Cambridge Underground 1977 pp 5-15


Figure 1 - Drainage of the Ribblehead Area



Like many other clubs, CUCC had previously dismissed the Ribblehead area as containing only a handful of small caves of no great promise, so it was not until 1976 that we undertook any work in the area. In that July we paid our first of several visits to Ribblehead Cave.

Ribblehead Cave (NGR 777797)

The 'Lower Cave' has been well known, if little visited, since 1958 when it was explored and surveyed by the Gritstone Club, whose hut is a stone's throw away. Entered from an old roof collapse in a shakehole just south of the Hawes road, it consists of two roughly parallel passages, both ending in sumps not far short of the resurgence.

During 1975 the upper end of the shakehole was dug out - we could not discover by whom - to reveal over 500m of varied passage ending in a low sump, now known as sump V. This 500m of passage is referred to here as the 'Middle Cave', the sumps being numbered from Winshaw Gill Pot. Hence the descriptions may be difficult to follow without reference to the full survey. At this time, Winshaw Gill Pot (NGR 777803) existed simply as a 7m pitch into a pool with no way on.

Sumps V and IV

Just before sump V in the Middle Cave, a large mud cone had been observed on the north wall and during the dry summer of 1976, the shakehole responsible subsided further; it is located to the North-West of the original entrance, in the next field but one. The collapse was noted and dug by Jack Upsall and on 25th July he, Julian Griffiths, Andrew Nichols and Rob Shackleton used it to carry in a bottle.

Rob then dived upstream in sump V, finding it wide, low and very muddy apart from a prominent cross joint halfway through. He emerged after 30m in a high rift which, after 100m of deepening canal ended disappointingly in another sump, sump IV. The new passage was surveyed a fortnight later by JG and RS and a dive made in sump IV, but in the porr visibility, no way on could be found.

Winshaw Gill extensions and the Fourth entrance

Further trips were interrupted by the visit of the more rotund of the northern pioneers to Ireland, from where we returned to hear that Ian Plant of KCC had passed the entrance sump of Winshaw Gill to find 'half a mile of passage' heading for Ribblehead Cave. The possible connection had not until then been suspected.

This news made us determined to find a way over the apparently undiveable sump IV and JU, JG, AN & RS with Nick Reckert and Muff Upsall began work the following weekend, 30th August, in a shakehole on the north side of the Hawes road - JU, that purveyor of Digging sites to the Aristocracy, had heard a rumble of water there.

It went in a day and a half of easy digging. AN, RS and JU manufactured a route down through 10m of horribly loose car-sized blocks to the top of a fine stream canyon; a straightforward climb of 10m, not at all what they had expected, brought them to the floor.

Downstream, the canyon ran at once into a lofty aven, then swung right onto the joint which controls the direction until the downstream side of sump V. From the aven, the water flows into a deep sumped canal, reminiscent of the final sump in Little Hull Pot. RS dived the following weekend to establish this as the upstream side of sump IV, the water vanishing through choked fissures at a depth of 5m. The two aven inlets in the area were found not to go and a crawl in the left wall got too tight almost at once.

Upstream, a lively double cascade began 450m of varied and exciting streamway to a further sump (sump III), where the trio had their first substantiation of earlier rumours in the form of Ian Plant's diving hawser protruding from the water. A short break for curses and kicking lumps out of the floor was allowed.

We learnt later from Ian that he and Norman Sutherland had pushed down to sump IV in a series of trips beginning the weekend after we had passaed sump V, but it was decided to survey the passage between sumps II and IV that afternoon as part of the complete survey of the system which we had already begun. The final trips took place on September 25th, when JG and RS dived and surveyed from sump III to Winshaw Gill and AN with Andy Waddington and Geoff Wyss, resurveyed the original Ribblehead Cave to BCRA grade 5c. The survey down to sump IV has the names given by Plant and Sutherland, who first entered that section.


The Winshaw Gill - Ribblehead Cave system now has a length of over 1250m, making it easily the longest in the Ribblehead area: the CUCC "extension" of Midle Scar Cave from a body length to over 700m probably puts that into second place. Despite its obstructing sumps, all but a small portion is accessible to non-divers thanks to the four well-spaced entrances. Apart from the Whispers, where there is a superb display of straws, formations are sparse but there is a great deal of fine stream passage of a standard not previously found in the area.

