THEY are the wonders of nature that remain hidden from the majority of visitors, lying out of view underneath their feet.
But now a campaign to ensure the rights that allow access to mountain, moor, heath and down are opened up to the cave systems below Yorkshire’s most stunning landscapes is gathering pace.
The fight to ensure cavers have access rights has been bolstered by fresh legal support and the backing by two MPs, who have visited one of the country’s most breath-taking caves, Gaping Gill in Ingleborough, to find out more.
David Davis, the MP for Howden and Haltemprice, and David Rutley, who sits for Macclesfield, were taken into the 8-mile long system, home to Britain’s highest waterfall, by experienced caver and the leader of the British Caving Association (BCA) campaign for access rights, Tim Allen.
Mr Allen, of Ingleton, has more than 40 years experience in caving and is passionate that the ‘right to roam’ granted to walkers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts under Defra’s Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000, should be extended to include caves.
While at present, the law does not explicitly exclude caves, it is not implicitly included, and the result is that some landowners have refused cavers’ permission to descend systems on their land entirely, while others have imposed onerous restrictions.
Most, like Gaping Gill, require permits, some applied for weeks in advance, meaning spur of the moment trips aren’t always possible, and the “caver’s dollar” - worth an estimated £2m-£3m a year in the Dales - goes unspent. Those who have permits can also put themselves at risk, caving in unsuitable conditions.
Mr Allen said: “If you’ve applied for a permit, and travelled to the Dales from London or Bristol, and the weather is wet, are you going to risk it or not bother and go home? There’s an aspect of safety. Requiring a permit also encourages trespassing.
“There is a rich tradition of caving clubs in the Dales, with something like 70,000 instructed individuals caving in the Dales every year, but restricting access in this way acts as a barrier to participation.”
The BCA hopes to persuade Defra without heading to the courtroom, but its legal advisor, public law QC Dinah Rose, believes there would be a case, as there is no evidence to exclude caves from the law’s scope. The current law gives cavers the right to cross open access land to cave entrances, and to descend them – but only as far as the point where daylight ceases to penetrate.
“In legal terms, this is simply perverse, and it could well be open to a challenge in court,” she said. Ms Rose was with the MPs and Mr Allen on the trip down Gaping Gill.
To reach the cathedral-sized main chamber – the biggest in Britain – they had to descend two vertical pitches of 55ft and 110ft, using lightweight caving ladders and lifelines. Beyond lay hundreds of feet of crawling and stooping passageway leading to the chamber.
Mr Davis said: “The trip was a fascinating experience, and it was really great to see Britain’s highest waterfall thundering down from a circle of daylight above – it was especially impressive after so much rain. It’s clear to me that caving has nothing but a positive impact, both on its exponents and the communities where the sport takes place. I cannot see for the life of me why Defra is taking the wholly illogical stance of denying that caves are covered by the open access freedoms granted by the CRoW Act.”
Defra said the Act does not include any rights to use cave systems beneath or within land which is registered under CRoW.
A spokeswoman said it has no plans to change the legislation, and any legal opinions supporting a right of access to caves “remain just that” until they have been considered and ruled upon by the courts.