Having recently acquired some shiny new stuff that lets you blow bubbles (amongst other uses), I was keen to try it out on a reasonably tame underwater excursion. I’ve had my eye on the short dives between Old Ing and Dismal Hill for a few years now but I’ve never had the balls to try them as free-dives due to reports of shoddy line, various obstructions, and bad air. I figured I’d also visit the Calf Holes through trip as well as Birkwith Cave I was in the area as they’re all super short but together they make for an excellent day out.
I’d also been meaning to have a look at the new access arrangements for the Birkwith area caves, they’re very good fresher trips but the new landowner has prohibited vehicle access meaning that you now need to park at Low Birkwith Farm (left turn just before you get to High Birkwith, £5 a car in an honesty box in front of the barn).
So anyway, I pulled up at the farm and got changed into my wetsuit in the barn entrance, sheltering from the wind tunnel. The weather itself was very calm and sunny, as I write this though we are bracing for Storm Ciara – which the tabloids claim will be the worst storm in seven years. Lets see how the future judges that but for now I’m just assuming that Sunday caving is off…
I stuffed my bottle and reg in to a tackle sack alongside a rope and SRT kit to get back out of Dismal Hill/get down Calf Holes, my kit just about fit in my small bag, and set off on the walk up to the caves. The walk from the new parking place isn’t too bad, it’s 15 mins to the previous parking space along the road and then 5 mins to each of the caves up there, the farmers at both Low and High Birkwith were friendly when I bumped into them as well, seems like it should be okay for when freshers season rolls round again.
I arrived at the Dismal Hill shaft and began to rig it, however it wasn’t long before the usual Pennine Way walkers came by, spotting me and diverting their path to come and have a chat. I was stopped by two or three groups who had a fair amount of questions about what I was doing, I tried my best to answer them so I could crack on with the trip. With the rope rigged I stuffed my tackle sack with my SRT kit on the end and lowered it down for retrieval at the end of the through trip, mounted my cylinder on my side, and wandered over to Old Ing.
Old Ing was low in water today, though signs of a recent flood were apparent with foam remaining on the walls high above my head, like the cave’s very own “High Score” for flood levels. With the forecasts for the week ahead being as biblical as they are I should imagine that the current record will be absolutely smashed by about Tuesday. The rock in the Old Ing – Dismal Hill – Birkwith system is heavily stained with peat, which gives it a melancholic atmosphere as the walls are darkened and the water stained a rusty ochre. I braced myself for a gloomy trip.
At the first opportunity I immersed myself in one of the pools that dot the streamway, I’d been stomping down the passage at a fair pace and now that I was out of the above-ground elements I’d begun to get quite hot. I let the water flood my suit to get acclimatised and took the time to have a much-needed piss before continuing down the rift. Before long I passed the dry bypass, and for the first time ever I was glad to see the narrow cobbled roof tube, as I knew I didn’t have to go through it this time. The bypass is a blasted wormway that cuts across into the parallel rift that can be accessed through the short dives I was planning to do. A short way beyond the bypass is the sump itself, which regularly sports a head of foam that wouldn’t be out of place amiss on a fine pint of beer, today was no exception of course. After donning my mask and lights I plunged into the foaming mass and grabbed the line.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the sump so I went careful on the rope -I’d heard the bolts were dodgy, and that there were junctions in the sump leading to more serious passages than the simple “free-dive” route. I followed the rope into a low arch, which drops down a metre from the pool into what I’d describe as “stooping height” if that didn’t sound ridiculous when referring to underwater passage. After two metres it passes a smaller airbell before surfacing in the larger airbell between the two small sumps. I’d describe the profile as 1m down, 3m across, then 1m back up again, easily doable as a free dive. The airbell I arrived in was the airbell I’d heard there was bad air and poor line in, the line was perfectly alright, sturdy and only leading in the correct direction. I’m not able to comment on the air though as I was only in there for less than a minute and kept my regulator in. I did see a good amount of rubbish in there – animal feed tubs and plastic drums etc. that had got jammed in the ceiling. I composed myself and headed onwards to the next dive which went much deeper than the first, a quick glance at my gauge read over 3m depth before a short (<1m) rock curtain and an ascent back to the surface – a little more serious than the first but still within reason for a spicy free-dive trip. I looked around and found myself in a gorgeous canal passage.
Excited, I checked how much air I’d used in my small cylinder, it read comfortably high so I decided to return the trip and see if I could have a go at trying it without gas. I headed back through the two sumps, familiarising myself with the profiles again, I resurfaced in the foamy nonsense of the initial sump pool before taking my regulator out and pulling myself through the first sump, surfacing in the airbell to take a couple of breaths, then plunging through the second one. It was easier than I expected, but then I had just done them comfortably right beforehand and I knew I had my reg to hand if I needed it.
I swam down the canal to find the other side of the bypass, pleased that I’d reached it in what I’d say was certainly a more comfortable and less strenuous way. I soon reached the traverse down the waterfall to the lower canal, leading to the largest of the three dives. I clambered down and hopped into the water, paddling myself along and creating a bow wave of foam ahead of me as I swam. Finding the next rope, I shoved the reg in my gob and sank downwards to take a look at the way on, all I could see in the gloom of the peaty water was that the rope lead anonymously downwards. I gave it a hard tug to check it was belayed on the other side, and descended. This one went much deeper down, I think I read over 5m at the deepest, then across a few metres and back up again. Probably not free-divable.
I took a few snaps and then headed back up the rope to the surface, where I was yet again accosted by a couple of fell runners! I hastily packed my stuff as the wind and rain was picking up, and headed over to Calf Holes. Not much to say about the Calf Holes trip, I rigged the entrance and tied my dive stuff to the bottom of the rope for later retrieval. I wallowed down the streamway and was soon out of Brow Gill. It looks like there might be a direct route back to Low Birkwith but I had to head back up to get my stuff, so I just walked back along the way I came. It was starting to get dark and I fancied a pint so I didn’t end up doing Birkwith Cave, I just wandered home to get changed and head to the pub.
All-in-all an excellent excursion, I’d feel confident in doing the free-dives without kit, and maybe taking some keen people with me, just not the biggest one!