Scaring myself at Zip World caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

I wasn’t sure whether to be nervous or excited when my partner bought me a birthday voucher for Zip World caverns. Billed as an exhilarating underground journey using zip lines, rope bridges, via ferrata and tunnels, it’s one of the experiences that’s taking adventure tourism to a new level in North Wales.

Based at Llechwedd Slate Mine the site also provides the opportunity to ride on a four person zip line and bounce on an underground trampoline. But I think the Caverns Experience is definitely the most exciting!

Kitting up

My adventure started in the kit room. As well as myself, there were two family groups ranging in age from 11-55 years. Following the instructor, the eight of us stepped into harnesses, tightened belts and buckles, attached the trolley (zip lining device) then donned helmet and gloves. We almost looked like we knew what we were doing.

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

Part 1 training

After a brief introduction we stepped outside for our first training session. On the ground we were shown how to click our harness system onto the safety cable.

Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Outdoor training area at Zip World Caverns

If you’ve tackled a Go Ape course you’ll be familiar with the safety cable system. Zip World uses something slightly different, CliC-iT, which relies on magnets between the two lanyard connectors to stop accidental unclipping. You are only able to have one connector unattached at any one time which is reassuring. However it does require practice and this was our opportunity. Best to perfect it on the ground in daylight.

Part 2 training

We soon graduated into the second training area. Led inside the cave, we passed the underground trampolines in Bounce Below, where my kids were burning off some energy, to reach a ladder and small set of zip wires.

Here we were shown how to attach the trolley to the zip line (with the wobbly bit next to your nose) and how to hold the device when ziplining. And then we were let loose on the mini zip wire course.

Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns
Indoor training area at Zip World Caverns

Rather nervously, I climbed the ladder to the highest zip line, clipped on and launched myself off. Although daunting I’ve tackled enough zip lines to know that the step off the safety ledge is the hardest part. Before long, I had zoomed back and forth across the cave several times until I reached floor level.

If, after this stage, you decide you don’t want to go into the caverns there’s a chance to pull out and get a full refund. Everyone in our group was happy to continue so we walked back through to the caverns.

Onto the caverns

The instructor leaves you after the training sessions and you complete the course at your own pace (although you’ll always have people in front and behind). The caverns are monitored by a myriad of CCTV cameras so if you get stuck you can raise your hand and wait for help.

The training sessions were very good at familiarising us with the equipment. But they in no way prepare you for the environment that you encounter in the caverns themselves. From my perspective that’s actually a good thing; I prefer not to know. But if you want to, then read on.

The zip wires

The first part of the cavern adventure is all about the zip wires. There are evidently ten of them but I wasn’t counting, just focussing on making sure I’d attached myself correctly.

The zip wires start high then get lower and longer as you progress through the course. A couple at the end have a very fast landing. I discovered the trick is to start moving your legs a little just as you approach the end so that you’re ready. I’m not sure this makes the slightest difference but it gave me something to focus on apart from the impending cavern wall. If all else fails there’s plenty of crash mat protection!

Inside Zip World Caverns
Inside Zip World Caverns

There’s a photo opportunity on zip line number nine and although I remembered to smile for the camera I also put my arm in front of my face. No souvenir photograph for me then.

The via ferrata

Popular in the Italian Dolomites, via ferrata are a way of traversing cliffs using metal rungs, ladders and bridges. The second half of our route took us along the edge of the cavern wall, up and down ladders and across a variety of bridges. I shuffled across tree trunks, crawled through tunnels and clambered up rope nets.

This part of the course was much harder for me as I don’t like the exposure that comes with heights. I found it tricky balancing on an iron foot hold, holding on to a rung above me and attempting to re-clip my leads on to the next wire. All the time trying not to look down. I admit it, I was scared.

I wasn’t the only scared person. There were plenty of shrieks coming from all around, which did little to reassure me. Although the family in front kept an eye on me, gleefully telling me how difficult the next parts were. After an hour or so I was happy and relieved to reach the end of the course, but slightly disappointed there wasn’t a final zip wire to ride.

Would I go again? As most of the adventure relates to not knowing what to expect I wouldn’t rush back to do the same thing. However there’s lots of other experiences to try out. In fact, I’ve already added a trip on Velocity, Europe’s longest zip ride, to my UK bucket list so I’ll be back.

More info

  • Are you brave enough? If so the Zip World website details a myriad of adventure options to part you from your cash. The caverns adventure lasts 2-3 hours and costs £60.
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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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Walking on the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides

This is part two of our Isle of Eigg adventure covering our family walks on the island. Pop over and read part one for more information about Eigg, our accommodation and where to eat.

The most famous walk on Eigg is to the summit of An Sgurr, the dramatic lump of rock you can see in the photo below. I wasn’t sure how suitable it was for the kids to climb so we chose a couple of less strenuous options.

Laig Bay and Singing Sands beach

Our first walk was to the north of the island to spend a day exploring the fabulous beaches of Eigg.

