Travel: UK OUTDOORS: A squeeze in the dark

If you really want to get into the landscape, try caving deep under Derbyshire. Rupert Isaacson gets himself into a hole on a beginner's weekend. But claustrophobia sufferers should not apply

Deep black dark and the sound of dripping water; an acrid smell of bats' urine and damp. Caving, or potholing, is an eerie experience, taking you into a world that demands the fullest use of your sense of balance and faith in your ability to wriggle, push and squirm your way out of anything. It sounds terrible, yet the experience, though uncomfortable, is highly rewarding. Something about coping successfully with such an alien environment, despite fears of the dark, getting lost and occasional claustrophobia. For many, the adventure of walking, crawling, or even abseiling down into the black bowels of a mountain quickly becomes a way of life.

Britain's limestone uplands offer unlimited opportunities for cavers; the subterranean rock lies in block-like sections incised by horizontal and vertical fissures, some of which widen out into large passages and caves. But it is the passages in between, which have to be negotiated as best you can, that provide the challenge.

There are several centres that offer guided trips with qualified guides down into these passages and caverns. Bear in mind, however, that you should not think about going if you suffer from real claustrophobia, as even beginners have to wriggle their way through "squeezes" - twisting tunnels too narrow to turn around in, which offer the only access through "chokes" of boulders fallen across the way. If the thought of such discomfort is only mildly nightmarish, try it: beginners can get a mile or more into a mountain on their first try.

The limestone cliffs and crags of the Peak District National Park are riddled with underground passages carved by water. The Rock Lea centre in Hathersage, Derbyshire, in the northern Peaks (a five-pub village), has access to some of the best of these. They use fully qualified instructors and have an exemplary safety record. Rock Lea's beginner's weekend takes you down Giant's Hole, one of the deepest cave systems in the country. Before heading down into the dark you are taught basic ropework techniques and safety procedures and shown how to feel your way with your feet as well as your hands. The weekend is aimed at getting people started in the sport: you will be encouraged to push yourself, but never forced. If you find it's too much for you down in the mountain, nobody is going to make you feel a fool for heading back to the light. The centre provides all clothing and equipment, including helmets, headlamps and semi-waterproof suits. You should bring warm clothing to wear underneath.

If you have been caving before, Rock Lea also offers an improver's weekend, teaching more specialist skills such as abseiling, pitch-rigging (setting up ropes for climbs and abseils), rescue and route finding underground. For those who get hooked, there is a world of possibility: abseiling and climbing, underground sub-aqua diving and caving abroad, most of which can be arranged through the centre.

FACT FILE

Contacts

Rock Lea Activity Centre, Station Road, Hathersage, Hope Valley, Peak District National Park, S32 1DD Tel: (01433) 650345; Fax: (01433) 650342.

Season

Open all year.

Accommodation

Eight dormitory beds available in home of centre owners - a Victorian manse. Local B&B is also available within easy walking distance - the centre will book it for you.

Tariffs

Prices include instruction, equipment, and full board accommodation. Beginner's Caving Weekend: from pounds 99; Improver's Caving Weekend: from pounds 99.

Food

Full board included, vegetarian and special diets by request.

Children

Over 18s only.

Insurance and safety

Guests are covered by centre's insurance. Staff trained in first aid and rescue procedures.

Booking

pounds 20 deposit required. Balance due eight weeks before holiday. Bookings must be made in advance. Access or Visa accepted.

How To Get There

Off the A625, near Sheffield. Trains to Hathersage station. Buses to Sheffield and Hathersage. Centre is an easy walk from stations.

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