Breakthrough in Fairy Holes (Weardale)


This is a joint trip report by myself (in blue) and Adele (Balmerfish on UKC) (in red). Hopefully it conveys our different perspectives of an entertaining day.

Those cavers that know me will be aware Fairy Holes in Weardale is a special place to me. The recent dry spell had me thinking - what would the sump look like? For those that have never been to the end, describing it as a sump is misleading. It’s more just a narrowing of the cave passage with a strong draught emitting. It’s a narrowing I have seen many of my friends look like they were not having a fun time in.

As soon as I turned up at the YSS barbecue I was accosted by Adele: “Do you fancy a Fairy Holes trip this week?!”. I pondered and realised that not only was it was forecast to be one of the hottest days on record in the UK, but I also had a day of leave to use before the end of August. It was a good combination of reasons to go underground so I gave a tentative yes, pleased to have the chance to visit a cave I’d heard a fair bit about, but had somehow never got around to visiting.

The drive up started at about 25 degrees at 08:30, and finished at 30 degrees in the quarry. The short walk up to the cave was certainly a warm one, but the draught howling out of the entrance pipe rapidly cooled us down. It’s a real shame that so much of the cave has been quarried away, but my overwhelming impression throughout most of the trip was how much cave there was, and how enjoyable the caving was. The furthest upstream extent is nearly 2 km as the crow flies from the entrance, so it’s quite a journey to the end.


The Fairy Holes survey with the entrance at the top. The main stream runs the full length of the cave from S to N.

When Mark agreed at late notice to drive up to Weardale and have a look at the end with me I was over the moon. When I heard Mark had never been before, I promised my “full tour guide mode”, and bombarded Mark with all the history, wild theories, and past work in the cave.

The crawls between the Vestry and the Sarcophagus were less hideous than expected, and we were soon stomping up the final section of streamway to the end of the cave, described either as an impassable rift or a sump depending on where you get your information.

Reaching the end, the outward draught was impressive (no sump here!) and most notably was freezing cold. Knowing it was now likely to be 35 degrees outside, it was unlikely this was coming from a nearby surface connection! I thrutched in to take a look, not with any expectations of progress, but mainly because it seemed the right thing to do. My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by Adele telling me of the people she knew who had pushed the rift previously, who I knew full well were slimmer than me and at least as determined... what chance did I stand? Nevertheless, I decided to thrutch onwards, noting the scars on the distinctive glistening black manganese-coated(?) walls from previous attempts. Once I got to the last of these marks it was getting very narrow, but there was some space visible ahead with none of the scarring on the walls. I had a go pushing further, but didn’t have a chance – it was way too tight.


A previous attempt to progress along the terminal rift.

Some of this manganese-covered stuff was relatively soft, and as I’d been thrutching along I was periodically losing handholds and footholds as they collapsed down into the water below. Although these unexpected drops were somewhat unnerving, I couldn’t help thinking that if only we had a lump hammer, it ought to be fairly straightforward to widen the rift. Just using my fist, I bashed a particularly unhelpful bulge in the wall just ahead of my face, but it felt irritatingly solid. Reaching further along though, the wall was a bit softer and with some effort I could gouge some bits off. After a minute or so of this I tried moving forwards again. Nope. Still too tight. I pondered heading back out but was loathe to do so given I was still managing to remove some bits of wall in the narrow bit. I kept at it for a bit longer with some minor success. I decided to have one more go at thrutching through, and to my surprise, managed to get my chest through into the enlargement.

By this point the water below was opaque with all the stuff I’d been dropping into it, so with my hips wedged in the tight rift and my shoulders now in the wider section, I desperately felt around for handholds beneath the water to support my weight. Some fell off as I grabbed them, but after a bit of scrabbling I found enough and eased myself forwards into the enlargement, still unable to see if I could get any further. Once out of the squeeze I looked ahead and saw that beyond another slight narrowing it looked to enlarge again. Thankfully this time it looked like it was big enough if I dropped down slightly, so feeling around with my feet for holds I managed to progress, this time chest deep in the water. Ahead was a rare treat in British caving: an unexplored, strongly draughting, walking height passage. Savouring the moment, I walked up into a sizeable breakdown chamber (about 2.5 m high by 3 m wide and 15 m long) with the stream flowing between the boulders on the floor. At the end of this chamber the passage continued (about 2 m x 2 m) similar in character to the passage before the rift. A sharp right turn led to 15-20 m of straight continuing passage, before it turned left, heading off into the darkness ahead of me with the same dimensions. Great stuff.


