Dale Head Pot

Jim Eyre

On the South West flank of Penyghent, close to Dalehead Farm, lie several sinks and shakeholes. The most obvious is Churn Milk Hole, the entrance a monument to the White Rose Caving Club's engineering and bravery. Nearer to Dalehead Farm and about 200 yards North West of the Pennine Way, is Dale Head Pot, which, until the Churn Milk Hole saga, was the only place in the locality that one could go underground without having to lie flat out in several inches of water. Not to mention the fact that your feet would still be in daylight.

Over the years, we had on several occasions, climbed down the eight foot pitch into Dale Head Pot and hence down the 15 foot boulder jam which terminated in a dry chamber. Each time, after a short abortive dig, the same conclusion was reached - a wide chamber with large boulders in the floor was not conducive to shoring, (a narrower, man size being preferable to simplify the shoring problems). This large chamber would need at least 10 foot long joists to retain fill in a safe manner.

In December of 1970, after one or two failures on Fountains Fell, we were looking around for a comfortable winter dig; dry, easily accessible and, of prime importance, in a good location with respect to the mythical Fountains Fell/Penyghent Master Cave. Dale Head Pot fitted the specification exactly, so digging permission was sought and obtained with some difficulty as the 'Council of Northern Caving Clubs' area representative was a delinquent alcoholic, who shall remain nameless and, sad to say, an N.P.C. member.

Early January found Mike Warren and Gordon Batty descending the hole on a cold and icy evening. Dropping down the short entrance shaft via an easy climb in one corner, it was discovered that the previously vertical boulder jam had been transformed into a 45' slope of dangerously poised boulders. In addition, several tons of debris was covering what had been the site of the intended excavation, thus presenting a much greater task than the already difficult dig that had been envisaged.

Studying the collapse, we recalled that on our previous visits the small stream that fell into the entrance shaft had never been encountered at the foot of the final boulder slope in the dry chamber. Working on the premise that 'downstream' lay in the opposite direction, we commenced to dig in a narrow joint at the southern entrance of the shaft. Getting rid of the debris was an easy matter with the adjacent boulder chamber at the lower level. A drop of 5 feet in the floor level was soon attained, revealing the joint opening out into a narrow rift from which the sound of running water could be heard.

Several weeks later, and ten feet lower, the rift was becoming man sized between sound rock walls and unsound drystone wall retaining the fill. The running water had been reached and was found to be coming from a very narrow, high level inlet passage in the joint. So a small concrete dam was constructed and the water led away by flexible hosepipe, making the dig relatively dry.

On the surface, close by Dale Head Pot, just over the wall, is a marshy pool, which apparently is a spawning ground for large numbers of frogs. The outflow from this pool disappears into a shakehole which is a feeder of the inlet in the rift. Consequently, during the excavation, many frogs were found in crevices and beneath stones, some dead but the majority alive. The animal lovers in the party formed a Frog Rescue Organisation Group (F.R.O.G. for short), returning the patients to the surface by throwing them up the shaft onto the grass above.

As the shaft deepened, it became difficult to raise the debris with rope and bucket due to the 'stepping' of the shaft. It was either employ a person at each step or solve the problem by more scientific means. Mechanical devices are always more reliable and readily available than shanghaied bucket haulers, so a vertical bucket slideway was constructed, which proved very satisfactory for hauling buckets, but almost lethal for the man at the digging face as the empties were returned.

Over the months, the dig deepened and developed into quite an impressive rift. A draught, generally inwards, was apparent and hopes were high of a breakthrough. The rift gave every promise of a transition into horizontal development if excavation continued downwards. But hopes were shattered when a solid rock floor was encountered. Clearing out at this level revealed a very low bedding which took the water from the piped inlet. Enthusiasm was also at rock bottom and other pleasant pursuits provided distractions.

In the winter months of 1974, the two local 'enthusiasts' decided that it may be possible to enter the side beddings if more fill was removed and the shoring 'pshed back' into a more vertical line. Hefty shoring combined with slow diligent work proved successful after several weeks' effort revealing the bedding at a point where the proportions were almost man-sized. Unfortunately, the continuing bedding ran parallel to and in the reverse direction of the excavated rift, giving a coal shute effect on one side of the bedding.

