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By Tony Waltham

In the summer of 1969, exploration of the Lyle Cavern High Levels, at the upstream end of the Lost John’s Master Cave fell to a mixed team from the Happy Wanderers, London University and Bradford Pothole Club. But it was only 42 years later that these passages provided the vital link between the two long main drains in Lost John’s and Notts. Pot.

Through the late 1960s, various members of the London University Caving Clubs had focussed on Lost John’s. They completed the survey of the then-known cave, before starting a search for extensions. Phil Collett made the first dive into the downstream sump (but followed the right-hand wall, thereby missing the Gavel inlet) and dived the predictable link from Shale Cavern to Battleaxe. Maypoles were then carried in, primarily for a thorough search of the roof bedding along the Master Cave. Sadly this revealed almost nothing, and it was only later that modest success was achieved with Maypole Passage across from Wet Pitch. Lyle Cavern was too tall for our maypole, and we were not then into bolting, but Joe Norman had suggested a look up an aven that he had noticed off to the side of the cavern. So on a July Saturday in 1969, a mixed bag of Happy Wanderers and Londoners descended the cave and headed for the aven.

A ladder 10m long was soon hanging from the top of the maypole leaning into a small passage. Kenny Taylor and Dave Cobley were first up, and led off into a long hands-and-knees crawl in a clean passage with a small stream. The whole team gathered in a small chamber, and Kenny led up a 4m climb, and then round a corner up another 4m shaft. But this entered the base of a towering rift. Kenny and Dave tried it, but retreated when they decided that pegs and ropes were needed. Plans were laid for the next day.

Sunday morning started with the obligatory breakfast in Bernie’s, where we happened to meet up with Pete Livesey, who jumped at the chance to join us in Lost John’s. Most fortuitous. A few hours later we were all at the base of the new rift, where Pete said he would give it a go. His climbing skills were of course legendary, and we watched in amazement as he straddled his way up the almost hold-less rift. Then 12m up he emerged out of the top of the rift, and called down “three large passages up here”. He hauled up a ladder to allow us lesser mortals to follow, and we split into three groups each with an open passage to explore – each one a spacious, ancient trunk passage that was a joy to follow.
One group headed south, passing beneath various high avens and over a fissure (which, 16 years later, provided the route into the Tate Galleries for the Kendal cavers). Further progress to the south was stopped by another towering aven, which Roger Bowser and friends later climbed to reach a tunnel choked with sediment, 20m above the main passage.

The second group headed east and found the best of the calcite decorations, before descending rifts and being stopped at the head of a looming void. This was guessed as the top of Lyle Cavern, and soon confirmed as such when two of the party went back to the foot of the Cavern. The 22m drop was later rigged to become the normal route up into the High Levels
The third group turned south along a fine tunnel, and over a hole in the floor; the next Saturday, this was followed down five pitches to a low streamway, which rejoined the passage upstream of Lyle Cavern at a junction previously unnoticed. Beyond the hole in the floor, progress along the High Level was soon stopped at a substantial choke. In subsequent weeks, Roger Bowser attempted a route into this, but was soon thwarted.
As were others, who also found a choke very well cemented and sealed by calcite flowstone. The passage pointed towards the big space on the map, where we knew the Notts water flowed with a drop that indicated open streamway (this was 16 years before the Northern Pennine divers got into Notts II). But that calcited choke was a formidable barrier, and the full potential of the Lyle Cavern High Levels was only developed when a new generation of dedicated diggers cleared the way through 42 years later.