Nenthead, Caplecleugh to Brownley Hill: Ian and Leif (11 July and 1 August 2014).
Continuing my growing fascination with the Nenthead mine system, Leif and I have been learning sections of this complex maze in order to complete some of the longer through trips, the biggest of which is the Greater Nenthead Traverse from Caplecleugh to Nentsberry Haggs – a near round-trip of about 6 miles. The more time I spend here, the more I respect the ingenuity and sheer hard graft of the miners. Thankfully a bunch of enthusiasts work to keep the place documented and open, with particularly good reference sources at http://www.mineexplorer.org.uk .
Caplecleugh entrance is handily placed 20 m from the car park, always emitting a constant stream of clear water (probably full of lots of heavy metals) into the beck below. I’d previously had a wander into here a couple of years back in dry gear, but wetsuits are a must for a trip into the nether regions of the mine, so on a beautiful Friday afternoon of glorious sunshine we pulled on our neoprene – shorty plus wetsuit for me – and headed in, with the aim of learning the route into Smallcleugh.
Whilst being escapable from the Smallcleugh, Rampgill and Brownley Hill Adits, route-finding on the traverse is complex, pitches must be rigged and descended, old ladders must be climbed and deep water negotiated, with no guarantee that the route has not been blocked by falls – so this is not a trivial undertaking, with the ever-present danger of loose rock. Surveys and a compass are essential, or you will get lost.
We had learnt much of the back end of Smallcleugh in trips to Baron’s Sump and the surrounding passages, but the deep water of Caplecleugh sounded to be right up my street – and so it proved – very chilly though, with a few low airspace sections and some nasty falls to be negotiated, before a grim-looking flooded sump on the left that I recognised from Mike Hrybyk’s trip report, led to some respite in the form of bigger passage, with the sound of falling water ahead indicating the way up to Smallcleugh. This is a super sight, with the old wooden ladders calcited by the cascading water, some so mineralised that the footholds are almost filled. The ladders are reinforced by knotted ropes plus some sections of modern material and after 100 feet or so one arrives in a spacious sub-level below Smallcleugh. Left and left again leads up a rubbly slope into Smallcleugh proper – at Cow Hill Cross Vein and the impressive ‘cave-like passage’ that we had explored at New Year. Knowing the route out from here, we exited via Smallcleugh Horse Level and its now familiar dug-out collapses – not much more than 30 minutes from here to the surface if one gets a shift on.
If one is continuing on the traverse, a descent of Proud’s Sump, close to Smallcleugh Adit is required. This is often left rigged as it offers a route into the extensive workings of Proud’s Flat, as well as being the route to Rampgill, Scaleburn and beyond.
We exited the Smallcleugh Adit, but having plenty of time decided to explore a bit of Rampgill – again only a few feet from the car and with a bit of nosing around found the bottom end of Proud’s Sump after climbing up some tatty old bits of ladder. Satisfied with the day’s efforts we exited to get changed and head for the Miner’s Arms. After suffering the indignity of being attacked by a horsefly whilst halfway out of my wetsuit, arms trapped behind my back, we enjoyed the beautiful evening sunshine in front of the pub.
Three weeks later to the day and we were aiming to complete the full traverse, although warnings of a recent unstable fall near the Brownley Hill Adit complicated matters, since an impasse here would necessitate a return through the most difficult, wet part of the trip and an ascent of the 40m pitch from Scaleburn, so we decided to start the trip from Smallcleugh to save time in case of any problem, aiming to learn more of the system.
I’d made a solo trip in the previous evening to leave ropes in Proud’s Sump and also rig it for the option of the trip from Caplecleugh. Now I’ve done a lot of solo caving and diving and never feel any anxiety underground, but don’t mind admitting that even the short trip in to the mid-way ledge of Proud’s was a bit eerie. I don’t believe in ghosts, but there’s a definite feeling of many having been here before in such places. Finding the pitch to be still rigged with nice new 10 mm Mammut, I left my ropes in an alcove at mid-height and headed out as the sun was setting.
Next day saw a late start due to having my sore elbow looked at and with the uncertainty of the exit, we decided to start at Proud’s Sump, collecting my ropes on the way down and signing in the visitors’ notepad to continue on our journey. We were soon romping along Scaleburn and neglected to look at the survey at a crucial junction, missing the correct left turn and instead continuing on through some awful loose crawls to a dead end. One bonus of doing this awful passage was a fine carved set of dated initials from the 19th century in the wall that Leif photographed – and also, incongruously, an old Tennents lager can. A consultation of the survey and compass showed the error and we retraced our steps to the junction, soon arriving at a slippery slope above a drop. Leif spotted a big metal spike in the roof and a large bolt driven into the shale that comprises the walls here. The rope doesn’t hang free for all of the pitch, but the top slope is the greasy shale muck one finds in a lot of the mine, that although clogging and sticky, is not particularly abrasive, so I felt it would be fine to ascend this short pitch to retrieve the tackle, and rigged it with 20 m of rope with some to spare. A short stooping wet section brought us to a bar across and bolt above a window on the right, with a few metres of further crawling leading to the 40 m drop into Brownley Hill – spectacular stuff. I was excited to be here, knowing the long wet sections lay below and rigged a free-hang from the 2 bolts in case of a return being necessary.
Once at the base of the pitch, one is in thigh-deep water with 3 routes heading off. Whilst scoffing my mini pork pie for sustenance in the coming wet struggle, we checked the survey and compass and took the passage to our right. Mine Explorer’s Mike Hrybyk calls this ‘the deepest, coldest water in Nenthead’ – I agree it’s the deepest I’ve encountered and lovely and clear, showing a quartz vein in the floor, but I was definitely colder in Caplecleugh – Leif disagreed with me about the temperature though.
Enjoying the progress through the well-calcited passage, with my Daren drum keeping the bag nicely buoyant and Leif taking a few images with his new waterproof camera, the airspace suddenly diminished to helmet-off and 1 ear in the water for a couple of sections before opening out into an impressive cave-like section with a shale bank to sit on. Worryingly, despite the recent dry spell the water levels were high and I have the feeling this passage must regularly sump.
The passage then changed into clean and solid dark rock, dare I say rock-solid for a change, with plenty of airspace, although a slight sulphurous smell was apparent until we reached a drafting wet rise on the right, where after the air was fresh again.
We soon reached a landmark in the form of an arched junction at Gudhamgill Mine, making the mistake of going under this – ending in a dead end – finding the way on to be to the right. The going became wet and quite sticky, but fairly easy until a low section was encountered with some shuttering. It turned out that this was the recent fall, although I didn’t realise it at the time and we passed it without incident to emerge in a section of large passages with a junction and the water spewing down an ochrous deep sump.
Following the most obvious passage from here without consulting the survey, we soon saw light ahead and exited what turned out to be Brownley Hill Adit, making the pleasant trip along the riverbank through the village to the car park, deciding to leave the Nentsberry Haggs section for another day.
Leaving most of the kit at the car, we raced back through Rampgill to Scaleburn to recover the ropes, exiting after about 40 minutes to endure the clouds of midges and relax in the pub.
It’s a nice feeling to have learned so much of the system, being able to look forward to completing the full trip and having also done both Langstroth pull-through and Titan in the past few weeks, I can honestly say I enjoyed the Nenthead trips the most.