Our family caving adventure down Gaping Gill, North Yorkshire

The small notice in the Yorkshire Dales visitor newspaper caught my eye: “Gaping Gill Winch meet. Experience the thrill of being lowered down this huge natural chamber by bosun’s chair and discover a hidden underground world”.

As a hill walker I knew Gaping Gill was a pothole somewhere on the route up Ingleborough hill. What I hadn’t realised was that twice a year caving clubs give visitors the opportunity to descend over 100 metres on a winch down into Gaping Gill, a trip that is usually off-limits to non-cavers.

An idea formed in my head, taking in the descent of Gaping Gill and the ascent of Ingleborough, the second highest hill in the Yorkshire Dales. The rest of the family were in agreement. Well, at least with the cave descent; I forgot to mention the hill walk until much later. Pop over here to read more about the rest of our family walk up Ingleborough.

Walking up through Trow Gill
Walking up through Trow Gill

Fast forward two days. It’s 7.30am and we’re in Clapham, the nearest village to Gaping Gill. Small groups of walkers are emerging from parked cars. They’ve obviously read the same warnings as us. Arrive early if you want to guarantee a place on the winch!

The walk from Clapham to Gaping Gill, through the woodland of Ingleborough Estate, past Ingleborough Cave and up Trow Gill gorge took about 1.5 hours. It was a pleasant enough walk in the early morning sun but my excitement grew tenfold when the pothole club basecamp came into view.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

Gaping Gill basecamp

At basecamp there were already quite a few people waiting to go down Gaping Gill. Each return trip takes about five minutes so there’s a maximum of twenty visits or so an hour. Without further ado we headed straight to the main tent to sign up, hand over our monies and collect our numbered token.

Fortunately the weather was lovely so we relaxed in the sun and watched others descend whilst awaiting our turn. The cave attracts a wide range of people; the groups in front of us included a 91 year old man and young children (7 years+). One lady sat in the winch chair but changed her mind at the last moment. It was a brave decision but I felt a little sad on her behalf. Without fail, everyone who returned to the surface was smiling!

All about Gapng Gill
All about Gapng Gill

Whilst waiting I read about the history and exploration of the cave. Gaping Gill was first explored in the 1800s; John Birkbeck diverted the waterfall which drops over the shaft and was lowered by rope into the cave. His rope wasn’t long enough to get to the bottom but the ledge he reached is still known as Birkbeck Ledge. A French explorer, Edouard Martel, finally reached the cave floor in 1895. Subsequent expeditions have even managed to link Gaping Gill to Ingleborough Cave although this is not possible at present.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

The descent

A couple of hours later our numbers finally appeared on the board. We climbed down the ladder and were briefed on the descent. Our instructions consisted of keeping our legs still and not swinging around in the chair. Easy for me, but I made sure my son knew this too!

My other half went first, followed by the children, and then it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive, but mostly excited when I took my place in the chair. It’s a slick operation and before I knew it the sliding platform drew back and the long descent began.

Sitting in the bosun's chair, Gaping Gill
Sitting in the bosun’s chair, Gaping Gill

My first thought was how close the edge of the cave was to my knees. So close that you think you are going to hit them. I sat very still. It gets dark after a few seconds and then you can hardly see anything at all. I felt the spray of water from Fell Beck. This waterfall normally falls into Gaping Gill but is diverted during the winch meet. Even so you still get a few drops coming your way.  Long after my senses had processed all of this we were still going down. It’s a long way down. Longer than I expected.

Heading down into Gaping Gill
Heading down into Gaping Gill

Inside Gaping Gill

As I reached the bottom of the Main Chamber I became aware how much colder it was below ground. Leaving the chair I carefully picked my way across the rocky ground to where the family were waiting. Although the cave has some lighting, and we wore head torches, it takes a while to acclimatise to the darkness. Even in the dim light it’s soon apparent how big Britain’s largest natural chamber is. Huge!

The caving club has set up a couple of floodlights and information boards to help visitors. We made our way from one side of the chamber to the other, peering into the nooks and crannies, and standing for a while on the aptly named mudbank.

