Caving (or spelunking if you’re from the US) is an exhilarating and adventurous activity that involves exploring underground caves, tunnels, and passages. It’s an activity that offers unique challenges, stunning natural beauty, and a sense of exploration and discovery. However, for those who are new to caving, it can also be intimidating and overwhelming.
In this two-part article, we’ll provide a guide for those who are interested in starting caving, whether they’re looking for a fun day out or want to take things further and try caving with proper gear and a guide. In the first part of the article, we’ll suggest that beginners start with visiting some show caves as a member of the public with a tour and guide.
In the second part of the article, we’ll look at some good beginner caves for those who are ready to take things further and are looking for a bit of a challenge. These caves require proper caving gear, including helmets, headlamps, and sometimes wetsuits, as they often involve crawling, squeezing through tight spaces, and climbing up or down vertical passages. However, these caves also offer stunning natural beauty, a sense of adventure, and the opportunity to learn new skills.
Whether you’re a beginner looking to explore underground for the first time or an experienced caver looking for new challenges, this article will provide you with the information you need to get started and make the most of your caving experience.
Visiting show caves
Show caves are a great way for beginners to experience the thrill of caving without the need for specialized gear or training. These caves are typically well-lit and have wide pathways, making them accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. You’ll only need a helmet (always provided) and a sense of adventure to explore these caves and experience what it’s like to go underground.
Show caves offer a unique opportunity to explore underground and see stunning natural formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, and underground rivers, that have been formed over thousands of years. Below, we suggestsome of the best show caves in the UK that are perfect for beginners who want to experience the thrill of caving with a tour guide. Whether you’re a family looking for a fun day out or an individual looking to try something new, these show caves are sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.
Cheddar Gorge – Cheddar, Somerset:
Cheddar Gorge is a stunning natural attraction located in the village of Cheddar, Somerset. It features a series of limestone cliffs that rise up to 137 metres high, with a network of caves and underground rivers running through them. The gorge is a popular destination for rock climbers and hikers, but the real draw for caving enthusiasts is the show cave system that offers a glimpse into the incredible geology of the area. Visitors can explore the caves on a guided tour, which takes them through a series of chambers filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other fascinating rock formations.
Wookey Hole Caves – Wookey Hole, Somerset:
Wookey Hole Caves is another popular show cave attraction located in the village of Wookey Hole, Somerset. The caves are formed from limestone and are home to underground rivers, waterfalls, and rock formations that have been formed over thousands of years. Visitors can take a guided tour of the caves and see some of the most spectacular formations up close, including the Witch’s Cauldron and the Great Chamber.
More adventurous visitors may like to try the ‘Wild Wookey‘ experience.
Stump Cross Caverns – Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire:
Stump Cross Caverns is a unique and stunning cave system located in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. The caves were formed over 500,000 years ago and are home to some of the most spectacular rock formations in the UK. Visitors can explore the caves on a guided tour, which takes them through a series of chambers filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and underground pools. There’s also a UV light experience.
White Scar Cave – Ingleton, North Yorkshire:
White Scar Cave is the longest show cave in the UK, with over a mile of underground passageways and chambers to explore. The cave features a series of stunning formations, including the Witch’s Fingers, the Battlefield, and the Crystal Forest. Visitors can take a guided tour of the cave, which includes a boat ride on the underground river and the opportunity to see some of the most spectacular underground formations up close.
There is also the opportunity for caving expeditions at this cave – see the website for contact info.
Kents Cavern – Torquay, Devon:
Kents Cavern is one of the most famous and important show caves in the UK, with a history dating back over 400,000 years. The cave system features a series of stunning rock formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone, as well as evidence of early human habitation. Visitors can take a guided tour of the caves and learn about the geology and history of the area, as well as the cave’s significance in human evolution.
National Showcaves Centre – Abercrave, Powys, Wales:
Here there are three spectacular showcaves making up one of the most popular tourist attractions in Wales, and for good reason. The cave system features a series of chambers filled with stunning rock formations, underground rivers, and waterfalls. Visitors can take a guided tour of the caves and see some of the most spectacular formations up close in the three caves which include Dan-yr-Ogof, the Cathedral Cave and the Bone Cave.
Clearwell Caves – Clearwell, Gloucestershire:
Clearwell Caves is a unique and fascinating cave system located in the Forest of Dean. The caves were mined for iron ore for over 4,500 years and are now open to the public for guided tours. Visitors can explore the underground chambers and see the remains of the iron mining operations, as well as some of the stunning rock formations that have formed over the centuries.
There is also the opportunity to do both semi-deep caving and deep level caving here with a guide.
Peak Cavern – Castleton, Derbyshire:
Peak Cavern is one of the most spectacular show caves in the UK, located in the picturesque village of Castleton in the Peak District. The cave features a massive entrance chamber, known as the Devil’s Arse, which is so called because of the flatulent noises that can sometimes be heard echoing from inside the cave. The cave is also home to the largest cave entrance in Britain, which measures 20 meters wide and 30 meters high.
Visitors can take guided tours of the cave and explore its fascinating geological features, including stalactites, stalagmites, and underground rivers. The tours also offer a glimpse into the history of the cave, which has been used for various purposes over the centuries, including as a hideout for robbers and a venue for concerts. Having been on a tour with my children at various ages, I cannot recommend the guides enough – they are knowledgeable, super friendly and add so much to the experience. This included a fascinating hands-on demonstration of rope-making in the mouth of the cave.
