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Going underground

 

A definitive guide to cave exploration in the UK. 

Planning a weekend of underground adventures?

Whether you are a seasoned pro or perhaps new to the world of caving, the UK is home to a whole host of unique cave systems just waiting to be discovered. To help you plan your next action-packed break, we’ve put together our definitive guide to cave exploration in the UK.

From the sea caves of Cornwall to the rugged and rocky caverns of the Brecon Beacons National Park, you won’t have to travel far to find a cave that’s worth exploring. As with any outdoor activity, it’s important to plan your adventures ahead - so be sure to take a look at our packing checklist and our top tips for staying safe while caving in England!

The best-rated caves in the UK

The UK is brimming with interesting caves, from coastal caverns to historic slate mines. Here are some of the most popular and best-rated caves to visit, whether you are visiting as a family, a group of friends or as part of a team-building break.

 

The UK is brimming with interesting caves, from coastal caverns to historic slate mines. Here are some of the most popular and best-rated caves to visit, whether you are visiting as a family, a group of friends or as part of a team-building break:

Cheddar Gorge and Caves

Location: Somerset

Why you should visit: Its stalactite caverns are a sight to behold

 

 

As one of Somerset’s best-known attractions, Cheddar Gorge and Caves is a must-see for anyone visiting the area. This famous landmark is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and for good reason! Visitors can spend the day exploring Britain’s biggest gorge, checking out the magnificent stalactite caverns, and soaking up the sights from its dramatic cliffs which stand at over 450 feet. 

National Showcaves Centre for Wales

Location: Swansea

Why you should visit: It’s a fantastic day out for families

 

 

 

If you’re planning on stopping in South Wales, be sure to check out the National Showcaves Centre for Wales. This award-winning attraction lets you explore three different caves in one tour - Dan-yr-Ogof, the Cathedral Cave and the Bone Cave. There are plenty of other adrenalin-pumping activities to enjoy in the nearby area too, including gorge walking and mountain scrambling.

Peak Cavern

Location: Peak District

Why you should visit: The caves also doubles up as a unique venue for music events!

 

 

 

For those stopping in the glorious surroundings of the Peak District National Park, a visit to Peak Cavern should be first on your list. Set in a dramatic gorge below Peveril Castle in the village of Castleton, it boasts the title of the largest natural cave entrance in the whole of the British Isles. The cave hosts a variety of events throughout the year - from music concerts to carolling at Christmas.

 

The team from Peak Cavern reveal that it’s “open to the public daily, offering regular fully guided tours of the cavern, each lasting for approximately one hour”.

Gaping Gill

Location: Yorkshire Dales

Why you should visit: The descent into this deep chamber is sure to get your adrenaline pumping

 

 

 

Gaping Gill is an impressive natural cave, set among the southern slopes of Ingleborough in North Yorkshire. This 98-metre deep pothole is one of the largest underground passageways in the UK, measuring 129 metres long. This cave certainly isn’t for beginners - requiring technical knowledge and all the right equipment to descend into its chambers. However, twice a year, the local climbing clubs provide a winch on a boatswain’s chair to allow the public to explore the cave safely.

Smoo Cave

Location: Scotland

Why you should visit: It’s easy to fit in the tour in an afternoon, before checking out the rest of the sights

 

 

 

A combination of a freshwater and sea cave, Smoo Cave sits one mile from the village of East of Durness in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Visitors can explore the public walkway free of charge, but if you’d like to venture further into the cave’s depths then a guided tour is required. 

 

Fraser, Smoo Cave states that the “tour takes 30 mins and runs 24/7 from April to October, with guests getting the opportunity to find out more about the geology and history of the cave and the people who lived in it.”

 

Other notable caves in the UK:

Long Churns and Alum Pot

Robin Hood's Cave

Treak Cliff Cavern

Great Douk

Stoney Middleton

 

 

The various types of caves…

 

Did you know that caves can be formed in many different ways? Some have been carved out over thousands of years by the sea’s waves, while others were formed from the meltwater of glaciers. Let’s take a look at the most common types of caves - although not all of them can be found on the British Isles.

  1. Lava tubes

      • As the name suggests, lava tubes are formed through volcanic activity. After hot lava flows down a volcano, the ‘top’ begins to set while underneath the molten lava continues flowing underneath. This ongoing flow causes hollow tubes or tunnels to form underneath.
  2. Glacier caves

      • Glaciers - or ice caves - can be formed in two ways. They can either be carved out from the meltwater of glaciers, as harsh winds carve and hollow them out. Or, they can form as a result of cold, freezing air becoming trapped in glacial openings. You won’t find glacier caves in the UK, but if you are interested in seeing some then a trip to Iceland won’t disappoint.
  3. Sea caves

      • Cornwall and Devon are particularly popular when it comes to sea caves, but you’ll find plenty more along Britain’s northern coastline too. Sea caves are formed from centuries of wave action, as they erode the bedrocks of sea cliffs over many years. Often, they can only be accessed via boat or at low tide.
  4. Solution caves

      • Solution caves are the most common type of cave, formed within soluble rocks such as limestone, chalk or salt. These types of caves are caused by groundwater seeping into cracks and openings in the rock. Over many geologic periods, these cracks eventually turn into cave systems. In the case of limestone caves, their appearance is caused by slightly acidic water eroding the stone.

