Thoughts on Black Keld
CU 1973 Contents Page Next:
The First Figure Eight

Cambridge Underground 1973 pp 27-29


The whole fiasco started down in the Crown; we should have known better. Evan and I had staggered into Brackenbottom after a really satisfying trip, stripped off our wetsuits (or what was left of them), fed our faces and meandered gently down to the pub, feeling that maybe a little beer would be a good idea; and then, maybe, a little more. Bob, a member of the Airedale whom we knew, was sitting at a table, talking to a smallish fellow with a pipe. We laid in our ale and sat at a table next to them, paying little attention until odd snippets of conversation started drifting our way: "... quarter mile of vicious crawling...", said this mysterious character, clamping his jaws hard of the stem of his pipe. "...three quarters of a mile of huge master cave... only two ever been down there..", and so on. Anyway, the next we knew was that he had invited Bob to go down with him in the morning.

I don't know why, but the matter completely slipped from our minds after that, until we saw Bob in the pub the following evening. Could it have been something to do with the way he was staggering around, clutching his knees and groaning? Or the way he was knocking back his beer as if every pint was going to be his last? "So tell us all about it", we prompted. "Buy me a drink!" he gasped, and collapsed at our table, continuing; "Well, he wasn't joking, you know: it really does exist! Horrific crawl...foam all over the roof... huge stream... pretties... my God! the pretties... greatest caver since Martel..." At this point he degenerated into incoherent mutterings and devoted himself to beer.

Fortunately the greatest caver since Martel entered at this very moment, and was persuaded to join us. Soon the whole story was slipping out under a little subtle prompting from us (though perhaps there was something a little obvious in the way Evan kept dashing up to the bar to buy him beer) and he gist of it was as follows: this bloke (we'll give him a pseudonym, I think: how about Norbert? Why not?), this Norbert had devoted the last seven years of his life to wandering around the Dales hunting for caves, seven years of hard work and research. "In fact", he confided, puffing out a huge blast of smoke and glancing around furtively, "in fact, Brook and I are in direct competition!" All agog, we craned forward to learn more about this remarkable person. Most of the holes he had found, he continued, he had explored thoroughly - on his own, of course: all his caving was solo work. Naturally, this made things a bit unpleasant at times, and it would have been nice to have a lifeline on the Big Pitch in Bar... "Yes, yes!" we prompted, impatiently, "but this hole?" "Well, I'm afraid I can't tell you where it is just yet, and I've asked Bob to keep it quiet," he said, gesturing at the pathetic figure slumped over the table, an empty beer-glass in its hand, its eyes focussed glassily on infinity. "No doubt you'll read all about it in Descent some day."

"But have you surveyed it?"
"Not yet."
"Look, we've got some surveying gear up here: how would you like us to do it for you?"
We-ell-ll ... Tell you what, I won't take you to the cave I took Bob down today; we'll go to another new one."

Now this really was good luck; incredible luck! But Norbert was still reticent. Where was it? You'll see tomorrow. Was it near any known cave? Maybe, maybe not. What was it like? Well, in fact he'd only been in 200 feet. But why was that? At this point Norbert's brow furrowed deeply and he re-lit his pipe. "The entrance", he said, "is the most severe in Yorkshire. It's a canal. Ten inches high. Two inches of airspace. And that was in dry weather. Only one place to turn round. And when you're coming out again, the water builds up against your shoulders and floods your nostrils. I have every reason to believe," he continued, "that the canal will go on for another thousand feet before it reaches the Master Cave. And if it rains while we're under..." He left the sentence hanging there.

