Recording the Alston Block


Once upon a time, in the days when a Messerschmidt wasn't a scooter, a young boy was evacuated to the town of Alston in the valley of the Tyne, where, seeking amusement, he read a book by a certain Sopwith who told of a cave entered by miners in the Ayleburn Mine a hundred years before.

In the course of time and by assiduity to his studies the boy secured entrance to the University at Cambridge from whence he led a band of students to survey the cave at Ayleburn, amongst the party being one Brian Heys.

Later, Jack Myers being exiled from Leeds into the wilds of Durham, cast around him and in company with Brian prospected the area. They decided that the Ayleburn water probably rose at Bar Haugh. Jack Newrick says that this was in fact chaff tested in the old days and is so.

However, we started in real earnest on the country north of Stainmore about three years ago when we secured a base in Weardale, that is, when I went to live up there. At this time it was not well known to the organised caving world. Norman Thornber's 'Pennine Underground' includes Moking Hurth Cave also known as Backhouse's cave. It seems first to have been recorded by a Mr. Backhouse who also did some work in the Grassington Moor area, but this was too far from the usual haunts to be visited by more than a very few people. Sopwith, in his book, mentions various mines including the above and the Nent Force Level, the entrance to which is now buried in quarry debris but was once a very important drainage level three miles long, driven to drain the mines in that area. Jack Newrick tells a story about the maintenance man who went up in the only boat in the district to do his day's work. He forgot to secure the craft and being a non-swimmer found himself marooned with the boat only a few yards away, and there he had to sit until the folks outside got so worried they built a new boat or raft or something and went up and rescued him.

A Stationary Office Publication, 'The Northern Pennine Orefield' by Professor Dunham of Durham University, notes several mines which have run into cave systems, varying in altitude from Cow Green underneath the Tees to Silverband Mine high above it on Great Dun Fell at about 2400 feet. Also included are Lune-Head Mine where the caves are said to be the most notable feature of the mine; Flushiemere, where a large cavern is said to have been found, and Hudgill mine. Unfortunately, the last three named have now "run in" and so have sealed the caves off. Flushiemere "ran-in" between two trips by the Durham Cave Club to find the Cavern. The Cow Green Management disclaims knowledge of the cave, and permission has not been given to enter Silverband.

Jack Myers and I went to Ayleburn one day to see if we could push it a bit further. We met the owner, Mr. Shepheard, who works his own coal mine in the opposite side of the burn. After treating us very hospitably, he told us that some Newcastle people had been in and found an extension upstream of the waterfall. We went in and surveyed this section, took some photos and retired to ponder on these Newcastle folk. Later on, I spent a lone afternoon surveying Lynnkirk Cave, a small cave in Shittlehope which a farmer told me about.

I showed the Ayleburn photos to the chemist in Wolsingham, Norman Black, now treasurer of the Durham Cave Club. Some weeks later we went off up the dale to meet "a gentleman who has discovered a cave and wants to form a club to explore it." Norman thought there was a stream in this cave. There is. The gentleman was Jack Newrick and the cave was Ludwell Fairy Holes. Jack had been bitten by a cave bug whilst farming in the Mendips and in company with Derrick Maling from Durham University found both Fairy Holes rising and also the sinks two miles away in the Blaeberry Burn. Though this was an independent discovery, it was in fact a rediscovery: the cave has always been known, though it may have been easier to get into once. The wife of the farmer, on whose land the entrance is, had a grand-relation who, ninety years ago, is supposed to have gone into the cave with a week's supply of food and candles and to have emerged at Ash Cleugh down to his last jam sandwich and his last inch of candle, which would argue that the job took him at least a week, unless he was burning his candle at both ends. Ash Cleugh is the next cleugh to Blaeberry Burn. It is improbable, however, that anyone has, in fact, been from rising to sink. It is difficult to imagine anyone living for a week in Fairy Holes, up to his waist in water for a fair part of the time. The explanation seems to be in the way that people lived in the dale in those days. A man would work his farm at the weekend and would go off up to the mines on Monday with a week's food and candles, leaving his wife to run the farm. The area round the Blaeberry-Ash Cleugh was extensively mined and it is unlikely that the miners would have neglected to test the sinks. It is possible that one of the mines ran into the cave somewhere. Anyway, Jack had been in a fair way with the Northumberland Mountaineering Club and at one point they had found some signatures:- 'Muschamp', 'Geo. Race', and an almost illegible one with a place name which was at first believed to be 'Harehope Hall' with the date '3rd June 1844'.

