The Discovery and Exploration
of HAMMER POT, Fountains Fell

From 'on-the-spot' notes made by the author during the events of 1957

Alan Fincham

A few years ago, the N.P.C. greatly increased their activities on Fountains Fell. The underground drainage of this great hump of boggy upland lying to the east of Penyghent had been a topic of great interest for many years. When it was shown, by the use of fluorescein, that the rising for the water going underground at Gingling Hole lay three and a quarter miles away at Brants Gill Head near Horton-in-Ribblesdale, active interest in the area became much intensified.

Attempts were first made to enter Gingling Wet Sinks, that is, to follow the active streamway. With the aid of a very elaborate water diversion it was found possible to penetrate much farther than previously, but these efforts were abandoned in the face of severe danger of sudden floodings trapping underground parties.

Several months of persistant digging at a site lower down in Fornah Gill eventually produced entry into a cave, but this was restricted and ended in an impenetrable sump. This cave was called Fornah Gill Cavern and contains some quarter of a mile of passage.

Following the exploration of this little cave, members ranged wide in their search for an entry into the supposed 'Master Cave' running from Fountains Fell to Ribblesdale. It was during this search that we managed to find the entrance to the cave which we later named Hammer Pot.

On Sunday 25th January 1957 [ 1957.01.25 was a Friday. The entrance was first found on Sunday 1957.01.13, the events described here probably took place on the 20th, Ed. ], Myers, Smith and I decided to investigate a small stream sink in an elongated shakehole on that slope of Fountains Fell known as Out Fell. This site had been noted the previous weekend by other members of the club. We found a small stream sink at the upper end of the shakehole and, lower down, a spot where soil slip had exposed some shattered limestone blocks. Into the gap between two of these I blew a cloud of pipe smoke which we were delighted to find was at once sucked in and disappeared. Such powerful ventilation suggested a worthwhile cave system below, so we decided to dig.

After some two hours we had exposed a small passage at a depth of five to six feet and extending both upstream to the little sink and downstream to a point where some big flakes of rock divided the passage making it impossible to proceed further. This small passage was only some 2 ft. to 3 ft. high and 15 ft long so that apart from the persistant inward draught the prospects were not very good and at this stage we then left the place.

Sunday 3rd February

Arrived on Fountains Fell to find a good number already assembled. At Out Fell Cave, seven of us were already at work shifting stones from the little passage and passing them by human chain to the surface. Much rock hammering had been done on the flakes which had obstructed our progress the previous weekend.

By 2pm, a way on had been made and we entered a low winding passage with thick shale beds in the walls in many places, and finally a chamber with some straw stalactites, the whole chamber being in a shale bed. At the far side, the floor fell away down a 20 ft. drop into a wide aven chamber some 30 ft. high. Heys, who led the way, was already at the bottom of this pitch, having descended with the aid of a lifeline. We descended and entered a narrow winding passage about 10 ft. high. By proceeding crabwise it was possible, although strenuous, to advance a good way before the bulkier leading men became firmly wedged and we had to retreat.

The rapid end to this trip was somewhat of a disappointment as we had hoped to proceed further. This narrow passage was destined to become rather notorious and has, in fact, become an impassable obstacle to many of the larger members of the club.

The following weekend I arrived at the club cottage on Saturday evening to learn that, during the day, Hudson and Batty had managed to force the fissure a little further but had finally been beaten by its extreme narrowness.

Sunday 10th February

Went to Out Fell Cave with Myers, Hudson, Heys, Smith and Batty. Hudson and I went to try and force the fissure passage a little further, Heys and Batty went off prospecting for new holes, and Myers and Smith were to follow us down and survey the cave as far as they could get.

Hudson and I went as far as the chamber at the bottom of the 20 ft. pitch clad in our waterproof immersion suits. Here we changed into the minimum of clothing and, leaving our bulky immersion suits and spare clothing behind, we entered the fissure carrying only a 4 lb hammer and a bag of spare carbide and food. Our object was to try to force the fissure and determine what lay beyond. We took no tackle as this would just have been more impediment.

First we went forward into the streamway until this became too narrow and we were forced to climb into the roof and traverse at a high level. Shortly we reached the tight S-bend where we had been stopped the previous week. This we passed and forced our way along to the point where Hudson had been stopped. Hudson, who was leading, went to work with the hammer and had soon passed the obstruction. We squeezed forward foot by foot removing the occasional projection with the hammer. This part of the passage was very narrow indeed and the only footholds one could get were obtained by jamming one's boot across the fissure. There was a constant tendency to slip down to a lower level and stick. Progress was extremely strenuous.

