Two Stories with Lessons.

 The High Cost of Caving - Casterton Fell.

Casterton Fell is a gentle remote stretch of hillside tucked away in the far South Eastern corner of Cumbria or rather Westmorland as the locals would judiciously insist. Covered in deep heather and trackless, bill walkers only skirt its Eastern fringe as they pass along the Gregareth to Great Coum Ridge, that splendid and isolated valley that starts as Leck Beck on the Skipton - Kendal trunk road and rises for six miles without a road or right of way crossing.

Mile for mile the caves beneath Casterton Fell probably offer a more intense and exciting caving experience than in any other of the world’s great caving systems such is the complexity and youthfulness of the caves. Unlike the grouse moorlands of Kinder, Bleaklow, Barden and Simons Seat there has been no long term access pressure from ramblers on Casterton and access for caving has always been very difficult. Before 1960 the relatively small number of cavers and known caves caused little problem but with an increase in both, the land agents, Davis and Bowring, acting for Whelprigg Estates actively prohibited access to the fell for caving. After years of difficult negotiation an access agreement was formulated between the agents and the Council of Northern Caving Clubs, a representative body specially set up to deal with the agents. Access to the caves was to be by permit issued in limited numbers (i.e. one party per cave per day by the C.N.C.C.) All went well until recently when new cave discoveries necessitating new access routes, and increased numbers of cavers resulted in some renegotiation of the agreement. The agents, who were proving very difficult to negotiate with claimed that grouse breeding was being affected (there are in fact very few grouse on the moor) and that a closed season was required. Suddenly, after months without communication from the agents a statement notified the cavers council that in future a fee of £2 per caver per trip was to be levied and collected by the C.N.C.C. on behalf of the agents.

The council refused to co-operate and the access negotiated became moribund, since then the agents changed their fee to one of £10 (plus VAT) per party per cave, payable directly to themselves - few have paid up so far; given the general outdoor pursuitists antagonism towards payment of fees for access to ‘the wilderness’ non-payment is hardly surprising.
In a surprise move last month it was announced that access at weekends was to be controlled by a local caving club with a more limited number of cavers. This is proving a source of great consternation in Northern caving circles who have always been determinedly opposed to the control of caving access by a single club or individual. Rumours indicate that the club in question, whose hut is owned by Whelprigg Estates, are keen to co-operate with the landowners because their hut lease is due for renegotiation soon.

The rationale for changing as far as the land agents concerned is inescapable - here they have a piece of land to manage profitably for recreation (grouse shooting) which is in demand for a second recreation - caving. I think it is the scale of the contemporary usage that prompts the agent’s commercial interest (they were unavailable for comment when I contacted them). What is more, a significant proportion of the users are professional; they are being paid to lead caving parties on the fell and cavers are paying to be led - why should not a proportion c-f that -fee go to the landowners?

The Profits of Caving - Bar Pot.

Bar Pot is the slightly squalid easiest entrance to the Gaping Ghyll system which has four other more difficult entrances.

In June last year a planning application was submitted to the Yorkshire Dales National Park for permission to erect scaffolding inside the cave so that both pitches and other difficult sections could be negotiated with ease by non-cavers. The applicant, Bob Jarman, is leaseholder and manager of Ingleborough Cavern, the local show cave and exit for the Gaping Ghyll waters. He is also a caver and member of local clubs. The intention is that groups of 15 to 20 from local hotels, guest houses or educational establishments will have a 2 to 3 hour ‘real caving in comfort’ experience led by a professional guide.
The caving world’s reaction was swift and unanimous — the planning authority received countless objections to the scheme from cavers and caving organizations. Other groups were reeled in, the National Caving Association; the Cave Rescue Organization: - “rescues would be impeded”; the Nature Conservancy Council “The site is an SSSI containing protected bats” and many other similar points. Some objections were in fact somewhat self-defeating - on the one hand it as argued that the pot was a classic (i.e. well used) sporting trip that would be lost, but on the other hand the proposal would destroy a delicate wilderness environment.

It seems perhaps that it the commercial exploitation of the natural environment, like the Casterton story, that is so disliked by the amateur sporting caver. In fact the application was temporarily withdrawn for revision at the last minute delaying the planning committee’s potentially embarrassing decision - for which they would probably have rejected the scheme on conservational grounds it had already been pointed out that that the very same committee was in the business of providing trips for tourists down caves (from their Whernside Manor Centre). It could also be said that the building of paved ways and step systems through rocky or difficult wilderness features by the authority was only the surface equivalent of the Jarman proposal. The objections from the caving fraternity could also be scrutinized for a degree of hypocrisy; one of the reasons that Bar Pot is so well used is that great mass meets are held at the Gaping Ghyll over some five weeks a year by two major clubs who fix scaffolding gantries and winches down the 360ft. entrance shaft. Hundreds of non-cavers are transported easily down and up the difficult part of the system to them wreak their destruction through ignorance of the caverns below. The cavers have also objected to the permanent unnatural fixtures required for Jarman’s scheme while quietly ignoring the massive proliferation of bolts at just about every pitch head and traverse throughout northern caves, or the blasting of caves that is carried out under the guise of exploration. The lessons for the hills are obvious the professional use of the above ground wilderness is already rife, as is waymarkinq and footpath construction Via ferrata are already well established elsewhere in the world; how long before we have a handrail and steps up Jacks Rake, a scenic raised walking in andamong Shepards Crag or a railway up Snowdon?

The above article appeared under the heading ‘Pete Livesey’s Column” in the February 1968 edition of Climber magazine. I accept responsibility for any copying errors, but not, I hasten to add, the contents of the articles. Ed  

Back to:  Contents