Crystal Cave North – In The Dark Lord’s Land

The OS map of the Yorkshire Dales has two areas of Dentdale marked as North Lord’s Land and South Lord’s Land, the same map has a valley to the south of Dentdale marked as, inexplicably, Barbondale though those of us who cave and dig in this valley know it by its real name: the Dark Lord’s Land. The Dark Lord haunts this enchanting valley (often stalking the corridors of his gloomy mansion, Barbon Hall, though regularly wintering in St Moritz). Riven by the Dent Fault, it is a valley that shows two faces to the visitor, the gritty Silurian west flank, steep and uniform; the rolling, limey Carboniferous east flank, part Great Scar, part Yoredale, incised with dry valleys and wizened streams. A turbulent flank, where water sinks in the downstream southern end but rises in the upstream north end. A chaos of caves, tormented by the mighty fault, and the Dark Lord can feel their water, every sink and rising is known by him. And these sinks and risings are special, they are watched by the Dark Lord’s creatures who mumble to him about any strange draughts that wisp and gasp out of any unsuspecting cracks or grikes, down there, in the dark. Anyone can tell you that.

This is the tale of how a short, stable, clean-washed and beautiful cave – Crystal Cave – came to have a chaotic, unstable, tight and mud-bellutedextension – Crystal North. Blues legend, Big Bill Sherrington and his lordship had earlier discovered Sod-Off Pot, this had been pushed someway to a seemingly terminal blockage with the help of me, Richard Dowbiggin and Tim Allen; it was up valley of Crystal Cave but the main passage was heading south into a blank on the map bordered by Crystal. Crystal was linked to Dog Holes which was linked to Bucket-on-the-Head – our imaginations all conjured the through trip. His worship had been ghosting through Crystal Cave one night, and the flutter of velvet had come to rest by the second duck where a small vole-hole in the left wall was expelling a hurricane force draught so great it featured on the late night shipping forecast: “Barbondale, Crag Hill, St Lawrence Back Country, storm imminent.” Poking his head in he saw a choke but the blast was finding its way through and curled his beard. There was something beyond. Heading north.

M’lud and I were soon back with Pete Hall’s jacketed drill and jet-propulsion battery. We took turns at capping the choke while laid in the stream and ten rounds later the bouldery plug was no more. The hole was leaking its own stream, and so it was a wet flat-out squeeze that saw us into a silted chamber, the walled and roofed silt gave us a glimpse of a bigger stream in flood, the water unable to get out of the tiny gap we had just widened. His lud’ship climbed up the mud bank to the left into a honeycomb like passage while I crawled into the stream bed as it issued out of a low passage to the right. They were not far apart and we could hear each other clearly as Hugh slithered in mud and I spluttered in water. It was to be a race across this Barbon blank on the map to Sod-Off Pot, Hugh’s face was half in mud, mine half in water – it wasn’t going to be a fast race, this one, and indeed it wasn’t as both of us hit the finishing line, slowly, after a few metres. Dejection.

The Dark Lord, Richard Dowbiggin and I returned one night just to check that we hadn’t missed a way on. The wet way was hopeless, far too tight, but the mud way was draughting strongly and we set to it with the hammer and the mud was found to be concealing cobbles, not solid rock, and the crowbar helped us winkle them out. Squeeze in, winkle out, squeeze, winkle, squeeze, winkle and the suit ripper was passed. We gathered on the far side. Elation. Ahead was a finely propped mash of large boulders – a chaos of dropped blocks – our newly discovered elation was tempered a touch. The usual warnings to each other – don’t touch anything! This, as we all know, is a bit tricky in a three dimensional space you are required to climb and squeeze through, though we did pass through and nothing moved, that much. We gathered once more in a washed chamber, Hugh climbed into a rift heading east directly ahead, Richard set to a passage heading north, partly going back the way we came, I climbed into the roof. Hugh’s passage was a climb up and into a draughting rift with the sound of falling water ahead but blocked by calcite boulders; my roof climb entered a chamber above the jammed boulder ceiling of the one we had just gathered in, a draughting passage headed south with a section that was too tight though it opened slightly beyond; Richard had passed under a guillotine block into an open rift passage – heading north. There was a pool at the end and plenty of mud – Richard III had just been found under a carpark in Leicester, and we had used the phrase ‘In Dickie’s meadow’ (Bosworth Field) to describe our own predicament in the boulder pile, and as our own Richard had found this pleasant little water meadow it was called ‘Dickie’s Meadow.’ Unfortunately, ‘Dickie’ met his end in his meadow and we soon met our end in this one. Dejection, again.

Back again, this time with Bill and Pete’s drill. Hugh, Bill and I squeezed into the eastern rift he had found on the previous visit and began capping the calcite boulder, down it came, to be followed by another and then another – and then after an body-fat testing squeeze we were in a magical little chamber with a bedding plane dropping down to the sound of a roaring fall of water – heading east. Elation, again. It was too tight. I had a hunch, I reversed out of the extension, back into Crystal main, ducked through the second duck, climbed up the narrow rift to the second waterfall and stuck my head up the ascending bedding plane … heading west. I could clearly hear the sonorous tones of the Dark Lord and flashes of his light above. Dejection – yet again. Back again, this time just Hugh and I, and the push was in the passage just to the left of the entry point beyond the suit-ripper crawl, over a calcite boss and round the bend was a small open rift blocked with boulder clay – there were gaps and we had Pete’s drill.

Countless rounds later we had a crawl space, one we both laid out in with the crowbar working the remains of the choke, dark space could be seen beyond. Hugh sat back for a pause and splat! A small, though heavily laden, coffin sized boulder fell from the roof of the crawl, missed Hugh by seconds (and inches), and blocked the way on. Was this cave trying to convey something to us in its slow, shifting changes? Despite the warning, we split the coffin and re-interred it in the floor of the rift, and both scampered through the crawl into the continuation of the rift, Sod-Off Pot surely ahead! Ah, hubris – we had got ahead of ourselves, the rift closed up after a few metres – a terminal choke, totally sealed. What was left of the night was spent surveying the hard fought 50 metres in misery, it had been raining heavily and we were wet, cold and plastered in mud. Even the first duck, with only inches to spare, and the wallow in the entrance couldn’t clean off the gloop. It was an eight hour shift for even more dejection, but once in the warm embrace of the Barbon Inn and pints of Ruskin on the bar, we reminisced about our Crystal North adventure. As with all digs, you hope to breakthrough to the measureless caverns and unravel the glaciated puzzle still being played out as the dripping calcareous walls collapse; seek and ye shall find, ask and ye shall be given, knock and the door shall be opened unto thee! But this is rare, you often don’t find what you are looking for, and this isn’t really dejection because you simply find much more besides, things you never expected, things you perhaps had taken for granted. What better way could there be for understanding the natural mystery of the earth, the compulsive draw of the underworld and what lies, hidden and gasping in a dark faulted maze, beneath the Dark Lord's Land?

                                                     Frank Pearson

Photos: (in order) The entrance,   Hugh capping the first choke just before the second duck, Hugh and Frank after the last session.