We watched as some proper cavers climbed East Slope and slowly disappeared from view into another passage. There are more than 16km of passages underground and although I’d quite like to try caving my biggest fear would be getting lost.

The view from inside Gaping Gill
The view from inside Gaping Gill

Once we’d explored the main chamber we queued again for the return. It was mesmerising watching others ascend into the bright light above us. Impressively one of the cavers made his own way back up using just a rope and leg power. We took the easy option, propelled upwards by the winch. Heading up it was much easier to see the cave walls and almost as much of a shock to emerge into sunlight as the darkness was on the way down.

If you get the opportunity I highly recommend the trip down Gaping Gill. Slightly scary, but perfectly safe, it’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read about my top 5 highlights of the Yorkshire Dales; it’s such a beautiful part of the world!

More info

  • Gaping Gill winch is operated by Bradford Pothole Club in May half-term and Craven Pothole Club over the August Bank Holiday. Check the caving club websites for operating times. The descent costs £15 per person; it is not possible to pre-book so arrive early. There’s a comprehensive guide to Gaping Gill on the Bradford Pothole Club website.
  • Gaping Gill is inaccessible to non-cavers except during the winch events.Heed the warning signs around the edge of the entrance. One volunteer pointed out a grass ledge where people take photographs; it is very dangerous!
  • Take waterproofs, a head torch and some snacks to eat whilst you’re waiting. There is a basic field latrine but no other facilities.
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My top five Yorkshire Dales highlights

This isn’t a traditional list of tourist attractions. There are plenty of places to visit in the Yorkshire Dales but my favourite holiday memories are of walks, views and rural life. So what do I love about the Yorkshire Dales?

1. Field barns

My camera roll confirms I was obsessed with photographing barns on holiday. Although with around 6000 field barns in the Yorkshire Dales I still have quite a few to find!

The barns were built in meadows around 200 years ago to store hay and house cattle over the winter months. The freezing winters have taken their toll on many of them but for every barn without a roof there’s another one that’s still in use.

Stone barns of Wensleydale
Stone barns of Wensleydale

2. Hills

The Yorkshire Three Peaks walk is a 26 mile route which combines ascents of three hills – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. We opted for the easier option and split the hills across three separate days; pop over here to read more about our Yorkshire Three Peaks walks with the children.

Following the Pennine Way up Pen-y-Ghent
Following the Pennine Way up Pen-y-Ghent

With the exception of one very short easy scrambly section up Pen-y-Ghent all are straightforward hill walks in summer conditions. From the summits we spotted the sea, the distant peaks of the Lake District and other local hills.

Pen-y-gent view
Pen-y-gent view

Of course there are plenty of less-frequented hills to climb in the Yorkshire Dales, including the distinctive flat topped Addleborough; definitely one I’d like to tackle one day.

3. Waterfalls

Thanks to the presence of limestone the Yorkshire Dales is famous for its waterfalls. The Ingleton waterfalls and triple set of falls at Aysgarth are probably the most well known. Plus there’s Britain’s highest single drop (above ground) waterfall at Hardraw Force, the beautiful West Burton falls and Mill Gill Force near Askrigg. But take a look at an OS map and you’ll see waterfalls marked along almost every stretch of river.

Wensleydale waterfalls
Wensleydale waterfalls

The best time to visit is after heavy rain. It was sunny during our trip (I’m not complaining) but the waterfalls were still impressive. If you’re visiting over May or August Bank Holiday weekends and are feeling adventurous you might even like to visit the waterfall at Gaping Gill.

4. Dry stone walls

Together with the field barns the dry stone walls symbolise hill farming in the Dales. There are over 5000 miles of walls throughout the Yorkshire Dales, marking field boundaries and keeping in livestock.

Stone walls near Askrigg, Yorkshire Dales
Stone walls near Askrigg, Yorkshire Dales

Some of my favourite walls are high in the hills. I was intrigued by the wall heading up near the summit of Pen-y-Ghent and again along the summit ridge on Whernside. I can only imagine the effort it must have taken to build them.

With so many walls there are also plenty of stiles. In Wensleydale these are often narrow slits in the walls combined with heavy spring gates. The local sheep are obviously great escape artists!

