Underground and Overground in Yorkshire

Explore sensational caves, dripping with stalactites and walk limestone pavements with vast views and get to know Yorkshire’s favourite hill inside-out…

The showcaves beneath Ingleborough offer a fascinating insight to a world rarely seen... by walkers, at least. Photo: Tom Bailey / Country Walking

Stand on top of Ingleborough and you probably won’t give much thought to the ground beneath your feet: you’ll likely be distracted by the gorgeous panorama that rolls far across the Yorkshire Dales National Park. But this solid looking hill is only solid in the way of honeycomb or an Aero bar: a labyrinth of passages twists through the stone under your boots to form one of the most extensive cave systems in Britain. Walk underground and you’ll discover an exquisite shadowy world of stalactites and stalagmites, caves and canyons; walk overground and you’ll find a connected but utterly different landscape of pale limestone pavement, deep shakeholes and bright vistas. Walk both this summer and you’ll get to know Ingleborough in an entirely new way.

Going underground

“That’s the Sword of Damocles over your head and up there you’ll find Queen Victoria’s Bloomers,” says my underground guide, John, as he points to some of the bewitching rock formations of the Ingleborough Show Cave.

The entrance is a slot in the cliff a mile up the track from Clapham, and it’s like walking into a big rocky grin. “Our Neolithic ancestors may have used this mouth for shelter,” says John, “but it wasn’t until 1837 that a man called James Farrer explored further into the cave. He had to knock a hole through a rock barrier that held back a lake. He had no idea how much water there was.”

He got lucky. He wasn’t swept away in a deluge. Instead he discovered what you’re now looking at: a long cave with vast rounded flowstones bulging from the walls, stalagmites twisting up from the floor, and stalactites contorting down from the ceiling. Like the sword and bloomers, Farrer gave many of them descriptive names: Witches Fingers, Curtain Range, Beehive, Elephant’s Legs.

Incredibly, this all began in a tropical ocean: “This rock – known as Great Scar Limestone – is made from the shells of sea creatures, formed underwater 350 million years ago when Yorkshire was on the equator,” says John. The cave’s current architecture is the work of freshwater, which exploited a horizontal line of weakness between slabs of stone known as bedding planes and then cut down to create an underground gorge. “This part of the cave was probably formed 200,000 years ago; further into the mountain could be a million years old. If you cut through Ingleborough you’d see all the different levels.” And don’t worry: that cave-carving river now follows a different route.

“The limestone can also fracture vertically as tectonic plates move deep in the Earth,” says John, “It’s a bit like when you bend a block of cheese and it cracks. Water then seeps in and erodes the joints – the same process forms limestone pavement overground.” He points to where the paper-flat roof (the underside of a bedding plane) is hatched with cracks. It looks like someone’s tiled the ceiling.

Each drip of water seeping through the limestone deposits an infinitesimal layer of calcite in the cave, forming the stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones, some of them stained to beautiful hues by minerals. The timescale is staggering: “The Jockey’s Cap stalagmite was measured in 1837,” says John, “and on average, it grows a quarter of a millimetre a year. It will take 10,000 years to reach the roof.”

And as you wander further into the floodlit cave spare a thought for Farrer in 1837: “People then just didn’t go into caves,” says John. “They were very superstitious. Imagine those explorers with just a flickering candle for light. They had no idea what was in here.”

We’ve walked to the end of the show cave, one third of a mile into the hill and 80m below the boots of people going by above, but this is just the start of the underground warren. In 1983 this cave was finally connected with the vast cave of Gaping Gill through 12 miles of passages: “It’s a horrendous trip,” says John, “and you need diving equipment because some of it is underwater.” You’ll be pleased to know there is an easier way to get to the gill.

The rather less claustrophobic upside to the underground, with Ingleborough watching. Photo: Tom Bailey / Country Walking

Over and out

The lip of gaping Gill is a frankly terrifying place to stand. Fell Beck splashes amiably down the grassy slope and then simply disappears into – as the name suggests – a gaping maw. You can see nothing but darkness as you peer into the abyss and the vertigo intensifies as you strain to hear the water hit something – anything – below. It’s 322 feet (98m) before it splashes onto the rubbly floor of the cavern, at the bottom of the tallest unbroken cascade in Britain and inside one of its biggest underground chambers – so vast it could house St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s clear there’s something of the hollow Easter egg about this hill.

The gill lies just over a mile’s scenic walk up the hill from Ingleborough Cave. You’ll pass Clapham Beck Head as soon as you leave the cave, where the waters of Fell Beck reappear five days after they vanish into Gaping Gill, a fact geologists discovered in 1900 by pouring a tonne of ammonium salt into the gill. The path up also curls you through Trow Gill, a gorge incised through the limestone by fast-moving, long-gone glacial meltwater. It’s a fun scrabble up a bouldery chute to get out, between walls that squeeze arm-span close on each side.

On some bank holidays you can get winched down into Gaping Gill (see panel) but otherwise your next steps are up – and up – on a flagged path to the top of Little Ingleborough. There’s little trace of the mountain’s rocky bones here as they lie buried beneath a layer of glacial till. At least three glaciations or Ice Ages in the last half million years have gouged and sculpted this landscape into the hills and dales we all love to walk. The Anglian Glaciation buried the whole of the Yorkshire Dales beneath 4000 feet of ice. The most recent, the Devonian, saw two great ice-floes arc around Ingleborough from the north, scouring limestone scars like ribs along its upper flanks and dumping a mass of debris here in the lee of the summit.

