Going underground in the Lake District
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
“MAYBE LIVING IN THE WILD WOULDN’T BE SO BAD AFTER ALL? ”
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...