An Sgurr, Isle of Eigg
Leaving the hostel, walking towards An Sgurr, Isle of Eigg

We set out from our accommodation, Glebe Barn Hostel, along the main road towards Cleadale. This took us past the village primary school and a small heritage centre which we stopped to have a look in. Next door my daughter nosed around the island swap shop; I had visions of her finding something large and bulky which we’d have to carry so I quickly retrieved her.

Banana ice cream on our Eigg walk
Banana ice cream on our Eigg walk

A better find was a sign outside a house which advertised home made ice cream. It was early in the day but it’s never too early for ice cream if you’re a kid! We sat outside, drinking coffee and enjoying the morning sunshine, whilst the kids ate some rather yummy banana ice cream.

Walk from Blar Dubh plantation towards Laig, Eigg
Walk from Blar Dubh plantation towards Laig, Eigg

Shortly after leaving our ice cream stop we veered away from the road and followed a track marked by dots up through the trees. The path continues across heather over some pretty boggy ground. It eventually led us to the gate shown above. Little did we know that after passing through the gap in the cliffs we would be treated to the stunning landscape below.

Walking towards Laig bay, Eigg
Walking towards Laig bay, Eigg

Looking across we could see the cliffs of Beinn Bhuidhe and below them the crofts which have opened up since the residents bought the island in 1997. Beside us was a kettle hole lochan formed by a retreating glacier, whilst in front was the Bay of Laig.

Walk down to Laig beach, Isle of Eigg
Walk down to Laig beach, Isle of Eigg

We walked down past a farmhouse onto Laig beach. As usual in Scotland, we had the entire place to ourselves. A stream flowed down across the beach which proved slightly more difficult to cross with dry feet than you would imagine.

Crossing the stones on Laig beach, Eigg
Crossing the stones on Laig beach, Eigg

I was determined to eat an egg sandwich on Eigg so after finding the perfect picnic spot (the tree trunk in the top photo) we stopped for lunch. Sitting on Eigg, and looking across to the peaks of the Rum Cuillins I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be. I therefore declare this the best picnic spot in the UK but if you have any other contenders do let me know.

The path to Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
The path to Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

At low tide it is possible to walk along the beach from Laig to Singing Sands but the tide was too far in on our visit. Instead we detoured inland and crossed a field of cows (which my daughter hates). We passed a couple of bicycles in the field, temporarily left unlocked whilst the hirers visited Singing Sands. The kids both remarked how you’d never be able to do this back home without them going walkabout.

View of Rum from Laig beach, Isle of Eigg
View of Rum from Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

Singing Sands beach

The beach at Singing Sands is so named because of the quartz sand grains which make a squeaky sound if you walk across them when dry. We managed to make some sounds by scuffing our boots along the sand but the term singing is rather fanciful!

Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

We loved the welly stile below, a creative use of old boots. There were also a couple of sculptures on the beach made from items washed ashore. I’ve no idea who made them but they’re a fun and thought provoking addition.

Welly stile, Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg
Welly stile, Singing Sands beach, Isle of Eigg

Dragging ourselves away from the beach, and the views, we took the direct route back to the hostel along the main road. A couple of cars passed us which had seen better days. I read afterwards that cars on Eigg are MOT exempt which explains a lot!

The Cleadale road, Eigg
The Cleadale road, Eigg

We’d underestimated how warm the day was going to be and hadn’t taken enough water to drink. We were relieved to find that the house selling ice cream was still open for business. Even better, the lady had just baked a rhubarb pie. It would have been rude not to sample it and it certainly helped power the final part of our walk home.

Cathedral and Massacre caves

Our second walk only took a couple of hours, although at low tide you could walk further. Starting out from the pier at Galmisdale this time we followed purple paint spots for about a mile until we reached the caves.

Walk to Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg
Walk to Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg

After our views of Rum the previous day this time we were facing the small island of Muck. We watched a couple of sea kayakers who were making the crossing over to Muck.

The path led down from the cliff onto the beach to our first cave of the day, Cathedral Cave. The cave was once used for Roman Catholic services hence its name. It has an impressively large entrance and can be explored at low tide as long as you remember to bring a torch.

Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg
Cathedral Cave, Isle of Eigg

The Massacre Cave looks less impressive from the front. It has however an incredibly sad history.

Back in 1577, as part of a long running feud with the Macleods of Skye everyone on the island hid in the cave to avoid detection. However footsteps were spotted in the snow leading to the cave and the Macleods lit a fire in the entrance. All 395 people who were hiding perished.

Massacre cave, Isle of Eigg
Massacre cave, Isle of Eigg

In the past visitors have been able to walk into the cave but a large lump of rock fell from the roof recently narrowly missing a couple. There are now signs at the entrance, and elsewhere on the island, warning not to enter. It was disappointing not to go in but I didn’t fancy a chunk of rock on my head!

To extend the walk there are several other caves and a couple of waterfalls further on along the beach. However we were keen to visit the island produce and craft market back in Galmisdale so we simply retraced our route.

More info:

  • The gift shop in Galmisdale sells a pack of postcards with details of the popular walks on Eigg. There is also a map near the pier which outlines the approximate routes of the walks. Alternatively, further walks are available on the Walk Highlands website which we found an invaluable resource.
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