PLUMBING THE DEPTHS

Garland's Pot.jpg

A walk on the wild side: beneath the Peak District in Derbyshire lies a web of caves and streams. Robert Macfarlane plucks up his courage and takes the plunge

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

There were many reasons not to go underground that day. Number One—the caves we planned to enter had the highest concentration of radon ever measured in a limestone system. Number Two—we would be following a stream down into the earth, and the weather forecast was for the "second child of Tropical Storm Nadine" to hit the area sometime that evening. Number Three—thousands of feet into the system there was a feature called the Vice to negotiate, the description of which made me glad I’d already had my children. Number Four—the best reason of all—was that the surface was looking so beautiful: bright white sunshine, frost in the hollows of the land, the earth steaming where the sun caught it, red apples on green trees, and birds carrying silver light on their wings.

But there it was: we were going down Giant’s Hole, so we eked and grunted our way into our wetsuits. We tested our lamps, rigged our rope, coiled our caving ladder and packed an ammo box with safety kit. A caver with dirty legs wandered up to us.

"Where’re you heading?"

"Garland’s Pot, the Crabwalk, down the Cascades and then to the Eating House," said John, my friend and guide. "Maybe through the sump and back via the Roof. How’s the water down there?"

"Not too bad. It was chunky a couple of weeks ago, but it’s thinned out a bit now."

John looked glad. I felt sick. I’ve been down mines and caves before, but by habit I’m a walker and mountaineer, drawn to the open. This was John’s idea.

The entrance to Giant's Hole is a head-height tunnel in an under-cliff of crumbling limestone, set into a grassy shoulder of field in the heart of the English Peak District. The stone is silver-grey. The cave mouth is black. It reminded me of the Great Pit of Carkoon from "Return of the Jedi", in which the Sarlacc monster lives and in which (Jabba the Hutt boasts) humans "find a new definition of pain and suffering, as you are slowly digested over a thousand years". I put this unhelpful cultural reference out of my mind, flicked on my lamp, and followed John into the darkness. With us were John’s son, Robin, and his friend Lorna.

The hours that followed were some of the strangest and most wonderful I have known. First came a hundred yards of wide tunnel, the stream at our feet chuckling louder as the roof slowly closed in, the surfaces of the walls elaborate with water-worn limestone: dimples, wax-drips, jellyfish orbs. The whole system, I realised, was a vast aquafact of astonishing intricacy and organicism.

"John, this is incredible, baroque, insane!" I shouted. "My sensorium is maxing out!"

"Watch where you’re putting your feet," said John.

We had reached Garland’s Pot, a rough cylinder of space perhaps 12 feet across and 20 feet deep, down which the stream crashed. John set up an abseil, and we dangled down the side of the pot, pummelled by the waterfall, yelling to make ourselves heard.

The stream was our guide, our Virgil, our Ariadne’s thread—and it exited the base of the pot by a rift so narrow that it could only be entered sideways. "Welcome to the Crabwalk," said John, and disappeared down it. I followed, clanking the ammo box against the limestone, filling the rift with thunder.

We were in the Crabwalk for almost two hours. At its narrowest it is eight inches wide; usually about a foot and a half. It is 60 feet high. It twists and turns. No—those verbs fail to do justice to its tortuousness. It chicanes, it hairpins, it ogees, it sines, it spindles, it agonises. If you filled it with concrete, then cut away the land around, you would be left with a rococo umbilicus, dipping and coiling its way lower and lower.

Descending it was exhilarating. The task had aspects of both an assault course and a rebus. You dipped, squeezed, curved and "udged" (a caver’s verb) your body down it, shoulder first, over-clothes rasping against the limestone, feet cold in the rushing stream. It was like navigating the voluptuous interior of a folded theatre curtain, and it was a headlong part-plummet that I didn’t want to end.

But the Vice was tight. So tight that John decided against trying to push through it, afraid of wedging. Robin and I managed to slip through and we rested on its far side, faces pressed to the wet stone.

"You go on for a while," John said. "The tunnel doesn’t branch. Take the safety kit—and take care."

So we did, anxiously at first, down through two Cascades, one of which had a rickety ladder, the other of which required an awkward layback move on a thin fin of rock, out over the watery depths. Once, we turned off our headlights and sat for a few minutes in a darkness without feature. Eventually we reached what we took to be the Eating House, where the stream dropped away and a wide dry chamber opened up. It was a lonely place, and we didn’t linger long.

Back up the Cascades (reach, teeter, haul), back through the Vice (exhale, hold breath, squeeze), back along the Crabwalk (shimmy, slither), to where John and Lorna were waiting, back up the ladder at Garland’s (dangle, heave) and then a charge for the surface, which we could smell before we saw it: gusts of clean air, then a rough door of sunshine ahead.

We stood in the cave mouth for a few minutes, hands on hips, helmets on heads, drinking in the colours and the expanse, grinning. The earth had extruded me, and I was glad.

Picture: following the water's path down Garland's Pot and on towards the Crabwalk (Robbie Shone)

Robert Macfarlane teaches English at Cambridge and will chair the 2013 Man Booker prize judges. He is the author of "The Old Ways"