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Swithinbank, J.W. (1902) Rowten Pot, Gragreth. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 1 Number 4: pp316-324. Leeds: YRC
ALTHOUGH various writers have described the surface appearance of Rowten Pot, the mystery of its depth and character below ground remained unsolved until a few years ago.
The descriptions here referred to not uncommonly included such expressions as "this awful fissure" and "this most awful chasm," and all doubtless were intended to produce in the reader's mind a suitably impressive effect. It is not to be denied that, as applied to Rowten Pot, such expressions were in a large degree fitting, but statements regarding the depth of the hole were also made, which, to say the least, were more than sufficient to whet the appetite of the ardent speleologist. One writer has declared that a party descended it for 600 feet, and, even then, did not reach the bottom! It is therefore little wonder that some members of the Club were led by these astonishing accounts to consider the question of attempting the descent and settling all doubts as to the statements. After making several unsuccessful endeavours this was satisfactorily accomplished, and I here propose to tell what the party saw below ground.
Rowten Pot is situated on the Kingsdale side of Gragreth at an elevation of 1200 feet above the sea. Setting out from Thornton-in-Lonsdale, a hamlet lying about a mile west of lngleton, the best route to follow is the road up Kingsdale until abreast of Braida Garth - a farm house on the east side of the Dale, and distant about three miles from Thornton Church. Then turning sharply to the left through a gate, a scramble of one-third of a mile up the hillside on to the limestone terrace should disclose the opening of this, the deepest known natural hole in England, and at the same time the most awkward pot-hole it has been my lot to descend. I would take this opportunity of impressing upon the visitor who is a stranger to the neighbourhood to implicitly follow the short directions here given, in order that he may arrive at the hole in a reasonable time after starting. I have a vivid recollection of, on one occasion, being one of a party of would-be explorers, which included a "wise man" with a compass and map. I do not for a moment object to either of the two last-named articles, but ever since then I have had a rooted objection to a combination of the three. We were persuaded to place ourselves in the hands of the " wise man," to be taken in a crow-line across the Fell to economise time. Being so persuaded was a grave error on our part, and I make no apology for the statement that our tracks formed numerous rings and spirals round Rowten Pot, and that when we found it there was no time left for even the shortest investigation.
Rowten Pot has two openings proper, lying north and south. The south, and smaller of the two, is 16 ft. long and can be jumped across without difficulty, as it is only 5ft. wide. A stone dropped down its sheer vertical rock shaft does not strike anything for nearly four seconds, as it has to fall some 235 ft., a depth exceeding the height of the Leeds Town Hall. The north opening is of a different character. At the surface it is 75 ft. long by 40 ft. wide. Its sloping sides are clothed with ferns, mosses, and Rowan trees, from which latter the hole apparently takes its name.
I have said that several attempts to descend Rowten Pot were made by members of the Club, but it was not until July 4th, 1897, that Messrs. Booth, Cuttriss, Parsons, Scriven, and the writer, assisted by H. Woodhouse and T. Somers, successfully completed the first descent. Now experience had taught us that pot-hole exploration, and least of all such a hole as Rowten Pot, cannot be properly carried out by anyone provided with only a match, a candle, and a bit of string. When our party had gathered together the tackle considered necessary for the undertaking, it was found to consist of an assortment of about 200 ft. of rope-ladder, 1700 ft. of rope, numerous coils of telephone line, flare-lamps, crow-bars, pulley blocks, and many other paraphernalia, weighing in all many hundredweights. To pull this up to the nearest point on the road below the Fell was not a very laborious affair for the cart horse, but the struggle for our party to shoulder and drag it from the road up to the pot-hole was little short of hard labour, and very effectually convinced each member of the folly of exhausting himself at the outset of the day's exertions.
We started early, and immediately on arrival at the scene of action at 6 a.m. operations were commenced. The 70 ft. of descent down the west side of the larger of the two openings was made with little difficulty, and as all the members of the party were experienced in this kind of work, it was not considered necessary to use more than ordinary care until we reached a side fissure some 4 ft. wide, and which we named the "chimney." Safety-ropes were used during every further stage of the descent, as a slip could not have been otherwise than most serious. lt was here necessary to lower a rope-ladder in order to descend the next 20 ft., where convenient footholds in the vertical sides of the chimney afforded a means of continuing the descent on to a platform of rock about 100 ft. below the surface and directly under the smaller of the two openings at the top.
