Romney Hole

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Romney Hole

Written in the first person.
Zach’s account traces the momentous events that befall two Yorkshire Dale
farmer’s children: Zach aged 15 and his sister, Rachel, aged 13.

 Their favourite leisure
pastime, when finished with school and farm work, is potholing in a nearby
warren of tunnels and caves. These are situated high in the fells, so remote
that they are unknown to the senior potholing fraternity. The result is an
undisturbed playground paradise for Zach, Rachel and their friends and nearest neighbours,
Bob and Allan.

 Bob and Allan are still away
on their annual holiday when Zach and Rachel return from their one week
vacation in Whitby. Having caught up on outstanding chores they plan a trip to
Romney Hole, which gives entrance to their underground world.

 A preceding, long, fine
spell of dry weather has reduced the level of the underground streams and
rivers, and a new labyrinth is exposed. The temptation to explore cannot be


 A precipitous fall is
narrowly averted and during the recovery, they discover an unusual cave, illuminated
with a soft, green fluorescence. They learn that the chamber is the resting
place of an advanced, alien energy form; in the chamber resides the sole
survivor of a colonising probe which landed on Earth twenty thousand years ago.
The alien, Tarus, wishes to pass on his accumulated knowledge and power into
the minds of the two young people before his energy finally dissipates.

 Tarus outlines the history
of his race, the Sharnians, using the medium of laser holography projection and
wins their trust to the point where they agree to the memory transfer.  In so doing Tarus gives up his existence and
the young people acquire new and enhanced abilities which enable them to form
metaphysical bonds and probes. In such a union they become Taras’ successors,
the Interlect, able to project in time, space and form.

 A violent storm rocks the dales
and in the middle of the night, braving the thunder and lightning and
torrential rain, Zach helps his father to move their flock of sheep to safer
pastures, while Rachel sleeps through it all. The following morning they
discover that their subterranean paradise has been utterly destroyed by the
floods and all trace of Tarus has been buried by cave collapses.

 There follows a period of
discovery and acclimatisation and, with their combined minds forming the Interlect,
they make a chilling prediction. Earth is set on a similar course of events to
those that contributed so much to the demise and eventual destruction of
Sharnian society. More and more of the complicated decision-making processes of
the world’s major powers are being carried out by sophisticated computers with
little and less human involvement. They pledge to use the Interlect to jolt the
civilised world into awareness, determined that Earth will not follow in the self-destructive
footsteps of Sharnia.





I look back to that summer of ’76 it would have been impossible to predict that
there would be such a major transformation of our lives. What had, up to that point,
been an enjoyable but rather mundane life on a Yorkshire Dales farm, was about to change. Our minds
would be opened to expand into an undreamed-of awareness.

              Oh! By the way, I’m Zachary, but
everyone, except mother, calls me Zach.
Back then I was a bit of a gangly fifteen-year-old,
going on sixteen, and quite tall compared to most. Fair-headed and fair-skinned, although we tanned easily I was
grateful not to share my younger sister Rachel’s freckles. Her long hair seemed to be bleached by the sun to
almost blond, during summer months.

              After a wonderful week’s holiday
with Aunt Anne and Uncle Gordon at their cottage on the North Yorkshire coast,
overlooking Whitby town, the time had come say our goodbyes. Mum and Dad picked
us up in the old Land Rover and the journey home to the farm on the outskirts
of Brough took two hours. Two hours during which we never once stopped talking
and recounting our holiday exploits. All too soon, supper over, we were in our
bedrooms, mine next to Rachel’s, talking quietly through the open doors.

              “And there’s still four weeks
holiday left,” I said.

              “But there’s nothing left to
look forward to now. Just another boring holiday at home,” she said.

              “Oh! Come on, Rachel. The
weather’s fine, there are lots to do on
the farm, and Bob ‘n Alan will be back
from their holidays in a week. That’ll still leave three weeks for the gang to
be together before the new term starts”. 

              “I suppose you’re right,”
she said, sleepily, “but I would have liked to stay at
Whitby forever and ever.”

              “And then it wouldn’t be like
a holiday at all. Just think, now we’ve got a whole year in which to look forward to the next

              “Urn..,” she grunted before she snored.

              And I too fell into a contented sleep.