Eventually Hudson craned round the next twist and said, rather dejectedly, that all he could see was an impenetrable crack blocked by stalagmite flow.

At this point we could see that the stream, which had been dropping all the way and was now 15 ft. below us, presented a possible way on if we could get down to it, or more exactly, if we could get back up having done so. We reversed for a short distance and I found that I could slip down some 8 ft. to some other constriction. When I slid into this second one I just jammed around my hips with my legs dangling forlornly below. After 10 minutes of strenuous effort, I was able to slip down to the streamway only to find that it ran away down another 6 inch wide groove.

We traversed forward a little and started hammering again, this time in a wider section of passage so we were able to take turns and soon had a passable way to the lower streamway. Yet again, the water dropped some 5 ft. to a lower level through a narrow groove. I was just about to belabour the nose of rock which prevented us from following the water when it crumbled beneath my foot. We followed the stream once again around a shallow bend against a big wall of calcite flow, much stained with ochre.

I was momentarily horrified to see the water running away through a hole in the flowstone scarcely six inches across. Instinctively I looked upward and found that at my head level was a climb over the stalagmite.

Shouting to Hudson to follow, I climbed over into a wierd little grotto full of long ochreous stalactite curtains, helictites and bosses. Beyond was another corner, but now I could hear a heavy splashing of water somewhere in front.

Rounding the corner, I found myself over a drop of about 15 ft. into a long rift chamber. I slithered down to the floor in two stages wondering if I would be able to reverse the move and walked off across the wet gravel of the chamber floor. It was a joint-determined chamber rising to an apex in the centre from which point a heavy shower of water fell some 25 ft. to the floor. It was about 38 ft. long by 12 ft. wide.

I stepped smartly past the showerbath and walked to the far end where the water which ran across the floor flowed away down a passage of moderate size in a direct line continuation of the major axis of the chamber. I now wondered where Hudson had got to and went back to see.

I found him at the top of the climb down into the chamber which he was considering in a more reasoned frame of mind than I had. However, my report brought him smartly to the floor where we sat and ate chocolate while I recharged my acetylene lamp. We then continued our way down the passage which proved to be dead straight and of fairish length. It ended abruptly and the water, now much swelled by the showerbath, ran off at right angles down a shallow S-bend passage.

We were quickly stopped on the lip of a vertical shaft of about 15 ft. to a ledge containing a large pool and then, at right angles to the pool, the stream spilled into a black hole whose walls we could not see. The stream made a pleasant roaring noise. A few rocks thrown over suggested a depth of some 30 to 50 ft. or perhaps more; apparently a large shaft and probably very wet.

Further we could not go; we had no tackle to descend the shaft and anyway we were beginning to feel rather tired, viewing the return journey through that awful fissure with distaste. Having ascertained that there was no suitable belay point from which to hang a ladder and would therefore be necessary to fit an expansion bolt for this purpose, we returned, passing up the hammered squeezes with a little difficulty.

We met Myers and Smith at the head of the first pitch and told them our story. They listened, at first incredulously and then with much frustration when they realised they were too large to pass the fissure.

The news of this discovery was received with much interest by the other members of the club. Perhaps the new cave would lead to our much idealised Master Cave. Plans were made for a full scale exploration the following Sunday.

Sunday 17th February

We arrived at the Fornah Gill barn (our advanced base for storing equipment etc.) at about 9.30 am. Hudson, Batty and I descended Hammer Pot - as it was now called - by 10.30 am, leaving a bright sunlit moor behind.

We soon reached the Changing Room (the chamber at the bottom of the first pitch) and set about the task of carrying our packs of equipment through the fissure. There were six of these composed as follows:

1. 100 ft. nylon rope, rock drill and expansion bolt. 2. 90 ft. nylon rope, chocolate and glucose. 3. 3 alloy ladders and an immersion suit. 4. 2 alloy ladders, wire belays and an immersion suit. 5. An immersion suit and an overall. 6. One 4 lb. lump hammer.

On this trip we took our waterproofs and spare clothing through the fissure in separate packs so as to reduce our own bulk and thus facilitate our passage through the fissure. Later in the exploration, when we had become more expert at passing this section, we did not find it necessary to do this and would wear our waterproofs the whole time. We all passed the fissure without much trouble although the packs proved a great hindrance. On arrival at the showerbath chamber, we changed into our waterproofs and went forward to the pitch.

