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Caving In The UK | A Guide To The Best Places In The British Isles For Underground Exploration

Here's what you need to know about some of the finest places to go caving in the UK

It might not be everyone’s idea of a fun activity, but caving in the UK is a surprisingly popular thing to do. Those that are into caving here will jump at the chance to tell you that the British Isles is home to an endlessly fascinating world of underground exploration, while those that aren’t into it will likely shudder at the more claustrophobic aspects of the pastime. Want to do some caving in the UK? Here, below, are some great places to do it. Worth saying, before we go any further, that by caving we also mean potholing and spelunking (people have different words for things, and that’s fine)

The Yorkshire Dales

Pictured: Gaping Gill, one of the most famous caves in Yorkshire. Credit: Getty Images

The Yorkshire Dales, land of – amongst other things – the Emmerdale theme tune, is home to some of the United Kingdom’s most incredible cave systems. Take the Three Counties System, for example. You can find it in the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s the longest cave system in the UK. Offering a mind-boggling 86.7 km (53.9 miles) of passageways for intrepid explorers to work their way through, it should be top of the to-visit list for all caving enthusiasts in this country. It brings together the Ease Gill system, the Notts Pot / Ireby Fell system, the Lost John’s system and the Pippikin Pot system. One of the most popular cave entrances in this part of the world is the 33m drop at Lancaster Hole . It’s for experienced cavers, and you’ll need a permit to access most areas, so be sure to keep this in mind when planning.

Yorkshire Dales Guides have a lot of experience when it comes to running safe caving trips in the Yorkshire Dales. With prices starting at around the £40 mark, their caving team will help you to build up confidence in the activity (especially if you’re a beginner, learning the ropes). What’s more, they’ll ensure you don’t get lost down there beneath the earth; something that will reassure your relatives while they go about their business on the ‘surface world’.

Gaping Gill is home to a 98-metre deep pothole. Credit: Getty Images

If caves in the UK were human celebrities, Gaping Gill in the Yorkshire Dales would be a-list material. It’s the largest underground cave chamber in Britain, and easily one of the most famous caves in the entire country. The main vertical shaft, from uppermost point to chamber floor, measures about 98 metres in terms of depth. A truly dramatic sight when witnessed from within, the massive cave really does need to be seen to be believed. A natural wonder big enough to house a cathedral inside it, with the help of the Bradford Pothole Club and Craven Pothole Club you can now follow the movements of Édouard-Alfred Martel (who made the first total descent of Gaping Gill way back in 1895). It’s only £15 for a descent here but dates are limited, so make sure you get this one in the diary early.

One of the very best things about caving is that it allows you to get up close with a lost world that only a very small percentage of people will ever see. Alum Pot, in Yorkshire, is the perfect example of this kind of thinking. It’s an 80 metre open shaft on the eastern flank of Simon Fell, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but it’s unique nature means that entering it feels like you’re transporting yourself onto another planet entirely. To explore it, speak with the caving experts at Lost Earth Adventures. They’re incredibly knowledgeable, and are well placed to take you on the kind of journey you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. When the sunlight cuts into the cavern, there’s no better place to be than The Bridge. It’s Alum Pot’s headline act, and a guaranteed like-generator on social media (if you care about that sort of thing).

South Wales

Chartist Cave is a culturally significant cave in southern Powys. Credit: Getty Images

Caving enthusiasts in the UK, especially those with a bit of cave-exploring experience under their belts, should get themselves to South Wales. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, informally known as OFD, can be found under a hillside close to Penwyllt in the Upper Swansea Valley. Its name means ‘Cave of the Black Spring’ and, as its slightly ominous name suggests, it’s certainly not one for the fainthearted. The cave system was discovered in 1946, and is 30 miles in length. The difference in level between its highest and lowest points is 308 metres, which is a record for the United Kingdom. Navigating the cave is notorious for its challenging nature and, because of this, access to it is for experienced cavers only. Because of water within the system, some sections even require you to hold your breath.

