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A Silent Member. (1903) A Night In A Pot-Hole (Lost John's). Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 2 Number 5: pp28-34. Leeds: YRC

A Night In A Pot-Hole (Lost John's).

By A Silent Member.

Our omniscient Editor has convicted me of inexcusable Pot holing, and by a threat of exposure exacted a description of my experiences. The temptation to bid him do his worst was very strong, but it is difficult to gauge the Yorkshire Ramblers' sense of humour, and I have decided, to preserve my anonymity.

Some time ago, a letter from one of the Club's most dangerous members was delivered to me. Its subtle flattery beguiled me. The delicate insinuation that his fellow desperadoes wished to use the weight of my increasing years as an anchor to the rope banished prudence from my mind and induced me to accept rashly his invitation. Following my acceptance, some details of the proposed expedition were imparted to me. From these l gathered that a Pot-hole on Leck Fell, with the singular name of Lost John's, had excited their curiosity. Their last attempt had been foiled by a sudden flood, which swept away the whole of their tackle and caused their hasty retreat. This defeat had raised their fighting instincts, and they were very keen to avenge it. The name of Lost John's attracted me beyond measure. Of Gaping Ghyll, Alum Pot, Rowten Pot, one was ennuye. Their names, interesting no doubt to hunters of the derivations of place-names, have no romantic flavour, they lack humanity. But Lost John's, what did it mean? Why was it Lost John's

When the members of the first party added to the relation of their other experiences a circumstantial ghost story, wild tales of passion and tragic disaster haunted me. When the necessary arrangements were made and communicated to me, imagine my horror to find these men had decided to make the descent in the night. Conceive if you can, at the dread hour of midnight, the mysterious Pot-hole filled A with uncanny sights and sounds; the ghostly profiles of pale stalactites; the cold eyes of light-reflecting water drops; the rattle of the stream; the roar of the waterfall; the desperate depths of its descent, and perhaps one of Cutcliffe Hyne's Douk Dragons hidden in its grim shadows. The thought of it all was almost too much for me. The Silent Member, whose nerve has carried him through years of Lectures, was at last really frightened. He had not pluck enough to stay away much as he wished to. Fortunately the period of suspense was short, and one fine Saturday afternoon the party met at the Marton Arms, Thornton-in-Lonsdale. There were six of us. You already know me, the other five are desperate characters, and their names must be sacredly withheld. It should suffice for me to say the President has publicly and repeatedly warned the Yorkshire Ramblers not to frequent their society. They climb impossible places, either with guides and ropes, or without. They are continually in pot-holes gratifying their passion for wearing old clothes. They bribe the farmers of Craven to let them down and pull them up again - a most unorthodox and reprehensible method.  They seduce, it is feared, the Club's younger and more innocent members to join in their unholy practices. Yet rumour has suggested that our President himself has not only been seen with them, but also engaged in their dangerous pursuits. Personally I cannot believe it. One of the five, it is true, with dangerous subtlety covers both his shocking clothes and his misdeeds with the cloak of science. Gentle Rambler, avoid him!

Dinner was served at 5.30 p.m., and shortly after it was over, a start was made for the Pot-hole five miles away on Leck Fell, some distance above Leck Hall. It was a delightful walk for an autumn evening along the flank of the beautiful Lune Valley, with the waters of Morecambe Bay and the mountains of Lakeland in the distance.  In the softening light my companions looked less dangerous. Even the Scientist seemed capable of deep emotion, for he resolutely refused to part with his peculiar green rucksack, and carried it tenderly the whole way. My mind grew calmer. The easy optimism of after-dinner suggested that after all the anchor would find good holding ground, and presently the sight of our jovial landlord and his cart-load of gear increased my confidence.  Spare clothes and provisions were left at the little iron shooting box near the Pot-hole, and the tackle was unloaded and carried to the pot's mouth.

