There is something slightly surreal walking from the North Yorkshire countryside into the cold and damp of Britain’s longest series of underground caves.
White Scar Cave extends for three miles under Ingleborough near Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria and, given the sophistication of this hidden tourist gem, it seems bizarre it was only discovered in 1923 by Cambridge University student Christopher Long who had the balls to crawl in through a narrow gap he had spotted.
Inside he found the wondrous world of stalactites, stalagmites and waterfalls that today’s soft tourists can wander round on a 90 minute tour of the caves.
When you arrive you are handed a hard hat. This seems a bit over the top until you start twisting and turning through the narrow passages and low walkways cut through the rocks over hundreds of thousands of years by a small stream forcing its way through whichever gap it could find or create.
It is a deeply primal feeling walking down into the bowels of the earth as everywhere you look there are natural rock formations full of vibrant colours and strange shapes that are a reminder of the mindless power of water over centuries. Water still drips from the roofs forming the strangely beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, including the Witch which looks like the six fingers those old crones were reputed to have.
Our journey takes us to the Battlefield Cavern which is the centrepiece of this tour and to say it’s spectacular doesn’t do it justice. This vast cavern was created when two underground streams joined together and started to erode the rock. I was shocked to hear from our guide that this cavern was only discovered in 1971 when Leeds University student Hilda Guthrie – on her first caving expedition – scrambled up a passageway and popped her head into the cavern. What a moment that must have been.
This cavern is so unique that it was declared a site of special scientific interest, and it was only as late as 1991 that the owners secured permission to hire a team of Cornish miners to drive through an access passageway. Thank god they did as this is something everyone needs to see at least once: it’s a living document of our ancient history. The roof of the cavern is covered with fragile straw stalactites, and also some that look just a bunch of carrots hanging from the roof.
This is a tourist attraction and so we are shown a rock face where the water seemed to have carved out a witch’s face. It has to be said it does look a bit like a classic Roald Dahl witch. The cavern is peppered with avens which are tunnels created by the water pressure when the space was full. It’s humbling to discover that no-one had successfully climbed the Strategic avens more than 40 years after it was first discovered. There are still some challenges, even for the pros left in this vast series of caves.
The most thought-provoking aspect of these caves is that they won’t alter dramatically for thousands of years. Change under the earth takes place at a snail’s pace which makes you think about how fleeting our own existence is.
Aside from any profound moment, this is simply a great way to spend an afternoon looking at how something we take for granted like water is capable of creating such beauty. Plus, at £8.50 for adults and £5.50 for kids, it is a genuine bargain, especially if you wind up with a tour guide as knowledgeable and friendly as ours.
The only thing to watch is that are some very narrow spaces and low sections where you have to bend down for a few hundred metres. If you are reasonably fit then it is worth a little discomfort to get to a cavern that is a jewel in our Northern crown.
By Paul Clarke
Images: Anne Ward
What: White Scar Caves
Where: White Scar Caves are near Ingleton so just stick LA6 3AW in your sat nav
More info: 015242 414244, www.whitescarcave.co.uk