Punchard Gill Caves.
Ian and Chris Dudman.
Inspired by the superb piece of work comprising MSG 12 (worth the money if only for the self-deprecating front cover artwork), recounting the last 20 years or so of activity by the Moldywarpers, I was looking forward to checking out the large (for these parts anyway) caves of Punchard Gill, on the wild moors between Langthwaite and Tan Hill.
Being a local trip for me, with a nice drive over The Stang, I’d fancied a late start and arranged to meet up with Chris and Andrew at mid-day beside the CB Inn and the journey soon passed, with the rising tension of the cricket commentary as an accompaniment. I arrived a bit early and listened on, whilst I had a coffee, until I noticed Chris passing by. Turned out he’d arrived early and been up to Tan Hill, but there was still no sign of Andrew – a bit worrying after the last time he’d tried to come caving and ended up having a car smash! After waiting until 12.15, we decided to drive up in Chris’s car to the bottom of the bridleway and with a hike of 1.5 to 2 miles ahead of us, we decided to walk up in our above-ground kit, with caving gear in our rucksacks.
Unlike conditions at the Oval, we were faced with grey skies and a hint of drizzle blowing in the strong wind – not bad for walking though – and we made good progress on the old mining track, crossing the ford over Low Punchard Gill and meeting the only 2 walkers we saw all day. Great Punchard Gill was sporting a fair flow of water and the bridge, with its adjacent limestone outcrop and mine ruins, was only 50m or so from the first cave on our itinerary. Noticing the rapid flow from the small resurgence, I decided to have a look in, rather than go down the rather soil-filled upper entrance, but didn’t get too far in the flat-out passage before encountering a large block, complete with flood debris jammed behind it, blocking the way on. With my hands being numbed by the surprisingly chilly water – much colder than the beck – it was full speed reverse and up the slope to the dry entrance under the tin sheet. With a feet-first wiggle to clear the soil from the base, I was soon able to reach more space and call Chris to follow.
With the water being somewhere below, we followed confusing chokes and sharp crawls until finding a larger chamber and finally the fine streamway, taking the wet way to the final deep and gloomy sump pool – although a parallel dry passage avoids the waist-deep wading if you don’t want to get too wet!
On the way back, we went up the minor inlet, with its thick mud banks and abundant worm population, ending at the curiously-named ‘Shit Sump’. Didn’t look too bad to me and if I’d brought my free-dive kit, I’d have had a look through. Believe me, when I used to dive Swildons 4, that was a shit sump – literally – with a foot-first inspection usually required to make a hole for the dive through! Not nice and not healthy either.
The exit from the cave was rather slippery and Chris got wedged, with no foot purchase, necessitating a retreat to allow me to go back in and act as a brace for him to squeeze out! We were greeted by rain and midges on our exit, so we had a quick clean in the beck, an even more rapid snack and an inspection of my photocopy, before moving up the valley to find Fox Level Mine and cave. Basically, if you get to the obvious mine on the right bank, you’ve gone too far and we scanned the South bank for the entrance. Chris took the lower line and found the tin sheet, pulled back to reveal metal and stone shoring above an oil drum entrance. What a surprise – sliding down the barrel led to fine walking mine passage for 50m or so until metal bars wedged in the walls indicated the climb up to the natural passage.
We explored the rather nicely decorated main passage, with its many, muddy off-shoots, although in our haste to avoid the midges we had neglected to take note of the passage on the other side of the mined area – which drains to Punchard Gill cave. We’ll just have to go back again!
Back on the surface, the midges were savage in the drizzle and still conditions, so we walked a while to find some breeze to enable a quick change and a more comfortable trek down to Chris’s car.
With the game still on, I had some entertainment on the way home and the final wicket fell as I parked up.
Top day out – cheers Chris - and I reckon most cavers would find the trip away from their usual haunts to be well worth their while.