Monday, 24 March 2014

Ease Gill: Heavy Rock With No Sound
Part One

Tucked away on the wild expanse of Casterton Fell, near Kirkby Lonsdale, is the lonely limestone ravine of Ease Gill Kirk - one of the true highlights of wild limestone country in England - yet its presence is only a small part of the story.  Beneath the surrounding hills lies Britain's longest and most intricate cave system, with over 60 kilometres of connected passages: a world most of us can only imagine.

The Fell Road from Casterton, just off the A65, climbs steeply and all comes to an end here at Bullpot Farm,  now the headquarters of the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club.  Its surroundings appear to offer nothing of interest on first inspection.  Indeed, they are repelling to many.  'Timid folk of urban disposition,' wrote Wainwright, ' will flee the place and never return.'  Limestone anoraks like myself find it difficult to keep away.

It is Bullpot Farm's geographical position that has helped assure its legendary status as a centre for cave explorers.  It lies very close to the line of the Dent Fault, as can be seen by the green line in the picture above, showing a rough repesentation of its position.  Most of what we know as the Yorkshire Dales have been formed on a massive block of very ancient granite lying far below the surface and dipping to the north - known to geologists as the Askrigg Block.  This great block is separated from the 'Lake District' block to the west, by the huge earth fracture of the Dent Fault, a colossal feature that formed along a line of weakness after continents collided over 300 million years ago.  The movement along the fault lifted the ancient greywackes on the west side to form the Barbon Fells, their covering layer of limestone having long since been eroded away - while the east side of the fault sees a thick layer of Great Scar limestone covering the 'downthrown' greywackes lying far below.  Got it so far?

Looking back at Bullpot Farm then, from the south - the till-covered limestones of the 'downthrown' area extend to the right of the picture, while the greywackes of the Barbon Fells lie to the left or west.

We were all taught in school that limestone bedding planes lie horizontal - and in most cases they do.  But not here!  The movements of the Dent Fault were so incredibly violent that they folded the limestone and wrenched it along the fault line, twisting the bedding planes round to lie at almost 90 degrees to the surface.  That explains why the fields on this picture are literally peppered with sinkholes, potholes and dolines (better known as shake holes). Water had to find a way in - and the Dent Fault helped to create the ideal conditions for it to do so.  The earthquakes around here in the Carboniferous don't bear thinking about!!  One of the holes eroded out by the water into this 'Dent thrust' can be seen in the picture, surrounded by a wall just left of centre.

Just beyond Bullpot Farm, the sound of falling water beckons the eye to this great chasm, where bedding planes wrenched to the surface by the fault have been hollowed out by torrents of water and further enlarged by collapse.  This is the classic 'Bull Pot of the Witches.'

John Hamer, in his 'Falls and Caves of Ingleton' (1951) called this 'an ugly black rift' but I disagree.  It is one of the most beautiful potholes in England, encrusted with mosses and ferns - and steaming with mystique.

First descended in the late 19th century, the splendid name originates from there being two Bull Pots in the Dales, the other lying in Kingsdale to the east.  To distinguish this, romantic explorers named it Bull Pot of the Witches as it was connected with Witches Cave, in the gill to the south, and associated with an ancient coven.

Nobody can pass this pothole without a hint of sadness.  Ian was a brilliant cave explorer who lost his life in what his friend Mike Harding decribed as 'a million to one mishap.'  Ian was attempting to connect the upstream sump with Aygill Caverns in murky conditions and his death shocked all those who knew him.  He was editor of the Craven Herald, and his loss is still felt greatly today.  Ian would have been proud of those who have continued his explorations since.

The path leading down into the depths of Bull Pot of the Witches comes to a halt a few metres above the boulder strewn floor ....

But there is a secret way in for cavers.  The cave entrance on the shelf leads into a slippery 'chimney' climb that emerges into the bottom of the hole.  From here, passages radiate to Burnet's Great Cavern - and the awesome Gour Chambers for which the pot is famous.

Photograph by Alistair Showross of the Thursday Night Club
(click here to visit their great caving site)

The Gour Chambers are exquisitely beautiful - reached by a narrow squeeze and climb in the depths of the system.

The entrance to the 'chimney passage' seems to have altered since I last went through there in 2006.  I am sure those boulders have moved, and one or two 'danglies' hanging over the entrance don't bear thinking about ...

Nearby, on the left of the track down to Ease Gill is Hidden Pot; once covered by brushwood and debris - and now an attractive aven for a garden of ferns.

Another Hole in the 'Dent Thrust'- is Galegarth Pot - leading into such delights as 'Dracula's Altar,'  'The China Shop' and 'Octopus Chamber.'  All caves from this point onwards require special permission from the Council of Northern Caving Clubs (CNCC) - which helps to limit the erosion and despoiling of beautiful and irreplaceable features.

