Discoveries in the Hope Level Cavern at Stanhope - Co. Durham

By members of the Durham Cave Club

The Hope Level Cavern has been known for several years and was surveyed in 1954 by the N.P.C. It is also described in N.Thornber's book, Pennine Underground, but the details are rather sketchy and inaccurate.

The cave lies in the Four Fathom Limestone and was broken into by the excavation of the Hope Level mine. About 700 yards from the entrance, the mine level cuts through the cave, which is entered by climbing up through a hole on the left hand wall. The system can be followed in both directions but the downstream section on the right is blocked by a large rock fall about 100 yards from the mine.

Prior to the summer of 1959 the upstream passage had been followed for a distance of about 600 yards to a low muddy bedding plane of about 6 inches in height. The limit of exploration and survey was marked by the Northern Pennine Club with the initials N.P.C.

On the 26th July, 1959 the cave was entered by J.Neill and C.J.Stewart. They quickly reached the N.P.C. initials and began to dig away the mud in order to enlarge the bedding plane. At the same time digging was carried out in a small passage on the right of the main dig. After three hours digging the bedding plane had been enlarged enough for Jim Neill to pass through it into a narrow passage about six feet in height. After a short distance the passage turned to the right and was blocked. Just before the turning a second very low muddy bedding plane was found, but due to lack of time the explorers did not begin to dig. They decided to name the first dig 'The Sluice' and the small passage was called 'The Extension Passage'. They then left the cave having agreed to return at the earliest opportunity to continue digging. The subsidiary dig on the right which became known as 'Charlies' Tube' after its excavator, revealed a small hole in the roof through which stalactites could be seen. In view of subsequent events, this dig has not been pushed any further.

The two explorers returned on the 9th August and set to work on the second bedding plane. This proved to be a tougher proposition than 'The Sluice' but yielded fairly quickly and Jim Neill was soon able to squeeze through into a narrow tube, which after a few yards opened up into a passage about seven feet high and ten feet wide. He was quickly joined by Charlie Stewart and the two pushed on for about twenty five yards and rounded a corner to find a large collection of bright orange translucent stalagmites and stalactites which they decided to call 'The Chandelier'.

Twenty Five yards further on, the passage was blocked by a large boulder choke. At this point the explorers turned back, but not before ascertaining that three possibilities for further progress presented themselves. Straight ahead a small hole led on through the boulders whilst on the right a low passage over a fallen slab revealed a possible line of progress. Finally an extremely low wet muddy hole led on at floor level.

August 30th found a stronger party at the boulder choke early in the afternoon. The original pair had been joined by two more members of Durhan Cave Club, G.Gibson and C.G.Armstrong. The newcomers were very impressed by the Chandelier but did not relish the passage of the two bedding planes, the second of which had now been named 'The Ooze'.

C.J.Stewart at once tackled the low crawl at floor level and after progressing flat out for five or six yards he announced that he was through. The others followed at once and soon all four members were assembled at the far end of 'C.J.Stewart's Crawl' in a spacious passage once again.

The spaciousness was very short lived, for after five yards the passage resolved itself into a wide mud crawl about 2 feet 6 inches in height. After twelve yards a small chamber was reached with a large boulder along its right hand side and a mass of fallen boulders across its inner end. However, a small hole in the roof led to what is probably the most spectacular display of formations yet discovered in Durham. In a small aven, which was roofed by shale and sandstone, the explorers found a magnificent stalagmite flow together with a number of fine stalactites. All the formations were coloured a deep orange red merging through yellows to pure white. In the opinion of the discoverers this formation surpasses 'The Choir' in Ludwell Fairly Hole.

There was no way on from the aven which was called 'The Glory Hole' and so attention was turned to a small ante-chamber. Climbing over the large block at the right hand side, C.Armstrong dropped down into a narrow water passage which led to the lowest crawl yet negotiated. Passage of this crawl was only possible by immersing the head in liquid mud and squirming forward on the left side for about two yards. Everyone found that their left ear was filled with sticky mud after squeezing through this hole and the spot was immediately named 'The Left Ear Crawl'. On the return journey the discovery was made that it was also a 'Right Ear Crawl'.

The party now found themselves in a low muddy passage which after 6 to 8 yards turned completely back on itself to form a hairpin bend.

An impassable syphon was found on the right but an 8 inch high passage with a floor composed of pebbles cemented in by stalagnite and hard mud offered a possibility of progress. This crawl was prospected by Jim Neill who managed to see round a corner to the right and found a slope leading back to the water, presumably on the far side of the syphon.

However the squeeze was very tight and it was extremely doubtful whether return would be possible if the slope were descended so Jim turned back at this point. It was agreed that an hour or so of digging would probably enlarge this crawl sufficiently to allow fairly easy progress.

By this time the party were feeling the cold and so they turned back feeling very well satisfied with the day's findings.

The total distance added to the cave was in the region of 80 yards and the final trip occupied about 3½ hours.

The explorers were favoured by an extremely dry season and it is possible that in a normal year, most of the crawls beyond 'The Sluice' will be completely filled with water. A rise in water level of only one or two inches would make the cave impassable. The exploration of the far reaches may be very dangerous in doubtful weather because of the danger of flooding.

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