Adrenalin: Going underground: It is cold, dark and frightening, but the queue can be four hours long. Mike Gerrard explored Britain's biggest cavern

It was 99 years ago on 1 August when the first person went down Gaping Gill, Britain's biggest cavern, and now it was my turn. I would have done it sooner but it seems like a 99-year wait to get to the front of the queue. Cavers can crawl into Gaping Gill for most of the year, but the rest of us get only two chances - at the late May and late August bank holidays.

The queues build up from early morning, a mix of ramblers and curiosity-seekers. They join the tents of the local cavers who organise the event in a part of the Yorkshire Dales more noted for its heights than its depths.

I was more concerned with the straight drop of 365 ft directly below me. It felt like being on a scaffold, waiting for the wooden floor to be whipped away from beneath my feet. Instead of a noose round the neck I was strapped into a bosun's chair, hard-hat on head and careful to keep every extremity tucked in, as instructed.

'The first winch was set up in 1933,' Russell Myers, a member of the Craven Pothole Club, told me, 'and we've had no accidents so far.' The winch starts working at about 9am, or whenever the first visitors arrive. If you have to wait your turn you can wander the slopes of Ingleborough, have a hot-dog, or if the wait is a really long one visit the Ingleborough Show Cave, a 30-minute walk away. Russell Myers explains, 'I remember one August bank holiday when there was a four-hour wait by 9.30 in the morning, but it's not usually that bad. Some days during the week you might be lucky and turn up and go straight down.'

Eventually your turn will come, unless you've suddenly gone off the idea, as you might when you're sitting in the chair about to be lowered into the cavern. Then the floor's pulled away, the chair drops, your stomach stays where it was, and you descend into the darkening shaft. In front of your face the rock and moss flash by, and the smell of damp and earth gets stronger. Fell Beck splashes the 300 ft or more into Gaping Gill, creating Britain's longest straight-drop waterfall, before it makes its way underground to emerge alongside the entrance to the Ingleborough Cave and from there flows on through the nearest village, Clapham.

As you make your own way underground, the dark of the shaft becomes lighter again as you reach the main chamber, where paraffin lamps are set up to illuminate the cave. It's a breathtaking sight, and worth the wait. Some people say that the main chamber is big enough to hold York Minster, or even St Paul's itself. It looks big enough to me to hold both of them - 500 ft long and the roof disappearing 300 ft above your head.

Guides will tell you about Gaping Gill, and the network of caves that leads off it, even taking you along them for a glimpse of the torchlit world of the cavers. It's like being in a Jules Verne novel.

Most people spend an hour or so wandering round, hearing the stories of that first descent 99 years ago by a French lawyer, Edward Martel. He carried with him a lantern, a phone to his wife on the surface, and a flask of rum.

For those not convinced about potholing, Russell Myers offers a reassuring word: 'We do check that everyone's out again at night.'

Gaping Gill will be accessible from 20-29 Aug. Check last-minute changes at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Centre at Clapham (05242-51419). Cost: pounds 5. B & B in Clapham at the Brook House Guest House from pounds 13.50 pp (05242-51580)

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone