Go­ing un­der­ground in the Lake Dis­trict

Countryfile Magazine - - Advertisement Feature -

Iwouldn’t fancy liv­ing up here for months on end.” Sam Sykes, of the Mam­mut Moun­tain School, is look­ing at the cold, damp, draughty cave where the self-styled Pro­fes­sor of Ad­ven­ture, Mil­li­can Dal­ton once lived. Hav­ing aban­doned a com­fort­able job in Lon­don and des­per­ate to get back to na­ture, the for­mer in­surance clerk lived here in the Lake Dis­trict woods on and off from the early 1920s un­til the mid1940s. Although he tried to be as self-suf­fi­cient as pos­si­ble, grow­ing veg­eta­bles on the ter­race out­side his cave, he also earned a bit of money by of­fer­ing hol­i­days to would-be adventurers.

We’re on our own mini-ad­ven­ture to­day: Sam is tak­ing me to some of the caves and cav­erns left be­hind by the slate quar­ry­ing in­dus­try. From the val­ley bot­tom, it’s taken us about 30 min­utes to clam­ber up to Dal­ton’s home, hewn by quar­ry­men from the rocks of Cas­tle Crag in Bor­row­dale. Set­ting out early from Rosth­waite in Bor­row­dale, we’d had the at­mo­spheric woods fring­ing the River Der­went to our­selves – al­most... A soli­tary roe deer hind had lol­loped off through the trees as we ap­proached, its grace­ful move­ments barely dis­turb­ing the leaves on the ground. A pop­u­lar path cir­cuits the base of Cas­tle Crag, but we’d been keep­ing our eyes peeled for a less wellused trail head­ing up into the dis­used quarry work­ings. Af­ter one false start, we come across what we were look­ing for…

En­ter­ing via his liv­ing area, we find our­selves in a sub­stan­tial cav­ern that goes some way back into the ground. I can imag­ine Dal­ton sit­ting in this hole, warm­ing his hands by a camp­fire while the wind howled out­side. We ne­go­ti­ate a pile of slate to reach a smaller, slightly higher part of the cave. Dal­ton dubbed this ‘The At­tic’ and turned it into a bed­room.

It’s such an ap­peal­ing, ro­man­tic no­tion – the idea of aban­don­ing the stresses of mod­ern life and go­ing back to a sim­pler, more ba­sic way of liv­ing – but Sam is ob­vi­ously see­ing Dal­ton’s un­doubt­edly un­com­fort­able ex­is­tence through more prac­ti­cal eyes. And I have to agree – a few nights of wild camp­ing with mo­bile phones switched off is a


su­perb an­ti­dote to 21st-cen­tury life, but I’m way too fond of my crea­ture com­forts to give them up per­ma­nently.

Hop­ping in the car, we head to the next stop - the Lit­tle Lang­dale quar­ries. “Mind your head!” Sam shouts as I don my head torch and duck into the dark, low-roofed pas­sage­way. It’s only a few hun­dred me­tres long, but it’s eerie and slightly un­nerv­ing. Emerg­ing into the day­light, we find our­selves sur­rounded by high, dark walls of slate. We wan­der to the edge of a precipice to peer down into the site’s most fa­mous fea­ture – Cathe­dral Cave, a mas­sive cham­ber used as a lo­ca­tion for the 2012 Kris­ten Ste­wart film Snow White and the Hunts­man. Com­ing away from the ver­tig­i­nous edge, we find an­other way into the cave, scram­bling down some wet slate. Hav­ing only short legs, I have to bum slither down the rock, sit­ting in a pool of water on the way. I’ll regret that later.

About a kilo­me­tre south of the Lit­tle Lang­dale quar­ries, is Hodge Close, where slate was ex­tracted from the early nine­teenth cen­tury un­til the 1960s. We peer down into a huge pit with a turquoise pool in the bot­tom of it. I nor­mally en­joy standing on cliff-tops look­ing down, but the sight of a group of young chil­dren standing way too close to the edge on the other side makes me ner­vous. I feel a shiver of fear. “That’s where my dad used to take me ab­seil­ing when I was a kid,” says Sam, point­ing to a wall of rock that plunges al­most 50 me­tres into the abyss. “Do you fancy go­ing down there?” There’s an­other shiver, but then I re­alise he’s not sug­gest­ing we ab­seil…

Scuba divers nor­mally ac­cess the 45-me­tre deep pool via a tun­nel and a lad­der, but the tun­nel is knee-deep in cold water to­day, so we take a slightly more com­fort­able route into the pit. Clam­ber­ing down a steep, stony trail, we en­ter an ad­join­ing quarry. There’s no doubt­ing the in­dus­trial her­itage of this site – lumps of man­gled metal lie scat­tered about and a mas­sive, python­like ca­ble lurks men­ac­ingly among the fallen boul­ders. Af­ter care­fully pass­ing through this first pit, we’re able to look through two enor­mous holes in the slate wall – straight into the flooded cav­ern we’d stood gaz­ing down on ear­lier.

Two divers on the other side of the pool are pre­par­ing to en­ter the water. There are more cham­bers and tun­nels hid­den in those icy depths – a murky un­der­wa­ter world where sev­eral peo­ple have lost their lives over the years. I shiver again. I feel we’ve had an ad­ven­ture to­day but, re­ally, we’ve just scratched the sur­face; for those two divers tak­ing their first ten­ta­tive steps into the water, the ad­ven­ture is only just be­gin­ning...

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