Winshaw Gill Pot

The entrance to Winshaw Gill Pot consists of a narrow slot at the bottom of a clearly excavated shakehole. The shakehole is about 45m from the small stream sink to the west of the main Winshaw Gill just beyond the end of the small valley carrying the stream. A 6m pitch drops down into a pool in a rift passage. An inlet halfway down the pitch brings water in from the nearby Winshaw Gill Cave which ends in boulders only a few feet short of the pot. The rift at the foot of the pitch closes down quickly at each end, but a low passage at floor level leads to a sump after 3m. Sump I is 3m long and should be a low but easy free dive when rigged with a proper rope. The dive emerges in a parallel rift at the start of Pioneer Passage. After 10m an inlet enters from the roof and a further 45m of hands and knees crawling leads to a small cascade and a walking passage. 15m in a narrow passage gives access to a roomy aven from the roof of which a sizeable stream pours, most probably the flow from the main Winshaw Gill. The passage above has not to date been entered. From the aven, 15m of narrow streamway leads to a sharp bend to the right and a hands and knees crawl. A furthr 18m of passage leads via an entertaining duck to sump II with a small muddy inlet above, which soon closes down. Sump II is 21m long starting as an interesting little rift leading ionto the flooded tube below. The sump ends at a small lake chamber from which sump II, an easy 3m free dive, leads to the continuation of the passage, Tandem Passage. To the right of the lake, a narrow inlet (Garner's Garden) leads off for 45m to a well-decorated aven with a small trickle of water coming down from 5m up. The passage above has not been entered because the climb up overhangs somewhat, necessitating artificial aids.

Sump II emerges in an impressive arched gallery, dead straight, which gives way to a gradually higher and narrower rift in clean black rock, leading to a delightful 6m cascade. This is normally a simple free climb, but a handline may be useful in high water. Even in flood, the only parts of the system which will become impassable are the canal crawl in the Middle Cave and the entrance to the Lower Cave.

More fine streamway follows the cascade, obstructed here and there by roof falls, but with its compensating display of straws, until sump IV is reached. All the passage down to this point was discovered and explored by Kendal C.C. The sump is an estimated 5m long and emerges in a deep canal which, after 100m, lowers to the 30m sump V. Downstream of sump V the cave leaves the guiding joint and swings right with the stream unseen below muddy boulders in what is the largest passage in the system. The water is regained at a wide but short canal and eventually runs off down dip into a low, wet and disgustingly muddy crawl which becomes sump VI at a point dependent on the weather. During the survey (in the middle of the great drought) AN and JG noticed a cobble-choked crawl to the left of the sump which could have been forced in even drier conditions.

The active stream at this point has clearly migrated down dip and is in fact not seen again until the lower entrance where it rises in the shingle floor of the shakehole and cuts down again to form Ribblehead Cave itself. The abandoned passage becomes much smaller, a knobbly crawl first in a static canal and then dry before dividing. The upper branch zigzags to end in a small boulder chamber while the lower runs a similar distance to the present entrance. A grovel down over debris then regains the 1958 streamway which gets rapidly higher but is consistently smaller than the passages in both Winshaw Gill and the Middle Cave - an unusual feature. It ends after 120m in a heavily silted sump very close to the resurgence.



Encouraged by the extensions made to Winshaw Gill - Ribblehead cave system and galled at being beaten to the bulk of it by a mere fortnight, the club completed its survey on 25th September 1976 and the next day set out to find something else, with instant success.

That morning, Julian Griffiths, Andrew Nichols and Rob Shackleton investigated the Middle Scar shakehole after a night's heavy rain. The normal rising on the NW side was found to be blocked only a few feet in and the sink at the south end, which provides a link through Lower Middle Scar Cave to the rising at Conduit Spring Cave, was completely sumped off.

At the north end of the shakehole, the water could be seen through the boulders and generaly a short canal is accessible. JG kitted up and after much ferretting managed to find a way leading off whereupon RS as the accredited diver took over to emrege half an hour later to announce that he had passed a 10m sump to a deep canal with minimal airspace.

