© Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted.
However, short extracts from it may be used, for non-commercial purposes, provided their source is fully cited, acknowledged and referenced as:
Humphreys, A. (1924) Oxlow Cavern, Castleton. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 5 Number 16: pp135-140. Leeds: YRC.

Oxlow Cavern, Castleton.

By A. Humphreys.

The entrance to these fine caverns is on the hillside above Oxlow House, on the road between Castleton and Sparrowpit. The distance from Castleton is one and a half miles, measured in a straight line almost due west, and the elevation is about 1,400 feet above sea-level. Oxlow House is shown on the one inch Ordnance Survey.

Mr. Bennet, who occupies the house, kindly showed us the entrance to the cavern, which would be very difficult to find without a guide as it is an old mine shaft covered with stones, and these shafts are very numerous in the neighbourhood.

On Saturday evening, October 21st, 1922, B. Holden, H. Humphreys and the writer arrived at the top of the shaft with a large quantity of ropes and ladders, lamps &c., and work was begun with the pot-holer's usual enthusiasm. A beam across the top of the shaft provided an easy and efficient belay for the first ladder, which was 53 feet long. B. H. went down first, H. H. following, and some delay was caused by the dangerous appearance of the side walling, which had to be thoroughly inspected on the descent.

While the two explorers were below I kept vigil at the top. It was dark and freezing, with a keen icy wind, and my only protection was a few rope ladders and stones. After a long wait, as it appeared to me, for I was nearly frozen, H. H. came up and said they had been to the top of the second pitch and invited me to go down and take a look.

The shaft is circular at the top and about 3 feet wide, built round with rubble, and descends almost vertically for 60 feet. About 10 feet from the top it becomes rectangular in form, being a narrow natural crack built up with loose stones on each side. There is an artificial ledge about 20 feet down, supported on timber which is quite safe at present, but many of the side stones prove quite loose if touched.

There was a very strong down draught, which nearly extinguished the acetylene lamp, but the descent is a very easy one; no life-line is required, the shaft being narrow enough to admit of resting almost anywhere. I noticed deep grooves, worn in the solid rock by the miners' ropes. There was nothing to show that the shaft had been blown in, as claimed, subsequent to 1915. The ladder was 7 feet short, but the last bit is easily climbed and is separated from the first passage by a rock curtain. The floor of this passage extends downwards in a westerly direction and is composed of loose stones, mud and gravel, at a scree angle, with occasional vertical drops of from 3 to 5 feet. At these parts the rocks above are supported by very old stemples, which may last many years, or may not. Even now there are masses of loose stones which are easily dislodged, and it is dangerous for two persons to be on the slope at one time unless very close together.

At the top end where the vertical shaft enters, the passage may be about 6 feet wide and 10 feet high, gradually enlarging till it becomes a considerable chamber, about 30 feet by 30 feet and the same height, with a mud bank further on reaching to the roof. In the floor of this chamber is a miner`s shaft built round with rubble and supported with cross climbing stemples. A light was lowered about 25 feet, but getting entangled with the stemples, was with difficulty drawn up. It revealed enough to extinguish all desire to descend in person.

The floor slopes steeply in one corner and a low passage is found about 2 feet high, gradually rising to 5 feet. This passage runs steeply down for about 25 feet in an easterly direction and ends in solid rock, with a small hole about 11/2 feet by 21/2 feet in the floor, which forms the top of the second pitch. The floor, as it approaches the hole is, as we afterwards found, a platform of rubble supported on stemples. A lowered light showed us a way down between two rows of stemples to another platform 30 feet below.

As time had sped we returned to the surface and made our way back to camp with high hopes for the morrow, marred somewhat by the ever recurring thought that the stemples upon which our safety depended were perhaps 200 years old!

It was nearly 12 o'clock the next day before the remaining tackle was got to the entrance and the work of lowering it began. This took a lot of time, as some of the ladders would not pass the narrow parts, even with the help of a man on the ledge, and it was 2 o'clock before everything was cleared from the surface and the last man went down. I need not enlarge upon the delightful task of carrying 120 feet of rope ladder and 750 feet of rope, including a 250 feet main line of 3/4 inch tarred hemp, over loose stones and through a low steep passage - it will be fully appreciated by most Ramblers.

I must acknowledge the valuable assistance we got from the work done by Mr. Puttrell earlier in the year, in timbering portions of the first shaft and driving two sturdy posts in the chamber above the second pitch for belaying the main line; also the help we received from a small sketch made by Mr. W. T. T. Bateman, in 1910, which, though not to scale, was very accurate. The drawing accompanying this article was partly taken from this.

The second pitch is very easy, being quite vertical, only the ropes have an unpleasant way of getting at the wrong side of the stemples, which are not easily seen. At the bottom of this pitch, in a built platform, is a nasty hole leading to a tunnel underneath and a lot of stones, originally supported on timber, have fallen, making it anything but safe. After leaving the horizontal platform there is a floor of stalagmite and stones, and after about 20 yards at a steep angle, another built platform, in the floor of which is a small climbing shaft leading below.

