You don’t have to go far in the Yorkshire Dales before becoming aware that caves and potholes are important to the geology and landscape of the area.
Whether it is watching the water appear from small entrances at Ribblehead or the more obvious and dramatic entrances such as Hull Pot near Horton-in-Ribblesdale or Gaping Gill above Clapham, it is clear that there is a lot going on underground.
Caves are just one aspect of the limestone scenery, which also includes dry valleys, sink holes, gorges and cliffs. This landscape is known as karst and the Yorkshire Dales National Park is the finest and most extensive example in Britain. The predominant limestone of the National Park is the Great Scar Limestone which formed in the Carboniferous period some 330 million years ago on the floor of a shallow tropical sea.
The caves of the Yorkshire Dales have formed in limestone rock over a period of many thousands of years. Limestone is a strong rock but has many joints and cracks and is also soluble in rainwater, although extremely slowly. In cave systems other processes are also involved in their formation. Abrasion by sand and cobbles is very important and near underground waterfalls spray erosion occurs, and in larger chambers wall and roof collapse can speed these processes.
In the Dales the cave systems are some of the most dramatic and extensive in the country with over 2,000 caves and potholes (vertical shafts) in the area and more than 400km of surveyed passage. The Ease Gill system alone is a complex series of passages over 70km in length and Gaping Gill main chamber is big enough to contain St. Paul’s Cathedral.
With their beautiful passages and shafts and calcite formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and flowstone, they can be places of great beauty and peace.
Exploring caves takes knowledge, the right equipment and experience and it is best to gain these either through a course run be a qualified guide, or by joining a local club.
Alternatively you can gain a taste of the experience by visiting one of the show caves in the Dales; these are White Scar cave near Ingleton, Ingleborough Cave near Clapham and Stump Cross Caverns near Greenhow.
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Also worth noting is that there is an opportunity each year for members of the public to be lowered into Gaping Gill by a winch and see the dramatic main chamber from underground. The winch meets are organised by Craven and Bradford Pothole Clubs and occur every year centred around the bank holidays at the end of May and end of August.