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Natland Treacle Tours!

I seem to have become the unofficial tour guide for the Natland Caves and Treacle Mines!

Mind you, some people think I have made up the tale.  Others have protested that Natland has "pinched" their story.  I knew about the ones at Binsey and at Sabden but it was news to me that Barrow-in-Furness also claimed a treacle mine.  My suspicion is that this a recent adoption deriving from the 1995 children's television show The Treacle People. Although set in a northern town, the cartoon is based on Sabden and the only Cumbrian reference of which I am aware lies in the names of the programme's two villains, Barrow 'n' Furness!

Let me reassure the doubters of the longevity of the Natland legend. Tony Kelly, the Lowther Street Silversmith, told me that in the 1950s when he was staying with his uncle who lived in Kendal he was taken to the field behind Holmes' Nursery and shown the site of the Natland Treacle Mine.  Presumably, the then dried up storm pond.

An even earlier reference was provided by Susan Bowness of Kendal who phoned in response to the Westmorland Gazette article to tell me about her aunt who had been evacuated from South Shields to Levens during the Second World War.  Her aunt had told her about cycling from Levens to Natland in search of the Treacle Mines.  Unsuccessfully, it seems.

Jim Cannon's memories of the Treacle Mine go back even further, to when he moved to the village in 1935 and learned about it from an old farmer, Johnny Wilson.

And if it is photographic evidence you want, have a look at this picture kindly provided by Daphne Lester.  It shows the Treacle Miners proudly marching around the Village Green as part of the Natland Jubilee Fete in 1977

The slogan on the banner reads: "Loyal Greetings to Her Majesty from the Natland Treacle Miners".

Natland Treacle Miners on parade

Clearly the legend is an old one and, in my opinion, based on two possibly related facts that will become apparent on the tour.

Before setting off, however, let me issue a warning. If anyone is motivated to explore any of these openings, there is one piece of advice I have for them.  

Don't do it! Not unless you are an expert caver. The tunnels are very shallow in places and quite unsuited to casual exploration.

Our starting point is at the summit of Helm.  

Look down towards Natland and ask yourself the key question: "How does the rainwater get off Helm down to the river?"

How does the rainwater get off Helm down to the river?

The simple answer is that nobody knows.  However there will several clues that will emerge shortly.

Let's begin with a geology lesson from Stuart Hinton.

Unfortunately the most recent geological survey map of the area dates from 1869 and is overlaid on an 1890 Ordnance Survey map.

The 1869 survey

Whilst the Victorians no doubt did a sound job with the equipment of the day and significant movements in the rock are unlikely to have happened since, much has happened on the ground.

Consequently the detail and the presentation bear no comparison with, say, the geological map for north of Kendal which is modern and much easier to interpret.

Stuart advised me that Helm is not, as I had mistakenly thought, a limestone outcrop.  In common with much of the Lake District, it is much older dating from the Silurian age, some 400 million years ago when the area lay somewhere below the South Atlantic!

The geological fault line runs along the line of the A65.  To its west lie the limestones of the lower Carboniferous era.

Whilst we are talking of maps, let's clear up one common misunderstanding. The summit of Helm and the whole of the West side of the ridge (i.e. the common land) is in Natland, not Oxenholme.

The strange shape of the parish can been seen in the boundary map as shown in the Natland Parish Plan 2004.

The summit of Helm, its ridge and most of the west side is clearly in the civil parish of Natland.

Another idiosyncrasy, contrary to popular assumption, is that Larkrigg, the farm and riding school, is not in Natland, nor is it in Sedgwick.  It is actually in the civil parish of Helsington, the only part of that parish west of the River Kent.


Back to the tour!  We now know that Helm is made of hard compact rocks and it is easy to imagine water flowing across them then reaching limestone and forming a cave system.

Now head downhill along the road but before reaching the A65 regard on your right the large boggy area known as Helm Sink Wells. It is hoped that this basin will be confirmed as a County Wildlife Site in the near future.

Note also the strange depression in the ground to the left of the cattle bridge as you emerge out to the main road.  Might there be something of interest under there?

Helm Sink Wells from above.....

..... and from  the A65

At the A65 turn right.  If you stay on the Helm side you have an extended (and better) view of the sink followed by a smaller one near Castle Steads Lodge.  

On the other side of the road is the seldom visited open area of Little Helm with its opening to The Helm Gate Cave and, I am told, some other strange features.

Carry on along the A65 to the railway bridge and stop to examine the limestone banking with its bricked up sections, presumably sealing off interesting orifices that Railtrack does not want anyone to explore.

Helm Gate Cave entrance

The first bricked up orifice.....

..... and the second

Next, travel south-south-west along the footpath by the railway to the corner of the field with a boggy section and sink where the cave is believed to go under the railway.  

Only a few yards west from here, follow the line of the railway spoil that leads away from the lines to where it reaches a flat section and you are at the site where the Pipeline Cave opened up and was subsequently concreted over.