              The next few days on the farm left
little time for either of us to worry about what we would do next. Life on a
hill farm can be pretty hectic, particularly when dad’s only full-time worker, Jim Bradwell, was away on
holiday with his wife and their two sons Bob and Alan. Jim, everybody called
him Jim, lived in a house on the farm, about a quarter of a mile from the main
house, and he was cowman and shepherd and anything else that was required.
There were only six cows remaining after the previous month’s cattle auction, but
that year’s lambing had brought our sheep herd up to around two hundred and
fifty. The ten goats, four pigs, twenty hens and Jim’s two Highland Collies, Shep and Andy, made up the rest of our stock. It
wasn’t until late on Wednesday morning, when mum
thought we had all caught up on the work that we had some welcome time off’.

              Rachel made up some sandwiches and
drinks, I packed them into my rucksack and off we went, deep into the dales and
hills we loved so much. We followed the brook up Langdale valley, scrambling up
the hills and rocky slopes towards Pike Head. The climb up the Scar, where the
brook tumbled seven metres in a single
drop, tired us out. We rested at the top, dangling our feet in the crystal
clear, ice-cold water, while the sun-dried the perspiration on our faces. I
suppose you just have to admire a girl like Rachel. Almost fourteen, blue-eyed, long blonde hair, freckled nose and
really, I suppose, just a little bit pretty. She could run, swim and climb just
as well as any member of the gang, even though she was the youngest. Alan was
two months older than Rachel, his brother, Bob, was a month or two away from fifteen
and, almost sixteen. We never thought of Rachel as a girl, she was just – one
of the gang.

              She said, “It’s nice to be on
our own again,” just as I was thinking how much I was looking forward to
Bob and Alan coming back. “Yea! It’s great,” I said with a smile.

              “Come on then,” she
cried, pulling on her socks and trainers. “Let’s head for Romney

              “Better not. We’ll only get
into trouble if we go over there without letting mum know. And anyway, we’ve not brought any gear with us.”

              “We’re not going in,”
she said. “Just having a look around.”

              She didn’t have to try very hard
to persuade me. I was enchanted by that area of the moors where the hills
dipped and climbed haphazardly, where dark openings disappeared into the
blackness of the rocky outcrops and twisted and turned in the tortured ground,
forming a honeycomb of tunnels and caves and passageways. It took some twenty
minutes of brisk walking to reach the hilltop
overlooking Romney Hole. There we sat down on the coarse grass tussocks with
our backs to the afternoon sun and scoffed our refreshments.

              “Wish we,d asked
permission,” Rachel said, tentatively.

              “So do I, but it’s a little
late to go in now,” I said. “We’ll see if we can come back

              “That would be great.”

              “We’ll get the gear ready
tonight and set off immediately after breakfast.”

              “Roll on tomorrow,” she said
and flopped onto her back sucking at the sweet petal stems of pink clover
flower heads

              I was quite surprised when I
glanced at my watch to see that time had flown by. “Come on, Rachel,”
I said, grabbing her hand and pulling her up. “Time we were getting back. Race
you to Scar,” and I was off.

              Rachel cried after me,
“That’s not fair. You didn’t start properly.”  And then petulantly she shouted, “I’m
not racing unless you start again.”

              I thumped to a stop and slowly
turned around. “Come on then. Start from here.”

              After a count of “3, 2, 1”, I gave
her a three-second start and off we careered
down the dale towards Scar. Several times she squealed when I got within a few
paces of her but I didn’t mean to overtake, not until the very last moment.
Rachel was gasping now and the Scar was in sight. I gradually lengthened my stride
and drew level with the bounding bundle of determined girl. Then I decided to show
her. Two steps clear. Three steps in front of the grunting. I turned around in
full stride to laugh at her efforts and tripped. Flailing arms failed to halt
the inevitable and I fell flat on my face.

              Rachel charged past on the last
few yards to Scar then collapsed onto her hands and knees in a chest heaving
heap. I crawled towards her menacingly. She looked under her arm and laughed
until tears ran down her cheeks.

              “I won –  gasp – gasp – I won you – gasp – Zach.”

              “Yes! You won!”

              “And it was all fair and
square. Wasn’t it?”

              “Yes. It was fair. Until you
tripped me.”

              “I didn’t,” she
shrieked, launching herself at me for revenge. We tumbled and rolled in mock fight for several moments before lack of breath halted us.

              A short while later we climbed
down Scar using the knotted rope dad had rigged to help us up and down. No one
used it going up but it certainly helped on the way down.

