Our visit to explore the surface features of the Gaping Gill cave system was planned to coincide with the Bradford Pothole Club’s annual “Winch Meet” with the prospect of a descent into the Main Chamber. An 8.30am start from Clapham proved too late to beat the queues at Gaping Gill, which had apparently started to form at 6.00am. Only two of the party braved the 5 hour wait to descend whilst the others made the choice to return to Clapham before the afternoon rain set in. Nevertheless, some interesting geology was explored during the morning.
The trip was mainly based on Walk 3 of “Exploring the Limestone Landscapes of the Three Peaks and Malham” by PJ Murphy, along with some maps from “Caves and Karst of the Yorkshire Dales” Volume 2, Ed T Waltham and D Lowe
Leaving Clapham we almost immediately crossed both the South and the North Craven Faults, which define the ends of the lake. At the latter, and inlier of Ordovician slate, inclined at almost 45 degrees was clearly visible. We soon passed the entrance to Ingleborough Show Cave from where Clapham Beck once flowed. The beck now emerges from Beck Head, a short distance further up the valley. This water is proven to originate from Fell Beck that cascades into Gaping Gill, almost 2 km away.
Walking up the dry valley we turned left just before the valley is blocked by terminal a moraine and started our ascent of Trow Gill. This gorge has 30 m high cliff walls and is believed to have been formed from surface meltwater, rather than the collapse of a cavern. Incised alcoves along bedding planes reveal the action of water. The documented valley that predated Trow Gill was difficult to make out with certainty. Following the dry valley above Trow Gill, and crossing at least one more fault line, we emerged onto the open moorland after crossing a stile in the wall.
From this point on there are a number of entrances to the Gaping Gill system, none of which are suitable for non-cavers. The first, appropriately named Stile Pot, was “discovered” as recently as 2008. The much more obvious Bar Pot was linked to Gaping Gill in 1949. We explored (from a safe distance) several other entrances, trying to understand their 3D relationship to each other. (https://braemoor.co.uk/caving/ggentrances.shtml gives photographs of 19 of the entrances.)
Finally, the caver’s camp-site along Fell Beck indicated that we had reached Gaping Gill, and soon the scaffolding, winch and other temporary infrastructure for the Winch Meet came into view. Fell Beck had been diverted by dams across its flow so that most of the water entered the Cavern at a distance from the route of the winch, although sufficient remained to add excitement to the 110 m descent in the winch chair. The experience of standing at the foot of this vast cavern is difficult to describe, but not one person that we spoke to on the day was disappointed.
The fault line along the top of the inverted V-shaped chamber was very clear to see. The so-called “Porcellanous Band” of micritic limestone is a useful marker band throughout cave systems of the Dales, and can also be seen at the entrance to Scoska Cave in Littondale. The different levels of this band on the two main walls of the cavern show how much the limestone had twisted during the movements that formed the cavern. A group of brown stalactites were also visible in the roof.
After a period of exploring and attempting to take some photographs in the very low light and moisture-filled atmosphere, we took our seat to be winched back to the surface. We reached the car park almost 12 hours after we had set off and set off home for a hot shower and some food. A very enjoyable and educational day.
Text and Images by Ian Hughes