5.  Wildflower meadows

Visit the Yorkshire Dales in early summer and you’ll be treated to hay meadows full of buttercups, daisies and red clover. The buttercups form a swathe of yellow, brightening up the fields and helping to encourage other wildlife.

Wildflower meadow near Hawes, Yorkshire
Wildflower meadow near Hawes, Yorkshire

As you might imagine, along with field barn photos I have a lot of flower meadow photos too!

Have you been to the Yorkshire Dales? If so, what are your favourite places?

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Yorkshire Dales pinterest image
Yorkshire Dales pinterest image
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Twixmas walking in Ambleside, Cumbria

It’s a tradition in our house that during Twixmas (the boring bit between Christmas and New Year) the rest of the family fly over to Ireland to catch up with family whilst I head north to walk in the mountains. This year I was a little worried that the combined efforts of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva would curtail my plans but I was assured the Lake District was open for business. Waterproofs packed, I headed out of the door ready for the long trawl up the M6 to Ambleside.

Rydal Water
Rydal Water from Nab Scar

A minute later I realised the brown liquid dribbling out the car wasn’t normal. I lifted the bonnet to find oil dripping down on me; something was horribly wrong. It soon became apparent that when my other half had helpfully topped up the oil he’d forgotten to screw the cap back on. I’d driven 40+ miles the day before (accompanied by an ominous smell of burning) but luckily the oil cap itself was still safely nestled on top of the tank. I took this as a good omen; where would I have found a replacement at 9am on a Sunday morning? Oil tank refilled and car cleaned up; I was ready to go once more.

Several uneventful hours later I arrived at my base for the next few days, Ambleside Youth Hostel. I was returning, once again, to walk with Country Adventures and it was great to see familiar faces and some new ones already in the lounge area.

Joe, the owner of Country Adventures, briefed us on the walks on our arrival evening. There were two options, high and low level, on both full days of walking and a third half day walk for those who wished to get a last taste of the hills before heading home.

Fairfield Horseshoe

The start of the Fairfield Horseshoe
The start of the Fairfield Horseshoe

On day one I chose to walk the classic Fairfield Horseshoe. I like to take advantage of long walks when I don’t have the kids as there’s no worrying about whether they’ll enjoy it or not. Our 11 mile route would, amongst others, take in the summits of Great Rigg, Fairfield and Dove Crag; around 3000 foot of ascent over the day.

Whilst Joe led the low level walk we were by accompanied by two experienced guides, Pete and Andy, on the high level route. One of the things I enjoy most about the holiday is leaving the route finding to someone else; navigation is not one of my strengths.

Fairfield horseshoe

Starting from Rydal we tackled our first fell, Nab Scar. This warmed us up and got a lot of the day’s ascent out of the way early on. At the top we stopped briefly for a breather and to enjoy the views down to Rydal Water and Rydal cave which the low level group were visiting. It was also a good chance to catch up with the other guests, many of whom I’d walked with on previous holidays.

Fairfield Horseshoe
Fairfield Horseshoe

Our route continued on to Heron Pike, Great Rigg and eventually the plateau of Fairfield. There was a fair bit of up and down along the way but nothing too hard. All around were spectacular views although many of the higher peaks were hidden in clouds and the mist briefly interrupted views on Fairfield itself. We ate lunch in a relatively sheltered spot before following the horseshoe route back towards Ambleside.

Heading towards Great Rigg and Fairfield
Heading towards Great Rigg and Fairfield

The return walk took us alongside a seemingly never ending, but impressively built, wall which provided shelter from the wind. Towards the end there was a short scramble down from some rocks; I was quite glad for the warmer weather as I’d have had kittens if they’d been covered in ice.

Sunset over the Fairfield Horseshoe
Sunset over the Fairfield Horseshoe

However, the highlight of the walk was still to come. The sun sets early in December and although we’d hardly seen it all day it made a spectacular appearance as it sank behind the hills. The sky turned pink, yellow and orange; I took way too many photos. I’ve rarely viewed sunsets whilst still on the hills so this was a real treat although it did mean a quickening of pace to get down to Ambleside before darkness. Yet we still took time to watch a barn owl hunting low over the land. Definitely a sign that night was on its way.