Some time later, I came across a book in a second-hand shop: 'Weardale' by Morley Egglestone, written in the second half of the last century, probably about the 1880's. This Gentleman was one of the Weardale worthies and is still well remembered in the dale. He says that this cave was entered some time ago by a party who explored for several hours and compares it with the glories of Antiparos (wherever that is ?). He mentions the two people in another part of the book. Just recently, Jack Newrick came across a Mr. Bell living in Crook who knows quite a lot about these people and was able to tell him that the third name was 'Jacob Walton' and the place-name was 'Farewell Hall'. It was here that the party turned back.

At Christmas 1944, a piece of news from Jack Newrick took Brian Heys, Jack Myers, Alan Boake, Bill Brown and myself into the Hope Level mine in Stanhope to look for a cave in the Great Limestone. About 700 yards into the level, whilst still in the Four Fathom Limestone, which lies underneath the Great, we found that the level had intersected a cave. This we explored and surveyed for about half a mile and added the name 'Golightly' to the aforementioned ancient cavers, (I suppose you might call it a caving club). We didn't find the cave in the Great Limestone for various reasons but there is no real reason to suppose it is not there. To these caves may be added, in Weardale, Clints caves, Ireshope, Elph Cleugh in Swinhope, Sowan Burn south of Stanhope. Morley Egglestone doesn't mention Sowan Burn and there may have been no entrance until quarrying broke into it. Until then it may have been full of water, with an unobtrusive sort of rising. His book goes no further down the dale than Stanhope which, to the purists, is the bottom of the dale, so he doesn't bother to mention another Fairy Hole in Lower Bolihope, where local gamblers used to spend Sundays getting rid of their money away from the arm of the law. This has since been quarried away. Nor does he mention Jacob Well, also in Lower Bolihope; (I wonder if this has anything to do with the aforementioned Jacob Walton). He does, however, mention a cave in Bolihope Crag which has, he says, been quarried away, and also a cave or caves in Wellhope which we have not yet traced.

However, the real gem in his book is Heathery Burn Cave, which was quarried away about eighteen years before he wrote his book, but which he apparently knew well. During the quarrying, there was found one of the most notable bronze age collections ever discovered, along with the bones of the owners. This was sent to London, presumably to the British Museum. The cave was apparently one of the local "musts" and many of the visitors "scratched their names on the enamelled rocky walls". He described it as being in the eastern hillside, and taking a northerly direction, roughly parallel with the burn. The principal part was some sixty yards long and ten or twelve yards wide and three or four yards high. Great bosses of stalactite were numerous and an incrustation covered the floor except where a stream of water from the Heathery Burn ran through. Near the centre, an encrusted mass of rock was called the Communion Table; it was under the stalagmite floor that the archaeological finds were made.

Whilst operating up here we have helped to further the Durham Cave Club, a sturdy brat doing great things, and since we, who operate up there, are also members of the D.C.C., it is not possible to separate our doings. On the escarpment above Brough, some potholes have been found, one of which takes a flood stream of considerable proportions though we have not yet managed to enter the sink which is blocked with boulders. The neighbouring holes have been descended to depths of about sixty feet when they close in. Jingle Pots on Lunehead Moor have been explored but the water has not yet been traced. The D.C.C is hoping to do this in course of time, searches having been made on the hills round the headwaters of the Tees and Tyne, Meldon Fell, Knock Fell and Great Dun Fell. We are now trying to break into a cave which is over a mile from sink to rising near Nenthead; it is proving very obstinate. Also in this area are Tutman's Hole and Pate Hole. Some time ago someone from Appleby was doing work in this area. Arthur Gemmel and Jim Leach went up to visit some of his digs near Flass and Dryevers. Unfortunately, we seem to have lost trace of him.

In amongst all this work, of course, appears the green imp, fluorescein, spreading alarm and despondency around him. We made a test of the Harnisha Burn sink one afternoon and the next day a school camp by the Bolihope Burn had to go off the water wagon when their clear spring ran vivid green. The clear spring was in fact no more than one of the many sinks and risings of the Bolihope Burn into which the Harnisha Burn finds its way via an old lead mine. A farmer in Weardale was most depressed when he found that an old duck-puddle near his neighbour's midden where some water sank was in fact his drinking water supply, but what hurt us the most was, when we had turned the Bolihope Burn a beautiful emerald green for most of its length and nobody noticed it. It's this kind of thing that makes it all seem not worth while.

So now, having started on what we thought to be almost unknown country, we find that it is in fact well known, or at least it has been. Much of this is to the credit of the mining activity in the last century, and of course, the old boys Muschamp, Race, Walton and Golightly, bless their old billy-cock hats and mutton-chop whiskers. They must have had hearts like lions to tackle Fairy Holes with tallow dips and tinder boxes.

> NPC Black Journal 1957:
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