Progress was made along this crawl over a period of weeks by careful removal of the fill and shoring with timbers and concrete blocks. After ten feet of hard won but now fairly safe crawling, the bedding closed down to about 5" high but with ample width and a small stream appearing from our right.

Once again enthusiasm dwindled and with the advent of spring-like weather, pastures new were sought.

The early spring of 1975 was exceptionally dry, so with the aid of Jack Pickup, we started to enlarge the low bedding which barred progress. After several quarrying sessions which included removal of debris with rope and drag tray and further shoring with concrete blocks, the small inlet stream was reached. The bedding floor now dropped slightly into a deeper channel but was still not man-sized. Further work at two local restrictions enabled us to reach a turn in the passage, to be reached with some difficulty, especially with the water from the small inlet stream tending to back up behind a person if anything but drought conditions prevailed. At the bend, another local restriction was seen to give way to an obviously bigger crawling passage, though still low and containing several inches of water. Eventually, the obstructions stopping progress were removed, the rubble being thrown forward, terminating the tedious procedure of dragging back through the crawl and hence up the dug shaft. Jack Pickup and Eddie Edmondson pushed through into the new section, clearing away a sand bank which both lowered the water in the crawl and gave access to a small tee section passage. Listening to the fading noises as the pair disappeared, the fatter members of the team remained in the crawl, feverishly removing projections with hammers and chisels. Twenty minutes elapsed before the two could be heard returning with mumbles of "thousands of feet of passages, big rivers...." etc. etc.

The following Saturday, one 'thin man' and several 'not so thin men' chiselled a way through the newly christened 'Heartburn crawl', so named after the flatulence experienced on evening trips when a meal would be followed by several hours of horizontal labour. Happily this tight section of the cave soon gave way to a tee section vadose/phreatic passage of crawling man-sized proportions, which gradually increased in size until after some 120 feet progress could be made in the normal upright position. Soon a larger inlet passage was encountered on our right with an ample flow of water, now named Boulder Junction.

Ignoring this upstream we continued easily downstream, still, we were told, covering ground covered by the two man team several days previously. Passing the termination point of the original exploration, still moving easily in a high rift passage, we heard sounds of falling water. Expecting a pitch we were pleased to find only a series of short climbs and pools leading to a narrowing of the rift. Choosing the dry upper section rather than the lower wet section of the passage, we squeezed along the rift carefully avoiding a fine stalactite and emerged into a small aven, named Damocles Aven after the now broken off formation.

Thus Dale Head Pot 'went' on January 16th 1975, after a four year siege and January 19th saw Mike Warren, Eddie Edmondson, Jim Redfern and Gordon Batty forcing their way through the abominable Heartburn Crawl to approximately 120 feet of low, narrow, meandering passage to a tee junction into a man-sized passage, which led to a roomy high rift and an obvious change in the nature of the cave, as rock gave way to shale and holes in the floor gave promise of extensive development. Traversing several holes, the first pitch was reached. A stemple was positioned across the narrow opening and ladders hung into the roomier section below, where, at the foot of this 45 foot bottle pitch, the stream was encountered again, cascading out from a side wall and over a ten foot pitch and down a 35 foot continuation of the rift. The water on this wet pitch is easily avoided by back and footing down the walls, in normal weather.... in wet weather, alas ! A pool and a roomy chamber, carved out of another shale band, led immediately to the next pitches, which appeared more impressive still. However, this was the end of the tackle and a tentative exploration was made upstream from the boulder junction.

January 23rd: the same team plus Jack Pickup found it was impossible to get through the entrance crawl because of the water. This is a hazard in this particular cave and no doubt will be the cause of many call outs in the future.

January 30th: Eddie Edmondson, Jack Pickup and Gordon Batty took in more tackle and carried on with the exploration. The pitch that lay ahead provided two alternative routes. One looked very deep and wet, whilst the other looked short and dry, so an obvious name for it for one of Batty's imagination was 'Emery'. Taking the line of least resistance, the short dry pitch of 25 feet led to a broad ledge, hit on one side by the stream on the wet pitch before it sprayed out into the impressive blackness below. By keeping to the right hand wall, a short twelve foot ladder climb led around the corner onto a small ledge and it was a simple matter to ladder from here another twelve feet onto a broader ledge below, whilst still in the same rift. The main wet shaft terminated the ledge at one side, where it plunged a further 80 feet and in the opposite direction the large rift continued beyond a rock bridge which spanned a floor 35 feet below. By laddering this small easy pitch, access was gained to a muddy narrow passage which led, via a slope, to a window further down the main shaft and to a tight muddy slit along the line of the rift itself.

