Brian Dooks BRIGHT sun and blue skies heralded a perfect autumn day in Upper Nidderdale but there were no excited children's voices around the entrance to Manchester Hole yesterday.
The 13- and 14-year-old pupils from Tadcaster Grammar School, who should have been taking their turn to experience caving with the Bewerley Park Centre for Outdoor Education, had all gone home.
Only the sound of the River Nidd trickling quietly past boulders, which act as impromptu stepping stones for anyone wanting to reach the entrance to Manchester Hole, broke the silence.
It was a sharp contrast to Monday night when the boulders were under water and the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association had to rig a safety line across the swollen river to ferry in the equipment and manpower they needed to search for a missing schoolboy.
Manchester Hole is only six miles from the river's source at Nidd Heads on the north-east slopes of Great Whernside, but its catchment area covers more than 23 square miles of remote moorland where rainfall is high.
Normally, most of the water is collected in Scar House and Angram reservoirs, which together store 3.7 million gallons of water for the people of Bradford, but in rapidly thawing snow or after heavy rain, it pours through the arches of the lower dam and falls 180ft into the river.
Experienced cavers know changes in river levels can pose serious flooding risks to anyone going underground and the Northern Caves guide, first published in 1972, gives clear warnings for Manchester Hole and the Goyden Pot system. Of Manchester Hole it says: "Fills to roof in severe floods, when river flows into entrance."
There was no hint of danger yesterday when I took a steep muddy track leading down into the valley, from near where the narrow gauge railway used in the reservoirs' construction disappeared into a tunnel beside the private Yorkshire Water road between the village of Lofthouse and Scar House.
The track leads to a substantial stile into a small riverside field where a second stile reaches the river bank and the stepping stones. On the opposite bank, just 30ft from the river and six feet above its normal level, is the wide mouth of the cave.
Manchester Hole, which is 1,650ft long and reaches a depth of 55ft, travels south from the entrance parallel with the River Nidd towards Goyden Pot – a complex river cave containing massive caverns and a maze of passages. With Manchester Hole it has a combined length of 2.33 miles and a depth of 172ft .
Nobody can recall a previous tragedy in Manchester Hole, but Goyden Pot has claimed at least one victim. In 1957 Leeds art student Brian Andrew Kerr, 20, disappeared on a solo expedition. His clothing and rucksack were found, but a series of searches, including a final seven-hour combing of the system by the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association, failed to find his body.