The trio then allowed a little time (well, until closing time) for the floods to subside. JG and RS succeeded in passing the sump, which is 3m deep and begins with a tight slot to a small boulder slope. AN, a non-accredited diver, gave up after several tries but his raucus oaths established a vocal contact through a hole a couple of metres to the left, which he spent the next three hours enlarging to a handshake connection. JG and RS dekitted and swam off, singing, up the canal. It gave way to wading and then walking in a lofty rift streamway, ending after 200m of splendid going in a boulder chamber and a dramatic 4m waterfall.

The fall was easily climbed and the passage above assumed lower and wider proportions as it aligned along the dominant NE-SW jointing. Easy walking continued for 120m until a step up reduced progress to a waterlogged hands and knees crawl, relieved when the roof rose at a stream junction. The left branch, assumed to be the water from Great Bank Pot, was a wet body-sized rift which could be followed for a mere 20m before it was blocked by one of the stout, mud-encrusted stalagmite barriers which are a feature of the cave. The major passage, with the stream assumed to be from Green Slack Cave, continued straight on as a 5m wide bedding plane to produce two 20m ducks, both with intimidatingly little airspace, but just the right amount of water to float, Gollum-like, effortlessly through.

After the second duck, the roof rose excitingly again in a decorated crawl. A second, smaller inlet could be senn on the left, but hopes of further progress were dashed as the roof slid gently into sump II after only 50m. Well satisfied nonetheless, the pair returned to the entrance to give the news to AN who was still biting out lumps of rock in his efforts to get in.

Sump II and Rising Mirth

A fortnight later, JG, AN and RS returned and this time all three succeeded in passing the entrance sump. A small bottle was taken to sump II and RS managed to pass it after 10m to a filthily glutinous crawl which sumped again almost at once. Sump III is very low and muddy; he had to break stal ridges off the roof even to squeeze in, and then to reverse out again when his valve failed 5m in. He and JG then began to survey out.

AN meanwhile set about the stal blockage in the Great Bank inlet with a lump hammer. Half an hour later, even a professional gentleman could grunt through, dropping into a further wet crawl. Two more barriers were similarly modified, then the character of the pasage changed and to his surprise and delight he made his way up a dramatic and superbly formed series of pools and cascades reminiscent, in a more sombre rock, of the lower parts of Swinsto. His mounting cheerfulness determined the name. It ended all too soon, after 190m, in a ahndsome black chamber where the water poured down a 5m overhang into the waist-deep pool which occupied the whole floor. The overhang proved unclimbable so the survey was halted at that point.

Parba Pot and the dry entrance

The next day the trio were joined by Nick Reckert and all four were able to get in after juggling two working sets of diving gear through the handshale connection. JG and AN completed the survey from the stream junction out while NR and RS bolted the climb (Parba Pot) at the end of Rising Mirth.

Above the pitch, the inlet shrank disappointingly and the pair were able to conjour up only 120m more before the sinuous crawl got too tight. Cobwebs and gnats indicate that the surface is not far above. This part of the cave was surveyed the following weekend, 17th October, after JG, NR and Jack and Muff Upsall had dug out AN's handshake to a passable, if awkward, entrance for non-divers.

The final trip was at the end of October, when An and Susan O'Brien (ULSA) carried for a second attempt by RS on sump III. He was able to progress only 5m further, still breaking off chert projections to squeeze through, until lowness and zero visibility forced a return. Last of all, the small inlet upstream of the duck was looked at and found to end in a very small chamber with a sump running off about a metre underwater. Unfortunately this was too silted to get more than a boot into.


The total length of cave found is in the region of half a mile, but its structure and development is too simple to warrant a separate description. Only one passage remains not pushed to a conclusion, the roof crawl leading north at the start of the entrance canal: the canal itself appears to be static everywhere except at the sump and the flow appears to enter at the bottom opposite the diving line. Running water is heard at roof level and there may be a short section of parallel streamway cutting off the corner containing the canal.

