to find the cave entrance
Gate Cave and other explorations
to track water flows from Helm
Natland Pipeline Cave
the avoidance of doubt, as our learned friends are fond
of saying, this article is NOT about the fabled
It is about the Natland Pipeline Cave.
I first heard of the cave, many years ago, I leapt to
the conclusion that it and the treacle mine were one
same thing; mythical. However, this longstanding
presumption has recently been shattered and I can now
categorically state that the Natland Pipeline
Cave is real. Whether or not its existence was known
to earlier generations and contributed to the Treacle
Mine legend, I cannot say but there is no doubt some twenty five years ago a remarkable
discovery was made and then deliberately concealed.
1982, contractors for the North West Water Authority were
installing a new water pipeline across fields east of
Natland. In so doing they found a cavity in the
ground, filled it with rubble and thought no more about
it. Some months and much rain later, water, presumably
sinking from Helm, washed away enough of the rubble
for the ground to open up revealing a cave passage some
fifteen feet below the surface. North West Water
Authority was sufficiently concerned about the safety
of their pipeline that it commissioned a couple of experienced
cavers, Jeff Clegg and Graham Hudson, to explore the
cave. Their findings were written in some detail
in Descent, then
subtitled "The Magazine for Cavers" but now
repositioned, relevantly in respect of this saga,as
"The Magazine of Underground Exploration"; edition number 55, November
800 feet was surveyed and about 2,000 feet was explored.
What they found was described in Descent
as "a mainly meandering active streamway rising
to 30 feet in height and varying in width from restricted
sideways progression to comfortable walking." Many
of the normal features of limestone caves were found
and cascades, which Jeff photographed.
Cave Pearls (right)
told Natland.info that it was a tight squeeze to get
past the pipeline into the cave. They only had
limited "free time" to go beyond the area
concerning the NWWA due to the authority's insistence
in having a man posted at the entrance for safety purposes,
to whom they had to keep reporting back. His other
regret is that they were not able to do a dye test to
find out where the underground stream finally emerged
into the River Kent.
wife, Alice, also visited the cave. She told Natland.info
that NWWA had been astonishingly lucky and if the passage
had been any bigger it could have caused major problems.
the survey findings satisfied NWWA that there was no
further risk to the pipeline and it solved the problem
by sealing off the entrance with concrete. Whether British
Rail, or now, Network Rail, ought to have been
/ be concerned is another matter, as Jeff recalls the
thunderous noise he heard whilst in the cave, caused
by a train running overhead.
these days, a manhole cover would be installed
to enable speleological investigation but that was not
necessarily the practice at the time. The cave
was effectively and permanently closed without the opportunity to
discover either the source of the stream or its exit,
nevermind complete the exploration of what, in local
terms, was a significant geological find.
discovery was reported in the Westmorland Gazette but
the cave does not appear to have received any further
attention until about twenty years later when that report
came to the attention of Natlander Keith Bradbury
who at the time was Secretary of the Kendal
Keith contacted the two explorers
who were helpful in providing information about the
United Utilities, the successors to
NWWA, produced a map of the pipeline subject to a long
list of conditions including no explosives to be used
within 32 metres!
From these, Keith was able to identify the
field but could only estimate position of the breakthrough.
Chadwick, on reading about the cave in the
item, contacted Natland.info with positive identification
of the entrance. He wrote:
Gazette reports the discovery
doubt, the location is shown in the attached image
taken from Google Earth. In reality, I remember
being told to keep away from the area as it was
dangerous by the workmen preparing to fill the open
entrance to a large hole in the ground (well, it
was large to an eight year old) True to the
nature of eight year olds everywhere, I waited until
they had gone and ignored their advice. I
managed to get down quite a way into the darkness
before I got scared.
time I was there, the area appeared normal and you
would never know that there was anything unusual
is just about bang-on where we calculated the entrance
to be from surveys.
you go into the field and look at the wall (where
the shaft of the arrow meets the arrow head on the
photograph) it has clearly been demolished and rebuilt
- presumably as the pipeline trench passed through
agreed to take me on tour of various sites of speleological
interest around Natland.
We started off at the
railway just south of where the line goes under the
pointed out two small areas of old brickwork in the
limestone embankment and speculated that when the rock
was being dynamited to make way for the track, openings
emerged that might well be linked to the pipeline cave.
The other side of the track is heavily overgrown
but Keith wondered if there had been a watercourse that
had been diverted?
strange bricked areas in the rock
Bradbury points to cave entrance location
then went along the footpath by the railway and into
the field where the breakthrough is believed to have
taken place. There is nothing there now to excite
the visitor but he produced the survey map that Jeff
Clegg had made which showed a cave system meandering
across the field down from the railway towards Natland
At the bottom
of the map is shown a cross-section of the
cave at referenced points. The breakthrough
was where the pipe crosses the cave and
is referenced as "F".
on Jeff Clegg's survey map for an enlargement.
At the south
eastern of the field, near the railway embankment, is an area that is often boggy (although
at the time of our visit the ground was bone dry). Keith
suspects that area is related to the cave system's water
course and that it would be an interesting place to
start digging! Looking at the survey map, the
boggy area does seem to correspond with where the cave
goes under the railway.
we walked along the A65 where he pointed out several
"sinks"- boggy areas where the water gathers
before mysteriously disappearing.
Caving Club has made attempts to trace the water flows
from Helm to the river using green dye. This is
explained in some detail in Keith's entertainingly written,
albeit misleadingly titled,
However the dye simply vanished without trace;
the water course remains a mystery.
the most remarkable incident on our tour happened off
the west side of the A65.
Keith led me to a small
hole in the limestone and explained that this was where
Kendal Caving Club had been exploring. He described
it as a low passage along which you have to crawl absolutely
laid flat before reaching a small chamber and a scaffolded
Whilst looking down into the hole, I could
hear a strange noise. A few moments later this was followed
by a human voice.
Shortly afterwards, out crawled Richard Mercer like
a helmeted human mole. This was, he said, his 212th
visit to what he calls Helm Gate Cave.
mole Richard Mercer emerges
was actually his second visit of the day! He had been motivated to return by
having discovered a four foot passage that morning.
Keith has given up caving due to
the wear and tear on his knees but, on hearing what progress
Richard had been making, he said he would come out of
retirement and make another visit.
continue to explore the Helm Gate Cave and another down near
the river in the hope that one day they will make the
connection to the Pipeline Cave. Good luck to them. I
am no caver and have no wish to enter into such claustrophobic
spaces but it would be good know that the Natland Pipeline Cave
was once again explorable and for the mystery
of what happens to the water running off Helm finally
to be solved.
Shore, June 2008
Natland.info thanks Keith Bradbury,
Daniel Chadwick, Jeff & Alice Clegg,
Gambles, Richard Mercer, Descent and Westmorland
for their help in the production of this
more about Natland's caves, see The
Helm Gate Cave
page has been converted from the previous Natland website:
here to return to Natland