The view from just after the constriction showing the distinctive black walls (left) and the open chamber ahead (right)

I have always felt that if you involve many people in a project people approach problems in different ways, they come up with new theories, and fresh eyes. Most people that I’ve seen try to tackle the rift, have been of a small frame. Mark approached it differently and just seemed to move forward. This sounds easy - it didn’t look easy, it looked strenuous but in no time he was pulling bits of mud off looking like he was almost out of sight. My excitement was hard to contain, but was mixed with the thoughts that if he didn’t have a good time in there it was going to be hard to offer any effective help others than words of “I’m sure rescue won’t be long” , and, “do you mind if I have another smoke”. Mark is a capable lad and was gone! I thought a celebratory cigarette was in order, but while scrabbling around I managed to dislodge myself from my perch and explore the "sump" somewhat more in the water. Considering the draught and my recent ducking I was pleased to hear Mark returning.

I was aware that I was not only a quite a way from the surface, but I was also beyond a constriction that Adele wasn’t able to follow through, and I also suspected that the return journey through the rift would be a fair bit harder. I resisted the temptation to stomp on into the unknown and went back to the rift. The return squeeze through certainly wasn’t without issue: footholds and handholds were repeatedly failing, each time dropping me down into the water below. Eventually I forced my way back through and told Adele the good news.

It's hard to explain how ecstatic I felt that this had finally been done, yet how nervous it made me think that I would have to attempt it. I've never really believed that the rift could be passed in this way, which is one of the reasons we have spent so much time looking for high level passage. Chatting to Mark it became apparent that the solution was simple, it just needed some mud peeling off and a few tools to widen it. We skipped out of Fairyholes, enjoying the cool air before being met with a red hot wind blasting down the quarry.

It was one of the warmest nights, which caused me to wake up with the heat, and it’s fair to say all I could think about was the rift and how to get through it. The next day taking the kids to the shops I drove past the road turn off thinking about the rift. It’s strange how my non-caving husband doesn’t understand my desire to constantly tell him about the end of Fairy Holes. Light relief came digging in the evening when I could fully download my thoughts to my friends at the North York Moors Caving club, who have also given so much to this project. I could see Chris Twigg and Lee Smith run cover as I asked if they fancied coming at the weekend. As always, they agreed. But the weekend is still so far away this was agony for me.

Step up James Carlisle who agreed to come the next day. James had never been to Fairyholes which made it a win win!

Exploration beyond the breakthrough is underway and ongoing (updates to follow here as and when we find the time to write them). The entrance is on private (non-access) land, but permits are available from the CNCC. If you have a permit coming up and are interested in the cave beyond the previous limit, do just get in touch for info. Fairy Holes is a SSSI but digging has all been with permission.
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Well-known member
It’s a real shame that so much of the cave has been quarried away,
We put the gate and pipe in there for Tarmac several years ago, the digger driver who worked at the quarry said
"the cave is still there its just the rock around it that has gone"

Good effort pushing the end, its a great cave, though we never made it to the end


Well-known member
Exciting thanks Mark and Adele......cant wait for the next installment. Hope it goes far for you


A Joint report by me (in blue) and James Carlisle (in black), The team are enjoying sharing our experiences from different perspectives regarding the recent extensions of Fairyholes.

Adele's seemingly innocuous question of "What's your favourite Northern Dales cave?", a few weeks earlier, had soon snowballed into the generous offer of a full guided tour of Fairy Holes. This was somewhere I'd always wanted to visit but had never had the opportunity to do so.

Step up James Carlisle, I had chatted with James at the Farm about Northern Dales caves, learning that he had never been to Fairy Holes - how could this be? I immediately resolved to correct this oversight of his ASAP. Lots of people say they want to come to Fairy Holes, but then never follow up. James seemed super keen, getting in touch the following week. I wondered if he had read anything about Fairies when SRT kit was mentioned. For a return to the sump with some tools, I actually prepared for once. I taped a crowbar to a chisel and a lump hammer to a mini-pick then drove up to meet James in Stanhope.