Rising Mirth has been dye-tested from Great Bank Gill sink. The source for the Mudlark is the obvious stream halfway between Great BAnk Gill sink and Green Slack, at the same level as Great Bank Gill.

Visitors to Rising Mirth should note that the cave below the 4m climb responds rapidly to rainfall, with the canal sumping in even moderate flood; on the final trip foam was seen 3m above canal level. The duck above Parba Pot similarly sumps, but the low sections above and below the stream junction appear to remain passable except in high flood. Check with the squeeze at the start of the entracne sump: if that is submerged by more than a few inches, the canal will be impassable.


On 17th October 1976, Julian Griffiths introduced 3 oz of fluorescein into Green Slack Cave before going down Black Reef Cave. The dye had gotr through by the time he had changed, the entrance canal being already green. He found the dye to be entering by the main stream, with the inlet running clear throughout. Flow-through time was about two hours.

The following weekend JG and Jack and Muff Upsall dug at a shakehole near Green Slack, in which JU had heard a running streamway. 2m of unstable digging reached solid rock, but after a body's length of actual cave the passage became too small, though a little stream could be seen. The dig has since collapsed.

It is located in the valley between Green Slack and the Hawes road; lower down there seems to be an abandoned dig where the stream can be seen again. JG suggest that it is the source of the inlet in Black Reef Cave.


Julian Griffiths and Rob Shackleton were again at Ribblehead at the end of a very wet November. After moving a fascinated bull aside, the pair attempted to dive Batty Beck Rising, situated in a joint 100m down the Horton road from Football Cave, its presumed source; it may be that some water also comes in from the Gauber Quarry area, but the Football Cave stream is big enough to account for all the water.

The water actually wells up in three separate places, but all were far too tight. Neither JG or RS were able to get further than the waist into any of them.


Sprodic digging has taken place in the sink which drains the boggy area behind the knoll of Black Bank. A thrutch down a joint into a tight and wet bedding plane produces a mere 8m of cave - all dug out by hand - ending in a tight waterlogged rift. A bank of cobbles prevents further progress, though the passage can be seen to continue large enough if cleared.

A dye-test in November gave a positive trace two hours later at the rising behind Far Gearstones. The 'trace' was a gaggle of very puzzled ducks paddling round in a green pond, not sure whether to eat it or swim in it! The rising is blocked by a major collapse and there is no hope of access except from the sink. Digging continues.


CUCC became interested in Holme Hill Cave after the dramatic if a little unexpected success at Middle Scar Cave. The upstream section of the cave is incorrectly reported in Volume IV of Northern Caves to be choked after 30' (10m). In fact the Gritstone Club explored 120m of low airspace canal ending in a point where the airspace became too low. On 24th October, Rob Shackleton, so as to avoid the guilty feeling which comes when one wastes one's Sunday, decided on a solo recce trip in Upper Holme Hill to look at the passage and assess the diving prospects. On this trip two low airspace sections were passed; the first 2m long with 5cm of airspace and the second 30cm long but with only a tiny triangle of airspace visible above the water surface. It is not clear whether these ducks were the previous limit of exploration, but beyond them only 30 to 50m of low airspace canal passage similar to the previous canals was discovered and was found to lead to a complete sump. The passage seemed to show no sign of diminishing in size or splitting into smaller tributaries so it was decided to have a look at the sump with breathing apparatus. On 31st October, Rob, together with JG, ferried the equipment to the sump where Rob dived and passed the sump after 3m and a thrutchy squeeze. Julian followed through and the explorers pushed on into the unknown in the by now familiar low canal. After only 12m of passage, however, the water was found to emerge from a small tueb which became too small for Rob after only 3m of further progress. A shingle filled bedding to the left of the tube was excavated ans was forced through to the continuation of the canal, but the shingle blockages became a lot more serious after only 6m more passage and since things looked far from promising, the explorers decided to turn back pausing only to dub the extension "Sambo's Smelly Passage". The whole of Upper Holme Hill Cave is rather cold and dismal, and of the 200m+ of passage, less than half has comfortable airspace. A good wetsuit is essential and gills would make things a good deal easier!

Andrew Nichols and Rob Shackleton

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