Watch Hill Cave, High Cup Nick by Steve Warren

NGR NY 751 263 Alt 585m Length c30m

“Are we going to look ‘for something’ or are we going to look ‘at something’ ” I enquired as we parted from the walkers’ route, and turned off onto the open fell.

“We’re going to look ‘at something” replied Patrick, “and I think you’ll like it.”

I had to admit it was an interesting area, on good solid limestone with lots of shake-holes, one or two taking a stream running off the overlying sandstones and shales. However we were far from traditional caving country, far from any sort of civilisation, in fact. Some would call it ‘rat-run’ country: others, Peter Ryder, esteemed ‘connoisseur of the small cave’, for one, and with whom Patrick had already consulted, as well as Patrick and myself, would call it ‘paradise’.

We were high up in the Northern Pennines, at almost 2000 feet (585m) almost as high as it is possible to be and still tread limestone. But this was the Tynebottom Limestone, only some 8m thick hereabouts and better known for occasional lead mine workings, all long since abandoned. However, some 5km to the north and at 2500 feet (762m) lies the 5km maze system of the Knock Fell Caverns, in the Great Limestone of the Namurian and explored by the late Roger Sutcliffe and his colleagues of the Gritstone Club. A little further would bring one to the Silverband Mine where another extensive maze of natural caverns has been explored. 11km to the south-east, several hundred metres of natural caverns at Lunehead Mines have been explored. 160m below our feet lay the Robinson and Melmerby Scar Limestones, the northerly equivalent of our cherished Great Scar Limestone. In those limestones, and less than 5km to the south, is Ciss Gill, Swindale, a tributary to Scordale, where a stream sink is assumed to resurge at Amber Hill, 2km to the north-east. In some remote epoch, a generation ago, or two nearly, long before Patrick’s time anyway, our band of diggers had come to Scordale in the search for new caves.

Maize Gill 1
Maize Gill 1. Photo Steve Warren

My first visit to nearby Scordale had been in 1954, with a new-found pal, Brin Powell, after we had met whilst pottering around Gaping Gill, but that’s quite another story. I had returned to Scordale many times and tramped the fells round about but, curiously, I had taken little notice of the higher limestones, at least not until many years had passed by. But here I was back in the High Pennines, with Patrick and Jo, and looking for the cave entrance they had found a few months earlier. We had walked up the tourist route, the Pennine Way, from Dufton, to High Cup Nick, in hot sunshine and we were far from being alone. Numerous others, day hikers, and Pennine Way Walkers followed the same route. Some would sit in the sun and admire the magnificent spectacle of the Whinsill outcropping around the head of High Cup Gill. Others would follow the trek over to High Force or Langdon Beck in Teesdale, a walk of three or four hours in good conditions. But we weren’t here to look at the sights, we had a cave to find, possibly more than one. So, after a short break we were on our feet again, leaving the tourists behind, running excitedly from shake-hole to shake-hole just as we had always done.

I didn’t take long for Patrick to find the right spot, an elongated shake-hole amongst many on a limestone platform on the northern rim of Murton Fell, 250m to the south of a limestone mound marked on the map as Watch Hill (see sketch map). At the north end of the shake I was shown a rift some 3m deep carrying a small stream which disappeared into an open cave entrance. I then found that I had been labouring under the delusion that my rucksack was quite bulky, containing an oversuit, an old woolly jumper, helmet and lamp, plus a few rations, adequate for anything we might find up here. Patrick’s bag was emptied to reveal complete caving gear including wellies and knee pads, his inevitable ‘stinkie’, as well as hammer, bar and chisel and a few other items that might come in handy. Soon we were we were clutched in the embrace of a narrow jagged rift passage but very quickly, after no more than 10m, a step down to a small pool was followed by a sump where the stream disappeared. A low squeeze to the left led to a continuation for another 7m or so to a definite termination where the passage changed form to a bedding cutting through a shale bed some 10 or 12cm high.

Watch Hill Cave

Within twenty minutes we were back out in the sunshine when Patrick had to agree that we could hardly lay claim to more than about 17m of new cave. “What about upstream, at the other end of the shake?”, I enquired. “Oh! I’ve done that” was the reply. “Better have a look anyway”. This end was somewhat smaller, a crawl along the bottom of a narrow rift, with several right angle bends. Persevering to the bitter end took us through several squeezes, for myself anyway, to a junction where the stream emerged from a very low sump opposite a sandy recess. On the way out I took note of the sections and their direction and concocted the attached sketch survey. A couple of pictures were taken inside the cave using my new toy, a digital camera, the chief advantage being that it had a built in flash. On the surface some slide photographs were taken too.

