by George Cornes

(reproduced from Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club Journal Number 5, pp. 18-20)

The original paper documenting the discovery of Lancaster Hole was written by R.W. (Bill) Taylor of the Settle British Speleological Association. It described a day on September 29th, 1946, on Casterton Fell. The B.S.A. were then descending Hellot Hole for the first time, having been informed by the farmer that this had opened up. Bill Taylor and I instead went searching for new potholes on Casterton Fell in the valley where the Lancaster Hole entrance lies.

First photo taken by Eli Simpson in Lancaster Hole
In Taylor's article (the original, in his hand, is in my possession and available for scrutiny by skeptics), he states "George and I prospected on the moor ..." and went on to describe our find of draught emerging from a small gravelly hollow overgrown with grass. When this was published in Cave Science No. 2, p.34, 1947, the text was modified to read:

"This morning, George Cornes went down to examine the possibility of enlarging the fissure" (in Hellot Hole) "whilst W. Oakes, L. Kitchen, Wilf Taylor and myself, scouted over the moorland in search of new openings. It was a gloriously sunny day and we sat on the grass to rest. I suddenly became aware that the grass was quivering in a strong air current ... "
by these shocked individuals, to which we replied that we had come from Oxford Pot. This was not strictly accurate, but we had by then surveyed both systems to within a few yards of each other, only the Poetic Justice crawl remained undiscovered. I then received a letter from Mr. Simpson asking why I had withheld this important information from the B.S.A. This brought matters to an inevitable head, and after further correspondence, I was told that failing a satisfactory explanation, my membership of the Association would be terminated.
George digging in Ease Gill near Swindon Hole in May 1950. Photo: R. Bliss

It was then well known amongst the caving world that the two systems appeared as if they would obviously connect. and finally Ron Bliss found the elusive connecting link at the Poetic Justice crawl. The entrance to Oxford Pot at that time was below a precarious large boulder supported by unstable ruckle, and it rather mysteriously collapsed. The general feeling was that this collapse was probably engineered by persons unknown, although a certain well-known caving personality was seen leaving the Oxford Pot area on the day the Pot was sealed.

I was then continuing to explore Lancaster Hole. although not a member of the B.S.A. These trips had to be done in secret, often at night, and we had to carefully avoid well placed B.S.A. scouts. The lid was then blown off by another caving club. A new lid was fitted which denied us direct access to Lancaster Hole. This was again blown off within a short period of time. This I deplored, as it allowed easy access to all, including the inexperienced, as the metal ladders were still in position.

George Cornes exploring Oxford Pot in early 1950's

Photo: Ron Bliss

At this stage, we were informed that the B.S.A. Iease was legally invalid. We did not know with certainty whether this information was accurate, but we decided to challenge the B.S.A. by openly descending Lancaster Hole and risking prosecution for trespass. This bluff was successful, although in the early stages only the determined and the uninformed took the risk, such was the stature of the strong personalities in the B.S.A.

It can thus be seen that the story of this discovery was altered between the author's pen and the published account. When this version appeared, no one at that time felt sufficiently strongly about it to raise the issue. The B.S.A then started to explore the vast system amicably and made many discoveries.


George Cornes exploring Poetic Justice.
Photo: Ron Bliss

The next development came when Mr. Eli Simpson, the Recorder of the B.S.A. took out a lease in the name of the B.S.A. on Casterton Fell, including Lancaster Hole, Cow Pot, Bull Pot of the Witches, but extending North East to a distance just short of the then undiscovered Oxford Pot. This latter limitation will be seen later to be of considerable significance. This lease effectively prevented any other cavers from exploring Lancaster Hole without the expressed permission of the B.S.A. The reason for these restrictions was ostensibly to allow a programme of Speleological research to progress unhindered (Cave Science No. 6, p.202, 1948). Accordingly, it was decided that a metal lid should be fitted to the Lancaster Hole shaft. This was designed, made and fitted by myself. One specification was that it should be capable of being opened from below in the interests of safety. Metal signal ladders were at the same time, fitted to the 110ft entrance pitch. Initially, the lid was opened by using a hooked metal strip which was passed through a small hole to release a catch. It could thus be opened by anyone familiar with the mechanism. Subsequently, the decision was made that a Yale lock should be fitted so that only key holders could gain access. This was deemed necessary, as it was known that other clubs had by then learned the technique of opening the lid with an improvised hook. There were two custodians of Lancaster Hole at that time, Mr. Eli Simpson and myself. Our statutory role was to allow only B.S.A. members and guests to explore the system.