We arranged a date and I fired off a series of inane and ill-informed questions along the lines of "Do I need an SRT kit?" I turned up on the morning of the trip, looking forward to a nice jolly, and was immediately handed an assortment of newly-acquired digging tools to carry. "These are for the dig", said Adele, in a matter-of-fact tone. "Dig?", I queried. "We were here on Tuesday and Mark squeezed over a 'sump' into a 'chamber'. He nearly got stuck, so we're going to start digging it." It sounded like a long-term prospect and there was no hint that the passage beyond was anything other than more of the same.

Driving up I pondered how to best break the news that the trip I had previously suggested a few weeks ago had now slightly changed. How do I break it to James that my promise of a jolly stomp to the sump, had changed to taking tools down for a push the day after next ? It seemed best to be straight, so I handed James 50% of the tools, fortunately he seemed to take this as an instruction to also gather up the remaining tools. Weighed down by backups, and my back, cigarettes was going to be heavy work for me, although I did still feel a tad battered from the previous trip.

"Where is the dig?", I asked naively, knowing precisely zero about the cave. "Right at the end, about three hours in." "Oh", I replied, having not realised the cave was anywhere near that long, and having not brought any food or water to take underground.

James commented on how different Fairy Holes was to what he had been expecting, but seemed to enjoy it. I felt he was very confident wanting to navigate the crawls with the easily missed right-hand turn. Having missed the right-hand turn, we were soon back on track only slightly delayed.

Several hours of wonderfully varied caving followed – it is a truly fantastic cave – until we finally reached the 'sump'. I found myself standing in chest deep water, looking into an unimpressive narrow rift that was decidedly unsumpy. "Is that it?", I thought, ready to head out. Adele gestured towards the rift with a tip of her head. I was expected to do something. Resignedly, I grabbed a sturdy pickaxe and half-heartedly set to work. This was clearly going to take an awfully long time...

Arriving at the sump/rift, it didn’t look any more inviting than 48 hours previously. I remembered how Mark had described it as very strenuous - all of which I conveyed to James as I tried to avoid throwing myself in the drink again.

Remarkably James seemed super keen to have a go with the hand mini pick, after I told him of Marks adventures in the rift. I think I heard one little cry of “I’m not sure I can be arsed getting too wet Adele” which I largely ignored. Having fallen into the water he seemed to really freshen up so full steam ahead. James having stolen the superior of my rift digging tools made fine progress, the pointed mini pick chopping away at the mud. Whilst I was left with the lump hammer aka mud splatter. I amused myself falling into the deep water weighted down by the tool bag that James had attached to me. It must have been around this point that the crowbar and the chisel floated out!

Unexpectedly, the walls of the rift yielded easily under the delicate caress of the pickaxe. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all. Feeling renewed enthusiasm, my arm began to accelerate into a whirling dervish and I steadily progressed along the passage, making it comfortably wide enough to pass. Adele followed behind, further widening it with the lump-hammer (a much less efficient implement than the pick; the main effect being to splatter her face with globules of mud). In short order, we were through to a small widening, still in deep water.

James seemed to be having the time of his life in the rift, hacking way. To my amazement it now looked roomy… well in comparison. Again, thoughts of previous friends not having much fun in there flooded back. But it did look OK…. I can only liken the thoughts running through my head to someone telling you if you walk on hot coals your feet won’t get burnt, having just seen everyone else walk over and set their feet on fire. So, I swapped places with James and headed through, whilst the mini pick also floated off...there is a problem with tools here.

Unfortunately, I'd taken my helmet off before the rift, to make it easier to work, and had to go back for it. In doing so, I managed to drop the pickaxe to the bottom! This duly joined the crowbar that Adele had dropped a few minutes earlier. I'd like to have said that I dropped the pickaxe on purpose to make Adele feel better for having dropped the crowbar, but that would have been a lie.


James in the newly widened rift.

