‘If I could choose to climb a mountain or get inside it, I’d rather do the caving’

Leeds caver Dave Brook in China.
Leeds caver Dave Brook in China.
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Ranulph Fiennes, Chris Bonington and a caver from Leeds called Dave Brook - all explorers who are about to be entertained by the Queen. Sheena Hastings reports

BACK in 1968, Dave Brook wrote an article for a caving magazine in which he proposed that there was a link between the limestone caves under the Yorkshire Dales and those beneath northern Lancashire and Cumbria. He said that together these caves were part of a large system that could be called the Three Counties Network.

Some people, including geologists, said even a Two County system was an impossibility. Many cavers wanted to believe, but it took decades for a couple of generations of intrepid cavers to climb, crawl and dive their way along many a wet and mucky underground passage until they found the missing links. In the intervening years Dave Brook, who was already a fairly obsessive caver, became the doyen of his sport.

It took 21 years to establish the link between Lancaster Hole in the Cumbrian cave network and Lost John’s in Lancashire, and the final piece of the jigsaw, was established this month, when two dedicated teams broke through after tunnelling to connect more than 60 miles of caverns and natural tunnels near Kirkby Lonsdale. Their exhausting feat had involved clearing a way through clay and boulders to reconnect cave systems believed to have been separated at the end of the last Ice Age.

The Three Counties system is the longest underground labyrinth in Britain. Experts, including the British Caving Association, said the achievement was a real shot in the arm for the pursuit and it proved that cavers did not have to go to different corners of the world to make major discoveries. Those concerned, including Dave Brook – who first claimed the links existed and who for decades led much of the exploration that made the final feat possible – celebrated over a barrel or two of beer last weekend.

Brook says he was excited and glad for the colleagues who made the breakthrough. Now 67, he has retired from his job as an academic in the School of Textiles at Leeds University and claims he has also “more or less” stopped caving.

“I decided a while back that it was time to leave it to younger people. I look forward to hearing about what they find, and I enjoy it when they want to use my experience to help them. I’m now writing a couple of books on caving, which is like a full-time job and will probably take years.”

Cavers are an unassuming lot – Brook says it’s about co-operation not ego – and their discoveries cause a great stir among their peers but attract much less mainstream attention, presumably because what they do happens in the dark and doesn’t involve either polar bears or lemurs. Nonetheless, the great undiscovered regions of the Earth lie beneath the surface, not on it, and some of the world’s great cave systems have barely been touched.

Someone at Buckingham Palace clearly understands the contribution made by cavers, though, since Dave Brook is one of a select band who will meet the Queen at the Palace next week, for a celebration of the feats of British adventurers marking the centenary of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole.

Brook grew up first in Holmfirth then Leeds, a bookish boy who was mad about chemistry and created a mini blast furnace in the kitchen. He studied colour chemistry at Leeds University and took a PhD at Bradford. As a teenage scout, he liked nothing better than walking in the Dales and sneaking out of the tent at night with a friend and a couple of torches to go caving, which was forbidden.

“Climbing was too regimented,” says Dave. “Given the choice between walking up a mountain and getting down inside it, I’d rather do the caving. From the first time I went into Snorkel Cave in Littondale and heard the distant rumble of a waterfall, I just loved it. Part of the attraction is the mystery and that you are looking at millions of years of history.”

As an undergraduate he joined Leeds University’s Caving Club, and from that time at least two days every week were spent underground. Because of his slight build, he was appointed the ‘ferret’ in the team, meaning he was the one who was sent into a narrow passage first, to see if an onward route was possible. “I was just one of many who were working away to explore and record what was down there. None of it is the work of any one person,” says the modest Brook. However he is acknowledged to have been chief surveyor and leading light in mapping the caves of North Yorkshire and beyond.

Early on he and fellow cavers realised that while a few parts of the Yorkshire Dales caves had been well surveyed, some hadn’t been done at all. He and his brother Alan and others set about creating a comprehensive survey which would culminate in the three-volume guidebooks Northern Caves.

One of their early discoveries was the Kingsdale Mastercave, a river cave 30ft wide and half a mile long. He and the team, with their compass and clinometer (to measure inclines), explored and wrote extensive notes of their many discoveries in the Dales. Brook says they always carried a notebook, pencil and Mars Bar in their helmets, “but the need for food is exaggerated, you know...” If they got stuck in a flood, as occasionally happened, they would just sit it out for a day or so. Before the development of modern roping, ladders were carried into the caves, and accidents did (and do) sometimes happen. His worst injury in a 50-year caving career was a broken collar bone.

His private passion and day job collided when Brook became first a technician and then a lecturer in textiles at Leeds University. His boss suggested that it was time to use his contacts in the world of outdoor pursuits, and the Performance Clothing Research Group was set up to provide technical expertise in testing and helping to improve outdoor clothing, a fast growing and competitive industry.

Leeds created a “Super Tog” machine to improve on previous technology in measuring the efficiency of thermal equipment, including sleeping bags and clothing used in extreme conditions such as polar expeditions. He has worked with all the big manufacturers, testing gear in both a specially constructed climate chamber and in the field.

“There is no ‘wonder fabric’ which can completely take into account that the human body is a portable weather system. Testing clothing and equipment has become a big industry, creating complex tests to make money, when actually a couple of simple tests will give the same results. All you really need for most circumstances is something rainproof and windproof. Loads of layers are unnecessary.”

Brook was involved in the recreation of the clothing George Mallory wore for his ill-fated assault on Everest in 1924. Mallory died on the mountain and his body was only discovered in 1999. Shreds of his silk and wool clothing (a specially made Burberry twill suit) were used to reconstruct and test the outfit to see if Mallory and his companion Sandy Irvine had been, as had been said, “Edwardian fools” who set out on their expedition poorly dressed for the ordeal. Tests done in Brook’s lab and elsewhere proved that the explorers were as well equipped as they could have been at the time.

Feelings of excitement about recent exploits have proved that he isn’t actually ready to hang up his caving ropes yet, says Dave, whose 19-year-old son Kristian is now a caver. “There’s so much left to go at. I’d like to find the way into the mastercave Black Keld near Kettlewell...”

I’m sure the youngsters would be honoured to share a cave with Dave Brook.