              We walked along the ridge
overlooking Langdale Beck, in silence, watching the wildlife of the dales go about its daily routine of life and
death. Brook trout darted in the shallows feeding on spent flies and unlucky
minnows. It was too early to catch sight of the otter family but there was a
statuesque heron waiting to spear the next trout that strayed into range. Overhead,
swifts swooped low, collecting insects on the wing. Occasionally they skimmed
the water, skillfully scooping a beakful without wetting even a wingtip.

              Over the hills a kestrel patrolled
its beat occasionally hovering, watching for the telltale movement of grass as
a shrew or mouse hunted for worms. It made several false dives before it
eventually caught some small morsel and flew off towards its nest on Pike Head.

              Closer to the farm we saw the old
barn owl silently launch and glide effortlessly over Langdale Moor, only rise before the house. Sheep and fast-growing lambs scattered as the dogs bounded
feet above the ground, lifting over the dry stone walls with hardly a beat of
its wings. Then we heard Andy and Shep barking. They’d spotted us as we appeared
over the last noisily towards us.

              “Down, Andy,” yelled Rachel
when he jumped to lick her face. The black and white collie obeyed but then
started to snap playfully at her heels. “Stop it!” she shouted. “I’m
too tired to play.”  Shep, Andy’s
mother, was the more sensible of the two. She had more white on her coat with a black patch that exactly matched the
one around Andy’s left eye. She walked to heel and nuzzled my hand for a gentle
head scratch. Together we went through and closed the wooden five-barred gate behind us with a clang of the
steel-sprung latch.

              “They’re back, Marge!” I
heard dad shout.

              Mum’s voice floated through the
open kitchen window. “Tell them to get cleaned up, Ray. Dinner’s ready in
ten minutes.”

              “Nice timing, kids,”
said dad, straightening up from behind the old Massey Ferguson tractor.
“You heard the boss. Ten minutes to get yourselves
tidied up for dinner. And I think you’d better get out of those jeans and
T-shirts before mum sees the state you’re
in. Where have you been?”

              “We wandered up to Romney
Hole,” I answered. “But we didn’t go in.”

              “But we’d like to go in
tomorrow. Can we, dad?”

              I suppose that must have been one
of the advantages of being a girl. There seems to be a way of asking straight out
for something, with a sort of tilt of the head and a coy look in the eye that
almost always gets whatever it is they’re after. And, I must admit, it mostly
seemed to work because dad did not say no.

              “Let’s see what mum has in mind for tomorrow before you start
making any plans.”

              After washing we met at the top of
the stairs, each smelling of soap, faces
shiny clean and hair damp at the front. “I’m not putting a dress on
tonight,” she said as she struggled out of her knee-length jeans, wrapped them in her T-shirt and threw them
towards the linen basket.

              “Mum won’t like that,” I
grunted, picking up her clothes which had missed the basket by a mile. She
shrugged mischievously and skipped into her room. I changed into clean jeans
and a blue shirt, combed my hair flat and started down the stairs. Rachel
yelled, “Wait for me.” Then ran down them two at a time and squeezed
past me. “I’ll win again.”  And
with a giggle she was gone, looking, I must say, almost appealing in white
shorts, socks and blouse.

              We joined dad, already sat at the
table, just as mum started to serve the
vegetable soup. To follow there was creamy potato mash with mushy peas with a
thick-sliced ham. By the time we were finished eating our plates were quite spotless.
It seemed a shame to have to wash them but we did, while mum made coffee and dad lit his old black briar

              “Mum, can we go to Romney
Hole tomorrow?” I asked, again, for it seemed she had avoided my question
the first time.

              “It’s alright by me,
Marge,” dad said, between puffs on his pipe.

              “I’m not too keen on the idea
of going on your own,” mum said,
pouring coffee. “It’s better when there are four of you. What would happen
if one of you fell and perhaps broke something? One would have to be left on
their own while the other tried to get help. No, I’m not sure it’s wise.”

              “Oh! Come now, Marge. They’re
sensible kids and the potholes must be bone dry. There hasn’t been any rain for
at least five weeks. I’m sure they can be trusted not to do anything

              I knew that coy look from Rachel
had had the desired effect. “We’ll clean the byre and feed the pigs and milk the goats before we go,” I
offered enthusiastically.

              Mum smiled, took a sip of coffee
and nodded. “You win,” she said.

              “Great!” said Rachel,
almost knocking over her chair in her haste to get up. “I’ll get the gear
ready now, Zach.”

              “There’s no need,” said mum. “It’s all together at the bottom of the
hall cupboard.”