At this time, Cow Pot was found to communicate with Lancaster Hole. It was suggested in Cave Science No. 7, p.279, 1949, that this entrance was a dangerous temptation to would-be explorers, and in order to control access "this passage is now sealed with six feet of solid concrete". No one appears to have ever seen this concrete, and one can still gain access to the system via this route.

As it became more and more apparent that no real research was being carried out, I and some other members, concluded that the lid was serving purely to exclude other clubs. Several other clubs also shared this opinion, and felt understandingly bitter about being denied access. At one stage, to avert the threat of having the lid blown off with explosives, I allowed another club to explore the system. This represented a compromise between my extreme duties as a custodian, and going some way towards meeting the demands of other clubs, and I hoped, preventing damage to the entrance and thus access for irresponsible elements (which were about even at that time).

As all the above intrigue was taking part, the system was expanding underground and looking likely to go beyond the boundary of the B.S.A. Iease. At this juncture, the Yale lock was requested. Mr. Simpson and myself were to be the only key holders. When I was fitting the Yale lock, it occurred to me that it would not be impossible that eventually one man alone might control the access, and this could have hardly been desirable. I accordingly drilled out the centre of the lifting handles on the new lid and welded the hole over so that what appeared to be a solid bolt was, in fact, fairly easily knocked off with a hammer, thus allowing anyone familiar with the mechanism to feed through a hooked wire and slide back the concealed fastening mechanism. After this, identical threaded and bolted lifting handles could be easily refitted, and the outside observer would not know that anyone had descended. The Yale lock remained intact.

Shortly after this, I was requested to return my key, which would have put full control of access in the hands of the Recorder. This enabled us, i.e. myself, the late Dr. J Aspin, Wesley Oakes, Wilf Taylor, and other liberal minded B.S.A. members to secretly push the exploration and survey of the system beyond the bounds of the surface lease. It subsequently happened that we were found by conformist members of the B.S.A. emerging from the locked hole, none of us having a key. An explanation was requested

The Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club at this stage succeeded in opening Rosy Sink, and access to Ease Gill Caverns was again available. After all the past years of dispute, it was indeed poetic justice that the system was now available to other caving clubs. These developments did not, however, make the B.S.A. abandon their restrictive policy as there were talks of an underground grid being constructed. This never materialised, as finally good sense prevailed, but only after unofficial threats were made that any other entrances found would be filled in. Finally, County Pot was reopened by the Northern Pennine Club with Red Rose help.

Red Rose and NPC members outside County Pot about 1955. Photo: Ron Bliss

After this, the idea of restricted access fell to pieces, and Lancaster Hole was open to all. This was not wholly desirable as formations were found to be suffering, and inexperienced people were going down, so the top iron ladders were removed. Since then, no caving organisation has been denied access to this system, and further exploration has progressed peacefully with the Northern Pennine Club and the Red Rose prominent.

I feel that this saga played such a prominent part in the post-war caving scene, that it had to be recorded, and I endeavoured to do this in a factual and an objective manner. It has certainly never been my intention to discredit a wonderful old character. whom I count as a privilege to have known, or his colleagues in an Association which has done far more than most to advance the cause of speleology in very difficult days.

Exploration of Kath's Way Vol. 36 No. 3 Article 1

RRCPC 2002