Surely this glorified rabbit hole could not be the entrance to the mysterious Lost John's. Was pot-holing like climbing?  Did pot-holers tilt their imaginations as climbers are said to do their cameras?  Did they also ruthlessly cut off their foregrounds?  Were these famous Yorkshire Ramblers - but the Scientist at this moment handed me a large lump of clay and a singular hat. The latter was extremely hard. In shape a compromise between clerical and lay, it was in colour a dingy and unbecoming yellow flecked with spots of dirty white and much too large. The clay I supposed was to make it fit. Fortunately before my ignorance was discovered I observed it was to be moulded into a candle holder and stuck in front of the crown. The insertion of a lighted candle gave the hat a more imposing appearance, but there was still much to be desired in looks and comfort. Before pot-holing is likely to become popular with women, the millinery incidental to the sport will require careful thought and more chic. I hope chic is the right word; one sees it dotted all over smart bonnet shop windows.

Our preparations were at last complete. Rucksacks containing provisions; rope-ladders, ropes, candles, a wooden beam, flare-lamps, paraffin tins, etc., were distributed impartially amongst us, and we slid out of the autumn evening and the moonbeams down a short slope of damp dirt into a pool of water. Our natural instincts urged us to get out of the latter as quickly as possible. Even veteran pot-holers make strenuous efforts to keep their feet dry, and spend much time in circumventing pools of water at the outset, although getting wet is-inevitable.  As a matter of fact the wetter and dirtier they become the greater is their enjoyment. This is a curious trait. It may be the survival of the boy in the man, or the potholer's sneaking desire to impress his friends at home by the filthy state of his clothes with the difficulties and dangers of his exploits. For a few yards the roof of Lost John's is low, and it was rather difficult to wriggle along with one's load from boulder to boulder without getting very wet. There were several casualties amongst the candles, and my memory is indented like a phonographic record with the forceful monosyllables that accompanied them. Fortunately there is generally plenty of head-room in Lost John's, but it is in many places very narrow, and baggage is a serious encumbrance. Two streams flow into the main passage a short distance from the entrance, and there is at times a very considerable volume of water rushing down this underground water course. Beyond the meeting of the waters the roof recedes until it is some thirty feet high. The limestone walls are water-worn in an extraordinary manner. Thin horizontal bands of hard black limestone with jagged edges project at intervals and offer excellent hand and foot-holds. These bands are connected by vertical flutings, whose sharp edges promptly reward a slip or stumble with nasty cuts. In some places speckled patches of white vegetable growth, on each speck a globule of water, adhere to the walls and in the candle light glitter brilliantly. As we advanced the louder became the sound of falling water. In a pot-hole a small fall makes a great noise.  The passage winds and twists about. Voices, the echoes of voices and strange subterraneous sounds assailed our ears. Even the stream song was pitched in no monotonous tones; it was soft and gentle, gay and rattling, loud and threatening by turns.  And when it threatened one looked up into the roof, considered the ledges apparently above high water mark, and wondered what it would be like to sit there water bound.  Presently the first Waterfall was reached; and this was the terminus of Lost John's until an enterprising Rambler discovered the roof traverse.

This traverse greatly delayed us. One began to understand why pot-holing takes time and occasions hard work. Although the roof is not very high at this point, we had to back-and-knee up to the parallel ledges that run under it on either side of the passage. Further progress was made by straddling along both sides until directly over the fall, where the ledge upon the left disappears, and the feet must be kept upon the right wall and the hands upon the other. To pass the baggage along we stationed ourselves on the traverse at convenient distances, and by dint of pushing, pulling and grunting, got it all safely over. Unfortunately the passage beyond is extremely narrow and became completely filled with tackle. This caused further delay and more hard work. We were now in an older stream bed and after a drop of five or six feet in a few yards stood upon the lip of the former fall. A rope-ladder was lowered and made fast, and the party and their loads were safely deposited upon the dry floor of a small chamber upon the stream's new level. Here we had a jolly supper party. Pot-holing is not all vanity and vexation. It makes your food taste good. It turns acquaintances into good comrades and friends. After all, sport without the spice of danger and difficulty is like flat beer; it neither stimulates nor refreshes. Our short smoke after supper was interrupted by a strange incident. Two of the more restless members of the party had made a further advance and vanished out of our sight. Suddenly they returned with traces of recent agitation and related their experiences. A short distance from where we sat the old and new stream beds unite, and they had proceeded upstream to explore the latter, leaving a lighted candle stuck on the rock wall at the junction. Presently they were startled by curious hissing noises and turned to discover their cause. They were then further alarmed by an unearthly blue light for which they could not account. Was the dragon there after all? They steeled their nerves for the awful encounter. They advanced with cautious temerity. The noises increased in volume. The light grew brighter and they were in the presence of the awesome mystery - their own candle and a coil of telephone wire. So does the pursuit of fiction stimulate the imagination; a lighted candle fires the covering of one of the nerves of modern progress - a telephone wire, and a mediaeval dragon possesses our minds.