That evening we dined in one of Ambleside’s Thai restaurants. Our waiter kept us entertained, the food filled us up and I think we all managed to pay the right contribution towards the meal. Afterwards the hardened drinking crew went to the pub whilst the lightweights, including me, headed back to the hostel to sleep.

Red Screes

On our second day the high level walk option took us to the summit of Red Screes. The group was smaller than before; the appeal of a pub visit on the low level walk being more attractive than a day of wind buffeting (as the forecast aptly described the approach of Storm Frank).

We started with a walk through Sykeside campsite, pretty empty at this time of year, but in a fantastic location and one I’ve bookmarked to return to during summer. A young sheepdog accompanied us through some waterlogged fields before taking itself off to round up some sheep.

Start of our route up Red Screes
Start of our route up Red Screes

The weather forecast hadn’t mentioned any rain but within about 15 minutes we stopped to pull on our waterproofs. I was envious of those with more expensive waterproof trousers that could be pulled on over the top of walking boots. I meanwhile hopped around on one leg whilst undoing muddy boots and gaiters in an attempt to get mine on.

Our route took us up gradually beside Caiston Beck, an easier alternative to the steep 1000ft ascent straight up Middle Dodd. However it was sometimes difficult to work out if we were walking in a stream or on a footpath and I couldn’t help thinking the other option might have been drier underfoot!

Caiston Beck
Caiston Beck

It felt much harder walking than the previous day. Even after we left the stream-path the slopes of Red Scree were pretty boggy and most of us ended up ankle deep in the mud. It also became progressively windier but I love walking in strong winds; they certainly make you feel alive. And they dry your waterproofs off.

Path up Red Screes
Path up Red Screes

The view from the top is evidently excellent in all directions but as you can see we were beaten by the mist. The group paused for Andy to take a summit photo before Pete pointed out that we weren’t quite on the highest point. No-one will ever know though and it was way too cold and windy to take another in the right spot!

The view on Red Screes!
The view on Red Screes

The bogginess and mist accompanied our descent for a while and then suddenly we saw Lake Windermere emerge from the gloom. Lunch was eaten whilst sheltering from the wind beside another wall; I felt a little sorry for the solitary walker who had probably been enjoying some peace and quiet before we invaded.

Rather than head straight back to Ambleside by the road we took a short detour via a farm track past a field of Highland cows. Being a southerner I don’t get to see many of these so couldn’t resist a few photos.

Highland cow, near Ambleside
Highland cow, near Ambleside

We finished our day with a walk through the grounds of Stock Ghyll Force. One benefit of all the rain is that the Lake District waterfalls are at their most impressive. Stock Ghyll is on the outskirts of Ambleside so relatively accessible and it’s definitely worth popping to see if you’re in the area.

Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside
Stock Ghyll Force, near Ambleside

We were back in Ambleside pretty early and had a couple of hours spare before dinner at the hostel. I had vaguely thought about bringing my running gear with me to help with the marathon training but am glad I decided against it as my legs were starting to signal dissent. Equally optimistic I’d bought two books with me. I fared a little better with these and spent an enjoyable hour catching up on my reading.

Storm Frank arrived in the night and faced with a long journey ahead of me I chose not to walk on the third day. However the storm had the last word and followed me home. Six hours of driving along motorways in torrential rain was a stressful finish to the holiday but I’m already looking forward to next year’s walking break.

More info:

  • Country Adventures offer a variety of walking and activity breaks around the Lakes, Peak District and Yorkshire and I highly recommend them. You can read more about my previous trips with them in Elterwater and the Peak District.
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A walking break in Elterwater, Lake District

I was lucky enough to get some ‘me’ time a few weeks back. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys spa breaks; instead I indulged in my pre-kids hobby and booked a short walking holiday based in Elterwater in the Lake District.

Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater
Summit of Harrison Stickle, Elterwater

This was the fourth time I’ve walked with Country Adventures so when I finally arrived at Elterwater Hostel (thanks M6) I already knew the leader, Joe, and some of the others in the group, many of whom are regulars.

