Gaping Gill Main Chamber, photographed by Ian Metcalfe, 1968. Figure looking up the main shaft is Brian Stott.
I joined the Craven Pothole Club (CPC) in 1965 as a young lad of 16 tender years. I was an amateur geologist at this time and it was a family friend, Rhodes Thompson, that first introduced me to geology, rambling and then the CPC. Rhodes had been a CPC member for many years and one of the early members of the club joining in 1930, the second year of the clubŐs history. I eagerly joined the club for two reasons, firstly I had great interest in caves and potholes and the desire to investigate the underground, and secondly, the lure of the CPC Club Bus, which passed through my village of Gargrave every Sunday en route to various meet locations in the dales giving the opportunity for days out rambling and fossil collecting.
The Club Bus, 1965, taken in Kingsdale by Roy Taylor. Yours truly is second from the left in the front row and to the right are Rhodes Thompson and Jack Clarke my old fossiling mates.
My introduction to potholing, as a prospective CPC member, was a five hour long trip down Gaping Gill with Fred and Tom the famous Austin twins. I immediately fell in love with GG and between 1965 and when I left the U.K. to take up a Lectureship at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1977, I was a regular attendee at the annual Gaping Gill winch meet and camp.
Rhodes Thompson, photographed in the mid 1960Ős
Alas, after migrating to Malaysia and then on to my new adopted country Australia, I had virtually no opportunity to attend CPC or GG meets due to the tyranny of distance and my return visits to Yorkshire did not coincide with the GG meet dates. Opportunity knocked however in 1998 when a research trip to Malaysia and the U.K. was scheduled for August/September and plans for a pilgrimage to GG were set in place. Additional impetus for this nostalgic return to GG was given by my long standing friend from University of Durham days, Steve Kirk. Steve had just moved up to live in Poole near Otley from Cambridge, and being a mad climber and caver, he had just joined the CPC and completed his five prospective member trips! A rendezvous was set at GG for Tuesday 25 August, 1998.
GG 32 Years Back
The mid to late 1960Ős were exciting days for Gaping Gill enthusiasts. Discovery of the Far Country was made and the search for the connection between Gaping Gill and Ingleborough cave was in full swing. The late Monty Grainger (pictured below) was GG meet Leader for 1965 and together with Roy Taylor (Sec.) and other members of the Peveril Underground Survey Association compiled the first comprehensive survey of the GG system in the mid 1960Ős. Regular visitors to the GG meet also included Edgar Smith, who was our driver for the brightly orange-coloured, Gargrave-based Pennine bus that took us to our regular CPC meets. The 40 year long club bus tradition ended at the annual meeting of the club in 1969 when a vote decided to discontinue its use (I voted to retain the bus by the way).
Left to right are Monty Grainger, Mike Greenway and Edgar Smith at Gaping Gill, 1969.
Other regular attendees at GG meets in those days included Fred and Tom Austin, Steve Warren, Mike Greenway, Alan Nixon, Roy Taylor, Randy Coe, John Mason, Pete Rose, Dennis Brindle, John Batty, Don Mellor, Arthur Smith, Sydney Waterfall, Alan Wallbank, Mike Walker, Pete Collen, Neill Platts, John Whalley, Stephen Craven, Alec Bottomley, Andrew Colau, Stephen Wood, Fred ("Poet Laureate") Pickles, John Allonby, John Batty, Mike Scratcher, Brian Varley and Brian Stott. Apologies to those whose names have faded with the passage of time.
A lasting recollection for all GG meet participants is the weather! Perhaps the wettest GG meets I recall were in 1965 and particularly 1966 when Fell Beck flooded, overflowed the dam (see below) and washed my tent away!
Fell Beck in flood, 1966.
The winch machine used in the 60Ős to lower and raise the bosunŐs chair up/down the main shaft was a far cry from the modern 1998/99 equipment I saw recently.
The old system used a braked gravity fall decent and a petrol engine driven ascent by flywheel and pulley. The "clutch" was a large belt system which was moved from an idle wheel to the drive wheel by a handle. Safety against freefall following belt breakage or brake failure on the cable drum brakes was a double ratchet system. Anyone who has been to a GG meet in those days will recall the invasive sound of the ratchet that disturbed the otherwise tranquility of the place. The old petrol engine, painstakingly maintained by Steve Warren, was always a problem to start and had the characteristic of often "dying" during the drive on an ascent! Those regular drivers of the winch, myself included, soon found out that a quick blow down the petrol tank spout would fix the problem!
The winch assembly, 1969. Ian Metcalfe in the driverŐs seat and Sid Perou filming the winch for his "Lost River of Gaping Gill" film.
The old petrol engine was ceremoniously disassembled at the end of the 1969 meet to be replaced by a new diesel engine. Nowadays, cavers and visitors are driven down and up the main shaft with a sophisticated double cable and hydraulic system. I remember one year (1967 I think) taking on the responsibility for camping at GG during the week between the tackling weekend and start of the meet and looking after the tackle and equipment.
