Revealed under grazing sheep - UK's biggest hole
Tuesday November 7, 2006
After more than five years of delicate and dangerous excavation on Derbyshire moorland, potholers have confirmed that Britain's biggest cave lies hidden below a fissure known for centuries as the Devil's Arsehole. Tall enough to swallow the London Eye, the full extent of the Titan cavern has been revealed for the first time by TV lights and an entrance dug with extreme caution through the soaring rock ceiling.
Detailed measurements have yet to be carried out, but caving experts say that the latest survey shows "beyond doubt" that the cave beats the longstanding holder of the title, Gaping Ghyll in the Yorkshire Dales. "The shaft at Titan is far higher, which we've known for a while, but the cave is clearly a lot bigger than Gaping Ghyll by volume," said David Nixon, of the British Caving Association's technical speleological group.
He was the first person to slither on to the cave's floor after worming his way there for five hours from an abandoned lead mine. But once there he could only tell that he "was in a very big, very black hole in the ground".
The first filmed descent through the new shaft, shown regionally last night by BBC TV's Inside Out team and now on the BBC website, shows the thundering waterfall and cornice of terrifying loose boulders which lay beyond Nixon's head-torch.
The main shaft's height reaches 140m (459ft) up water-eroded limestone cliffs, 60m (197ft) higher than Gaping Ghyll.
"It's an incredible place, awesome," said Morland Sanders of Inside Out, who was the first non-potholer to abseil down the shaft from the new moorland entrance. "It's like the inside of a cathedral - just magnificently beautiful."
The cave was discovered by Mr Nixon after an 18th century journal by a curious-minded traveller called James Plumtree was found by researchers in Cambridge University library. Potholers were alerted to its account of descending a lead mine at the Devil's Arsehole and being shown a mysterious, dark gash cut by miners' pickaxes into an unknown network of tunnels.
Mr Nixon led an exploration into a huge system which was promptly named Leviathan, but then found further passages, some flooded with water and silt, which eventually led to Titan.
He said: "I remember the first time I went up above to where the ceiling would be and told the local farmer what was underneath his sheep grazing. He was astonished. He'd driven his Land Rover many times over the shakehole", the shallow depression in the moor since excavated to form the new entrance shaft.
Experienced cavers can now slide down ropes to the cave floor in a few minutes, compared with the 10-hour round trip which has been the only way into Titan since Mr Nixon's breakthrough in 1999. But there are no plans to organise a rival to the "winch weekends" which lower everyone from teenagers to pensioners into the shadows of Gaping Ghyll on spring and August bank holiday weekends.
"It's too dangerous for that, I'm afraid," said Mr Nixon. "The entrance is on private land and it's very much a place for experienced cavers only." The excavation of jammed boulders leading into the cavern also had to be suspended more than once during the long dig after they became dangerously unstable.
But the confirmation that Derbyshire has wrested the biggest cave title from Yorkshire was welcomed by national park staff in the Peak District, where caves and mines have long been a tourist attraction. Victorian travellers were shown the higher reaches of the Devil's Arsehole from hired punts and the area's unique Blue John gemstones are collectors' pieces.
"It's great news," said a spokesman. "It further cements the Peak District's reputation as a world-renowned centre for caving and climbing."