The Pipeline Cave field sink

Keith Bradbury identifies the Pipeline Cave

Down the fields by the wall to Long Meadow Lane. At some future stage the tour may go via Abbey Drive but so far I have had no evidence of the alleged appearance of a cave opening when the houses were being built there in the late 1960s; just a denial from the then farmer. 

Did a cave open up when Abbey Drive was built?

No sign of it here!

So, for the time being, turn right and right again up Oxenholme Lane for a hundred yards or so to marvel at the Treacle Miner's cart and delivery bicycle.

The Helm Pit Treacle Cart

Treacle Delivery Bicycle

Retrace your steps down hill and on past the school, immediately after which is a former farmhouse called Lower House.  In about 1960 the then owner was digging foundations to build a garage.  The day before the concrete was due to be laid, a well was discovered.  It was brick lined and about 12 feet deep but dry.  Sadly this was then lost to become the garage floor.

We do know of one other well in the village, that marked on the O.S. map at Cracalt House. When I cleared the vegetation, the ground was a little boggy so I called in Richard Mercer to examine it. He excavated it to a depth of some three feet or so, which, as it is very narrow, was as far as he could sensibly go.  

He was disappointed not to reach bedrock but was surprised by the outcome- despite there being no obvious sign of a spring, the well has filled to a depth of about thirty inches.

Dickie's down the well

Hawes Lane stream emerging

Carry on down the hill until you reach the Village Green.  

It is unlikely that you will see the Treacle Miners marching there today!  Instead, position yourself between Compton House and Green Tree House, near the site of the old Wellingtonia.

Once there was a sawpit here.

In her book, Natland & Oxenholme; the Story of a Westmorland Village, Whin Inglesfield suggests that an accumulation of sticky resin in the old sawpit might be the cause of the treacle legend.

Treacle resin in an old saw pit here?

On the other hand, I have heard rumours, so far unconfirmed, of a cave passing directly under the Village Green.

Continue past the Post Office, stocking up as necessary with ice cream or other essential sustenance before heading down Hawes Lane.  

After passing the canal and rounding the two bends, note the stream emerging from a culvert on your left.

From whence has it come?

We may find out later.

Down to the river and turn right through the fishermen's car park that used to be the village tip.

Now explore the river bank looking for distinct signs of water emerging from the bank.  

The Riverbank Cave Entrance 

Here, on the last tour, we bumped into the Human Mole, Richard Mercer and his friend Alan (the Badger?) who had been tunnelling 40 feet mostly laid flat.

The strange things people do for fun!

Is the strong water flow linked to the cave system?

Or is it an ancient underground Ox Bow of the river?  

But why does the flow never cease even in drought?  

Could it be that it is actually fed by a leaking United Utilities water pipe?

I am told that water samples have been taken but as yet the analysis results have not been received.

A friend of Stan O'Connor who lives in the vicinity has spoken of witnessing workmen cementing in this outlet. Could this have been the same waterboard workmen who concreted up the entrance to the Pipeline Cave? However Richard Mercer tells me that there is no sign now of any such action having taken place here.

Now go back up Hawes Lane and pause at the canal bridge and look south while I relate that tale of the missing bullock.

I had heard of rumours of cattle falling into the treacle mines or cave system but the only verified incident of which I am aware was reported in the Westmorland Gazette on 13th August 1971

A bullock from Natland Hall Farm disappeared for three days before being found in what the Gazette described as a "partly concealed underground drain".

According to the farmer, John Dodgson, the hole appeared in a field near the canal and they had to winch the animal out with the tractor.  

John believes the hole was related to the field drainage system and not the Natland Caves.

Reproduced with permission from
The Westmorland Gazette

After the canal bridge take the footpath that goes diagonally across the fields to pass between Cracalt Farm and Little Cracalt.  Note that once again there are signs of running water, which answers the question about the culverted stream earlier but poses another. Or rather the same question again.  From whence has it come?

Head up out of the footpath onto the Cracalt drive and back to the Sedgwick road.  Turn right but immediately climb the wall to take the footpath to cross the field that, in winter (and in summer 2008), turns into a large pond eventually flooding out onto the road.  

The Storm Pond

There must be water running underground all the year round but where is it going? Presumably down by Cracalt Farm. But by what route did it reach here?  From the Pipeline cave?  Perhaps, but there is another possibility as we shall later see.

Stuart's tip for identifying the local geology is to examine the dry stone walls.  These will almost certainly have been made from stone gathered locally. However, the situation can be confused by glacial debris.  Here, close to the storm pond, we see a wall topped with limestone but with lumps of Shap granite at the base, brought down in the ice age..

Stone wall with limestone and granite 

A Treacle Cottage! 

Follow the footpath to Helm Lane and, as you reach it, note on your right the two cottages built out of Natland Treacle.  Or at least, treacle looking stone.  Stuart thought the lintels came from Whitbarrow.