This platform is high up in a cleft of the East Chamber and from it the great size of this can be best appreciated. The roof we could not see even from this vantage point, so it must be very near to the surface of the moor above. The descent of 40 feet in the shaft became very alarming as the bottom was reached, its very precarious condition then becoming manifest, and we resolved to explore the East Chamber only and depart for evermore.

We were now at the head of a high natural passage leading to the Western Chambers, but we left this and scrambled down a scree slope and a few stemples with the help of the main line, to the floor of the East Chamber. This cavern is truly a fine one; the sides are smooth and vertical and the floor quite level. There appears to be a small passage about 40 feet up the vertical wall on the east side and there is a sump of no great depth in a corner below. We noticed some stemples high up in a cleft at the same end, and it is somewhat of a mystery how the miners ever got up to them.

We felt very humble folk indeed compared to those hardy pioneers and we took off our hats to them.

Upon our return to the West Passage where the end of our ladder was hanging from the dark heights above, our resolve to go back melted away, and we accordingly made our way west down a wide steeply sloping passage at almost a scree angle.

High up above us we could see flat stones laid on stemples, forming a gallery which probably communicated with the vertical shaft we saw in the first chamber. This stone ceiling was not continuous, some pieces having fallen to the ground on which we stood.

Presently we arrived on a platform with a drop of about 10 feet which we climbed down. Farther on was a larger platform with a curious little tunnel on the left-hand side, which leads to the scree below. The wooden supports in this tunnel showed considerable decay and we emerged with a feeling of relief. Below this platform is a patch of gravel, and farther on the floor becomes smooth rock and slopes very steeply. More stemples appear and the angle increases to the vertical.

It was now 6 p.m., and after a brief consultation we unanimously decided to go to the bottom, although we had no food with us and our last meal had been breakfast at 9 a.m. B. H. and H. H., who had remained on the platform while I explored below, now went back for a ladder and some more rope, which had been left at the top of the last pitch. They returned in exactly half an hour and we immediately belayed to a strong stemple which had been put in recently. This pitch looked somewhat forbidding but proved quite easy, the descent being made between two rows of climbing stemples. Most of the way down, about 35 feet, the rock is undercut and the ladder swings free.

Upon the steep slope at the bottom we found a large number of wooden rungs, evidently from a rope ladder. They were very black and had been there a considerable time. Who had been in such a hurry to escape that they needs must abandon their ladders? Presumably, the ropes had rotted away, we could find no trace of them.

We were now in the first of the three West Chambers, which are quite easily traversed from this point by walking. This chamber is very high, the roof being dimly seen, even with our acetylene lamps. At the far end is a low passage with a substantial roof of built stone, to the right of which is a natural S passage that carries a small stream of water, but is too small to crawl up. The other passage, after a few yards, leads to the central and largest chamber, an immense place with sides which gradually close together at a great height. The floor has two distinct levels and it appears from the debris that the miners used to crush and wash the lead ore here. The channel ending with a dam in the lower level, and the heaps of "tailings" remain just as they were abandoned.

At the far end is a high rough scree, rising about 50 feet, and at the top appears a narrow passage which leads to the last chamber. This is smaller than the others, and owing to a rainlike fall of water from the roof it was difficult to see upwards, but it is certainly very high. This water, which was in considerable quantity, makes its way down a built sump, so small in diameter that it looked dangerous to go down. Jamming in it might have allowed the hole to fill up with water above one's head! Our sketch showed two small chambers below this sump. Needless to say, we did not make an attempt to descend.

In a cleft at the far end a few old stemples were seen. Doubtless these stemples, and many others in odd corners of the caverns, if repaired, would lead to mining levels high up the cavern walls, but it would be no light task to undertake.

It was 8.30 p.m. when we again arrived at the lowest level of the West Chamber, which is over 500 feet below the entrance, and we were very hungry and tired. Our original intention was to leave all the rope ladders in position and continue exploration on subsequent week-ends, but the dangerous nature of the built rockwork, all of which is supported on timber, now much decayed, caused us to consider the advisability of clearing everything away.

It is an unfortunate feature of pot-holing that the hardest work comes last and in this instance, after being ten hours without food, we were faced with the task of transporting ourselves and all our tackle 500 feet to the moor above. But just as the ass goes fastest home, so did we set to with a will and eventually got everything to the little chamber at the bottom of the first pitch. Here our strength gave out, so everything was stowed in safe positions and left for another day.

It was midnight when we emerged from the comparatively warm earth to the icy blasts sweeping across the moor, and with dragging feet we made the half mile back to camp in silence. A great feast was at once prepared, which revived our spirits and set free our tongues. All the day's difficulties were reviewed again and again, and the morning was advanced before we crawled into our sleeping bags at last, to dream as only pot-holers can.

The Oxlow Caverns are the largest in the Castleton district, not excluding the Blue John, and it is a great pity the miners built up so much rockwork in the passages. If this would only tumble down, instead of lingering as it does, these really magnificent chambers would be a joy to the cave enthusiast for ever.

Plan of Oxlow Cavern.  © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
Plan of Oxlow Cavern