All sentimentality for our departed digging tools forgotten, we pushed on beyond the widening into the chamber that Mark had reached. This was frankly unexpected, since nothing Adele had told me to date had prepared me for the chamber being as big as this. Nor had it prepared me for it clearly being the continuation of the main Fairy Holes streamway! In fact, her off-hand and casual manner, which she'd adopted to describe the limit of Mark's exploration, put me in mind of a brief respite from the misery within which turning around might – just might – be a theoretical possibility. I certainly didn't expect it to be completely wide open and huge. Adele said that Mark was away for a couple of months and was happy for us to press on in the meantime, so we decided to have a quick ten minute explore before saving the rest for another day when we had survey gear with us.

Well, that didn’t seem too bad, what was all that fuss Mark was making, I chuckled to myself looking at the huge amount of mud we had chipped off. I realised I was through, an experience I had thought about for so many years. What’s beyond the "sump"? What’s the source of the draught? I can’t really believe I’m through and looking at this. I don’t say anything other than barking “Sump! We are through the sump mate”

The continuing passage consisted of very pleasant and easy caving in a big streamway, with several side passages. Eventually, we reached a prominent T-junction, with the main passage turning ninety degrees to the left, and a smaller inlet entering on the right. Both ways looked wide open and the main left-hand branch emitted a strong draught. This was starting to feel like a major discovery.

Feeling cold we retraced Marks footprints and looked a little way on, however wanting to save the big adventure for friends and the survey it was time to turn around. This journey passed quickly, sometime I chatted to James excitedly, sometimes I got a bit lost in my own thought about what Ian would have thought… deciding typically he would have managed to get us lost, or hypothermic, or both. I think he would have been very chuffed.


An enjoyable day underground!

Elated, we turned around and headed out. This certainly hadn't been the trip I'd expected when I'd woken up in the morning and I feel very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. However, having toiled fruitlessly for countless hours – make that years – in other digs (that shall remain nameless), I found it hard to begrudge myself my present good fortune: it's nice to have a digging return that isn't the square root of bugger-all. I especially felt happy for Adele, who had a strong personal motivation to continue digging that sump, and it was gratifying to see that perseverance pay off.
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Exciting stuff!

I drove up through Weardale last week and would have very much like to get underground, but unfortunately, I had a car full and a long way still to go... Sounds like I need to head back up!


Yes, well done indeed, brilliant stuff - make the most of the dry spell while it lasts! How do you find the will-power to turn back when there's wide open passages in front of you with a strong draught blowing?!


Well-known member
This is excellent news, and congratulations Adele, Mark and James. I have been to The Sarcophagus twice before, but never to the (former) furthest reaches of the cave including the 'sump'. It is a stunning trip in excellent stream passage; An unusual combination of streamway mixed with Northern-Dales maze-cave type character and blocky breakdown chambers.

I know how much Fairy Holes means to you Adele, and how much work you have put in there over several years. This breakthrough couldn't be any more well-deserved.

Really excited to hear what lies ahead... miles of stomping stream passage I hope... thank you for sharing on UKCaving :)

How far are these new extensions from the sinks? What is the scope of the potential?

Peter Ryder

New member
Excellent news, avidly followed from my distant armchair. Grateful that I did manage one trip half way into Fairy.....

Hope you emerge from the wet sink at Wolfcleugh, on the west of the stream, which I don't think anyone has really had a go at.
It looked grim but possible for the small and waterproof, I was alas old and soluble
All the best


New member
Brilliant to hear of a breakthrough at Fairy Caves. Well done.
Not been caving for a long time but still take a keen interest from the armchair.
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This is excellent news, and congratulations Adele, Mark and James. I have been to The Sarcophagus twice before, but never to the (former) furthest reaches of the cave including the 'sump'. It is a stunning trip in excellent stream passage; An unusual combination of streamway mixed with Northern-Dales maze-cave type character and blocky breakdown chambers.

I know how much Fairy Holes means to you Adele, and how much work you have put in there over several years. This breakthrough couldn't be any more well-deserved.

Really excited to hear what lies ahead... miles of stomping stream passage I hope... thank you for sharing on UKCaving :)

How far are these new extensions from the sinks? What is the scope of the potential?
"I have been to The Sarcophagus twice before, but never to the (former) furthest reaches of the cave including the 'sump'"

Well matey - i suspect you will be very soon, charge up that disto.


Well-known member
Excellent stuff, Adele and team; well done!

Don't forget to send a description of the "sump" area in for the next sump index, even though it's not a sump. (There's a special address for this; email me if you haven't got it.)