28-09-2018 / 12:15

Going underground in the lake district

Words: Vivienne Crow
Photography: Jack Anstey

"I wouldn't fancy living up here for months on end." Sam Sykes, of the Mammut Mountain School is looking at the cold, damp, draughty cave where the self-styled Professor of Adventure, Millican Dalton once lived. Having abandoned a comfortable job in London and desperate to get back to nature, the former insurance clerk lived here in the Lake District woods on and off from the early 1920s until the mid-1940s. Although he tried to be as self-sufficient as possible, growing vegetables on the terrace outside his cave, he also earned a bit of money by offering holidays to would-be adventures.

Discovering caverns and caves in the Lake District

We're on our own mini-adventure today: Sam is taking me to some of the caves and caverns left behind by the slate quarrying industry. From the valley bottom, it's taken us about 30 minutes to clamber up to Dalton's home, hewn by quarrymen from the rocks of Castle Crag in Borrowdale. Setting out early from Rosthwaite in Borrowdale, we'd had the atmospheric woods fringing the River Derwent to ourselves  – almost… A solitary roe deer hind had lolloped off through the trees as we approached, it's graceful movements barely disturbing the leaves on the ground. A popular path circuits the base of Castle Crag, but we'd been keeping our eyes peeled for a less well-used trail heading up into the disused quarry workings. After one false start, we found what we were looking for...

The metallic clattering of slate under our boots breaks the silence of the dawn woods as we negotiate the waste from the quarries, heading steeply uphill. “Is this it?” I call to Sam as we reach an opening in the hillside. He doesn’t hear me. “I hope not,” I mutter to myself, looking at the water pouring from the roof of the shallow cave, filling the small pools on the uneven floor. It doesn’t look like the sort of place anyone would want to spend even a single night, let alone several months.

We continue uphill and quickly reach Dalton’s former summer abode. Entering via his living area, we find ourselves in a substantial cavern that goes some way back into the ground – far from cosy, but drier and less exposed than the cave we’ve just seen. I can imagine Dalton sitting in this hole, warming his hands by a campfire while the wind howled outside. We negotiate a pile of slate to reach a smaller, slightly higher part of the cave. Dalton dubbed this ‘The Attic’ and turned it into a bedroom.

It's such an appealing, romantic notion – the idea of abandoning the stresses of modern life and going back to a simpler, more basic way of living – but Sam is obviously seeing Dalton's undoubtedly uncomfortable existence through more practical eyes. And I have to agree – a few nights of wild camping with mobile phones switched off is a superb antidote to 21st-century life, but I’m way too fond of my creature comforts to give them up permanently. Heading back out into the daylight, we stand on what was probably the troglodyte’s old potato patch and watch the sun appearing from behind the hills opposite. Apart from a few long-tailed tits chirping as they flit from tree to tree, the woods are silent. Maybe living in the wild wouldn't be so bad after all?

A detour to the famous Rydal Caves

On the drive to our next destination – the quarries of Little Langdale – we make a quick detour to the famous Rydal Caves. As they're located next to a busy path high above Rydal Water, I’m not surprised to find a queue of people waiting to negotiate the stepping stones that cross the pool at the mouth of the main, most easily accessible cave. Making my own wobbly way into the cavern, I stop and peer into the dark water to see if I can spot the fish that a group of school children reputedly deposited here years ago. No sign of them today.

The Rydal Caves are often mistaken for natural features, but, like many of the holes in the ground found throughout Cumbria, they’re man-made – a result of mining and quarrying operations. Ian Tyler, the area’s foremost mines expert, reckons the industry has left the county riddled with 5,000 holes. More, even, than Lennon and McCartney claim for Blackburn, Lancashire. For centuries, slate, copper, lead, even small amounts of gold and silver were ripped from the fellsides. Almost all of them are abandoned now.

A torchlight tour of Little Langdale quarries

The Little Langdale quarries are more obviously man-made – the woodland surrounding the site is littered with piles of slate and small quarry buildings. We enter via an unlit tunnel. “Mind your head!” Sam shouts as I don my head torch and duck into the dark, low-roofed passageway. It’s only a few hundred metres long, but it’s eerie and slightly unnerving. I remember being warned never to enter mine tunnels because they’re ‘under-stoped’ which basically means that, as well as the horizontal passages, there would’ve been workings going down into the vein vertically. And, with rock constantly on the move, you never know when you might plummet through the floor.

The dangers associated with quarries are different, but I’m still spooked, especially when I hear a low, deep rumbling noise. I stop. What is it? The noise stops. I carry on and the noise starts again. Slowly, the ‘rumbling’ starts to sound more like voices and I see a beam of torchlight coming towards me. Just a couple of fellow explorers.

"All I can manage to do is stand, open-mouthed, as I perform a few 360-degree turns..."

Emerging into the daylight, we find ourselves surrounded by high, dark walls of slate. Sam points out some of the bolted climbing routes. He also points out a disconcerting crack in the rock, where tonnes of slate could come crashing down at any moment. We wander to the edge of a precipice to peer down into the site’s most famous feature – Cathredal Cave a massive chamber used as a location for the 2012 Kristen Stewart film Snow White and the Huntsman. Coming away from the vertiginous edge, we find another way into the cave, scrambling down some wet slate. Having only short legs, I have to bum slither down the rock, sitting in a pool of water on the way. I’ll regret that later.

The roof of the cavern is about 12 metres high and there’s a massive column of rock in the middle of it. It’s the sort of place that really stops you in your tracks – an ideal, almost magical location for a dark, 21st-century fairytale. Even though I’ve been here before, all I can manage to do is stand, open-mouthed, as I perform a few 360-degree turns, gazing up at the smooth walls and the jagged ceiling, trying to take it all in. But Sam has one last treat in store – and this one’s bigger and better than anything we’ve seen before…

Hodge Close Quarry

About a kilometre south of the Little Langdale quarries is Hodge Close, where slate was extracted from the early nineteenth century until the 1960s. We peer down into a huge pit with a turquoise pool in the bottom of it. I normally enjoy standing on cliff-tops looking down, but the sight of a group of young children standing way too close to the edge on the other side makes me nervous. I feel a shiver of fear. “That’s where my dad used to take me abseiling when I was a kid,” says Sam, pointing to a wall of rock that plunges almost 50 metres into the abyss. “Do you fancy going down there?” There’s another shiver, but then I realise he’s not suggesting we abseil…

Scuba divers normally access the 45-metre deep pool via a tunnel and a ladder, but the tunnel is knee-deep in cold water today, so we take a slightly more comfortable route into the pit. Clambering down a steep, stony trail, we enter an adjoining quarry. There’s no doubting the industrial heritage of this site – lumps of mangled metal lie scattered about and a massive, python-like cable lurks menacingly among the fallen boulders. After carefully passing through this first pit, we’re able to look through two enormous holes in the slate wall – straight into the flooded cavern we’d stood gazing down on earlier. It’s like being inside the skeleton of a long-dead dinosaur and peering out through its empty eye-sockets.

Two divers on the other side of the pool are preparing to enter the water. There are more chambers and tunnels hidden in those icy depths – a murky underwater world where several people have lost their lives over the years. I shiver again. I feel we’ve had an adventure today but, really, we’ve just scratched the surface; for those two divers taking their first tentative steps into the water, the adventure is only just beginning…