Fairy Holes Conservation Trip by Ian Cummins

Fairy Holes Cave: Simon, Ian, Duncan and Andrew Hind (English Nature) (8th February 2014).  

As part of the plan to preserve both the cave and its access, I am working with English Nature to document both the history and features of the cave.  The aim of this trip was for Andrew from EN to collect and change data loggers, tape-off more sensitive areas and for me to take photographs of interesting features for documentation.

Such is the still sensitive nature of access that we had to be sure of avoiding any ‘weather-related incident’, in the light of the extreme amount of water that has been put down for the past few months.  However, getting into the cave with such wet conditions did allow us to determine the extent of any flood problems that might affect cavers.

Fairy Holes seems to polarise opinion, with many pronouncing it to be a grim, squalid place, whilst the other camp, including the author, relishing the dark qualities of Northern Dales and Wharfedale caving – in fact the more grim, the more the perverse pleasure!  So getting changed in a gale, blowing frigid air from the snow-covered high Pennines into your carcass made getting underground very welcome.  With frigid digits stuffed into my Dachsteins, we trotted off towards the impressive quarry face, with its array of strata demonstrating limestone, shale and sandstones in a multi-layered sandwich – surely worth investigating to construct an annotated image such as one sees at High Force, for example.

With the entrance pipe bearing both external and internal gates, it was fingers crossed that the locks would open after being cold and wet for months and Andrew had brought along the penetrating fluid to be sure.  The amount of water issuing from the gate was not too bad, but enough for the non-neoprene-clad Duncan to emit a few words of distress (but hey – you’re a diver!).  The external lock opened fine and I followed Simon into the rather aqueous pipe to get out of the wind, with my camera bag, woolly hat and gloves and other paraphernalia.  As feared, the lock wouldn’t budge and the air soon became as blue as our appendages.  After about 5 minutes of fiddling by Simon, I had a go, filling the mechanism with lubricant and turning the key as hard as I dared – no good.  Simon tried again and I tried again.  With a final fill of the barrel with lubricant by Simon, we exited to wait for some magic and a re-entering Simon thankfully got the thing open.  Duncan groaned about getting a further soaking and I quickly bolted in out of the chill to get some life into my numb digits (yep – forgot the neoprene gloves).  Finding that due to all the in-pipe faffing my hat, gloves and car key were all drenched, I was left behind to sort them out in the chamber behind the pipe.

One of the features of this initial section of passage is a narrow vadose trench in the floor – easy to see and avoid in low water, but in the murky, high level of the day, a total man-trap and combined with the booby traps lurking in the deep pools at the bends of the streamway, we all probably endured a number of trips and dunkings.  After catching and passing Andrew, I caught sight of Simon and Duncan as they exited ‘Vein Chamber’ by what I believed to be the wrong route!   So it proved and a circular route found me surprising Andrew in Vein Chamber, followed by my errant chums.

Andrew taped off the high level ‘Coral Gallery’ route to protect its features, both upstream and downstream, although some of this fossil material is present in the roof of the stream passage towards the entrance, being coated in the black mineral layer that makes up the formations that adorn the walls and floor of much of the cave.  The exit from Vein Chamber can be confusing in both directions, with one emerging in the floor after a slippery  climb up and the exit being at the far left as one looks upstream, below the taped-off high-level route.  Small reflectors at the top and bottom of the route show the way.

Almost immediately the only likely sumping area in all but the wettest of conditions was encountered (although one could escape via the High-Level route), requiring a duck through with only ones head out of the water.  Duncan grumbled, but stoically crawled through and the long plod towards ‘The Choir’ was made.  There are some stunning straight sections of passage here, with jagged, rippled walls, smooth floors and liberal amounts of chilly water.

With the extra effort required to wade through the prevailing deep water conditions and being mindful of Andrew waiting outside, we decided not to go to the sump.  The short, dry squeeze section was negotiated and the gloomy magnificence of ‘The Choir’ was attained.  Both this and ‘Sarcophagus Chamber’ have a fine, stark quality and after the numbing cold of the conditions both inside and out, conveyed a pleasant feeling of remoteness.  I was reminded of the pair of explorers who had attained the ‘Sarcophagus Chamber’ in previous years, who felt the need to turn off their lights, lie on its sandy floor and enjoy its calm tranquillity before continuing their journey.

Having a quick slurp of coffee – mud, no sugar Duncan – we made our way out, pausing only to pick up a few more 1950s Ever Ready discards and take some pics of some geological gems.  Emerging to find Duncan and Andrew to be nowhere in sight, Simon and I were engrossed in conversation and suddenly realised that we had taken a wrong turn on the ‘Quarry Motorway’, such is the vastness of this industrial wasteland, before being blown by the wind down to the cars.

After struggling to pull my wetsuit zip down with hands that had become useless claws, the satisfaction derived from the day’s efforts began to grow, becoming even more pronounced whilst ensconced in down sleeping bag, Guinness in hand in front of the telly!

Many thanks to Andrew, Simon and Duncan for making it a super day out in this fantastic natural phenomenon.