Deep, dark and down

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The Yorkshire Dales is home to the longest show cave in Britain - a great place to visit. Kevin Berry reports

The magnificent White Scar cave in the Yorkshire Dales was only discovered in 1923 by Cambridge undergraduate and potholer Christopher Long. A life-size figure of him caught mid-crawl now greets visitors at the entrance of White Scar which is the longest show cave in Britain.

Entrance to the cave is made along a rock corridor cut by coal miners in Victorian times. As the group from Marshfield Primary School in Bradford walks across the steel-grid walkway, they can see and hear waterfalls and the stream racing below. The cave proper is a winding gallery carved out by running water and the noise is wonderful - as if we are inside the waterfall itself.

One of the fascinations of visits to the caves is its strange rock shapes and endlessly evolving formations. The limestone rock has water constantly running over it and our guide Tony Dickinson points out the outline of a witch's face and an owl perched above us. "That drip has been there four days to my knowledge", says the guide. He is pointing to a tiny stalactite, no more than three centimetres long with a prominent dewdrop bubble. When we return, almost an hour later, the drip is still there.

As we walk though the passage, the space diminishes and the children have to stoop while I'm almost clutching my ankles. We eventually reach the Battlefield Cavern, which is well worth the sometimes cramped one-mile trek. The cavern is the largest in the country and I am reminded of imagined sites in Lord of the Rings or an Alan Garner book. It is 9 metres long, soars to 30 metres at the highest point and has clusters of thousands of stalactites decorating the roof.

The guide turns the floodlights off and switches the ultraviolets on. They capture the frosty beauty of thousands of paper-thin stalactites. Then he warns us that he will turn every light off and we will experience total darkness.

This really is something to remember. We can't see our hands in front our faces and the guide seems to be taking an awful long time to switch the lights back on.

As we readjust to the light, the guide points out another statue dressed in potholer's clothing. Near its feet is a hole that I couldn't pass my boots down. "That's where Hilda Guthrie came up when she discovered the Battlefield Cavern in 1973", the guide explains. Apparently the diminutive Hilda was potholing and was persuaded to go through by her beefy male companions. They pushed her in, which raises the question - how did Hilda get back?

The tour is 80 minutes in total which is all too brief really, but long enough to get a real taste of this eerie, subterranean world. There is a great sense of awe during a cave visit and children are usually quiet and respectful, as if the vast caverns are cathedrals. And silence is the perfect atmosphere in which to absorb the sounds of the cave with its moments of clatter and crash and moments of majestic silence.

White Scar Cavewww.wscave.co.ukInformation on other cave sites www.searchuk.co.uk

White Scar Cave

One-and-a-half miles from Ingleton on the B6255 and open everyday.

pound;6.50 adults; pound;3.60 children (5-15); Group rates (12 or more): pound;5.25 adults; pound;2.85 children.

Tel: 01524 241244

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