Story and photos courtesy of Howard Beck – www.howardmbeck.co.uk
Not every day is it that the average person is given opportunity to walk where no other human has ever set eyes—and at risk of being clichéd by saying so, take one giant step for mankind—but barring the extreme depths of the oceans or the frigid infinity of the cosmos, where might such a place be? Well, if you’re sitting comfortably a tale to you I will tale…
Just the year before Neil Armstrong’s historic words were immortalised on TV screens around the world, myself and other members of the CPC were taking our very own momentous steps, in a place no less remote than deep space, one that in its own discreet way was equally hazardous, where a deep penetrating cold and fathomless darkness reigned supreme. It came during a period of great change, feverish underground activity, of challenges anew and an unprecedented level of new discoveries.
High on the fells to the southwest of the Dales village of Buckden in upper Wharfedale, Birks Fell Cave in the summer of 1968 would become the new frontier of exploration. Up to then this fine cave had ended in a low passage half-way full of icy water, the latter held back by a consolidated dam of boulders that aeons past had tumbled from above. It was all any person could manage but to cower in the languid canal. And shiver. Then make a hurried retreat from the flood-prone cave.
But all this was about to change.
My joining the ranks of the CPC was indeed fortuitous, being just in time to participate in that summer’s euphoric discoveries. The day I arrived in Buckden prior to the big breakthrough I met with a carnival atmosphere that Saturday night in the Buck Inn. Everyone was in celebratory mood at the day’s finds. When later that day John Whalley and Mike Walton exited the cave following a late evening ‘look’ and strolled nonchalantly into the bar announcing they had found an even larger continuation the place hushed. We cavers were all ears and barely able to contain our excitement as they told how they could see into a black void and hear the distant rumble of a river!
All hell then let loose.
Everyone went wild with jubilation, the beer flowed, congratulations were exchanged, plans made, everyone was aglow with animated chatter. Little did we then know when bedding down for the night, that we were on the verge of one of the largest discoveries in the country for many a long year. When I joined the team descending the next morning it followed on the back of two previous sorties. Besides myself they were Randall Coe, Alan Wallbank, Edward Whitaker, Pete Rose, John Whalley and Mike Walton.
The cave, whose small entrance belied what really lay in waiting, would prove a visual smörgasbord of geological features guaranteed to delight and stimulate explorers bored with the more hackneyed underground expeditions.
Expectation was riding high.
Everyone was so keyed up that en masse we swept down the cave like a human tsunami, only washing up at intervals to marvel at wondrously decorated grottos and other structural features. The tidal wave surged onward through chamber beyond chamber, flowing along grandiose rift passages.
Waterfalls augmented the sweeping tide of humanity; while as one we waded deep pools and gingerly climbed cascades as refreshing as an advert for Fox’s Glacier Mints. One moment traversing high above the stream, the next we were gasping, wet and flopping through gloopy flat-out wallows; so cock-a-hoop were we that scarcely a thought was spared for our discomfort, nor whether it might be raining topside, though I guess on this score each silently kept their our own council.
As it happens John faltered in order to make adjustments to his personal attire. I hung back to wait while the remainder of our group, never slowing, surged on, the tidal wave of collective cries of wonder carried away in the wake of the boisterous stream.
When my companion and I resumed our downward journey there was neither sight nor sound of our fellow explorers. No matter. Almost rushed off our feet with excitement, we were borne along by an impetuosity barely in check, tracing the stream as it splashed and chuckled over rippled chutes and rocky steps, water flung every which way, from ledge to ledge in a spray-lashed sporting manner. It was the sort of find that made all the hardship worthwhile, justified the many hours, nay days of digging. Our digging efforts invariably generated more question marks than exclamation marks, but occasionally a breakthrough such as this made all the effort and toil worthwhile.
Anytime, we thought, we shall catch up the others. The water, the noise—the mystery of it all proved exhilarating beyond the ken of anyone who has never experienced such thrills. We whooped and yelled in delight. Negotiating the last of the rapids we two encountered a crawl of insufficient height to allow flat-out progress but low enough that our poor knees made heavy work of the rippled limestone. But the discomfort was quickly overlooked, however, as from ahead came a roaring driven on the hem of a monsoon blast.
Emerging in a sizeable space, we stood facing a stream crashing powerfully down from unknown heights. Falling with such energy that spray was driven sideways against the glistening walls of the chamber. The noise was thunderous, the wind terrific. Everywhere large limestone blocks reposed where they had landed, having fallen from the distant roof millennia ago. And from them sluiced the subterranean rain, every niche and fissure of their scabrous surface dripping and dribbling.
And so John and I progressed, through jaw-dropping wonder beyond wonder, the cave passageway leading ever deeper beneath Wharfedale’s verdant hillsides. Indeed the cave seemed never ending. But of what geological deceit was this? To our wishful thinking it imparted the feeling we were destined, at some distant point, and in some…as yet unknown manner, to emerge someplace in a neighbouring valley. The question hanging on our lips, was of course, where on earth would that be?
At times we were forced into savage narrowings of the tunnel, or the cave roof would lower menacingly until we feared the inevitable sump pool, but always the cave rallied—forever opening up and luring us onwards and downwards to regions of deeper mystery.
At length forced to squeeze down a tight slot, we emerged in a washed out shale bed dictating hands and knees crawling in a conduit half full of water. The way became dark, foreboding—don’t like the look of this—with rock the colour of a black thought. A Styx-like atmosphere prevailed. It was hard to not feel melancholy as beams from cap lamps lanced optimistically through the fog of exertion. Dark oxbows loomed either side resembling long dimmed eyes, and in these blind socket-holes silt banks had been heaped by erstwhile floodwaters.
Thankfully the passage didn’t last long. Soon it grew in height, then a muffled rumbling set the pulse racing as we picked a cautious course among angular blocks littering the streambed. At last—was that a glimmer of light ahead? Yes! We had finally caught up with our friends, who ever since the upper reaches of the system had continually gained ground on us. We were overjoyed.
Striding around a bend and there we see them, lollygagging on boulders, munching delicacies, smoking, discussing that which had been explored, speculating on what must lie ahead.
And what was ahead?
We two tail-end Charlies sidled past lured by a primordial rumble. And with giddying abruptness found ourselves brought up, teetering, on the brink of a void of undetermined depth where the stream leapt out into space. Succumbing to gravity the water erupted into myriad prisms reflecting the light from our lamps, then it was lost in the gloom of Shale Pitch.
How deep was it? What might be below? Pertinent questions indeed. Being halted by a deep vertical drop so remote from the entrance was a sobering thought. Clearly there was much more to Birks Fell Cave but for the moment, at least, the metaphorical gauntlet flung at our feet would wait. For the moment it was the end. We would be back.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to play a part in this great exploration.