A welcome gentler section links Little Ingleborough to bigger Ingleborough, offering a chance to wipe the sweat from your brow and eyeball the panorama, before the final haul to the big, wedge-shaped plateau that tops the mountain. It’s polka-dotted with the remains of 20 roundhouses and ringed by an ancient rampart, making it the highest hillfort in England. I spot a man busily heaving rocks off a newly-built cairn, dropping them back into their rightful place in the fortification. Robert White is Senior Historic Environment Officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and he will be my overground guide down to Philpin Sleights near Chapel-le-Dale. “People often don’t realise when they build a cairn up here that they’re removing stones from an ancient monument,” he says, “but this hill has a long and fascinating human history.”

This summit fort is thought to have been built by the Brigantes tribe in the Iron Age, either as an expression of power or a summer settlement, and was used by tribes through to the Dark Ages. In 1830 a hospice tower was built to make the most of the fresh mountain air, but before the opening celebrations were over it had been destroyed by the drunken revellers. The view south-west from its ruins reveals an even more mind-boggling bit of history.  

You’re standing atop a layer of gritstone, over 2000 feet up in the Yorkshire sky; the once neighbouring bit of gritstone is now over 2000 feet below the ground just out there beyond the village of Ingleton. In between lie fractures in the Earth known as the Craven Faults and tectonic clashes have thrust one side skywards and plunged the other deep underground. The earth-shaking, mountain-building quakes peaked 300 million years ago but a tremor in Skipton in 1944 was attributed to slippage in a Craven Fault. Suddenly, this mountain doesn’t feel so rock solid underfoot.

We walk on clockwise around the summit plateau – you need to do a full circuit to appreciate every inch of view – and take a path down through The Arks to Humphrey Bottom. If you spot happy, weary walkers trooping by then chances are they’re on the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge: Ingleborough is the final peak after Pen-y-ghent and Whernside on the 24-mile walk.

Clambering down this bouldery path is like stepping down through time. The youngest rock on Ingleborough is the gritstone that caps its summit. Below that you drop through the Yoredale Series, where layers of dark limestone, sandstone and shale stack like a dobos torte, the softer rocks eroding faster to leave balconies of harder-wearing limestone. Look down and you’ll see the pale pavement of the Great Scar Limestone, a 600 foot thick plinth of rock, and out of sight beneath that is a vast chunk of granite called the Askrigg Block that underpins the whole of the Yorkshire Dales.

As the gradient levels off you’ll notice the ground is pocked with rings, as though someone has randomly whacked a funnel into the grass. One of the dips is vast: 180 feet across and 80 feet deep. “This is known as Braithwaite Wife Hole,” says Robert, as we peer in from the edge. “Rainwater drains through the peat and dissolves the limestone so the ground collapses, and then soil is washed down the steep slopes into the caves beneath, making the dip bigger.” These hollows go by a number of names – sinkhole, shakehole, doline – and a few in this area have the word wife in their titles, allegedly after the women thrown into them by ill-tempered husbands.

And ahead of you lies the magnificent limestone pavement of Southerscales Scars, where water has eroded those vertical weaknesses in the rock to form the craziest paving you’re ever likely to see. Some of the slabs, known as clints, are fretted to wispy sharpness, some polished to smooth curves, some are vast, others so small they verge on rubble. “It varies according to the precise formation of the limestone,” says Robert, “how long it has been at the surface and how it’s been fractured by movement and ice.” He heads to a spot away from the path called Middle Washfold and a gryke, as the trenches between the clints are known, that’s so wide and deep you can disappear into it. We drop carefully in to take a look. It’s a view I’ve never seen before, looking up through a pale letterbox to blue sky above. Photographer Tom edges into the darker reaches and spots a cave spider, then spiders, scuttling to action in the beam of his torch.

It is astonishing – arachnophobes might say horrifying – what ekes a living from this seeming moonscape. Those giant arachnids, at least six species of bat, and a curious breed called potholers, enjoy the dark spaces of the caves. The grykes shelter lush vegetation like hart’s tongue fern, despite being shadowy at the base and bone dry further up. Even trees can wring life from what looks like bare stone – often a bit bonsai from the lack of nutrients, but incredible in their tenacity. “There’s a limestone pavement on the other side of Park Fell at Colt Park Wood,” says Robert. “It is covered with ash, rowan and wild cherry trees, and woodland flowers. It’s one of my favourite places in the Dales.”

This deep gryke connects underground with Great Douk Cave, but we cross the sunny fields to peer into the fern-filled amphitheatre at its mouth. And as you cross the last few grassy fields to Philpin Sleights and the end of your exploration of Ingleborough, you can feel the ground is rough beneath the turf. Yorkshire rain is seeping through the soil and into the limestone beneath, forming the clints and grykes of pavement. And beneath that it is dripping into the great cave system, hollowing canyons and forming stalactites, and oh-so-gradually reshaping this iconic hill inside and out.

Words: Jenny Walters

This feature originally appeared in Country Walking Magazine