On the way across the fell towards Watch Hill we were able to fix the position of the entrance with reference to a path-side cairn, the entrance is on a bearing of 185 degrees from the cairn. We then discovered a strong but impenetrable spring on the east side of Watch Hill which we concluded was the resurgence for majority of the streams and sinks along the limestone terrace.

Maize Gill 2
Maize Gill 2. Photo Steve Warren

Following upstream the west bank of Maize Beck, a quiet rippling brook today, Patrick took us to the next locality at Maize Beck Scar, a remarkable and quite unexpected limestone gorge. This was something I had never seen as it is some distance from the direct route over the fell to Teesdale. In wet conditions, the recommended Pennine Way route now is via a footbridge at the head of the gorge, a relatively recent innovation. Even at this altitude, Maize Beck is a good sized stream. In flood it soon becomes a raging torrent and an insurmountable obstacle, which used to be avoided by keeping to the south bank, which gave rise to further obstacles to the east. Now, we were able to follow the beck bottom, taking care not to slither into one of the many deep pools, along beautifully sculpted black limestone, highly polished to a marble finish, not unlike the well-known Dent Marble. Several small caves are recorded in the west bank as Maize Beck Caves. One of these is a classic illustration of a stream cutting down through limestone to the underlying shale band and resurging in the side of the gorge.

We dallied awhile over lunch, lounging by the beck, in the sunshine, before setting off again to examine the limestone terrace ranging from the west side of the gorge along the north side of side of High Cup Nick. Several small holes caught our attention. In one in particular, we were able to dig down about three metres to an impenetrable crevice. On a beautiful late spring afternoon, we were now one our own apart from a pair of mountain-bikers on the far side of the valley. Progressing further along the terrace and venturing a little away from the track we spotted a good sized stream tumbling down the cliff and found it to be rising from the base of the limestone. It was quite impenetrable, as were a number of other nearby strong springs, one of which is shown on the map as Hannah’s Well. Eventually we ran out of limestone and made our way back to camp at the Slip Inn, South Stainmore.

 

The objective for the following day was Mickle Fell, at one time the highest point in Yorkshire and one of the least climbed hills of the Pennines. It lies within the boundaries of Warcop MOD Training Area which is only open for access to the public on a restricted basis. There is no public right of way onto the Fell but we chose to follow the Close House Mine track from the Brough to Middleton-in-Teesdale road B6276. After about 2km the route diverges to a farm-and-shooting access which leads almost all the way to the top of Mickle Fell. The alternative of crossing the bogs and peat haggs of the open moor is too dreadful to contemplate. We were soon informed of our rights, or rather their non-existence, by a young woman driving a tractor.

“You are welcome to use our road, as long as you eat our beef and wear our wool” she said, I don’t think. “There’s no public right of way along here. Yet!” was what she actually said. However we were allowed to proceed.

Arn Gill 3
Patrick Warren in Arn Gill. Photo by Steve Warren

The huge plateau of Mickle Fell, 2.5km from trig point to summit cairn, lies almost entirely on the Great Limestone in which numerous shake-holes beg attention, and bearing in mind the existence of Knock Fell Caverns in the same limestone sequence, perhaps worth a closer look. We saw nothing of great significance but on leaving the summit we deviated somewhat illicitly from our upward route by cutting across to Arngill Beck which would take us down by the still active open-cast workings of Close House Mine. In the east bank of Arngill Beck at NGR846237, upstream of the waterfalls shown on the Teesdale Outdoor Leisure Map 31, we discovered a powerful resurgence, naming it Arngill Beck Cave Number 1. Along with several other nearby risings we thought the area would amply reward a return visit with digging gear.

Access arrangements for the public footpaths through the MOD Range can be ascertained from notice boards in the villages surrounding the area although it may be advisable to check beforehand with the Warcop Range Officer on 017 683 41661. For general enquiries try 01748 875044. The moors around Arngill Beck are grouse moors and apart from avoiding the obvious grouse-rearing and shooting seasons it would be advisable to enquire locally about access.