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Present: Pete H, Tom M, Ian W, Andy W (photographer)

This trip was for Pete, who was desperate to see in his 22nd year whilst underground. We decided upon Sir Francis Level as we’d seen a very enticing report on the Subterranea Britannica website ( It told of a 1500yd long drainage adit, chest-deep in water, with a fantastically preserved enginehouse at the far end. The arrangements were made, then, for a seven o’clock start from Durham, in order to reach the engine room for midnight. It was going to be a long night.

We parked the car by the bridge in the centre of Gunnerside. Here, the odd streetlamp eases changing at night, but aids neither modesty nor subtlety. With the exception of Tom, who wore a wetsuit top, we wore furry suits beneath our oversuits. I had my old blue furry suit on beneath my current red one, and two pairs of thick woolly socks. Andy and Pete sported Long Johns and thermal underwear. We took the footpath up the east bank of the gill, which leads, with a bit of perseverance, to the dressing floor and spoil tips of the Sir Francis Level. The stomp up the path had us all overheating, but it seemed not to matter; the exra layers would soon prove their worth. The bowse teams can be seen a little above the dressing floor, giving away the height of the adit. Crossing the stream to reach the adit, we sent in a scout to judge which direction it headed in (straight up-valley) and went in search of the air shaft. This 25ft shaft drops into the adit beyond a collapse, and can be found by keeping close to the west bank of the stream. It is covered over with tram-rail and stone flags. We rigged a rope from a smallish birch tree around 15ft upstream, with the tacklesack laid down as protection from the tram rail.

At the foot of the shaft the water came up to our ankles. This was because we were stood on the pile of detritus which had come down the shaft – in truth it was waist deep in this section. We had heard that for it to be waist deep here it would be neck deep later on. We took no time in deciding to press on and find out for ourselves.

Pic 1: Pete, testing the waters

Slowly wading along, balancing on the submerged rails to keep six inches higher out of the water, we soon grew accustomed to the cold. It was a stinging, burning cold. After perhaps a couple of hundred yards, we rose out of the water until it was merely thigh deep. Here we could forge ahead, creating bow waves as we went. This continues for long enough to become tiring before a large roof collapse is met. Walking over the collapse, an arched section comes into view. The water level is higher on the other side of the collapse, and within about a foot of the crown of the arch. Andy went in first – recompense for being tallest – and made his way along on tip-toes, calling back that it was neck-deep but improving steadily. We followed, unsure if Andy was just jangling our chains. I am a little over 6ft tall and, by careful treading, I managed to keep it to armpit-level. But it did improve, and the first fifty yards were soon over. This proved to be the worst of the water and nothing seemed a bother after this.

We reached a fork in the way. A low, curved passage lead off to the right, but this is collapsed after a few yards. The adit continues on to a small, heavily-shored chamber with a small room to the left. Passing this, and with care not to disturb the supports, the passage becomes very wide, with two tram roads.

Pic 2: Ian, looking back along the wide section

Again the passage divides. The left road leads immediately to the flooded shaft, with its one lift cage in situ. The other cage is at the bottom of the shaft; only its hoisting cable can be seen.

Pic 3: The divide; left to the shaft, right to the stair

Pic 4: The shaft portal, with hauling cage

The right hand passage leads beyond a second opening onto the shaft and to a small stair to the engine room. The passage continues (heavily collapsed) but we didn’t explore this further. We went up the steps and spent an hour and a half taking photographs, drinking tea and champagne (!) and noosing around looking at all the equipment. The winding engines are hydraulic; powered by water arriving in large diameter steel pipes which came from an ascending passage leading from the top of the stair. The winding drum is about six feet in diameter and takes the two hauling cables, which are wound in opposite directions to counterbalance the weights of the cages. By the number of turns of cable on the drum, we estimated the shaft to be 150ft deep. The cables run over large sheaved pulleys mounted on a heavy timber headgear above the shaft. The pumping engine is mounted over the shaft on large steel I-beams, and is also water powered. The two pistons are counterbalanced over a smaller pulley on the headgear. Many long, long calcite straws grow from the stone-arched roof of the engine room.

Pic 5: The stair to the engine room

Pic 6: The drum and the calcite straws

Pic 7: The pumps and headgear

Pic 8: Midnight – Pete, Tom, Ian and Andy

After all this excitement, we were ready for the trip out. Having been through it already – and with the exit on the far side – we made swift progress along the level. It took us around twenty-five minutes to get back to the air shaft; it had taken around forty minutes on the way in.

After quickly packing away the gear – and creating a sling harness for Andy’s camera briefcase – we were on our way back down the valley. The walk back took us around half an hour, and we soon seemed to be changing in the village. Andy was probably the coldest because his permeable oversuit had been wicking the heat from him, but I was feeling fine and didn’t even need to put on my woolley! Certainly the car heater and a sip of coffee from a small flask were both a pleasure, and I was soon drifting off to sleep in the back of the car as we sped home, tired and satisfied.

Ian W