Last weekend I met my old pal, Bev, for a few days wandering around Yorkshire. On Sunday morning we found ourselves at the Whitescar Caves near Ingleton, having driven the 40 odd miles from Hardraw. Driving through the Dales offers many spectacular views but on a Sunday morning the road needs particularly careful watching to avoid the unusually numerous cyclists (have they not heard of breakfast in bed and the Sunday papers). We arrived with enough time before the tour for a much needed cuppa and a bite to eat in the cafe.
The Whitescar caves were discovered in 1923 when a Cambridge Student by the name of Christopher Long thought it a good idea to climb into a crack he had found in the ground. Wearing shorts and a hat with four candles mounted on the brim, on that first morning he made it as far as this waterfall which must be a couple of hundred yards from the entrance. Mr Long didn't live long enough to see the caves developed but in 1925 the tunnel was blasted out by local miners and opened for the first visitors in April of the same year.
Much of the cave has an unworldly appearance due to the action of rainwater seeping through the local limestone over the millennia. On it's way the water dissolves some of the limestone and deposits some of it back on the roof where it leaves the rock and deposits some more on the ground where it lands, often in the form of stalactites on the roof and stalagmites on the floor. The average growth rate for a stalactite is about 0.13 mm (0.0051 inches) a year but it can be as fast as 3mm (0.12 inches) a year. At these rates even the smallest of stalactites and stalagmites are likely to be hundreds of years old and many of those we saw will be several thousand years old.
The damp limestone coated rocks look quite slimy but they're not at all really, just wet.
Many of the formations have been given names, usually based on what somebody thinks it looks like (usually somebody who has spent a long time under the ground!). This one is called the Witches Fingers.
This is The Judges Head.
For most of the walk the path follows the route of a stream. Gratings have been mounted over the stream to walk on. On the day we were there, the stream was safely a couple of feet below our feet most of the time but on other occasions the water has been known to lap over the grating. Any higher than that and they close the caves. On larger floods the water has been known to flow out of the cave entrance.
The Devil's Tongue.
Sometimes in small pools of water, the limestone crystallises into shapes that look likes lots of tiny cauliflowers.
There are fossils to be seen at several points in the caves.
I'm told that this is fossilised coral.
There were a couple of long sections where standing upright was impossible.
The tour ends in a cavern known as the Battlefield - that's what rubble covered floor (caused at the end of the last ice age probably, when the roof collapsed) reminded Hilda Guthrie, who discovered it, of. When it was discovered in 1971, an underground lake had to be swam and a huge rock known as Big Bertha had to be swam under before climbing up into the cavern by a different route. Some of that original route can be seen in this little film on Youtube. In 1991 a 65 meter passage was blasted into the cavern and it was added to the tour. The guide tells us that though the caves goes on for some way after this, it is unlikely that the tour will ever go further as the local authorities are opposed to further blasting here.
A large number of much thinner straw stalactites can be seen on the roof of the cavern - these are some of the faster growing stalactites.
The floor of the cave has quite a lot of mud on it which was laid down centuries ago and is still damp. In places it has cracked and limestone has deposited in the cracks to produce this crazy paving effect.
The whole walk was about 1 km in length (or about 2/3rds of a mile) and of course the same back. This map of the caves was taken from a notice board outside (an easier to read one is here on the caves website)