Standing on this platform, with the line of descent at one's back, the mouth of the lower chasm lies in front, and on the left a natural bridge of limestone spans a gully which is a continuation of the "chimney." Down this gully the Rowten Pot gill rushes, and, at a depth of 50 ft. below the bridge, takes its first plunge down the main chasm. lt was from this platform that the work of manipulating the safety-ropes and raising and lowering the ladders during our further descent was conducted. Convenient projecting rocks were found, to which we attached the ladders, and there was sufficient room for a man to handle the safety-lines, but, as the platform shelved somewhat sharply towards the edge it was found necessary to move about on it with care to avoid precipitating the loose stones which covered its floor on to the explorers below.
All the tackle immediately required having been brought down to the platform, a flare-lamp was lowered clear of the waterfall. This enabled us to observe the course taken by the two lengths of ladder which, securely lashed end to end, followed. lt is no mere figure of speech to say we all suffered an imaginary chill when the light of the lamp showed that the ladders passed into the waterfall 50 ft. below where we were. As it would have been an uncomfortable business for a man to remain on the ladder for any length of time under such circumstances, it was desirable that he should be able to effect a safe landing somewhere, and not have to return immediately through the waterfall. The whole 190 ft. of ladder was therefore lowered. Pre-arranged signals were now rehearsed, and Booth, our leader, made ready to suffer a second chill. A 400 ft. length of light rope was fastened around his waist for safety, and paid out as he descended. At a depth of 50 ft. below the bridge, he passed a ledge on which the falling water was dashing and then plunging into lower depths. He then descended another 45 ft., and found he was able to step clear of the waterfall on to what proved to be the first floor of the chasm. This was at a depth of 235 ft. from the surface. A telephone line was now lowered, and satisfactory communication established between him and those above. Cuttriss, Parsons, and the writer then descended in turn and joined Booth.
Rope-ladder climbing is harder work than is generally imagined, and even under the best of circumstances not much of it is required to give rise to internal and vexatious heat. The Rowten Pot explorer, however, is not afflicted much in this way, for after descending in the waterfall any heat that may have been generated in him is soon dissipated, and whatever effect previous excitement may have produced in his temperature he will finish that ladder climb with more than ordinary coolness, even though he may have benefited by the protecting influence of a good sou'-wester hat and oilskins. Such was the state we found ourselves to be in.
The platform on which we now stood formed practically the floor of the main chasm, and further to be the roof of a small chamber. As this floor had fallen through in places, it was somewhat unsafe to move about on it. On the side furthest from the waterfall the chasm, much reduced in size, continues downwards, while on the same side, but at the other corner, was a gully, which on investigation was found descending in a series of pitches.
We had now been at work two and a half hours, and, though an important part of the work had been successfully accomplished, there now seemed a prospect of the labour becoming more arduous. We therefore decided to take a rest, and, while discussing the best method of continuing the descent, to indulge in a much needed lunch before proceeding further. The utility of the telephone now became very apparent. A brisk conversation ensued with the party at the surface respecting the commissariat, and in due time hot soup was lowered down to us. Other courses followed in a basket, and each man sorted out what he preferred. The meal over, and the saturated condition of our clothing not being conducive to longer inactivity, we made ready without more delay to descend further into unknown depths. As the tail end of the ladder only reached some 40 ft. below us, instructions were telephoned for its whole length to be lowered. We then dropped the bottom end of it down the lower hole, the top end still remaining attached to the ropes at the bridge. Cuttriss having decided to remain here in order to keep up communication with our friends above who were handling the safety-ropes, the other three men resumed the work of exploration. A descent of 55 ft. on the ladder, under a constant stream of falling water, brought us to another landing place. Here on the right, when facing the chasm, was a large vertical fissure with a considerable pool of water at the bottom. The fissure was left for exploration later on if opportunity should occur, and the descent of the main hole was again continued. Some 25 ft. further down we found ourselves in another large chamber with a floor covered with huge boulders, between which the falling water sank and disappeared - much to our gratification. On examining this chamber, we found at a distance of 50 yds. from the ladder still another chasm inviting descent, so we dragged all the slack part of the ladder across the boulders and dropped it down what proved to be the last length of vertical shaft in Rowten Pot. The sides were here quite dry, and as the ladder rested snugly against the sloping side, the remaining 20 ft. of descent was made under conditions of comfort and enjoyment not previously found in any other part of the hole.
The bottom opened out into a dome-shaped chamber with a dry mud floor. Near where the ladder hung we entered a dry passage descending in easy pitches. Just when we were beginning to appreciate the comfortable scramble down, after the long and monotonous exercise on the hanging ladder, behold! on turning a sharp corner we were faced by a shower bath which certainly put to shame any domestic arrangement of that kind we had ever seen. After a little consideration, it became clear this was the old friend we had lately parted with higher up, and we were now right under the boulder-strewn floor into which we had seen it sink. As the state of our path did not lend itself to quick travelling the "real estate" we had accumulated in the dry chamber was quickly washed off in passing through the falling water. Continuing along the still descending passage, we finally reached what proved to be the limit of our downward progress. The barometer here showed that we had descended 365 ft. from the surface. The bottom is very disappointing from a spectacular point of view, ending as it does, in a series of small chambers dammed up with water. Though unsatisfactory we felt the occasion called for the usual "commemoration service," which was held with all due ceremony.
Returning to the 235 ft. level we rejoined Cuttriss, and then, after taking a short rest and more refreshment, divided into two parties, Booth and Parsons to explore the corner gully we had previously observed and the writer to return with Cuttriss to the bottom.
In exploring a pot-hole of any importance, it almost invariably happens that in spite of the greatest care some thing or other is lost. It may be one's temper only, or, what is more serious, one's equilibrium. Both of these may be recovered more or less quickly, but when it happens to be a part of the working tackle, it is not always possible to regain it. I do not remember any occasion when every article taken down a pot-hole has been brought away again. The descent of Rowten Pot proved no exception, and I was the guilty cause of it. In descending the last 30 ft. of the bottom passage during my return visit, I slipped on a narrow ridge of rock which was just visible across the middle of a deep pool of water. The loss of dignity and the usual "jar" were of little importance; the loss of a good hand-lamp and my candle were otherwise, as I was left somewhat awkwardly balanced across the ridge, and in total darkness. Cuttriss, however, was not far away, and soon appeared with the light necessary to enable me to venture on regaining my equilibrium, but the hand-lamp was beyond recall. It is for reasons like this that the cost of an expedition cannot be accurately made until "stock" has been finally taken and the missing articles apprised. On reaching the bottom of the pot, Cuttriss - always accompanied with that mysterious green rucksack of his - busied himself with chipping off bits of rock and taking the temperature of the air and water, but I could not for the life of me see why, in doing this, he should consider it necessary to stand up to his knees in water for ten minutes or so, with a thermometer dangling by a bit of string from a button on his coat. The compass and barometer, too, had to be consulted, and in this I was unpleasantly reminded of the "wise man." But here one could not easily be led astray, so I made no protest; Cuttriss finished his observations and notes, and we returned to the 235 ft. level, where we were joined shortly after by the other half of the exploring party. They reported that the passage, though starting off in a direction to the right, gradually worked round in a semicircle to the left, and after descending 55 ft. opened into the lower shaft down which we had been. This they knew by seeing our rope-ladder and the falling water. They had also followed a winding branch of the passage until the closing sides prevented further progress.
There being no likelihood of further discoveries of any importance, we became anxious to return to daylight and to the comforts awaiting us on the surface, the most needed of which we felt to be a change from wet to dry clothes. Imagine our consternation then on "ringing up" with the intention of giving instructions to our friends above for the manipulation of the various ropes, to find our telephone would not work. As no sound we were able to make could ever be expected to reach the bridge party, owing to the deafening roar of the waterfall, we were in a dilemma. In this predicament we wrote a message on the margin of a piece of newspaper, tied it to the lamp cord, and, by pulling at the rope, signalled for it to be drawn up, but, alas! this effort was also fruitless, for our message did not survive its watery passage. Repeated similar efforts proving unavailing, the ingenuity of Scriven at the top was equal to the occasion, for by attaching a tin kettle to the end of a cord and corking the spout, a receptacle was provided for the safe conveyance of messages. The rope-ladder was then hauled up from its lowest position to where we stood, and each man made the 135 ft. climb up it.
Thus was Rowten Pot shorn of its mystery. Its general character from the bridge down to the 235 ft. floor, is that of one large chasm, wet throughout, and down to the next floor the risk of falling stones cannot well be avoided, as the explorer necessarily works in the line of their fall. At no point below this is there a chamber that can claim to any degree of grandeur or beauty. During our descent flare-lamps could not be used below this floor, consequently a large supply of waterproof matches and candles were needed. All the ladder-climbs, with the exception of the bottom bit, had to be done in falling water, and as daylight does not reach lower than an eighth of the depth, whenever the conditions would permit, a candle or lamp were used to light up the ledges below.
Although the Pot affords plenty of excitement and opportunity for exercising the best qualities of the speleologist, but is not recommended for the amateur to practise in. The falling water, the long climbs on a swaying and twisting ladder, together with the general absence of good light, form conditions that should be taken separately or in smaller doses than are to be found in Rowten Pot.