 

 

 

…and the different types of caving!

 

Just as there are many types of caves, there are plenty of different ways to explore them. Here are two of the most popular types of caving.

  1. Horizontal caving

      • Horizontal caving doesn’t usually require any ropes - cavers can navigate the passageways by walking, crawling or crouching when needed. Although this seems simple enough, it can quickly tire you out - especially if the passages are particularly narrow or low in height!
  2. Vertical caving

        • Vertical caving - also known as potholing - requires more technical skills and the use of ropes to descend into and traverse deep cave systems. Unless you already have extensive experience, it’s best to try out this type of caving with a qualified instructor. 

 

 

 

 

Guided caving tours

 

Guided tours are a great alternative if you don’t want to explore caves on your own.

 

Squeezing through narrow passageaways and descending on ropes into the great unknown isn’t for everyone. If you don’t feel comfortable exploring caves on your own, guided caving tours are a great alternative.  

You’ll still get the chance to head underground, but in the company of an expert guide and with all the proper equipment - and usually, plenty of lighting. Here are some of the most popular caving experiences with guides in the UK:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heights of Abraham Show Caverns

Location: Peak District National Park, Derbyshire

 

Photo credit: Heights of Abraham Show Caverns

 

Fancy a day of caving in Derbyshire? Heights of Abraham Show Caverns offers a guided cavern tour through The Great Masson Cavern and The Great Rutland Cavern. These caves were once filled with miners, chipping away at the lead and fluorite during the 17th century. 

Now, visitors can find out about the history of the caverns - a story that spans over 350 million years. While this isn’t a particularly strenuous or technical tour, it’s ideal for families. Jess from Heights of Abraham says “the caves are only accessible via cable car, which only adds to the adventure!”

 

Go Below

Location: Snowdonia National Park

 

Photo credit: Go Below

 

Snowdonia has its fair share of stunning natural attractions, including many underground caverns under its dramatic mountains and idyllic hillsides. Go Below gives visitors the opportunity to explore a hidden world beneath the mountains. Experience zip-lining through vast caverns, climbing vertical shafts, traversing over the abyss and abseiling your way down to the deepest point in the UK!

 

“Go Below is an award-winning, family-owned business offering authentic underground adventures, whatever the weather. Experience exciting half and full day underground trips through abandoned slate mines located in the heart of Snowdonia. They offer three unique adventures ranging in difficulty and thrill level. No experience necessary, no potholing or squeezing through small gaps!” 

 

- Cait, Go Below Underground Adventures

 

Cornwall Underground Adventures

Location: Cornwall

 

Photo credit: Cornwall Underground Adventures

 

Explore abandoned tin mines while learning the history, heritage, and significance of these caverns with Cornwall Underground Adventures. Carved out by Cornish miners, these activities take place under the district of St. Just - easily reached from St. Ives and Penzance. There’s a good selection of adventures, ranging from easygoing walk-in tours to abseiling down mine shafts if you’re feeling brave enough. 

 

Speedwell Cavern

Location: Derbyshire

 

Photo credit: Speedwell Cavern

 

Take an exhilarating boat tour of Speedwell Cavern, a series of former tin-mining caverns underneath the beautiful setting of Hope Valley in the Peak District National Park. After descending 105 steps from the inconspicuous cave entrance, you’ll hop aboard a boat before gliding through all the workings of this historic mine. Eventually, you’ll arrive in a cathedral-like cavern, which is home to the  Bottomless Pit -  a massive subterranean lake.

 

Lost Earth Adventures

Location: UK-wide

 

Photo credit: Lost Earth Adventures

 

Lost Earth Adventures offer a wide range of outdoor activities across the UK. With their expertise and guidance, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the most fascinating cave systems in Yorkshire and the Peak District - two of the most popular destinations for potholing in the UK. There’s the option of both horizontal and vertical caving experiences, with all the equipment fully provided. 

 

“Alum Pot is my favourite trip in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s sheer size takes your breath away and combined with it’s hanging underground gardens make this experience one you’ll never forget. In the Peak District the two classics are Giants Round Trip and P8. These are hugely challenging caves, with big drops, tough climbs, descents into dark bottomless chambers and fast flowing underground rivers - just awesome!” 

 

- Richard Goodey, Cave Leader, Lost Earth Adventures

 

 

Caving glossary, checklist and exploring safely

 

Whether you want to learn the correct caving terms, you're not sure what to pack on your adventure or you just want to ensure your exploring caves as safely as possible, we've compiled these helpful lists.  