If, after reading the above, you’re still dead set on exploring the Cave of the Black Spring you’ll need to go through the official caving club channels. Due to its status as a site of scientific interest, you’ll need to contact the OFD Cave Management Committee to acquire the appropriate permits. Alternatively, contact South Wales Caving for further information about access. As mentioned above, this cave is for experienced cavers only so if you’re new to the activity you shouldn’t be thinking about Ogof Ffynnon Ddu at this point in your caving skills development. Walk before you can run, and all that.

We couldn’t discuss caving in South Wales without shining a big old head torch in the direction of Ogof Draenen (aka ‘Hawthorn Cave’). Measuring, at the time of writing 66 km in length (some experts have estimated the measurement to be over 70 km), Ogof Draenen is officially the longest cave system in Wales and the second longest in Great Britain behind the Three Counties System of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It is, put bluntly, an absolute beast of a cave that only experienced cavers, who are part of established caving clubs, should think about taking on. Exploration is restricted to caving clubs only, with more information available via the Pwll Du Cave Management Group website. Contact the Permit Secretary if you’re unsure of anything, or have any questions around access.

South Wales is home to some of Europe’s best limestone caving. Credit: Adventure Britain

Porth yr Ogof can be found near the village of Ystradfellte, close to the southern boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It has the largest cave entrance in Wales (17 metres wide, five metres tall), and offers route options for cavers of all abilities and experience levels. With the help of a guide, the easiest sections, and route, can be comfortably navigated by someone who’s new to caving. At the more difficult end of the caving spectrum, experienced cavers can tackle tight crawls and sumps (and get fully stuck into exploring the maze of passageways on offer here).

Adventure Britain are masters at putting on a good adventure experiences in the UK, and their caving sessions at Porth yr Ogof in South Wales are no exception. This part of Wales is home to some of the best limestone caving in Northern Europe, and the Adventure Britain guides will help you to make the most of this. From running stag and hen dos to guiding friends and families, the Adventure Britain team have plenty of experience with various ages, skill levels, and group types.

Entrance to Chartist Cave, with its plaque on the left. Credit: Getty Images

Caves, by their very nature, have history coursing through them. One cave on Mynydd Llangynidr in southern Powys, Wales, however has a particularly interesting and unique backstory. Also known as Ogof Fawr, which means the ‘Big Cave’ in Welsh, and Tylles Fawr (the ‘Great Hole’) before that, Chartist Cave’s more commonly used modern name stems from the year 1839 when Chartist rebels stockpiled weapons in the cavern in advance of their march on Newport. The Newport Rising was the last large-scale armed protest witnessed in Great Britain. It focused on democracy and voting rights, and was ultimately defeated. At the entrance of Chartist Cave, visitors will see a plaque commemorating the actions taken by the Chartists.

In 1969 and 1970, actions taken by the Severn Valley Caving Club resulted in the discovery of a passage in Chartist Cave that dropped down to a lower chamber that had numerous passages leading off from it. Animal and human bones, thought to be between fifty and one hundred years old, were discovered in the cave. The known length of the cave is 440 metres but it is, in fact, thought to be part of a much a much more extensive cave system under the moors. Seek it out (it’s not an easy cave to find), and soak up a significant piece of history in South Wales.

Somerset

Tourist attraction Wookey Hole has some dramatic lighting. Credit: Getty Images

Home to the cave-based tourist attraction Wookey Hole, and so much more cave-flavoured goodness, Somerset really does have a lot to offer people searching for memorable caving experiences in the UK. Underneath the Mendip Hills lies Britain’s largest underground river system, and a truly mind-blowing network of caves that are just waiting for intrepid adventurers (like you, reading this now) to explore them. Swildon’s Hole, in particular, is something special. In 1934, it was the scene of the UK’s first cave diving attempt and is, at 9,144 metres in length, the longest cave in the Mendip Hills.

