The Caves of Northumberland

The Journal Review

Magic of life underground for caving enthusiasts

DENTIST Chris Scaife regularly ventures into a world which few people will ever experience. His passion is caving. And wherever he travels worldwide, he likes to go underground.

This summer Chris and his Spanish wife Carolina Smith de la Fuente, who shares his hobby, took part in the first British caving expedition to Armenia, a country which is bounded by Georgia, Turkey and Iran.

Chris, who graduated from Newcastle University, has spent the last few years getting to know the more remote corners of Northumberland, known for its coastline, forests, moorland and hills - but not its caves.

Now he has compiled what is described as the first definitive guide to the caves of the county.

And they are, he says, a fascinating if largely unsung part of the Northumberland landscape, and a foray below ground can be enjoyed with a walk above to make the most of these often stunning locations.

Chris, who lives in Gosforth in Newcastle, started his subterranean activities 18 years ago when he joined the university caving club.

He is hailed by fellow Northumbrian caver, archaeologist and Moldywarps caving group member Peter Ryder as a "connoisseur" of caves.

Of the caves featured in the book, Peter says: "Every one is a collector's piece, set in an unparalleled landscape rich in stories."

The caves tend to come with legends attached, from highwaymen to hiding queens after the Battle of Hexham.

And there are all kinds of caves, from limestone to sandstone to sea caves, rock shelters and rifts.

"With caving, you can experience an invisible part of the world most people will never see;' says Chris. "There is so much to caving, and exploration is very much a key part of it all."

Hundreds of metres of cave passages are found in the north of England every year.

"While the Yorkshire Dales are probably the biggest caving area in Britain, there are some fantastic caves in Northumberland and County Durham set in a variety of landscapes;' says Chris.

"As with many cavers, my first experiences of caving were in the Yorkshire Dales. Although walking, cycling and climbing has allowed me to get to know Northumberland fairly well, caving was always something to do elsewhere.

"I made countless journeys to the major caving regions of the UK before ever venturing underground in Northumberland."

The first Northumberland caves Chris visited were Roughting Linn near Milfield and Cateran Hole near Chillingham.

Roughting Linn is a rare sandstone tube beside a waterfall, and one of the best examples of a prehistoric rock art carved panel in the region.

"This is a glorious place;' says Chris.

Meanwhile Cateran Hole, he says, is "a cave steeped in history and legend. It is a walking passage which appears unexpectedly in heather moorland, entered by mysterious stone steps:'

Tradition has it that Cateran was part of a tunnel leading 17km to Hen Hole in the Cheviot Hills.

"There is obvious evidence of human activity in this cave with its carved steps and a 12m long shelf lining the wall," says Chris. "Many believe these were made by Border Reivers:'

Having checked out Roughting Linn and Cateran Hole, Chris said: "I realised that the caves of Northumberland were special and worth visiting further. Accordingly, I pored over old caving club records, maps and Victorian guide books, wandered hillsides and rocky shores to come up with this first comprehensive guide to Northumberland's

caves."

His research included an article in The Journal of April 20, 1842, describing an extensive cave system on Alnwick Moor, near the hamlet of Hobberlaw.

The report spoke of a cavern of "considerable extent" with passages "neatly arched, approaching the order and regularity of a work of art".

It was said that two of the Duke of Northumberland's hounds chased a fox into the system and were only recovered two days later.

"The area in which the cave entrance is thought to be located is now very overgrown;' says Chris. "For now, this must be considered a lost cave, but perhaps it will be re-discovered".

St Cuthbert's Cave, overlooking Holy Island, is perhaps the best known in the county, and is where the coffin of St Cuthbert is said to have been temporarily set down after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. It is now in the care of the National Trust.
The longest cave in Northumberland is the Ayleburn Mine cave near Alston on the border with Cumbria. The Ayle Burn is a tributary of the South Tyne. 
The cave was found by lead miners and turned into a show cave for visitors.

Tony Henderson
Envionment