News: MPs visit Gaping Gill

MP's visit Gaping Gill
MP’s visit Gaping Gill. Photo courtesy of Frank Pearson.

Report by David Rose

TWO Conservative MPs and a leading QC have paid a visit to Britain’s highest waterfall – the mighty cascade that tumbles down the 365-foot entrance shaft of Gaping Ghyll on Ingleborough in North Yorkshire.

The two politicians, former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, MP for Howden and Haltemprice, and David Rutley, who sits for Macclesfield, entered the cave via Bar Pot, a ‘back door’ to the 8-mile long system that is safe even during heavy rain.

The party were joined by Richard Toon, Chairman of the Lancashire Local Access Forum and supported by experienced local cavers.  Before setting off for the cave the team enjoyed a tour of the Cave Rescue Organisation headquarters based in the village of Clapham, recognising the volunteer service who had recently been on stand-by for the wide spread flooding in the region.

MP visit to Gaping Gill
MP visit to Gaping Gill. Photo courtesy of Frank Pearson

To reach the cathedral-sized Main Chamber – Britain’s biggest – that contains the waterfall, they had to descend two vertical pitches of 55ft and 110ft, using lightweight caving ladders and lifelines. Beyond lay hundreds of feet of crawling and stooping passageway leading to the Chamber, where they and their companions enjoyed a festive snack of Christmas cake and hot coffee.

One purpose of the trip, led by Ingleton rope access specialist and veteran cave explorer Tim Allen, was to experience first-hand the positive benefits of caving both for participants and the wider community.

Another was to give support to a campaign by the British Caving Association (BCA) which Mr Allen is organising to extend access rights to caves. At present, the government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claims the ‘right to roam’ granted to walkers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000 does not cover caves. Some landowners have refused cavers’ permission to descend systems on their land entirely, while others have imposed onerous restrictions.

Also taking part in the trip, held on 28 December, was leading public law QC Dinah Rose, who described the experience as ‘a really brilliant and memorable day’. She has already written a formal, legal opinion for the BCA, which says that Defra’s position is not only illogical, but misinterprets the Act. Her opinion says there is no evidence that excluding caves from the law’s scope reflects the will of Parliament when it was debated.

In fact, Defra, and the agency it funds, Natural England, claim that cavers do have a right to cross open access land to cave entrances, and to descend them – but only as far as the point where daylight ceases to penetrate. ‘In legal terms,’ Ms Rose said, ‘this is simply perverse, and it could well be open to a challenge in court’.

However, Mr Allen stressed that the BCA hoped to win its campaign by persuasion. He added that caving was a large and growing source of income in rural areas, which benefited the economy while causing no damage to the environment.

Having regained the surface, the two MPs agreed. Mr Davis said: ‘The trip was a fascinating experience, and it was really great to see Britain’s highest waterfall thundering down from a circle of daylight above – it was especially impressive after so much rain. It’s clear to me that caving has nothing but a positive impact, both on its exponents and the communities where the sport takes place.

‘I cannot see for the life of me why Defra is taking the wholly illogical stance of denying that caves are covered by the open access freedoms granted by the CROW Act.’

Mr Rutley said: ‘It was truly a memorable day out, and the Main Chamber and waterfall are just an incredible spectacle. We are fortunate to have an active population of cavers in the UK, which has a hugely beneficial economic impact on areas where there are caves. I look forward to working closely with cavers in future, as part of my wider efforts to get people off the sofa and to promote outdoor activities, and to show why access to caves should be recognised under the CROW Act.’