Image by lapping
Taking the next step
For those who have experienced the thrill of exploring show caves and are ready for more of a challenge, the next step is to try caving with proper gear and a guide. This involves wearing a waterproof suit, helmet, headlamp, and sometimes gloves and knee pads, and crawling, squeezing, and climbing through narrow passages and underground streams. While it can be intimidating, caving with a guide is a safe and exciting way to explore the hidden world beneath our feet. Below, we have suggested some of the best beginner-friendly caves in the UK that offer a mix of adventure and natural beauty, with guides and proper equipment provided. Whether you’re looking for a half-day adventure or a full weekend underground, these caves offer a unique experience for those ready to take the next step in their caving journey.
If you’re struggling to find an organised guiding session for the cave of your choice, try finding a guide through the Association of Caving Instructors since many guides work on a freelance basis.
Ogof Ffynnon Ddu – Swansea, South Wales:
Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, or OFD for short, is one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the UK, located in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Despite its size, OFD is a popular choice for beginner cavers due to the relatively easy access and well-maintained paths and ladders within the cave. The route takes you through several impressive chambers and passageways, with the highlight being the famous “Letterbox” squeeze that leads to a hidden chamber.
Swildon’s Hole – Somerset:
Swildon’s Hole is a classic cave system in the Mendip Hills, with a variety of underground features including streamways, waterfalls, and formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. The cave has several entrances, but the main entrance is the most commonly used and provides a relatively straightforward route for beginners. The route takes cavers through a series of passages and chambers, with the highlight being the stunning “Sump 1” pool.
Giants Hole – Castleton, Derbyshire:
Giants Hole is a popular cave system in the Peak District, offering a range of challenges for cavers of all abilities. The cave features a large entrance chamber and a series of passages and chambers that can be explored. The cave contains a number of formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, as well as several underground streams and pools. The highlight of the route is the impressive “Titan” chamber, which features a waterfall and is one of the largest underground chambers in the UK.
You can sometimes find group events for this cave on EventBrite.
Ease Gill Caverns – Yorkshire Dales:
Ease Gill Caverns is a complex network of caves in the Yorkshire Dales, featuring a variety of underground features including underground streams, pools, and formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. The cave system is popular with cavers of all abilities, with several entrances providing access to different parts of the cave. The route takes cavers through a series of passages and chambers, with the highlight being the impressive “Main Chamber” which features a large underground pool.
Gaping Gill – Yorkshire Dales:
Gaping Gill is one of the largest and most famous caves in the UK, located in the Yorkshire Dales. The cave is only accessible to the public during an annual event called “Winch Meet,” when cavers are lowered into the cave via a rope system. The cave features several underground streams and pools, as well as impressive formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. The route takes visitors through a series of challenging passages and chambers, with the highlight being the impressive “Main Chamber” which is large enough to fit St Paul’s Cathedral inside.
Pridhamsleigh Cavern – Devon:
Pridhamsleigh Cavern is a small but beautiful cave system located in the Dartmoor National Park. The cave features several underground streams and pools, as well as formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. The route takes visitors through a series of passages and chambers, with the highlight being the stunning “Mirror Pool” which reflects the formations above like a mirror.
Goatchurch Cavern – Somerset:
Goatchurch Cavern is a small but challenging cave system in the Mendip Hills, featuring a range of underground features including streamways, formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, and challenging squeezes and crawls. The route takes visitors through a series of tight passages and chambers, with the highlight being the impressive “Thunderbolt Chamber.”
Upper Flood Swallet – Mendip Hills, Somerset:
Upper Flood Swallet is a limestone cave located in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. The cave offers a great introduction to caving with varied passages and an easy streamway. The entrance to the cave is a narrow rift leading to a steeply descending boulder slope, which eventually reaches the stream passage. The stream passage is an easy walk, which leads to a small waterfall that can be climbed up to a higher level. From here, the cave becomes more challenging with narrow rifts and boulder chokes that require some scrambling and crawling. The cave features some beautiful formations including stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones. With a guide and proper equipment, Upper Flood Swallet is a great choice for beginners looking for a bit of a challenge while still being manageable.
Long Churn Caves – Yorkshire Dales:
Long Churn Caves are a network of underground limestone caves located in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The cave features a mixture of walking and crawling passage and includes a range of challenges such as narrow squeezes, low crawls, and small waterfalls. The cave also features some impressive formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone. With a guide and proper equipment, Long Churn Caves provide an excellent introduction to caving for beginners who are looking for a bit of a challenge while still being manageable. The cave system also has a number of exit points, so it is possible to tailor the experience to individual abilities.
Fun fact – this cave contains the most famous squeeze in the Dales, the “Cheesepress”!
Ogof Daren Cilau System – South Wales:
Daren Cilau is one of the longest cave systems in the UK and is located in the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales. The cave features a mixture of walking passage, crawling passage, and vertical pitches that make it a great choice for those looking for a more challenging caving experience. The cave features some impressive formations such as flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites, as well as a beautiful underground river. With a guide and proper equipment, Daren Cilau is a fantastic option for those looking for a more advanced caving experience: it is infamous for its gruelling entrance crawls.
Featured image by Peter H