Attractive twin lime kilns are met on the track down to Ease Gill.  Works of man are few here, but are admirable where they do occur.

A wall turns left off the main track to Ease Gill and soon an area of limestone boulders is reached, signalling the presence of two of the most important potholes in the area.

Cow Pot, surrounded by a wall, is a fearful place, swallowing a stream at its northern end.  It consists of three main shafts - this one having a hood of alder catkins softening the horrific drop into total blackness.  First descended in the late 19th century ... or so we believe.  Early explorers reported the signature of a Mr Moorhouse at the bottom of the main shaft dated 1736!  Mr Moorhouse may well have been one of the very earliest cave explorers ... if his signature is genuine!!

Cow Pot's deepest shaft is spanned by this intricate limestone bridge.  Rumours are that sheep have been known (mad as they are) to edge themselves across it.

From this angle, to me, the bridge always looks like an outstretched crocodile, ready to gobble up a crossing sheep - or even a cow for that matter.  It is Cow Pot, after all!

The viewdown the northern shaft of Cow Pot is stunning.  Pink walls of water-worn limestone and a superb detached pinnacle looking like a blacksmith's anvil.  I crawled gingerly along on my stomach - held the camera out .... and hoped for the best!

George Cornes, a Lancaster caver, was wandering this way on a hot, still day in September, 1946.  Pausing to rest in the shallow valley beneath Cow Pot, he noticed a patch of grass waving agitatedly though there wasn't the slightest hint of a breeze.  Being an inquisitive chap, George investigated by pulling aside the loose stones.  At that moment, as Jim Eyre famously described in his classic study of the area: 'a strong draught of air blew up the soil ... and George Cornes into caving history ..'

George eventually unblocked this: a 33 metre shaft opening up into a vast series of caverns on different levels - known to cavers ever since as Lancaster Hole, after George's home city. Why not Cornes' Cavern?

The entrance shaft today is covered by an iron lid ... and there have been many.  During the 1950s a 'caving war' developed between members of the British Speleological Association as those wishing to preserve the fine formations became restrictive even to those with better intentions and a desire to explore.  Many cavers broke away to form their own groups and gain access - such as the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club - based at Bullpot Farm.

Photograph by permission of Paul Whittaker

Below the shaft, the passages eventually meet a flooded passage to the south, but in the opposite direction passages and chambers radiate in an intricate network.  The fact that younger, higher level caves are almost exactly super-imposed on ancient caverns beneath means there are many large collapse chambers filled with boulders.  The colonnades , seen here, are some of the most famous features in Lancaster Hole, and were the first to be photographed in 1946.  My friend Paul was down there only two weeks ago and sent these cracking pictures: cheers Paul.

Photograph by permission of Paul Whittaker

Despite their fame and hundreds of caving passers-by over the years - the colonnades have remained intact.

Photograph by permission of Paul Whittaker

In a bizarre scene, the columns of the colonnades have formed where stalactites and stalagmites have merged together over an immense period of time.  Flowstone has developed between where lime-rich water has dripped and trickled down the pillars and dispersed onto the cave floor.  Water from the soils above, rich in carbon dioxide, seeps through into the cave and on meeting the cave air some of the carbon dioxide diffuses into it to create an equilibrium.  This causes a tiny deposit of calcite to be precipitated and this process has been going on long enough for these works of art to be created. 

The shallow dry valley below Cow Pot, aligned on a fault, indicates water flow when the ancient low level caverns and shafts were frozen up or blocked by glacial debris during the last glaciation.

Then things start to get exciting - and spectacular - even up here on the surface, as the wonderful limestone grotto of Ease Gill Kirk is encountered for the first time, shrouded in trees with the immense expanses of Leck Fell and Gragareth keeping perpetual watch ....

Join me next time as we explore the two sections of Ease Gill Kirk in riveting detail, wander down into Witches Cave and the spectacular Leck Beck Head ... and finally return up the bed of Britain's most fascinating stream: Ease Gill Beck.  I hope you've enjoyed the adventure so far .....

Stephen x


  1. Superb as allways ! thank you for the view underground which most of us will never see.
    Teddy looked for the 'Trolls' down Lancaster hole :-

  2. Many thanks and I will certainly check Teddy out - sounds great!! Paul actually sent the photos of the colonnades which was a great help ... hopefully I'll get down myself again before long :)

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, thank you. I will never be a caver, far to scared, but I would love to have had someone like yourself with me when we went to Gaping Gill. It is all absolutely fascinating. Keep it up. :-)