Hell Gill – the descent
“I couldn’t help it. I began to slide into the mouth of the abyss itself. I found myself in the first of a series of smooth limestones cups four or five feet in diameter…stepped at an acute down a flooded gulley of hollow limestone that spiralled into the unknown.”
At every stage of this retracing of Waterlog, one swim in particular has always come up among fellow Deakin acolytes. Hell Gill. This ‘roofless’ cave, cutting its way across the border from Cumbria into Yorkshire, is arguably the most challenging of all Roger’s dips.
While powering out across Fowey or the Medway were about stamina, the descent into this narrow unknown represents the book’s breakthrough moment. A potentially dangerous folly that becomes a wild swimming rebirth, Roger miraculously emerging from the top end of Hell Gill energised and ready to take on the swirl of Corryvreckan.
After a cooling few strokes at Bolton Abbey, I slept fitfully and woke up in Hawes to a claggy mist. My dreams were full of rushing water and slippery rocks and I pack my bag for the day with a sense of mild dread knotted in my stomach. There is no chance I’m tackling Hell Gill in Roger’s lo–fi outfit of bathing shorts, wetsuit boots and a rope.
Armed with a thirty year old copy of Tony Waltham’s ‘Yorkshire Dales Limestone Country’ and a battered OS map, Dave and I have plotted a route which will try and enter the gorge as it spills out towards the Settle to Carlisle railway, before yomping 500 metres upstream to assess its entry. Waltham says wellies are in order for the first bit and so we drive into the village and procure a cheap pair for the mission ahead.
The morning clag has lifted somewhat, but there’s still a fine drizzle as we park up on the county border, greeted by the yelps of a sheep dog patrolling a nearby gate. I pull on my uncomfortable new footwear and go over everything one last time. Wetsuit, swimming shoes, hat, guidebook, maps, gumption. Tracking out across the field, we pause and peer down into Hell Gill Force. It’s but a trickle after a long, hot summer, but will soon surely rage as winter takes hold.
Up ahead a farmer darts across his hilly fields on a quad bike, hollering instructions to his dog as he tries to round up his flock. As they disappear behind the rise, it becomes clear that these wooly chaps are going to interfere with our original plans. Penned next to the lower bank of the gill, there’s no way we can hop a fence next to them without causing a disturbance. Suddenly, it’s obvious that if I want to get into Hell Gill, I’m going to have to do it Roger’s way.
Within minutes we’re on the stone bridge which crosses the gill, looking deep down into its narrow passage. But things have changed, and recently too. Alongside its left hand bank, facing upstream, Hell Gill has had a hair cut, the pines which fringed its rim cut right back to let in the light. Timber is neatly stacked, stumps still swirled with sap. All of a sudden, you can see into what was once a dark abyss. Fear is replaced by excitement as I galumph the long way round to the entry point past this narrow wood.
At the top, we hop over a collapsed dry wall to get a better look at what awaits down each plunge pool. Despite the extra light, this is still a dangerous drop into the unknown. As Waltham says, ‘…the gorge descent is a one way trip’. Without a rope, I’m not so sure I can manage it, but vow to go as far as I can.
Togged up in my wetsuit, looking ludicrous with a pair of wellies on top, I edge down and immediately feel the ice–like slip of the rocks. Beneath the surface they are impossible to stand on. And so I clamber along the edges before swapping into neoprene shoes and sliding my way down, pool by pool.
The water is freezing, despite an entire summer to warm up, and I simply cannot imagine standing up in this without protection. The further I go, the more the gill seems to beckon me on, each pool more alluring than the last, each one of this ‘succession of cold baths’ a Siren.
The drops start to get serious and it’s becoming clear that I’m going to need to fully commit if I take the plunge down the next, steep waterfall. I can’t tell the depth and my climbing skills are abysmal. I know I won’t be able to get back out quickly and face a long, cold journey through churning water and a now persistent rain if I’m going to emerge at the other end.
High up on the freshly shorn bank, Dave looks understandably concerned. If I take this last drop, then I’ll be gone from sight and unable to pull myself free even if I want to. Gripped by the Yorkshire chill, I begin to pick my way back up as carefully as possible, immersing myself in each pool and swimming a few strokes as a brief way of thanks to this most magical of rivers.
This is no weather for sunbathing after a dip, so I peel myself free of my wetsuit and take a long look back down the gill as far as I can see. This is by far my greatest Waterlog achievement, a visceral thrill into the depths. I clump back down to the road elated, the finish line of this long trip now well within sight.