It is Sunday at Bradford Pothole Club (BPC) and one of those cold blue winter days which we have so few of in Britain. Tania, Carl and another anonymous Croydon member pile into Bernard's "mean-machine" with me and we are off to Langstroth Dale on a caving adventure. We slide effortlessly up and down dale, stop at the pre-arranged spot and begin to get changed. I try not to expose too many of my private parts to the passing grockles. Others in our party seem to take great pleasure in doing just this! Anyhow, we are almost changed when the group of BPC who have half-organised the trip arrive. I say half-organised as the trip is being run by a strange character named Dalek. Based on his exploits yesterday, anything could happen today.
We don't worry too much about the quality of the leadership as there is some concern whether we will actually get into the cave at all. The cave named Hagg Gill Pot has only just been discovered and there is a chance that the discoverers may take exception to our group trying to "free load" a trip in there. However, if Dalek is worried he isn't showing it. This is the person who on the previous day managed to loose 13 BPC members down Bull Pot of the Witches. He was last seen disappearing over a traverse where even I was not prepared to follow him. What he lacks in sanity he makes up for in enthusiasm, for when we eventually reached the surface he then asked if anybody wanted to go down Aygill Caverns. Most people who had not already run away made their excuses and did likewise at this point. For some bizarre reason I offered to accompany him as well as two other female "keenies". The trip down Aygill was enjoyable enough but fears about Dalek's excessive enthusiasm were confirmed when walking back to Bull Pot Farm he started to insert himself into Casterton Pot. Two pots in one day is just about OK, but three is the limit, and the rest of us headed off back to Bull Pot Farm in revolt. Defeated, Dalek decided to follow.
The Croydon group and members of BPC are now following Dalek up the hill to Hagg Gill Pot, while the other anonymous member has been left to guard Bernard's car. Slowly sweating my way up the hill, at last the slope starts to level off and I see a group of caver types in the distance. Drawing closer, I notice that they seem to be undertaking some sort of digging operation. We exchange greetings and then Dalek asks the tricky question - can we actually go down the cave at all? Fortunately they don't seem to mind and we soon learn that almost half the Yorkshire caving scene have already been down. However, they do warn us not touch the rock bridge in the entrance. Apparently this entrance has only just been opened up and the walls and bridge in the chimney section near the top of the pitch are all still horribly loose. With this in mind, the BPC members proceed to start laddering this 50ft shaft without a lifeline, just to make sure that if they do get hit by a boulder they will also fall off the pitch for good measure. In order not to appear like soft southerners we do the stupid thing and also agree to do the pitch unlifelined. Not wanting to be drawn into this incident of mass stupidity, Bernard suddenly decides that his cut hand has unexpectedly taken a turn for the worse and insists that he must help the White Rose Pothole Club (WRPC) landscape their entrance.
So Tania disappears off into the gloom and what seems like ages later I hear a feint "down". I start to descend trying not to look too closely at the loose bits, and as the pitch breaks out through the roof of a chamber, I hug the ladder even more tightly which wouldn't help me much if the main belay broke. Fortunately, disaster does not strike today and after scuttling away from the line of fire, I invite Carl to "come on down". Soon we are all at the bottom of the pitch. In a brief moment when everybody falls silent, I can hear the distant murmur of a stream; the lifeblood of the cave flowing endlessly on, but how deep, how wide? We round a few corners to be greeted by a sculptured vadose canyon passage with a friendly stream babbling along the bottom. Nothing dull or ominous.
Dalek leads off up the streambed. A few cascades quickly follow where grasping for handholds I notice that the rock is sharp and fretted, not yet worn smooth by the passage of innumerable bodies. Strangely, the passage now begins to narrow down and a moment later the stream can be seen slinking out of a gap of a size which would not admit a cat. This doesn't seem to bother Dalek, however, who is now trying to bulldoze his way blindly up the crack. Even Dalek is giving up when somebody mutters "What about that large passage heading off back down on the right?" Dalek barges his way to the front and we are haring our way back. And indeed a tall, high rift is seen lurking in one corner of the passage. A possible solution to the problem.
Progress along the rift can only be made by using an awkward sideways shuffle. A few metres further and all thoughts about the hard going are forgotten, for almost blocking the way on is a portcullis of clear white straws cascading from the ceiling. We all crawl carefully under them and the group falls silent as if a single word would bring them crashing down. An isolated collection of "pretties" I think to myself, but I am proved wrong as they grow in profusion and more contortions are necessary to avoid damage. Ahead the passage appears to narrow down even further, just possible with a sideways thrutch, but then as I look again I see the crooked fingers of a multitude of helictites branching their way out into the rift. I look for a possible way above the formations, but it seems that there is no alternative to straight through the rift. With little hesitation, Dalek squeezes into Helictite Rift and within a few moments I am cringing as I hear the tell-tale tinkling of breaking helictites. Everybody tries to do their utmost to minimise the damage but it is done all the same. Perhaps we have no right to be here at all? All my lofty thoughts are cast aside as it is now my turn. I try to edge through slowly, but a moment later I hear the tinkling of another broken helictite. Against my chest the twisted helictite fingers rear up and point accusingly. However, the rift soon widens again and I am through, having played my own small part in this cave destruction.
