditions.
Inside Lower Long Churn, an instructor gets ready to brief his party on descending the cascade. This is the route the water eventually took after abandoning those now dry passages marked by the present day entrances into the system.
A rope is always advisable for the inexperienced, and he was taking no chances.
The stream passage in Lower Long Churn is beautiful, despite it having lots of visitors. Its ease of access makes it a very popular Yorkshire Cave.
There are many damaged formations, but there are still some things to gasp at.
This turning on the left takes the stream out to daylight - seen ahead, where it grabs the light before plunging into the super dangerous Diccan Pot, consisting of massive underground pitches in the full force of the water - for experts only. Diccan Pot marks the most youthful stage of the long Churn system: the present way in for most of the water.
We take this now abandoned dry passage - active only in times of flood. Only cavers have left a wet floor today. The stream is behaving itself, thankfully. This was the former route of the stream when it first carved Long Churn: through this passage and down the 'Dolly Tubs' underground pitch into Alum Pot.
A moment to strike terror into the first time caver: the first glimpse of the notorious 'Double Shuffle Pool'. The water is over six feet deep and there is only one method of staying out of it. See that triangular knob of rock? Well - slide down so your left welly rests on it, holding the rock on the left - then quickly change feet as you stride over onto the ledge, hidden behind in the darkness. Sounds easy?!! I am a big softie and dread it every time. I didn't want to fall in today with my camera - and knowing it was like Siberia outside. It's much easier in the summer.
Mind you - there are plenty of lovely sights in the vicinity to keep you occupied. I'm not sure of the age of this original Long Churn passage, but stalactites meeting stalagmite to form columns indicate that these are certainly the oldest passages in the system. Most cave dating is actually done from measuring age against the time it takes these features to form.
A group of cavers coming in the opposite direction prepare to 'double shuffle' - or at least their leader prepares to show them how!
'Now, watch, me hearties - there's nothing to it!'
I think it was the third one along who went in .... and under!
Beyond lies the famous 'Cheese Press.' This is my son Joe tackling it back in 2005 when he was seven. When he was so small we could never tackle Double Shuffle Pool. Instead we by-passed the pool using a passage crawl just inside the entrance to Diccan Pot.
Sensibly heading back out. What a lovely passage this is.
And it just gets better ...
And even better!! I love these little rimstone pools.
Cavers are friendly folk. Here they stand on the former route of the stream in a now 'unroofed' section of cave passage - the present 'safe' entrance to Upper long Churn. I say safe - but today it was full of ice.
They even take your photographs. Here is yours truly, about to go into Upper Long Churn Cave.
Just inside the entrance, the stream is met turning off to the left into 'Loop Passage.' This eventually emerges as the cascade in Lower Long Churn that we saw earlier. It's fun to try, but we'll stick to the main passage today.
Can you see the head of a giant, plumed bird here? The main passage is on the left, with a high level 'oxbow' on the right, marking a former route of the stream before erosion deepened the cave floor, and the stream found a new way through.
Water percolating through the ceiling forms gorgeous pools on the ledges - golden with calcite.
This 'mountain range' is reflected in a similar pool - in a higher level side passage.
The remains of a former 'floor' of the cave protrude into the main passage. My children call this 'The Long Churn Pizza.' It marks an important junction as, to the left, the 'Baptistry Crawl' runs for 91 metres to emerge in Lower Long Churn near to Double Shuffle Pool. We'll save that for another day.
The beginning of 'Baptistry Crawl', so named because of a feature half way along known as the 'Font' where you have to duck under the ceiling and completely immerse yourself in the water. In today's temperatures, I would have baptised myself 'Crackers.' The crawl is, like Lower long Churn, one of the older parts of the system that has now been abandoned for the present route - and it is a useful escape route in flood.
This is my son, Joe - baptising himself in the Font, back in 2005. I'm sure he'll love me for this!
Brachiopod fossils are abundant in the cave. Others can be seen to the left.
This I call 'The Great Divide' - a resistant slice of limestone left standing by the stream eroding either side.
Looking back at the feature shows it to be even more impressive. Notice its base being eroded away with less water action at the higher levels. In thousands of years, humans should be able to crawl under it.
The author taking a breather in the Upper Long Churn stream passage. Despite the red nose, he hasn't been on the whisky.
The blackened ceiling indicates where the Victorians, carrying large smoking torches, used to escort the gentry through the Long Churn Caves. They even carried and laid planks so the ladies wouldn't get their skirts - and bloomers - wet!
On the right is a climb to a high level oxbow. Again, the old stream route before it found the current bedding plane. The old cave floor is marked by the horizontal plane below centre.
1970s Doctor Who, anyone? Actually this wonderful side passage shows banding in the limestone indicating fluctuating water activity. I love it.
The first of the cascades just tops your wellies. That's why diver's 'wet socks' are a good idea.
The second cascade is thigh or waist deep for most. It is amazing fun but in high water conditions I have seen it completely impassable. It has been the 'turn back' point!
Milner's Inlet is a sharp crawl heading off to the left at a high level. Each time the cave floods, that pedestal is getting a wee bit narrower. This marks a former, active tributary passage into the main cave before it found a lower route.
The ceiling now is one tremendous bedding plane. This is another oxbow which doesn't quite make it to Doctor Bannister's Handbasin.
Tremendous noise and impending gloom: approaching Doctor Bannister's ..
I kept getting water on my lens ... so 20 minutes in the ice cold water and continually wiping the camera with my scarf - praying I didn't drop it in ....
And the handbasin looked lovely. Don't know who the doctor was, but his hands must have been massive! Once this very torrent would have flowed over the surface outside, before the limestone benches were uncovered, and plunged into Alum Pot directly. Amazing to think!
In full caving gear, for tall people it is quite easy to climb the waterfall and emerge into daylight at the top entrance to Upper Long Churn.
In flood the handbasin can be unapproachable. Today it was lovely and friendly.
In fact, we became very well acquainted.
We became very close indeed.
Half an hour later I was back in daylight. It had been much warmer in the caves. I headed off the fell with a grand view of Alum Pot and Penyghent - the 'lion of Ribblesdale.'
A squelchy-wellie walk back - and a last view up to this very special place. The dry valley containing snow in the centre was formed by meltwater when Alum Pot was sealed by ice during the last glaciation. Even the small 'waterfalls can still be seen. Today felt like the ice age had returned to Ribblesdale!
If you wish to visit the Long Churn Caves, park on the stony lane to the left just after the hamlet of Selside. Pop across the road to the farm and pay a small fee. You will need helmets and lamps, towels and spare clothing in the car. Ensure that you are in groups and never take children underground alone. Always always always let people know where you are going. There are always plenty of cavers - but it is always best to be in groups of three or more. Most importantly - NEVER enter these caves in wet weather and get an up to date, accurate forecast. Move slowly through the caves and take care not to damage them . Upper Long Churn is fun for children as far as Doctor Bannisters, in settled weather. Lower Long Churn I would avoid altogether with youngsters. Double Shuffle Pool is very deep, cold and potentially dangerous. With adequate preparation and care, these caves offer one of the most exciting days out anywhere in Britain - but look at the weather and remember the caver's message: 'if in doubt - stay out.'
Aside of that - enjoy!! This place is magical.
(all photographs - unless otherwise stated, were taken by the author)