As we had anticipated, no suitable belay point could be found and we set to work drilling. In about 20 minutes we had our bolt in position. Soon 70 ft. of ladder was strung down the pitch and we descended to the ledge some 15 ft. below. We were then able to see the bottom which proved to be 48 ft. below. Hudson was soon down and I followed just as the sounds of the second party with Crossley and Heys were heard from farther back along the passage. Hudson and I scuttled down the passage below for a considerable distance. A strong inward draught was still evident and we were constantly urged on by the sound of falling water somewhere ahead.

This passage contained a number of straw stalactites and was interesting in structure, showing prominent calcite veins. Finally, we were stopped by another wet pitch of the fissure type and about 30 ft. deep. Again there was no obvious belay point. After some delay, the tackle was brought forward and Batty and Heys joined us. We found a small rock prong which proved secure, although rather unpleasant looking, from which to hang the ladder. After splashing out the pool at the top, we all descended. The passage at the bottom was of a comfortable size and after a short distance and two small climbs down we reached a small chamber with a level floor.

The way on was now a crawl (at first on hands and knees) in a really revoltingly filthy, wet, peat-mud filled passage. The walls consisted of banks of stinking peat mud and after it had become stirred up a bit, it became a canal of peat sludge in which it was necessary to wallow.

In the middle of this quagmire, Heys blew a bulb and he and I spent some short while in the rather delicate operation of removing my spare bulb and replacing his dud. By the time this was completed, the other two were well in front. The passage became very low and just as I was being threatened with a mouthful of peat porridge, my light failed. The advance party assured us there was more headroom forward, so we went on.

By now we were aware of a deep reverberating rumble in front which became very loud as we moved further forward. We caught up with the other two on a corner where the roof became a good deal higher and the water deeper. A small inlet came in from the left, round the corner and then another inlet, larger this time, and then forward again where we were amazed to see a large stream of clear water sweeping in from an inlet on the left and away down a large passage on the right. Just across the passage from us was a large dry inlet passage which we did not explore.

Off downstream we went, the floor beneath the water was riddled with circular milled potholes up to 3 ft. deep which made progress rather treacherous and very slow. We noticed many fine formations on the ledges above our heads and the water made a powerful roar as it raced along.

We reached a cascade into a large pool which was passed with the aid of a handline. Another large inlet joined us here.

Then, after a few shallow bends, we were brought up short on the lip of another pitch - a veritable Niagara this time. The whole stream fell into a transverse fissure about 10 ft. wide in a sheet of roaring water. We could get no idea of the depth as we could not see anything for flying spray.

We speculated on ways of passing this fearsome looking fall and did a little investigating in the roof of the passage. Then we left for the surface, where we arrived to a freezing dusk at 5.30 pm, having been underground for exactly 7 hours.

This new discovery was very significant as we appeared to have reached a major underground stream and our hopes were high that this might lead to the Master System. But, if it did prove so, we should have to find some other way in, as this entrance was much too severe to be useful for exploration of an extensive system of caverns.

Sunday 24th February

A considerable fall of snow was thawing fast and it was soon evident that penetration to the main stream passage was unlikely. A fair stream of meltwater was flowing in the entrance passages and the first pitch was an icy shower of water. Heys, Batty and I surveyed through the fissure to the head of the second pitch which would have been a very wet descent. This trip took us just four hours and afterwards we went up the fell to the wet sinks and found it to be lake of ice and slush.

During this survey trip it was very noticeable that the normally strong inward draught was absent and we realised that this must have been due to severe flooding in the main stream passage completely blocking up the low sludge crawl and hence the circulation of air in the system was markedly reduced. Thus it was possible to determine if access to the main passage was possible by observing the draught at the entrance.

During the last few weeks of March and the first week of April I was away in Eire (O.E.S. Irish Report) and when I returned I learnt that a further trip into the main passage had been made and a survey carried out as far as the top of this and up the large dry inlet passage which had been explored. This work, by Heys, Hudson, Batty and Smith, had shown a few interesting things.

The survey showed that the far end of the Sludge Crawl lay at a point nearly below the entrance and that the passage headed off in a N.W. direction towards Brants Gill Head on the other side of Penyghent. The process of surveying through the Sludge Crawl had proved very unpleasant, the surveyor having to lick the glass of the compass in order to take any readings.

The exploration of the dry inlet was surprising as it proved to be a large passage, ascending at an angle, and ending in two high avens which might connect with some passages above that would provide an easier means of access. This ascending type of passage was not typical to Yorkshire caves which are formed in almost horizontally bedded limestones. The passage suggests the idea that it was largely formed by water being forced up from below when the whole system was flooded.

Sunday 14th April

Digging in the vicinity of Hammer Pot entrance with the object of trying to locate a way in that might lead to the avens at the top of the inclined passage. Got down some 20 ft. and noticed an interesting outward draught.