Somehow our beer didn't taste the same after that, and we quickly left. Back at Brackenbottom we basked in glory for a moment, ("Sorry, lads, can't come with you down Mossdale/Black Shiver/Far Waters, tomorrow; we've got something more important going"), but when we climbed into our sacks... Well, I don't know about Evan, but that was the worst night I've ever had. I dozed by fits and starts, but always there was the same dream of an endless Wharfedale crawl, with the water level rising steadily, the roar of the flood pulse getting ever nearer and Norbert thrashing on ahead, relighting his pipe in the air-bells and encouraging us with "Come on, now! Only another mile to go!" And at this point I would wake up in a cold sweat to find the morning a mere twenty minutes closer.

We'd arranged to meet Norbert in the pub at midday. When we arrived he was not there and it was a lovely day; too lovely a day for dying. Even was buying. "I'll have a lemonade," I said. "I want to be sober when I go."

"Dutch courage", said Evan.
"I'll have a pint."

At 12.30 he still hadn't arrived. 12.45, and I was just on my way up to the bar, feeling that maybe life was worth it after all, when he strolled in. Oh, God.

As we walked out to the cars, we asked him where we were going. Chapel-le-Dale, he answered. Chapel-le-Dale! That was encouraging; what could be nicer, friendlier, cosier than Chapel-le-Dale? Great Douk, Sunset, the Hill Inn... Well, at least we were going to die in pleasant surroundings.

There was something strange about the walk up though, surely there couldn't be a master cave this far North in the dale? There was something a little disturbing, too, about the entrance to the hole: it was a rift about eight feet long by a foot wide, with a fair sized stream flowing into it. Still, he had assured us it was unknown. A short way in we came to the dread canal, and at this point Norbert pulled his master ploy: "I've done a lot of original exploring before, lads," he said, "So I'll let you have a bit of fun. You lead and I'll follow." After about 200 feet of pleasant crawling in a foot of water with at least a foot of airspace we had begun to suspect that, perhaps, Norb had been pulling our legs: but where was he, anyway? After we had waited several minutes for him, we could hear him spluttering and panting several bends behind us. At length he appeared from round a corner and collapsed. "Really evil, isn't it?" he croaked. "If it goes on like this, I'm afraid we'll have to turn back!"

On we went. After a hundred feet or so we came across a cascade into a little chamber, and here again we waited for him. This time he was in a bad way: "You go on ahead," he wheezed, "Don't think I can go much further... too much caving recently... totally whacked..."

And so he turned back and we crawled on and on and on, still with the vague hope that this might be a new cave after all. When we had crawled about 1000 feet, the roof lowered to a height of eight inches above a gravel floor. I went on for about twenty feet, but there was no sign of the roof rising. I turned my head in a cross-joint and there on the right was daylight. A ghastly suspicion dawned on us as we stared at that little circle of blue. Hadn't we read of..? Could it be that..? We started back with murderous minds and our teeth gnashing ferociously.

Norbert was just packing away his wet-suit as we exited. "Norbert," we said, "Norbert, my friend.. Did it ever occur to you to read anything at all about this area?"

Why, no," he said. "What about the Master Ca..?"
"Not even, Norbert," we suggested, "not even the ULSA Explorations Review?"
"Do you mean..?" he gulped.
"Keld Bank Sink."

For something like half a second a mild dismay showed in his eyes, but his enthusiasm was undaunted.

!Ah, but there's always the other cave, the one I took Bob down!"
"Where is it?"
"Over there." He pointed with his pipe.
"Southerscales Pot".

This time he did have the grace to look surprised. But as we walked down to the cars, he was still waving his arms in broad, expansive gestures and telling us about huge, hidden Master Caves, running under our very feet, burrowing away to Meregill Skit, Turn Dub, Keld Head, Malham Cove, forging along beyond the horizons -- and who knows, he may have been right.

But wherever you are, Norbert, I hope you read this and feel thoroughly ashamed. I'm not going to forgive you that sleepless night. And if you value your life, and don't want your pipe rammed down your throat, I suggest you steer clear of the Crown: or any other pub in Craven, come to that.


Thoughts on Black Keld
CU 1973 Contents Page Next:
The First Figure Eight