At the top of Helm Lane is another house partly built out of treacle.  This time it is a new one, or at least substantially new- most of the old house at Yew Lodge was demolished to make way for a much bigger dwelling built out of stone, some of which does not, at first sight, seem indigenous but looks to me like pure Natland Treacle!  Some of the stones show signs of having been under water- they carry "sole marks"- like sand on the beach after the tide recedes.

Yew Lodge- a treacle House?

Sole marks

The property is currently empty and for sale.  

Those inspecting the house and garden might want to look at a kink in the boundary near the A65 where they will find the "sink" in which Kendal Caving Club put dye to try to track the route of the water off Helm but without success.

Local residents talk of hearing through the rock the sound of approaching trains.

Yew Lodge sink

Turn right along the A65 as far as the Punchbowl and turn right.

Immediately behind the pub is a piece of untended ground.  Once upon a time this was a vegetable patch.  Then one day in 1855 a twenty foot deep hole, the Barrows Green Cave, appeared.  Inside were two passages off.  One pointing north east to the summit of Helm, the other northwest roughly in the direction of the winter flood pond on Sedgwick Road.  Are they connected?  We don't know.

Dry Treacle walls!

Go back up past the Punchbowl, across the A65 onto the little lane that climbs to the back of Helm.  

Shortly after Helm Mount farm, on your left is a bridle path.  

Once through the gate take the steep path back to the summit of Helm.

Note how different are the dry stone walls up here.  Made of a much more regularly shaped rock with a reddish tint.

Go diagonally down, facing due north, heading for a small disused quarry.

The Treacle Quarry on Helm

Stuart examining the spoil

The rock face looks grey but closer examination shows this to be weathering. You can see the true colour better in the masses of broken angular shaped pieces of stone lying on the floor, looking like discarded piles of shattered treacle toffee. It is actually Red Siltstone of the Silurian age. The red comes from the iron ore it contains.  Some of the samples seem to have traces of iron.

This rock would have been quarried in the days before mechanised transport- it being cheaper to bring it from Helm than, say, from Kendal.

Could this be the real origin of the Treacle Mine myth?  

A rock that looks like and fractures like treacle toffee prized from the earth in Natland?

It gets my vote!

And that, for now at least, concludes the tour.  However, why not take the opportunity to explore all of Helm now that it is all Open Access land?

My thanks to all who have contacted me with information about the caves or the treacle mine legend.  I will close with a contribution from Ian Hardman who set up the Westmorland Office of Provincial Insurance in Kendal in 1983.  Ian told Natland.info:

My job was to sell the Provincial wares in the locality. I'm sorry to tell you that the underwriters were not prepared to accept the Treacle Mines business because of the subterranean fire risk. Colin Hazlehurst, who sadly is no longer with us, and I had many laughs on the subject!

Laugh if you will, but it is my belief that the legend of the Treacle Mines derives from the existence of the cave system under Natland, coupled with the strange rock resembling treacle toffee that used to be quarried and possibly mined on Helm.

If there is a better explanation, I would love to hear it!

Anyone want a piece of Natland Treacle?

Don Shore
September 2008

Natland.info thanks Ingrid Beattie, Keith Bradbury, Susan Bowness,
Jim Cannon, Joanne Dodgson, John Dodgson, Ian Hardman, Stuart Hinton,
Tony Kelly, Daphne Lester, Richard Mercer and Stan O'Connor
for their help in the production of this article



Sally Mi Lass

Margaret Jones posted the following on Natland Past and Present on 14th April 2024:

My father lived and attended school in Natland in the early part of the 1900s. In 1940 he left Westmorland and moved with his job on the railway to Wigan in Lancashire.  He married there and I came along in 1945.  When I was small he taught me a rhyme  which has never left me and I can't help but wonder if anyone in Natland has also heard and remember this rhyme, or similar - here goes:

    Sally mi lass, Sally mi lass,
    Me Faythers geet a job.
    He works at Natland Treacle Mines
    For fower an twenty bob.
    An when he comes yam on a Satday neet,
    He buys a pair o'clogs.
    He kills the cats an murders rats
    An marmalades the dogs!

Excuse the spelling I've tried to illustrate the accent.



If you want to find out more, you should also visit:

Natland Treacle Mines


The Natland Pipeline Cave


The Helm Gate Cave


The Barrows Green Cave 



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Treacle Mines


The Natland
Pipeline Cave


The Helm
Gate Cave


Barrows Green Cave

Treacle Mines

  • Fact or fiction?
  • Can the reality be separated from the myth?
  • What scientific evidence is there?
  • Could there be more than one origin for the legend? 
  • Natland.info explores the topic
  • identifies several possible sources
  • considers the likelihood of substantial underground caves, and
  • puts forward a remarkable suggestion!


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


Helm Gate Cave

  • Richard Mercer's illustrated description of the inside of this cave.


Barrows Green

  • The strange tale of the deep cave that apeared overnight and was first explored by a tramp dangling from a rope.