Gaping Gill is the largest underground cave chamber in Britain. It’s often said, without exaggeration, that this dramatic chamber is big enough to fit a cathedral. It is so big that there has been an attempt to fly a hot air balloon inside the cave.
The vertical main shaft from the surface to the floor of the chamber is about 98m deep and normally contains a substantial waterfall, the route by which the surface stream, Fell Beck, finds its way to the chamber floor.
The chamber and the extensive cave system it is a part of are usually only accessible to experienced and properly equipped cave explorers. But for two separate weeks of the year (around the August and late May public holidays) two local caving clubs provide a winch to allow members of the public to be lowered down the shaft on a boatswain’s chair, and later winched out again.
Once inside you can just explore the chamber, or the slightly more adventurous can enter some of the easier and closer passages of the 16.6km cave system. It’s a good idea to wear waterproof clothing as the winch passes you through the spray from the towering waterfall.
Know Before You Go
The top of the main shaft is normally reached by walking up a path from the village of Clapham (in North Yorkshire). Initially follow the signs to Ingleborough Cave but after that there are usually a lot of people walking to the entrance in good weather at weekends. A map will be needed at other times and is advisable in the Yorkshire Dales even if following a well marked path.The path starts as an easy stroll but gets more strenuous after passing the entrance to Ingleborough Cave (a commercial show cave, itself worth a visit). This includes a spectacular, but steep, limestone gorge called Trow Gill. The walk to the top will take about an hour but the spectacular scenery makes it worth it. It is a real part of the overall package.The charge for the winch in 2016 was £15. For more information look at the Craven Pothole Club link for the August meet and the Bradford Pothole Club link for the May meet.Waiting in line for the descent and ascent can get to be a long time so warm clothing is a must. The floor of the main chamber is very wet so waterproof boots are advisable. You can rent helmets and lamps in the nearby village of Ingleton if you want to explore a little farther than the main chamber. When you reach the top of the well trodden path to the plateau near the top of Ingleborough you should be able to hear the engine which drives the winch.At one (if not both) of the winch meets the chamber is spectacularly lit from time to time. Plans of the system can be easily obtained from the internet (try: http://www.braemoor.co.uk/caving/ap.shtml ). Climbing up the steep East Slope up to Old East Passage or ,at the other end of the chamber, walking (sometimes needing to stoop) towards South East Passage are very popular and when the winch is running there will usually be people around there to help you find your way back to the chamber if you need it. In Old East Passage are the remnants of some once spectacular stalactites and stalagmites which are now, sadly, rather badly damaged. However take care not to wander too far unless you are experienced.