27th/28th July 2018

Members present: Will Whalley, David Botcherby, Louise Baddeley

Others: Peter Winn and other volunteers from the Sandstone Ridge Trust, Carolyn from Beeston Castle, and a representative from Cheshire Bat group.

Background

In March Graham Proudlove advertised on the Cave Biology Group facebook page that he had been contacted by the Sandstone Ridge Trust (SRT), a volunteer-run group who preside over the mid-Cheshire sandstone ridge. This piqued my interest as a Cheshire-native, having spent a lot of time in the area as a child and knowing some parts of it very well, although little about the caves. (Link to SRT website: http://www.sandstoneridge.org.uk/)

In June, me and Botch visited the ridge and were shown three of the caves on the Bolsworth estate with Peter Winn, one of the trustees of the SRT. We learnt that the trust was mostly interested in the archaeology, as the area is associated with a long history of human activity from the last 6000 years. Some of the caves on the ridge are known to have been inhabited, and all are thought to have been enlarged by man, mostly to mine the high quality white sand of the triassic sandstone. There is also a long history of copper mining in the area, as well as several notable wells including the one at Beeston Castle which is 136 meters deep and may have horizontal adits that acted as sally ports during the long history of the castle.

Peter had contacted Graham ahead of any archaeology work that took place in the caves to get a gauge of their biological significance in order to avoid any damage to the caves present communities – invertebrates. On our recce, Peter showed us Queen’s Parlour, Bloody Bones and Musket Hole. The first cave had some perennial darkness at the back, while the second was entirely within the twilight zone and third was an exposed rock shelter. In Queen’s Parlour and Bloody Bones, we observed multiple species of spider including Meta spp., caddis flies, true flies and moths. Peter also told us about some other caves along the ridge, most notably the caves below Beeston Castle which were larger than any we had visited that day.

Our recce and a following search of the British Cave library showed us the worth of revisiting these caves, as no survey data or in fact any other record of these caves seems to exist. We planned to return on the 27th/28th July to collect invertebrates to ID and take survey data.

Friday 27th July

Leaving from a sunny Sheffield, we arrived at a cloudier Beeston Castle at 7pm on Friday evening. We were met by Peter, who me and Botch had met previously, and one of his volunteers from the SRT. Unfortunately we were unable to access the main caves under the castle that evening, as we hadn’t realised we needed to be accompanied by a bat group representative. However, we had secured an escort for the Saturday night and Carolyn who is the steward of the Castle agreed to show us some smaller rock shelters she knew of within the castle grounds.

The first of these, dubbed Beeston Cave 1, was a small rock shelter just within the outer Victorian walls of the castle. This “cave” was approx 1 meter deep by two meters wide with a animal (probably badger) tunnel in the back wall which led off further. We took a quick survey and collected a small number of invertebrate samples, and noted the presence of two wren nests.

The second, smaller rock shelter, seemed to have suffered a recent collapse of the bank above the entrance and was now nearly obscured by medium sized rocks and sandy soil. Botch wriggled into the small hole that was left and saw that it seemed to continue with a low ceiling and soil floor. There was evidence of animals (probably badgers) digging around the entrance. There was also a badger sett entrance (disused) close to this entrance, and another collapsed entrance (potentially to the same cave) only approx 5m away. Our companions discussed how this cave had been discovered by an exploring dog, and a fair amount of pottery had been found there. As such, we dubbed it Dog Hole. We did not take any samples as no invertebrates were found.

Saturday 28th

We met Peter again on Saturday morning to survey the caves which me and Botch had seen in our initial visit. This started with Queen’s Parlour, the largest of the sandstone ridge caves outside of Beeston. We took our time here collecting survey data and invertebrate samples which were divided into twilight and dark zones. This cave is clearly quite disturbed, full of beer cans and candles and even part of a tent. Despite this life seems quite abundant, especially in the sheltered around away from the entrance but where there was still some light.

After a brief lunch overlooking north Cheshire and the Wirral, we visited Bloody Bones, a much smaller cave just below Raw Head. Both of these caves were thought to have been used for the extraction the white sand, which may have been used to sharpen tools and scrub the underside of canal barges. Bloody Bones seems to be less disturbed by people but has become more full of organic matter and plant debris. A second entrance close by may have provided a connection to the main cave at one time but the tunnel has since filled in.

The data collection at this cave was much quicker, leaving us with a couple of hours before we could access the cave at Beeston. In this time we visited the Bickerton Poacher, a pub Peter had informed us contain a shaft of some kind in the bar! The landlord informed us that it may have been a prospecting mine shaft as part of the nearby copper mining industry, but it appeared to be less than fruitful. Now, however, patrons drop loose change into the shaft and anyone willing to descend and collect it can donate to a charity of their choosing (DCRO?).

After a pint and a nap, we returned to Beeston Castle after closing at 5pm accompanied by the Cheshire Bat Group representative, who also caves with CCPC. Of the two main caves, we only visited one, which we dubbed Beresford’s Cave in lieu of any official name, after the man who is said to have quarried the sand from it. This cave is now gated at the entrances and, along with the other large cave at Beeston, contains the only county records of the lesser horseshoe bat, comprised of 2 individuals visiting the caves variably in the last 6 years (although not last year). The second cave (unnamed) has been bricked up to only a narrow slit in aid of the bats, and we were under the impression that it contained a larger bat colony and as such as couldn’t visit it. However, the bat group rep told us that it is equally bare of bats and we could visit it if we were willing to squeeze through the slit, as he does to survey it. Unprepared for this, we resolved that we may be able to visit this cave at a later date.

Beresford’s Cave is an incredibly complex system of pillars that were left to support the ceiling during the extraction of sand. As such, collecting survey data was a bit of a nightmare but we should at the very least have a decent sketch survey of the cave. We sampled invertebrates in light, twilight and dark zones although from initial appearances the fauna seemed to be both less abundant and diverse.

Of the 2 large caves (Queen’s Parlour, Beresford’s cave and the unnamed Beeston cave), there exists an interesting gradient of disturbance, with the former being regularly visited by humans, the intermediate being occasionally disturbed by humans but open to other animal life and the latter being closed to most vertebrate disturbance. As such I’d like to go back and sample from the third cave to gauge any observable difference in the invertebrate fauna.

Some notable species we recorded were an unknown species of parasitic wasp which were found in both Bloody Bones and Beresford’s cave. There was also an incredible abundance of a species of true fly that seemed to gather in aggregations in certain areas. Meta spp. were recorded in all 3 caves visited on 28th.

Next steps

As noted, I would like to revisit Beeston to look in the 2nd large cave. There are also further small caves and rock shelters along the ridge which it would be good to geolocate and survey if not collect invertebrate samples.

We will now collate the data we gather over this weekend. The survey data needs to be digitised, and we then hope to be able to send it to the interested parties including the SRT and Beeston Castle, as we believe this is the first attempt to map the caves. The invertebrate samples need to IDed which will be time consuming and difficult. We’ll do as much of this as possible between the cave biology group and may send some specimens away for confirmation.

For photos see: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1bKhHv-yrhHr2ISM3QhUcuAzUAXbAN-EB