February 2nd: Gordon Batty, Mike Warren and Eddie Edmondson returned with more tackle and finished the descent of the main pitch which proved to be 130 feet, cold and wet. The shaft continued down a series of steps and further 10 foot and 20 foot pitches to a narrow restricted passage, containing water and very little airspace. This seemed the end, but a passage could be seen continuing over the sump above the 20 foot pitch. This was later forced to a tight corner and left for a future trip.

February 6th saw the same team plus Jack Pickup surveying and doing odd jobs about the place and they decided there was nothing for it but to call in the 'expert' and I was dragged from my armchair by the telephone ringing and a voice which said "Fancy a good trip ?" It was Batty and I should have known better.

February 16th: I forced my bony body through the incredibly tight entrance. I did it all wrong of course, and had to go back and try again. However, I made it and soon we were back at the window pitch at the end of the muddy rift. A narrow slit dropped one into a pool of liquid mud, down a short mud slope onto a high narrow horizontal rift passage that again was knee-deep in glutinous mud. The ladder was belayed at one end and some unfortunate wretch had to squeeze backwards along the gunge-filled rift for 30 feet, hang over the end and drop the ladder down before descending it in a welter of falling mud. Sitting above the rift, I could see my companions suddenly transformed from living beings into large slow moving chocolate soldiers, as one by one they wallowed in and were eventually overcome by mud. Soon it was my turn, and as I forced my way backwards, supported by one arm, slithering my taut body before me, armpit deep in liquid mud and feet tangled in the ladder which was buried below, I began to curse loudly until I was silenced by a mouthful of mud that slid gracefully off the wall. My feet suddenly found space and I slid over the pitch below like a shapeless mass of 'schizen', dislodging at the same time a torrent of the same material which literally rained down on one unfortunate E.Edmondson who was holding the end of the double lifeline 35 feet below. Suddenly Eddie was a statue and I slithered miserably down to him. The rift continued down and I was left as lifeline man whilst the rest slid down the short pitches to the bottom of the muddy rift below.

Only partially recovered from a severe dose of flu, I sat there cold and miserable listening to the mumbling from below, punctuated by the sound of my chattering teeth. Suddenly it was all over, they had established a link back along a tight pasage (The Borehole) to the main pitch but not found a way on. After a couple of working trips, clearing out the entrance and surveying upstream to 'Rabbit Inlet', I was involved once again and after the usual gruelling struggle through the entrance, I made my way down the pitches to the limit of exploration with Gordon Batty and Bob Hryndyj.

The second mud pitch was easy and stepped but with everything covered in mud, every move had to be made with extreme caution. At the bottom, a mud climb and, would you believe, a mud traverse, which we later named the 'Schizenblat', led on along a rift, whilst through a small water filled hole the sound of running water could be heard. I was handed the hammer and chisel and told to "Get at it" while Bob and Gordon struggled up the rift. After attacking the hole for some time, I was suddenly amazed to hear voices coming through and became further amazed when told to follow. I looked dubiously at the three inch airspace in the six inch hole and was quite relieved when told that this had been bypassed and joyfully dropped the hammer and chisel and fought my way up the muddy rift. Traversing on mud in a wetsuit is defying every known law of nature but eventually I traversed up 15 feet onto a mud bridge and climbed and/or fell down the other side where a large passage bifurcated, the left hand side dropping down to what looked like a sump and the other an abandoned high level, corkscrewing round and up and over obstructions to a dead end. Here I found Gordon Batty persuading one of Bob's wellies to go on, but the wellie, which was peering out of a small hole, refused and returned. I patiently explained to the two moles that they had rushed past a large passage and persuaded them to return to the junction. First pushing G.B. down to make sure it was safe, we slid down a mud slope into a deep pool which gave way almost immediately to a small inlet overhead and another pitch below of about 40 feet. We were quite surprised and didn't know what to do because we had no more tackle. The inlet was climbed but soon became 'wee' but was surmised to come from the bottom of the wet pitch. After getting nice and clean in the pool we struggled back up the mud climbs and traverses to the mud pitches. What a filthy place.... this section we christened S.R.T. ... not Single Rope Technique, but Schizen Right Through.

After a fortnight's rest, we were back with more tackle and a change of crew, Mike Warren, Gordon Batty, Eddie Edmondson and self. The pitch beyond the pool was laddered and proved to be an easy, clean, water-washed luxury of 40 feet. A narrow canal led off at the bottom to two ducks and I arrived to find G.B. peering through a small, nasty looking, partially water-filled opening, not unlike a small version of the blasted hole in Simpsons.

"Er, I haven't got my wetsuit", he said, and I lowered myself into the canal until just a pale green frozen head remained above the water and, much to my delight, I found the head wouldn't go through the opening. "Ah, I can't get my head in", I said, in a disappointed voice. "Take your helmet off", says Batty, snatching off my helmet and pushing me through into the canal beyond. Disregarding the loss of my fruity polos, I cruised along the watery rift and through another duck. A small passage led on beyond the canal, and lying on my back in the water I was amazed to see the water overflowing down a round borehole to the right which was separated from the canal by a ridge of rock. This intriguing plug-hole fascinated me and after several contortions I eventually managed to screw myself out of the canal until I managed to force my legs over the lip of the rock and dangling down the hole. However, I found the rest of my body wouldn't move, but after a struggle, I managed, at last, to get my body half in and half out of the intriguing plug hole which looked like a kind of spiral staircase with the water cascading down below. So keen was I to get a better look, that I doubled my body up and stuck my head even lower down the hole. The water fell down another hole lower down and then I realised that I was stuck.... I couldn't bend my body any further to free my head which was jammed on the opposite wall and I couldn't move my legs or backside which were jammed over the lip. I spent several minutes silently squirming about and then gave way to blind panic. "I'm stuck, I'm stuck !", I shouted to G.B., "Oh, well, I can't come through, I'll get wet" came the muffled reply from the land of the living. I imagined myself quietly drowning when it rained and after an almighty struggle, which resulted in dislodging a vertebra, I managed to free myself, though still the wrong way round, and floated out through the canal to look for reinforcements. These soon came in the shape of E.Edmondson, who managed to get down the spiral stairs some way before we called it a day.

April 27th: we returned for a final bottoming trip. The party consisted of Gordon Batty, Eddie Edmondson, Bob Hryndyj, Iain Crossley, Sambo and myself. After a gallant attempt by Sambo to rescue my belt from the abominable entrance crawl he was left shivering above the S.R.T. whilst the rest of us persuaded Eddie and Bob (who breathes under water) through the canal and down the spiral staircase to another final sump at 540 feet to become the third (?) deepest in the north.

The latter part of the cave is the best part (so they say !). Unfortunately, their supporting party, one Iain Crossley, had not yet learned the rudiments of cave diving, ie. not to go through a duck with your head under water and your backside breathing air, and he almost came to a watery end. There was some discussion about fixing a pipe to his bum and blowing air down to him before his pale blue face surfaced and said those immortal words "Sod that for a game of chess!"

Summary:- Dale Head Pot is a good cave and will rank as a great sporting trip with several unusual features and is ample reward for the N.P.C. Thursday night digging team with its two routes and fourteen pitches which, according to most cavers who have been down, make it a very distinctive pothole in the true N.P.C. style. In other words, a right bastard, but definitely worth a trip.

As seems the case with any major discovery, the exploration was marred by pirate groups who lack the means and the will-power of either discovering new holes or waiting until exploration has ceased. This fringe yobbo element of caving managed to break the only formation of note and generally made a nuisance of themselves as well as incurring some risk of which they were probably unaware. However, it probably gave them the satisfaction of having something to talk about in their own mini-circle of like-minded morons and some day, who knows, given time they may even turn out to be responsible cavers....

> NPC White Bulletin 1976:
---> Next page:
---> Back to contents
---> Previous page:
> Out of print publications list
> Northern Pennine Club Home page