Whatever your level, there’s a caving route to suit you here at Swildon’s Hole. Rookies and the generally inexperienced will start in the upper passages before eventually moving on to tackle tight squeezes, climbing sections, and underwater parts. For guided trips at Swildon’s Hole, we’d recommend booking yourself onto a tour with Adventure Caving. They’ll help you to make the most of your time down in this incredible underground world. Prices vary depending on group size.

Gough’s Cave is home to some interesting rock formations. Credit: Getty Images

Some other caving spots that should definitely be on your radar while in Somerset are Goatchurch Cavern, near Cheddar, and Pridhamsleigh Cavern, near Ashburton (on the edge of Dartmoor). Cave folk will tell you that Goatchurch is a dry cave that offers just the right level of adventure for beginners, with Pridhamsleigh being a more muddy offering; one that ultimately rewards cavers with some epic passages and even an underground lake. Contact Somerset Adventures for more information about tours of Goatchurch and Pridhamsleigh. Their instructors know this area like the back of their hands, and will deliver expert caving leadership to you and your crew.

Another popular caving tourist attraction in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, is Gough’s Cave. The cave is 115 metres deep and 3,405 metres long. Interesting rock formations and some visually captivating rock chambers that will make your inner geologist sit up and take notice, yes it’s all happening here. Cave enthusiasts at a loose end in Somerset should get this place on their one-to-visit list, for sure.

Peak District

Go caving with your crew in the Peak District. Credit: Dolomite Training

No guide to caving in the UK would be complete without a discussion of the Peak District, and the caves found within its boundaries. Taking this point even further, no discussion of caving in the Peak District would be worth much if it didn’t, at some point, focus in on Giant’s Hole near Castleton in Derbyshire. It’s the most well-known cave in the area, and has something for all ability levels. From easily navigated sections, that most novices should be able to handle comfortably, to some more technical caving segments, it’s a must for anyone looking to explore the Peak District’s underside.

The expert activity coordinators at Dolomite Training, by the way, are good people to speak to if you’re serious about booking yourself on a caving course in this part of the UK. Re: Giant’s Hole specifically, the waterfall and surrounding chamber of Garland’s Pot might just fully take your breath away. It’s extremely impressive.

Whatever your level, there’s a caving experience for you in the Peak District. Credit: Dolomite Training

Other caves in the Peak District that are well worth journeying to, and making the time to explore, include Carlswark Cavern and Bagshawe Cavern. Carlswark has a lot about it that cavers will love, including lovely winding tunnels and passageways that snake through the limestone rock like ancient serpents. Its standout moment though is surely the Oyster Chamber, which holds a number of large brachiopod marine shell fossils. Explorers of this particular cavern can, if they’d like, also start their adventure with an abseil from the surface. Give it the full ‘Indiana Jones’ treatment.

Bagshawe Cavern, meanwhile, has some magnificent calcite formations and some wonderfully named features including ‘Elephant’s Throat’, ‘Chandler’s Shop’, ‘Mouse Hole’ and ‘The Masher’. If reading this has got you in the mood, but you don’t know how to approach a trip like this, you’ll be glad to know the good people at Lost Earth Adventures run a number of caving courses and potholing experience days in the Peak District. They’re a well reviewed bunch and come highly recommended.

Inner Hebrides

Fingal’s Cave is a famous sea cave. Credit: Getty Images

Now, for something a bit different. Fingal’s Cave is a sea cave on the remote Scottish island of Staffa. It consists entirely of naturally-formed hexagonal basalt columns, and is one of those ‘Pinch me, I can’t quite believe this exists in the real world’ type geological phenomenons. Structured in a very similar manner to Giant’s Causeway, in Northern Ireland, Fingal’s Cave has incredible acoustic qualities and even shares it names with an early-era Pink Floyd song. To experience it firsthand, your best bet is to get yourself on a trip with Staffa Tours. This will give you ample opportunity to see the cave from the water and also, if conditions suit, give you a chance to get inside the cave and explore it on foot.

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