              “Thanks, mum,” I said.
“I meant to put it all into the rucksack after our last trip.”

              “Always full of good
intentions, aren’t you? Well just you make sure all the chores are done before
breakfast, and I’ll make some sandwiches for you.  What time should they be back, Ray?”

              He thought for a moment. “Five
thirty latest. That should leave plenty of time to clean the gear and have a
bath before dinner.” Rachel wrapped herself around his neck and awarded a
noisy kiss. “Thanks, Dad,” she said.

              An hour or so later while Dad was
reading the sports pages; mum was
knitting and watching television, apparently simultaneously; I had my balsa
wood model glider kit spread out on the dining table trying to figure out how
the ailerons worked. Rachel had by then changed into her pj’s and was draining
the last drops of her hot chocolate. After which she kissed mum and dad, winked at me and started off to
bed. “I’ll give you a prod, real early in the morning,” she quipped.

              “What do you mean?” I
retorted. “It’s always me who’s up first. I bet you’re still snoring at eight.”

              “Stop bickering,” said mum. “I’ll call you both at six. If you get
down to some hard work you’ll be away by about eight o’clock. Now off you go, Rachel.
Zachary won’t be long behind you. Goodnight darling. “

              “Night all,” she shouted,
bounding up the stairs. Then it was peaceful, so quiet, and I got on with building
the glider, slotting nylon lines between the ailerons and the battery-operated




We were both wide
awake long before six o’clock. By seven o’clock I had finished hosing down the
byre and Rachel had long since fed the pigs. As I coiled the hose pipe over the
wall hooks she collected the goats into the small milking parlour at the side of the house. This was one
job where Rachel really excelled. I could never match her speedy rhythm and to
be honest nor could I calm the goats the way she did. I think it had something
to do with the tune she hummed while she was milking. Perhaps she mesmerised them. Anyway, at twenty to eight, we carried four pails of milk, each
almost half full, into the kitchen outhouse and emptied them into the large brown
urn. Then we scalded them out and left
the sparkling, stainless steel pails inverted, to dry ready for the next

              By ten minutes to eight breakfasts
of gipsy bread and bacon was being devoured.
Mum had made a flask of coffee and a box of ham sandwiches and left them next
to the cooker, on the wooden worktop.

              “Rachel,” I said. “You
bring down the gear and I’ll pack the food.”

              “On my way,” she said
still chewing the last of the eggy bread.

              Mum must have heard her clattering
down the stairs, the helmets scraping down the bannister
rails. She came into the kitchen as we were going out. “Take care you
two!” she warned. “And no later than five-thirty
home. O.K.?”

              “OK, mum,” I shouted, closing the door. Then off we went. We
reached Scar in thirty minutes, scaled its face in five and took a further twenty-five to reach Romney Hole. The Hole was, in fact, a small cave in the side of a
hill. The casual observer would never realise
that after squeezing through the narrow opening, hidden at the back of the
cave, it quickly gave access to a whole complex of further caves and passageways.

              It was another fine, sunny day but
we didn’t sit around, just long enough to change into strong fell walking boots
pulled on over long, thick woollen socks
into which were tucked our dark blue jeans. The helmets were fastened under our
chins, battery packs clipped around our waists, lamps clipped onto helmets,
packs slung on backs and coils of rope hung diagonally over shoulders.

              Down we went into the cool darkness
of Romney Hole, into the echoing chambers and tunnels, into our playground
wonderworld under our equally wonderful Langdale Fells.

              We made our way without
conversation through the first series of smooth-walled
tunnels to Cathedral. The morning sun slanted through the roof hole of the
magnificent cavern illuminating the spires and organ pipes in glorious hues of
yellows, browns, reds and greens. Stalactites in places hung so low as to
almost join the stalagmites which appeared to reach up out of the bedrock to
meet them. Rachel unhitched her haversack onto the small raised plinth of rock
which we often used as a table and spread out our tattered map. It was an old ordnance
survey section which dad had given us two or three summers ago. Now it was covered
with a web of thick pencil lines and rubbings out and shorthand notations,
depicting the extent, direction and, where possible, the elevation of all those
tunnels we had explored in the past.

              I directed my lamp onto the
section radiating north-east from Cathedral.

              “Let’s make for Pike
Head,” I suggested.

              Rachel replied, “I’d rather go to Cauldron Falls.”

              “It’s awfully wet up
there,” I said, “and anyway,
there are lots of tunnels running off the Pikeway
we’ve not explored yet.”