That evening Joe outlined the walking routes for the next day. Our walks were based in and around the Langdale Valley, and as there were several leaders we had a choice of a challenging walk or a more moderate option. As I was walking without kids, I was happy to go for the slightly harder route up Harrison Stickle. I cannot remember the exact distance but I think it was around 9 miles long with 3000 ft of ascent in total.

Day 1 – Harrison Stickle

I’d been checking the weather forecast religiously the previous week and was prepared for rain. Not just any rain, but torrential rain and wind; this being the Lake District after all. Instead we were greeted with a cold sunny day and not a cloud in the sky. A perfect day for walking.

Views of and from Harrison Stickle
Views of and from Harrison Stickle

Our day started with a short minibus ride to Dungeon Ghyll car park. Packs on, we headed off in the opposite direction from most walkers who all seemed to be walking straight up to Stickle Tarn. Instead our route took us on a gradual ascent up between Harrison Stickle and Pike of Stickle.

Higher up we started to encounter snow. It was still in the light and fluffy stage. Lovely for walking in except when it gets down the back of your boots and melts inside them! Despite this I was still walking with just a fleece jacket; hard to believe it was the middle of winter.

Walking up Harrison Stickle
Walking up Harrison Stickle

We seemed to reach the summit pretty quickly. The views from the top of Harrison Stickle were stupendous. Looking back at these photos I am reminded how perfect the day was. Our guide helpfully named the peaks around us although I promptly forgot them all. Instead I was happy to just stand and take in the panorama.

Snow views from Harrison Stickle
Snow views from Harrison Stickle

I could have sat on the summit cairn all day but lunch called. We first had to negotiate a rather icy downhill stretch which I didn’t particularly like. It was a relief to get out of the shade and back into the sun. We skirted around Stickle Tarn; my camera once again working overtime.

View of and from Harrison Stickle
View of and from Harrison Stickle

As we walked away from Harrison Stickle it was hard not to turn round and check the view every couple of minutes (top photo in collage above). The peak and it’s shady descent are imprinted on my mind for ever more.

The route back to Elterwater
The route back to Elterwater

Despite having reached the summit the bulk of the mileage was still ahead of us. We walked back to Elterwater across the fells, passing by Blea Cragg and Lang How. The best views were behind but we were still treated to a glorious winter walk, arriving back into Elterwater just as the tea shop was shutting (boo!).

That evening we ate at the hostel and enjoyed one of Joe’s quizzes. Some of the questions had made a repeat appearance from previous years, time for some new ones Joe!

Day 2 – Lingmoor Fell

There was just one walk on the second day but it came with an option to shorten it. We were walking from the hostel, on the southern side of the Langdale valley, up and over Lingmoor Fell.

Views from Lingmoor Fell
Views from Lingmoor Fell

The views were never going to surpass those of the previous day but it was impressive to see the fog cloaking Windermere below us as we emerged from the woods. I wonder if those in Windermere knew we had such great weather?

Walking over Lingmoor Fell
Walking over Lingmoor Fell

Standing atop of Lingmoor Fell gave us another view of the Langdale Pikes. The weather wasn’t quite as agreeable as the previous day so we didn’t hang around on top for too long. Once again we were faced with an icy descent which involved some detours over bracken; at least this made for a soft landing when the inevitable happened!

View from Blea Tarn
View from Blea Tarn

Lots of walkers appeared as we hit the road and tourist hotspot of Blea Tarn. After stopping for the obligatory photo of the Langdale Pikes (above) we followed the well made track back past Little Langdale and into Elterwater. Once again arriving home as the tea shop shut.

No quizzes on day 2. Instead a game of film and TV Pictionary. Some of the drawings had us in stitches, I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.

Day 3

I’d have loved to walk on the last day. But with another M6 journey to contend with I decided it was best to head off early. First though a browse around the outdoor shops in Ambleside and, at last, a visit to an open tea shop!

More info

  • I travelled with Country Adventures, a company that offers walking and other activity holidays in the Lake District, Yorkshire, Peak District and Wales. I’ve always enjoyed my trips with them and I think the fact that many of their clients come again and again speaks for itself. Our group had sole use of Elterwater Hostel but Joe can arrange alternative accommodation if you prefer.
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