Glossary

From belly crawls to boulder chokes, there are lots of terms exclusive to the caving world. Here are some of the phrases you might come across when reading cave guides:

 

  • Belly crawl: A very low passage
  • Boulder choke: A passageway partially or fully obstructed by rocks
  • Cavern: A large cave chamber
  • Pit: A space that requires rappelling equipment to enter
  • Pothole: A cave that requires vertical navigation
  • Spelunking: Another term for caving, typically used in the USA
  • Sump: A flooded passageway
  • Troglobite: An animal species that lives in dark caves

 

The essential caving checklist

Caving isn’t the sort of activity you can decide to do on a whim - there’s plenty you’ll need to pack before you decide to descend! Here’s a list of the most essential items to pack when planning a full day of caving:

 

  • Headtorch
  • Helmet (ideally with a chin strap)
  • Rope
  • Harness
  • Torch
  • Protective boots
  • Thermal clothing
  • Knee pads
  • Ladders
  • First aid kit
  • Matches
  • Caving suit

 

How to explore caves safely

Caving can be a dangerous activity, especially if you’re not prepared. Some of the biggest risks while caving include:

 

  • Rockfall
  • Flooding
  • Dehydration
  • Exhaustion
  • Running out of light

 

While this does sound quite scary, many of these risks can be kept to a minimum with proper planning. To help you plan your caving trip in advance, we’ve put together some of our handy tips for exploring safely:

 

  • Always tell someone else where you are headed before you go exploring. If you can, give them an estimated time of when you expect to return to the surface.
  • Ensure you have plenty of water and a good supply of healthy snacks, especially if you are planning to be out all day.
  • Go with an experienced caver if you get the opportunity to.
  • Don’t over-exert yourself; just do as much as you are comfortable with. You’ll have plenty more opportunities to explore on future visits!
  • Discuss an emergency plan with others in your group - while it’s not something you’ll want to think too much about, it’s important to have something in place.
  • Jot down the details for the local rescue services before heading out.
  • When faced with a narrow cave passageway, try to relax as much as possible - tensing up can make it more difficult for you to pass through 
  • If you do become stuck, try to breathe slowly and alert another caver in your group. They may be able to unhook any trapped clothing or equipment.

 

 

Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between spelunking and caving?

Spelunking is the term typically used in Canada and the United States, while in the UK we tend to refer to the activity as caving.

What is the best cave to visit in the UK?

That depends entirely on what you prefer. Those who like to explore on their own terms will enjoy the challenges of the New Golden Pot in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, whereas those who prefer guided tours are likely to enjoy the likes of the Dan yr Ogof in Abercraf, Swansea.

Can I go underground caving in Scotland?

Yes! Scotland is full of fascinating caves, including St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway, and The Bone Caves in Sutherland. If you would prefer the safety of a guided tour, then the Wemyss Caves in Kircaldy are well worth a visit.

What are the best natural caves in Wales?

There are many natural caves in Wales, the most popular being Porth Yr Ogof on the southern border of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Lydsted Cliffs & Caverns in Pembrokeshire, and the Culver Hole Cave in Swansea.

What’s the difference between caving and potholing?

Potholing typically refers to vertical caving, in which cavers need ropes to descend to the bottom of a cave - rather than walking or scrambling.

What is the deepest cave in Wales?

The deepest cave in Wales is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, with a depth of 901 feet. You’ll find it nestled under a hillside in the Upper Swansea Valley - it’s a firm favourite among experienced cavers.

What is the best cave in Yorkshire?

One of the most popular caves in Yorkshire is the White Scar Cave, boasting the title of the longest show cave in Britain. Other notable caves in the county include Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Stump Cross Caverns.

What is the biggest cave in the whole of the UK?

The longest cave system in the whole of the UK is the Three Counties System in the Yorkshire Dales. With more than 53 miles of passageways, it includes the Ireby Fell Cavern, Ease Gill, Notts Pot, Pippikin Pot and the Lost John's Cave systems.

Where can you go potholing in the UK?

You can try your hand at potholing in many caves across the UK. Some of the most popular caves include Alum Pot in Yorkshire, Swildon's Hole in Somerset, and Porth yr Ogof in South Wales. 

Can I go on a caving tour with an expert guide?

Yes - please note this is one of the safest ways to explore a cave, especially if you’re a beginner. Many outdoor adventure companies offer guided tours of the UK’s most popular caves, including Lost Earth Adventures in the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District, and Black Mountain Adventure in the Brecon Beacons.

 

Useful resources

Caving associations

  1. British Caving Association
  2. Derbyshire Caving Association
  3. CNCC - Council of Northern Caving Clubs
  4. British Caving Library
  5. New To Caving - List of UK Caving Clubs
  6. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society (UBSS)

 

Forums & beginner Guides

  1. New To Caving (BCA)
  2. UK Caving Forum
  3. StartCaving.co.uk
  4. Caving in the Peak District
  5. Ordinance Survey Caving Guide
  6. Cavechat.org

 

Guided tours

  1. GoCave - Caving Adventures
  2. Cave and Canyon UK
  3. Rock UK
  4. Wild Wookey
  5. HowStean Gorge
  6. Chislehurst Caves

 

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