Leaving this supper chamber we all re-entered the water, turned up stream, and soon emerged into another similar opening. This contains the waterfall we had outflanked. In the uncertain light, the water falls out of the dimness of the shadowy roof with weird effect, and the narrow walls magnify its rattle into a roar. Resuming our journey down stream, we passed a curious window-like opening on the left wall. It is set at an angle to the wall like the squints one sees in some of our old churches. There are at least two of these in Lost John's. These openings, the fantastic and beautiful creations of running water, are oval in shape, and the limestone framing them is remarkable for its extreme thinness and polish. Then we reached the final difficulty - another waterfall. This one could not be turned, and preparations were made to descend it. The Wooden beam which had been an exasperating portion of our baggage, was fixed across the passage some distance from the lip and the rope-ladders were made fast to it. Like the beam, the Silent Member found his mission and took charge of the life-line. Just beyond the fall the left hand wall makes a right-angle turn across its face, and the water shooting out over the lip l is focussed into a rapid and powerful stream. This makes the lot of the climber peculiarly unhappy, as he cannot avoid the weight of the falling water during any part of the descent or ascent. It was decided that two of the party should have the honour of making this final effort, and they put on their oilskins. By climbing into the roof a flare-lamp was with some difficulty suspended clear of the fall to light them on their watery way, and in turn they presently disappeared. When they arrived at the bottom and got out of the water they found themselves in a long, I lofty and narrow cavern. A pipe and the tackle lost during the previous attempt were found and recovered.  Apparently the furthest possible point had been reached for the water disappears into a low passage. Cold and wet the men did not linger, and rejoined us as quickly as possible. Considerable time had been spent in getting them down and up, and we were all rather chilly.  However, there was then no lack of hard, warm work. The ladders gave us a good deal of trouble. They were l continually catching on the rocks, and when finally rolled up were seriously heavier. Slowly we made our way back to the scene of our late supper, and crawled up the ladder left there. The narrow passage above was utterly blocked   and choked with men and rucksacks, ropes and ladders, flare-lamps and oilskins. A way was forced through and some of us made the roof-traverse. A rope carrier was improvised and everything got over. But our troubles were not yet ended. Below the traverse the way was still very narrow, and loads were distributed with difficulty.

At last the caravan, a trifle weary perhaps, but with many jokes and much good temper, made its way to the exit. The outer world was wrapped in the grey mist of an autumn morning. Earth and air were cold and damp. We thought it must be very early and a rush was made to the shooting box for dry clothes and breakfast. Watches were found and to our astonishment we discovered it was nine o'clock. We had been underground nearly twelve hours. It was difficult to believe it; the time had gone so quickly; the work and interest had been so continuous and sustained. After breakfast everything was packed up. The cart arrived, was loaded, and we were free to make our way home. What a walk it was! five sleepy miles. Only the stumbles kept one awake. About twelve o'clock we reached Thornton, grey-faced, dirty and dishevelled. Our landlady received us with hot coffee and eggs, and we ordered an early dinner. On reaching my room I sat down on the bed; my next recollection is of someone asking me if I wanted any dinner. Now, dinner meant train and home, so one had to get up.

My pot-holing expedition has become a pleasant memory. Perhaps I may be tempted to go again, but not in the night. Expeditions of nineteen hours after a day's work are for the Club's giants - the men who tell us the delightful tales we hear at our meetings and read in our Journal. But they very properly apologize for being out all night, and I wish to associate myself with their apologies.

A little note of thanks from our leader alluding to my cheerful assistance will be a carefully treasured family heirloom, and may be useful to convince the Club that its Silent Members do not spend all their week-ends at Scarborough.