Unfortunately, this dig fell in later in the week. Some other sites nearby were also probed, but without any definite result. Clearly it would not be possible to make another way in here.

Friday 19th April

Descended the pot with Heys, Hudson and Marsden, our intention being to attempt to pass the terminal waterfall pitch if possible. After a delay in the Showerbath Chamber due to some lighting trouble, the descent went smoothly. Water was very low and I found it pleasant to rope down the second pitch. The Sludge Crawl seemed as long as ever (all 100 yards of it) and perhaps rather stickier.

Hudson and I extracted the pile of exceedingly muddy ladders from part way up the inclined passage where they had been used to descend a narrow shaft in the floor (The Well) on the last trip down when this passage had first been explored. The inclined passage contains some good formations and over much of its length rises at an angle of about 30°. The ladders were retrieved and washed clean in the streamway and we then went downstream to the waterfall. This looked to be just as formidable an obstacle as ever.

Our plan of attack was to try and fix an expansion bolt round to the side of the fall so as to be able to hang the ladder at least partially clear of the force of the water. There was no natural belay point with which this could have been achieved and to attempt a descent in the direct force of the fall would have been to court disaster.

I tied on to the lifeline and stepped down onto a ledge about a foot or so below the lip of the fall with the intention of locating a site for the bolt. I was surprised to find that it was possible to step round the corner into a passage which formed the lateral extension of the waterfall fissure. This had a choked floor and at the far end was a pitch of about 20 ft. to a lower level from which one could climb back out into the side of the waterfall shaft proper. From this point I was able to step across the corner of the shaft to a round hole into which some of the water was spattering. This led at once to a parallel fissure in the lower part of which the water could be seen to drop down a very wet shaft and cascade away.

Communication hereabouts is impossible due to the roar of the water and I was surprised to find the others above my head shouting wildly. After some difficulty I joined them and found that in my enthusiasm I had completely overlooked a higher level passage leading to the far side of the main waterfall without making it necessary to descend any further pitches. This passage opens to a ledge looking out on a huge dry shaft about 20 ft. in diameter and about 45 ft. deep. On the far wall is a magnificent cascade of pure white calcite all of 40 ft. high. (The opinion of the exploreres is that this is certainly among the largest and finest cascades of this type in the country).

The water could be seen to flow away into a pool at the bottom of the shaft.

We all descended this pitch and, after a pause for food, moved off into a comfortable passage following the water. After a few deep pools and short cascades we came to a choke of muddy boulders through which the stream disappeared. We found a crawl on the left which bypassed this obstruction and we then entered a rather low and nasty-looking sump pool.

By ducking under some low flakes I was able to reach the limit of airspace and feeling into the sump with my feet it appeared to be about two or three feet high and of uncertain width, with a gravel floor and a roughly horizontal roof some 9 to 12 inches below water level.

This series is complex and a closer examination for a higher level route must be made. At the time of writing, no further descents as far as the sump have been made and in fact the cascade shaft has only been descended on this occasion.

Sunday 7th July

Descended at 9 am with Batty and Hawkes, the objective being to survey the main stream passage. We found the fissure passage hard due to an outward air current causing condensation on the walls. Very little water was flowing, surface conditions were dry. We found the tackle in good order (it had been in the cave since early February) and reached the main stream passage without incident.

Explored upstream from the junction and were surprised to find the water rising from a deep pool sump in the passage floor after only some 30 yards of crawling. We surveyed downstream to the head of the waterfall shaft. Examination of the roof above this shaft showed that there is a good chance of a passage opening at about 30 to 40 ft. above the lip of the fall. The dry Cascade Shaft was plumbed with the tape and found to be 38 ft. deep. The lip of the pitch seems rather unstable.

On our return we found a sealed can of candles, which had been left at the foot of Inclined Passage on a previous trip, jammed between the stalagmite about 3 inches above normal stream level. This could have only occurred when the whole of the lower series was flooded. We moved all of the tackle back to Showerbath Chamber but had not the energy to take any of it out. Surfaced rather tired at 5pm, the trip taking 8 hours.

This trip had shown us that the lower series does in fact flood to a considerable depth as we had suspected. The origin of the Hammer Pot stream remains a mystery and can only be speculated upon. One thing, however, seems certain: that the water must come from some source which is activated by surface flooding and supplies quantities of organic material. The only obvious source is then the Gingling Wet Sink itself.

(The above is largely based on an article originally appearing in the Leeds University Union Speleological Society 'Trogazette' for 1963. We are grateful to Alan Fincham (now in the USA) for permission to use this material.)

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