What Is….Potholing?

Potholing and spelunking. Depending on your frame of mind either sounds rude, or totally baffling. Not the sort of thing beginners could do, you might think. But actually, potholing, also known as spelunking, is the method of caving, which means simply, exploring caves with the right equipment.

Pot holing is simply the method of getting into the cave, but when you’re there, a beautiful world of tunnels, caverns, anciet stalagmites, rocks and fossils await you. With caves in Yorkshire, Wales, Derbyshire and beyond, caving is very accessible if you live in the UK, and you can give it a go, even if you’ve never been lower than the London Underground.

Popular in America under the name spelunking, and here in the UK as potholing, generally the nature and definition of potholing is the method of entering caves via ropes and ladders with full climbing equipment in order to explore the cavern.

Ropes are knotted and rigged and used to delve into the cave, and often, you may need to lie down and wriggle between walls of the cavern. Falling rocks and rising water as well as incoming water from above can all create a trap in the cavern, so safety is essential for potholing, it needs to be your number one priority.

“The thing is, caving is the general term for what we offer- and although that includes potholing we do say as a beginner, to come along first and get exploring and get some training. We offer half and full days and we always say get a half day because there is so much to see. Potholing is something that is usually undertaken by people with some experience” explains Ian Rennie from Go Cave.

“Some of these caves will be 120m deep and we use SRT methods, abseiling and using climbing ropes to get down. The key is – with training, anyone can go potholing. We can go for 3-4 hours, half a day, a whole day, or if you’re experienced we can even get you doing your leader awards as well. ”

Often, the heart of the pothole isn’t accessible on your first descent into a cavern or a mine, so you need to travel deeper into the cave. In these circumstances, squeezing through the tiniest tunnels, you do need to have good upper and lower strength to drag both yourself along. It is also key to relax your breathing through the tighter spots so you don’t push out your ribcage and extend your girth unintentionally! It is these tight spots that people often panic about or worry over when they think of caving.

I asked Ian how often he sees ‘surprise claustrophobia’ down in the caves.

“In 18 years? Once. It really is very rare. And the idea is that we are getting people to enjoy themselves down there, not to be scared, so they enjoy caving. Cavers themselves don’t spend a whole day on their bellies crawling through caves generally, and these sorts of routes again can be avoided. It’s the same with weight. Caving is fine whether you’re 6 foot 8, 16 stone, a rugby player or as slim as a model! We can get you in the appropriate cave as long as you’re relatively fit and healthy and above 8 years old- before that the suits don’t tend to fit!”

Once you have navigated the pitches and drops there are beautiful internal caverns to sit in, hung with stalactites and stalagmites, prehistoric untouched fossils, mud, and clear water to observe.

“Because you’re being guided with us you can hear about geology of the area, local knowledge and you will get the best route. The thing I love is every single day is different with caving. The caves are graded but the water level could make a grade 1 cave a 3 overnight. Caves are really wonderful.

I asked Ian why caving in the UK is unique.

“Whereas abroad you might have these massive vertical pitches whether you spend days underneath, in The UK we can do a lot of different routes in a smaller area and smaller time frame, so you can come for days at a time and keep taking in new pitches, new routes. The UK routes are really quite intense.”

And what about being kitted out? Do people need to buy climbing shoes?

“We get people all kitted out in the whole gear- wellies, fleece underlayers, jackets, trousers- the lot! We don’t want you to have to buy anything or have lesser gear than anyone else, never mind the instructor- so we supply the lot. All we would say is grab yourselves some thermals, it can be cold in the caves, and then you can put our layers on top. ”

Have you discovered caving? Tell us your stories!