PUBLISHED: 11:50 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013
Two sports particularly associated with the Peak District are climbing and caving. Having tried the former Nikalas Cook sets out to discover the appeal of journeying underground.
For me one of the joys of the Peak District is the sheer variety of the landscape. From picturesque river valleys and rolling pastures to bleak foreboding moors. We have them all. But there is a hidden world beneath the well-trodden footpaths. A world capable of inspiring awe and fear in equal measures, yielding wonders of both architectural and microscopic proportions and allowing you to immerse yourself in the geological past.
340 million years ago during the Carboniferous era Derbyshire basked in a tropical climate near the equator. The shallow seas that surrounded the land teemed with life. The shells and skeletons of the creatures that lived and died there fell to the sea floor forming layers of calcium carbonate rich sediment hundreds of metres thick. That sediment was compacted to form limestone and was then bent, buckled and deformed as the earth's plates shifted and Britain drifted north. Wherever the limestone was exposed to the elements rivers gauged deep valleys to give the familiar landscape of the Derbyshire Dales. Below the surface, water invaded the rock breaching natural weaknesses such as cracks, fractures and joins. Having dissolved carbon dioxide from the air and become mildly acidic the water dissolved the limestone, carving the mazy network of caves, caverns and passages that riddle the Peak limestone today.
A taste of the secret world below the Peak can be had at one of the excellent show-caves such as the Blue John Cavern, Peak Cavern (Devil's Arse) or Poole's Cavern. You can even explore the subterranean canals by boat in the disused lead mine of Speedwell Cavern. But I wanted to go deeper, away from the crowds, get up close to the rock and enter the dark, dank, claustrophobic realm of the caver.
Jules Barret is a highly experienced mountaineering/ climbing instructor and guide. He runs Orion Mountaineering and bases many of his activities in the Peak District. He is also a highly accomplished caver and to quote his website 'the Orion team are on a mission to make caving sexy.' There is no doubt that caving has been left behind in the current rise of extreme and adventure sports. An image of pallid, bearded and wiry old men emerging covered in slime from a hole in the ground leaves the rest of us bemused as to the appeal and why, with so much to see above ground, go below. For enthusiasts one of the answers is that caving is probably the last frontier of genuine exploration left in Britain. For cavers such as Jules, at the cutting edge of the sport, the prospect of a major new discovery far outweighs the hard work, discomforts and dead-ends. As recently as 1999 Dave Nixon discovered a cave of epic proportions. Titan, standing at over 450ft, is the single deepest shaft in the UK. It is hard to believe that such an immense feature could remain undiscovered but, there is no doubt, that similar and even greater structures lay hidden in the UK's limestone. Jules described the slog and drudgery of a current project he was working on. Spending hours underground hauling rocks out, and scaffolding poles in, seemed more like a level of Hades rather than a sport. But the glint in his eye hinted at the belief of something special to be found that would make all the work worthwhile. For recreational or 'sport cavers' who follow known cave systems the appeal is experiencing a unique and beautiful environment, challenging themselves physically and mentally and then re-living it all over a good pint in the warm of a pub afterwards.
I was pretty apprehensive about my debut underground. I don't suffer from claustrophobia but I'm not really built for squeezing through confined spaces. At well over six foot and quite wide in the shoulders I was seriously worried about the prospect and embarrassment of getting stuck. Waiting for Jules at the Woodbine Café in Hope I sat there sweating as I mulled over my coffee. Although nerves were partly responsible it was one of the few days last summer when the sun had made an appearance and I was sitting there in full thermals. Regardless of the time of year and outside conditions, cave temperature sits at a constant 6-7°C. Jules, when he arrived, was quick to make the point that the constant cave conditions make caving an ideal 'outdoor' activity, particularly in winter. I could see his point but, at the time, the 20°C outside in the sun looked a lot more appealing than 6°C down a hole. He also made the valid point that caving was ideal for dark winter evenings as, well, it'll be dark underground anyway. We then got down to the serious matter of discussing our route for the day. Our plan was to explore the Giant's Hole cave just outside Castleton. A classic novice trip is to do a route known as the 'round trip'. Jules though thought we needed a bit more of a challenge and proposed we followed the cave to its end at the East Canal before heading back up. What looked like a pretty innocuous distance on a paper plan Jules reckoned would take us between six and seven hours.
Arriving at the car park we kitted up. Over my thermals and fleece went a heavy-duty boiler suit. On top of this was a climbing harness and kneepads that I'd be extremely grateful for later. On my head a helmet with a powerful head-torch and on my feet, at the high tech end of caving kit, a pair of welly boots. Jules then handed me a bag full of ropes and ladders and we set off for the cave entrance. By the time we got there I was over-heating quite dramatically and actually looking forward to the cold and dank of the cave. The cave entrance yawned in front of us descending to absolute blackness. There was no turning back and, with a final glimpse of the sky, I followed Jules below.
