Fornah Gill Cavern

C.Green and B.Hudson

Fountains Fell Episode 2

Location 34/848696

The chain of events that led to breaking into Fornah Gill Cave dates back to late July 1956.

One Sunday, a party consisting of C.Green, R.Hylton and J.Myers had spent the whole day repairing the dam around the water diversion pipes at the Gingling Hole Wet Sinks, but in the late afternoon decided to walk down the Fornah Gill valley in search of probable new digs.

The area had been neglected in the past, probably due to there being no open caves, and the fact that the limestone ended a short way below Fornah Gill barn.

However, the club had heard about a pothole in the valley that had been covered many years ago, whose location was now lost (since opened up as "Magnetometer Pot"). The Fornah Gill stream varied considerably in its flow. In dry weather it would vanish completely but when in moderate flow, it all disappeared in a small rift in the stream bank, a few yards upstream from Fornah Gill Cavern to be. A few hundred yards downstream, where the limestone ended, were small risings, and for many years it had been assumed that these were connected with the sink. However, a fluorescein test showed there was no connection, so one could only assume that water sinking in Fornah Gill came out at Brantsgill Head Rising, about three miles away.

All these facts indicated a possible way into the Fountains Fell master cave system, so we set about digging out the water sink rift. The stream was in spate and a lot was flowing past the sink on to Neals Ing Farm. A temporary dam was built to divert all the water past the sink, and the rift was exposed as a shaft about four feet deep, and just wide enough to stand up in. The bottom was packed with loose gravel and silt through which the stream percolated away. It was abandoned as a hopeless excavation especially since the water built up to a head indicating considerable blockage.

The following week, G.Cornes, C.Green and W.Holden visited Fornah Gill valley and noticed two small fissures in the bank downstream from the wet sink. Due to a washed down mud bank, the fissures were now well away from the main stream. Trenches were dug from the main stream to each in turn and the upstream one readily took away a good flow without any sign of blocking. These fissures were surrounded by a shallow grass-covered depression. It appeared that this depression was a silted up pothole that at one time had taken all the flow of the stream.

So we started digging and soon exposed a water-washed fissure. In the distance was the steady rumble of the stream falling over a pitch.

Our enthusiasm was further aroused by a visit from Robert Caton of Neals Ing farm, in the later afternoon, who showed us a point a few yards upstream from the dig where some years ago one could throw stones down a deep open pitch. This had since silted up with a heavy bank fall.

The following weeks were spent in excavating the twenty five feet deep entrance shaft. We were hampered on most weekends by very bad weather, nearly continuous drizzle or driving snow, making it most unpleasant for the party on top hauling up the buckets. Lack of transport and snowed up roads together with petrol rationing forced us to spend many uncomfortable nights sleeping out in Fornah Gill Barn.

The shaft was a mass of tightly packed clay and limestone boulders. Long slabs of limestone held tightly in a vertical position by the mud were a great hindrance, owing to the difficulty of getting a firm grip on them and extracting them in one piece.

At a depth of 12 feet we thought we had reached rock bottom, apart from a small silted shaft in the main floor. This we cleared for a further 8 feet and then found that our "rock bottom at 12 feet" was only another huge boulder.

By Christmas, a depth of 20 feet had been reached, and it was obvious that some better hauling device than a bucket and rope was required. Mr. Caton of Neals Ing Farm kindly gave us some timber, and a hauling platform with a tripod and pulley block was erected. The shaft wall of wedged boulders, now in a very dangerous condition, was shored up with timber wedges, fixed in by Gordon Batty and Jack Myers.

We finally reached rock bottom in January and a narrow outlet passage was exposed. Brian Hudson was pushed in head first and found that it ended after about 10 feet with a drop down a vertical narrow rift. This was blocked with boulders, but they were soon broken up and dropped down a rift into a low cave with a mud floor. At first there was no obvious way out, but after removing jammed boulders from the floor, Gordon Batty opened up a tight vertical squeeze that dropped into a clean washed stream passage.

Excitement ran high as we crawled along with an ever increasing roar of a waterfall in the distance. After about 40 feet, we dropped into the main stream passage of the whole cave system.

We walked upstream for about 100 feet along a fine streamway with white polished dripstone floor and walls. After two right angle bends, the roof became lower and finally ended with the stream percolating through a roof fall.

The downstream passage ended in a few feet with the stream disappearing into a sump in a narrow fissure.

However, a narrow tube "Oxbow Crawl" seemed to run parallel to the stream direction where it "sumped". So we set off along this arduous crawl in the hope of meeting up with the stream again.

We emerged into a vertical fissure passage with a stream entering on the right, but a much smaller one than the main stream sinking at the sump. A fluorescein test would be needed to prove any connection between the sink and rising at each end of Oxbow Crawl.

The vertical fissure soon developed into a hands and knees crawl, the floor becoming more and more blocked with silt, until the airspace became too small to progress any further. However, by building a mud dam, we managed to divert the whole stream down a small outlet and then by lying on our backs there was just sufficient airspace to wriggle on through the mud with chests rubbing the roof. After a further 60 feet, the mud cleared and the passage increased in height and in the distance a strong roar could be heard. However, after taking a final plunge over a small drop, the streamway ended in an impassable sump. On later visits, the level of this sump never fell, even during dry weather, and no way on could be seen.

Rift Chambers

These are best entered from Mud Chamber - crawl up a short inclined mud slope and one emerges into a shattered chamber about 50 feet high. Several loose, dangerous flakes hang from the walls. The floor slopes steeply away and high level passages can be seen in both walls, but these end after a few feet.

The far end of the chamber finishes in a narrow fissure that drops into the main streamway at the end of the Oxbow Crawl.

A continuation of the chamber can be seen across the stream passage but it is blocked with boulders - these could easily be cleared and might reveal a further extension.

Upstream Inlet Passage

This feeds into the main stream about 40 feet downstream from the end of Oxbow Crawl. A tortuous crawl leads into a small mud chamber. A groove runs along the floor of the crawl and the author had the unpleasant experience of having his knee trapped in it for an hour while lying flat in the passage. He managed to release it only at the expense of cutting away a boiler suit, immersion suit and long underpants!

Several avens occur in the roof of the mud chamber as well as a complex of further small inlets, all choked with mud. Digging in one of these led to an extension of the passage for a further 50 feet until it became choked with mud again. This extension has several interesting potholes in the floor, but they are all heavily silted.

Apart from the places mentioned above there appears to be little hope for further extensions in this cave.

A large dam was built over Fornah Gill water sink, upstream of the entrance, in an attempt to divert water from the cave. However, the main passage flooded as strongly as ever! We can only assume that the cave is fed by numerous sinks along the stream bed.

On one visit after a period of drought, when the whole valley was dry, the final sump still remained as an impassable stagnant pool.

We would finally like to thank Mr.Caton of Neals Ing and his family for the hospitality given to us on many occasions, for allowing us to use Fornah Gill Barn, and supplying timbers for making the shaft cover.

Tackle required

Entry Shaft 25 foot ladder with 40 feet of handline, tied to the bottom of the ladder, running to the bottom of the first rift pitch.

Care should be taken to keep clear of the shored up shaft wall.

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