The Natland
Pipeline Cave

  • The original discovery
  • The survey
  • The concealment
  • The search to find the cave entrance
  • Helm Gate Cave and other explorations
  • Trying to track water flows from Helm






























The Natland Pipeline Cave

For the avoidance of doubt, as our learned friends are fond of saying, this article is NOT about the fabled Natland Treacle Mines.  It is about the Natland Pipeline Cave.

When I first heard of the cave, many years ago, I leapt to the conclusion that it and the treacle mine were one and the 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.

In 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 1983.

Some 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 including helictites, cave pearls and cascades, which Jeff photographed.

Helictites (above),
Cave Pearls (right)
and Cascades (below)

Jeff Clegg told 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.

Jeff's wife, Alice, also visited the cave.  She told that NWWA had been astonishingly lucky and if the passage had been any bigger it could have caused major problems.

Presumably 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.

Perhaps, 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.

The 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 Caving Club.

Keith contacted the two explorers who were helpful in providing information about the survey.

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.

However, Daniel Chadwick, on reading about the cave in the Treacle Mines item, contacted with positive identification of the entrance.  He wrote:

Westmorland Gazette reports the discovery

Without 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. 

Last time I was there, the area appeared normal and you would never know that there was anything unusual underfoot.

Keith Bradbury confirmed:

This is just about bang-on where we calculated the entrance to be from surveys.

If 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 it.

Keith kindly 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 A65. He 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?

Two strange bricked areas in the rock

Keith Bradbury points to cave entrance location

We 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 village.  

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".  

Click 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.

Next, we walked along the A65 where he pointed out several "sinks"- boggy areas where the water gathers before mysteriously disappearing.

Kendal 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, article Natland Treacle Mines.  However the dye simply vanished without trace; the water course remains a mystery.

Perhaps 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 area.  

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.

Human mole Richard Mercer emerges

It 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.

Richard and his collegues 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.

Don Shore, June 2008 thanks Keith Bradbury, Daniel Chadwick, Jeff & Alice Clegg,
Robert Gambles, Richard Mercer,
Descent and Westmorland Gazette
for their help in the production of this article.


For more about Natland's caves, see The Helm Gate Cave


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