The first section was a relatively straightforward if slightly hunched walk and I happily strolled along trying desperately to resist the urge to hum 'whistle while you work'. I was looking around enjoying some calcite formations and thinking that this caving lark is pretty easy. Then Jules stopped. We had reached Garlands Pot and now the 'fun' started. A 7m vertical drop, Garlands Pot is the start of the cave proper. As I peered over the edge while Jules set up the rope I struggled to see the bottom as my torch-beam was obscured by the water vigorously cascading down. Jules tied me onto the rope and then lowered me into the hole. I've done quite a bit of climbing so heights and abseils don't bother me but this was a dark wet hole and I was more than a little apprehensive. Reaching the bottom I untied and was suddenly gripped by an irrational feeling of isolation. What if Jules ran-off? Could I get out? How long would my torch batteries last? A 'what if' internal dialogue was a constant theme of the day and this first bout was only interrupted when Jules dropped to the floor beside me.
The next section is known as the Crabwalk and 650m can feel like an awful long way when you're squeezing sideways through a tortuously twisting passageway that forces you to inhale to fit through. Looking up, the roof was nowhere to be seen as the rock soared into the dark. It was an exhilarating place to be, making you feel small and humbled in the very real presence of geological time. Jules then stopped again. I now realised that meant something bad was coming up. We were at an especially narrow constriction known as the Vice. He explained there are two ways to negotiate it. The first, for lithe limber folk, involves a contortion through its upper reaches. The second, for the larger and less bendy, involved a tight slither through a very cold looking pool. While Jules demonstrated the former I took an early dip. I had been warm and dry up until then but now the freezing water coursed through my boiler suit making me catch my breath. A series of tight and low passages followed before we reached the Curtain. The roof of the cave dropped dramatically to a pool of water and it was obvious that the only way on was through the water. While not a complete 'sump' (underwater constriction) as there was a small gap between roof and water any part of me still dry after the Vice was now going to get wet. Jules went through smoothly and then, trying to emulate his technique, I followed. The gap allowed half of my sideways turned head to remain out of the water so, if the water hadn't been so cold, I would have been able to breathe. Gasping I emerged, keen to keep moving, freezing cold but oddly enjoying myself. Climbing down several drops using pre-placed ropes we then reached a vertical pitch known as Geology. Geology is 14m and was the final barrier to our goal of the East Canal. After lowering me Jules followed me down and soon our head-torch beams were playing on the impassable surface of the East Canal. We took a moment to congratulate ourselves before heading back to the surface. We were planning on a different route back but first, we had to get back up Geology. Jules ascended the rope we'd left and then unravelled and threw down a very flimsy looking caving ladder. Trying to climb a 12m long six-inch wide cable ladder is hard under normal circumstances but try it with a waterfall cascading onto your head. With burning arms I made it to the top and, after a brief rest, onto my appointment with the Giant's Windpipe.
The Giant's Windpipe begins with a 23m low crawl after which the roof gets even lower and half the space fills up with water for the next 8m. The final 14m are drier but you still have to slither along on your belly. I was already feeling tired and this just drained me even further. I had to use every muscle in my body to keep moving forwards. The cold and wet sapped even more of my strength but for some unknown reason, at the time, I found the whole thing hysterical and couldn't stop laughing. Eventually, after what seemed like ages, I slumped out of the Windpipe to find Jules setting up a rope. He then lowered me down a narrow gap between two massive rock faces and it was only when I reached the floor, that I realised I was back in the Crabwalk. Staggering along I realised how tired I was and also how much clumsier as I repeatedly bashed myself on the rock. Reaching Garlands Pot it took every once of strength to haul myself up the ladder but the prospect of warmth and daylight drove me on.
Emerging into glorious sunshine I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that it was over but also a genuine feeling of accomplishment and of an adventure had. We'd been underground for just over five hours and Jules was very pleased by the progress we'd made. I'd enjoyed my introduction to caving and if given the opportunity would definitely give it another try. I'm sure I probably missed many fascinating and beautiful cave formations as I was focussing so hard on not getting stuck. Maybe next time I'd be able to take more in but for a while at least, I'll be appreciating the Peak from above.
Orion Mountaineering offers an evening introduction to caving session costing £25 per person for a group of four people. A full days caving will cost £40 each for a group of six. Private guiding and instruction can also be arranged. For details go to www.orionmountaineering.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org tel: 07730981857.