Winch assembly following the savage dismantling of the old petrol engine, 1969.
It was quite an experience camping alone on the moor and watching an owl silently hunt on the flanks of Ingleborough at dusk! Tackle also had to be washed and the picture below was taken with the self timer on my old Exacta camera!
Ian Metcalfe at GG, 1967 about to wash some tackle.
Examination of the gantry on my recent visits to GG revealed relatively little change apart from a much safer trapdoor mechanism now replacing the rather hairy plank of years gone by! The ride down the main shaft always required the passenger to foot off the wall for about the first ten metres but that is also now unnecessary following more precise guideline and gantry positioning.
The Gantry and the dreaded plank, 1967, Edgar Smith in the chair, Stephen Wood standing.
Another improvement I noticed was the use of dog tags for those going underground. This is in addition to the traditional log book and I am sure there have been fewer cases of rescue operations being mounted for potholers that were in fact back home with their feet up in front of the fire!
Plank removed, the decent begins. Edgar Smith in the chair, 1967
Edgar Smith "footing off", 1967.
I do however have one small complaint with all these fantastic improvements to the winch . The ride on the bosun's chair both down and up seems faster, and I missed the former leisure time, particularly on the ascent, to look around the main shaft. On my recent trips it was but a blur! I also missed the "feel" of the old petrol engine as it chugged you up the shaft and the feeling of impending doom as the engine died on you half way up!
Now what of the bosun's chair? Again, the basic design has not changed much apart from a more secure front fastening beam and chain. I do believe however (see below) that the chair has shrunk in size!
Brian Stott in the Bosun's Chair, 1967
The GG meets in the 60s also saw a few hairy escapades which I am sure would be frowned upon these days! I recall on one occasion Roy Taylor in 1966 doing a death defying walk along the back ledge of the main shaft to de-snag some ladders. I captured this on film and reproduce that photo here.
Death defying Roy Taylor de-snagging ladders, 1966.
Apart from geology, potholing and rambling, my main hobby is photography and I always took the opportunity at GG to take some photos underground. Many of you will recognise the formation below which one passes in Old East on the way to Mud Hall.
The "organ pipes", Old East Passage, 1967.
GG Revisited 1998 & 1999
Gaping Gill Main Chamber, August, 1999. Photo, I. Metcalfe.
After a very long absence, I finally got to make the pilgrimage to Gaping Gill during the 1998 meet. A conference in Malaysia, followed by a research visit to the U.K., finally brought me back to Yorkshire from Australia at the right time of year and I arranged to meet up with Steve Kirk on the morning of Tuesday, 25 August up at GG. The weather for the previous few days had been more typical of April with sunshine and showers but the nostalgic walk up through the Clapham Woods and Trow Gill and on to the moor was made in fine, misty rain. Soon after arrival I met up with Edward Whitaker, the meet leader and old friend, and I spent some time with him catching up on news over a cup of Fell Beck tea. With a borrowed helmet and a newly acquired electric lamp, and donned in water proofs and boots, I made the trip down into the main chamber. It was Dave Milner who "dropped" me down at about 9.30 am, and I remember commenting on how much the bosun's chair had shrunk in size and getting the comment back from Dave that it was in fact yours truly that had become somewhat more "portly"!! Apart from the main chamber, I had a leisurely stroll on to Sand Cavern and back. The passage on to T junction was rather wetter than I remembered from all those years ago, but otherwise the geography of the place had not changed much! When I came back to the surface in the early afternoon it was raining fairly heavily and I then proceeded to search out a few other club members who I had not seen in many years. It was so nice to meet up with Edward, Dave Milner, Howard Beck, Dave Allanach and especially Roy Taylor who entertained me to a drop of the good stuff while we reminisced! I couldn't believe my luck this year when a big conference in Calgary gave me the same opportunity of travelling on to the U.K. and once again coinciding with the GG meet! Plans were set in motion again and this time I went prepared with camera and tripod to capture the main chamber in all its floodlit glory. I couldn't believe my eyes when arriving at the main sinkhole to discover that my arrival had been anticipated and that a grand staircase leading down to the gantry had been prepared for my arrival! I was really touched!!
Dave Milner and Dave Allanach were winch drivers for my descent and ascent respectively and again the "whinging pom" from Oz complained about the bosun's chair!
GG Winch, 1999. Driver: Dave Allanach
GG Winch, 1967. Driver: Mike Greenway
A good four hours were spent taking photographs in the main chamber and I was particularly pleased with some of the results - one of which I reproduce in black and white here. Many memories were brought back during my two recent visits to GG and I sincerely hope that I have the opportunity to come back again soon and also to meet up with many of the "ghosts" from the past that I missed meeting this time.