As published in the The Craven Herald:
“TWO MPs have promised to do what they can to gain better access to potholes after making a Christmas visit to Gaping Gill on Ingleborough.
Former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis and fellow Conservative MP David Rutley were part of a group who visited Britain’s highest waterfall – the mighty cascade that tumbles down Gaping Gill’s 365ft entrance shaft.
The group, which was led by experienced local cavers and also included leading QC Dinah Rose and Richard Toon, chairman of the Lancashire Local Access Forum, entered the cave via Bar Pot, a ‘back door’ to the eight-mile long system, that remains safe even during heavy rain.
Before making its descent, the team stopped off at the Clapham-based Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO) in recognition of the volunteer service, recently on stand-by for the wide spread flooding experienced in the region.
To reach the cathedral-sized main chamber – Britain’s biggest – that contains the waterfall, they had to descend two vertical pitches of 55ft and 110ft, using lightweight caving ladders and lifelines.
Beyond lay hundreds of feet of crawling and stooping passageway leading to the chamber, where the group enjoyed a festive snack of Christmas cake and hot coffee.
One purpose of the trip, led by Ingleton rope access specialist and veteran cave explorer Tim Allen, was to experience first-hand the positive benefits of caving both for participants and the wider community.
Another was to give support to a campaign by the British Caving Association (BCA) which Mr Allen is organising to extend access rights to caves.
At present, the government’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claims the ‘right to roam’ granted to walkers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000 does not cover caves.
Some landowners have refused cavers permission to descend systems on their land entirely, while others have imposed onerous restrictions.
Ms Rose, a specialist in public law, said it had been a “really brilliant and memorable day”.
She has already written a formal, legal opinion for the BCA, which says Defra’s position is not only illogical, but misinterprets the Act. She believes there is no evidence that excluding caves from the law’s scope reflects the will of Parliament when it was debated.
In fact, Defra, and the agency it funds, Natural England, claim that cavers do have a right to cross open access land to cave entrances, and to descend them – but only as far as the point where daylight ceases to penetrate.
“In legal terms, this is simply perverse, and it could well be open to a challenge in court,” said Ms Rose.
However, Mr Allen stressed the BCA hoped to win its campaign by persuasion.
He added caving is a large and growing source of income in rural areas, which benefited the economy while causing no damage to the environment.
Mr Davis, MP for Howden and Haltemprice, said it had been a fascinating experience.
“It was really great to see Britain’s highest waterfall thundering down from a circle of daylight above – it was especially impressive after so much rain. It’s clear to me that caving has nothing but a positive impact, both on its exponents and the communities where the sport takes place,” he added.
“I cannot see for the life of me why Defra is taking the wholly illogical stance of denying that caves are covered by the open access freedoms granted by the CROW Act.”
Mr Rutley, MP for Macclesfield, added: “It was truly a memorable day out, and the main chamber and waterfall are just an incredible spectacle. We are fortunate to have an active population of cavers in the UK, which has a hugely beneficial economic impact on areas where there are caves.
“I look forward to working closely with cavers in future, as part of my wider efforts to get people off the sofa and to promote outdoor activities, and to show why access to caves should be recognised under the CROW Act.’”