Ahead, I can smell tobacco and a moment later another party comes into view. The fumes appear to be coming from their grizzled looking leader who has a Woodbine stuck firmly in one corner of his mouth. We exchange pleasantries and learn that they are members of the WRPC doing an exchange trip from the old to the new entrances. Somewhat naively I ask him whether anything can be done to minimise the damage to the formations. "Now't can be done about that," he replies gruffly, and puffs his way off down the passage. Well there wouldn't be much left of anything if everybody took that attitude. However, I cannot get too despondent as the passage has enlarged into a lofty vadose canyon and Dalek and the rest of the party have gone rushing off.
Somewhere below I can hear the murmur of the stream but it is at this point that the traversing begins. Concentration is required as some sections of the passage - as is often the case in recently discovered passage - look decidedly loose. To confirm my fears, I attempt to use a rock projection as a hand hold and it promptly comes away in my hand. Fortunately, my footholds are a bit more secure.
Dalek is going too fast. Something is bound to go wrong. I like to consider myself a reasonably speedy caver, but I'm lagging behind. And then it happens - the sickening crashing sound of falling rock up ahead. A few moments later all I can hear is the incessant babbling of everybody talking at once. I round the corner to see a rather dazed looking Tania sitting rag-doll like on a rock. All I can gather is that a rock the size of a fridge has just detached itself from the wall and hit Tania. Fortunately it is only a glancing blow to the head and other parts of her anatomy. A more direct blow and the outcome might have been much worse.
Although she doesn't think she is going to die, Tania feels pretty shaken up and would like to get out of the cave as soon as possible. The Bradford bunch start muttering about whether they have to abort their trip. Erring on the side of safety and not really knowing how badly Tania is damaged, the Croydon members agree that we should head on out. Tania starts out pretty slowly but after a while speeds up. At one point, I try to do my "Sir Walter Raleigh" bit and help her manfully down one of the cascade climbs. However, assuming her to be as light as a feather, I overbalance and fall backwards into the plunge pool. Fortunately, Tania doesn't follow me. We all manage a laugh but at the back of everybody's minds is the entrance pitch and its host of loose boulders.
Rounding a few corners we are back at the entrance chamber. Somebody calls down to us. Someone in our group mutters something about preferring to do the pitch with a lifeline this time. A heated debate ensues and an old hemp rope wends its way down to us. Carl goes up first, and not wishing to get brained on the head by a boulder we stand very well clear of the pitch. Soon I hear a "rope free" and it is now Tania's turn to ascend. As Tania makes her way slowly up small stones begin to cascade down. I start to feel uneasy and decide to hide in an alcove shielding me from anything that might come down the pitch.
I hear the sound of rocks on the move but this time from below me. No need to panic, it's the man with frog eyes, the first deserter from Dalek's group. "I don't want a tonne of boulders down on my head so I'm hiding back here," I explain. The man with frog eyes doesn't say anything but he obviously doesn't think it is such a bad idea as he inserts himself in the alcove opposite.
Nothing has happened for a short while and I'm just contemplating stepping out and stretching my legs when several greyish brown blurs flash past me and an instant later the sound of rock striking rock and the sickly smell of pulverised limestone follow. Fortunately Tania hasn't come down as well! The man with frog eyes makes no comment, but his eyes seem to be trying to pop out even more now. I retreat further into my alcove.
After what seems like an eternity I hear the call of "rope free". I step out warily with the knowledge that at any moment more boulders might come winging their way down. I try and climb the ladder as lightly as possible if you can do such a thing. Reaching the rock bridge things look strangely unfamiliar. Although the bridge is still in position, I notice that some of the wall has peeled away and the rest looks as if it might do the same at any moment. I smile nicely at the rest of the loose rock and make my way to day light and safety.
Back on the surface Tania and Carl both appear to be in one piece. The team who came out before us don't seem to be bothered about this as they start whinging about having to lifeline "novices" out of the hole. Anyhow we don't get into an argument and we beat a hasty retreat. Back at the carpark things haven't been going too well for Bernard as the other anonymous Croydon member has managed to breaking his radio-cassette. Somehow as we get changed and make our way home the day doesn't seem quite so sunny.
Postscript: I read in a copy of Descent that severe damage has occurred to the formations in Hagg Gill Pot. This probably means that any helictites, straws, etc. which were present have now been rendered down to mud and carbide. Fortunately, I doubt I will have cause to ever visit the cave again, so I keep with me a memory of a beautiful cave. Some form of access arrangement may have prevented this, but it was not to be. I'm sorry if not all stories have a happy ending.