              “Well most of them are wet
too!” protested Rachel.

              “Tell you what,” I said.
“No arguments, we’ll spin for it.”  She agreed so I tossed a coin into the air and
missed catching it. “I’ll have ‘tails’,” she shrieked, searching
around the stone-strewn floor. “Here
it is,” I said, stooping to pick it up, “and its ‘heads’.”

              “Let me see,” she said unbelievingly, and then “Alright. You win,
let’s make for Pike Head.”

              It’s strange I suppose, how when
we walked the tunnels we knew well, we were never afraid, but as soon as we
took a new turning things went quite quiet. Not that we were ever really
frightened, just that… Well, one never knew what lay around the next corner.

              We climbed steadily up the long
sloping Pikeway passage which still
carried the remains of the chalk-drawn
arrows we had inscribed on the walls when we came this way the first time. On
many of the side tunnels, there were white
arrows with a straight line across the arrow point. That signified a dead-end. Some
of the arrows had wavy lines over the point. That meant there was a water
obstacle of some sort; sometimes a cave with a pool that stretched from wall to
wall; sometimes a tunnel that dipped down
into a deep pool of water which completely sealed it off from further
exploration. We weren’t equipped for scuba diving.

              Just before we reached the last
half mile of the upward climb to Pike Head Rachel stopped beside a passage
which branched off to the left. “What’s along this way?” she asked.

              “Don’t remember. Isn’t there
an arrow?”

              “Can’t see one.”

              I joined Rachel and we scanned the
sides of the opening with our torches.

              “Here it is,” I said
“or at least what’s left of it. I can’t make it out. Dig the map out Rachel.”

              Holding the map as flat as we
could on the rock wall I traced out our path until I found the pencil line I
thought was the right one. “It seems to head west for a while, then north
for about a quarter of a mile and then the line just stops.”

              “Doesn’t it say what’s up
there?” asked Rachel.

I replied. “The line just stops.”

              “Let’s go in and explore,”
she suggested.

              I thought about it for a while. Pike
Head was where we were headed, but the real thrill was exploring something new.
The lure of the unknown beckoned. “Come on then, slow coach,” I said.

              Our yellow torch beams sliced the blackness,
carving a way through the dark, dank, still air.

              We reached a point, roughly indicated
where the pencil line on the map had stopped, without encountering any
obstacles. After a brief exchange of ‘should we’, ‘shouldn’t we’, we went on. Within
a few more paces Rachel spotted another chalked sign and asked, “What does
this sign mean Zach?”

              It was a U-turn arrow.

              “I don’t remember seeing one
like this before,” I replied, puzzled. “It can only mean that whoever
came this far turned around and went

              “I wonder why,” said Rachel.

              “I’m only guessing, but
perhaps Bob and Allan have been here, on their own, without us. Just like we
are now. Suppose they got this far and then realised
it was time to get back home. They left the sign to show how far they had come
and later Bob has added it to the map without telling us.”

              “Possibly.” she murmured.

              “Probably.” I guessed.

              “Do we go on?”

              “Of course!” I said.

              We went on, deeper into the unknown.
Every stumbling step was a step into uncertainty. Perhaps human feet had never
passed this way before. It was like being the first man on the moon. There is
no other way of describing the combination of excitement and fear, the not

              We were both affected and I could
sense Rachel keeping just that one step closer to me. Within twenty or thirty metres the tunnel widened and we came to the
edge of a bowl depression in the rocky floor. It was about four metres across and about one and & half metres deep, with almost perfectly smooth

              Our beams scanned the area. There
was a tunnel sloping away from us on the other side of the bowl and a broad chimney
that led up towards an unseen roof. A ledge skirted the bowl on both sides, about
centimetres wide. It looked safe enough to cross.

              As a precaution, we roped together for the first time and made our way
carefully over to the opposite side with our backs pressed firmly into the cold
walls. The floor of the tunnel then sloped away quite steeply, and again it was

              “I think this is the bed of a
river or stream.” I hazarded a guess.

              “Mm!” she said
“Well there’s no river now, so, where has it gone? Or, for that matter,
where did it come from?”

              I shone my torch down into the
solid base of the bowl.

              “If it didn’t come from down
there, it must have come down from up there,”
I said swinging the beam up into the chimney.

              “Could be,” Rachel

              “Must be!” I countered. “Just think,
Rachel. If Bob and Allan did come this way and the water was flowing they would
have had to turn around, so, they left a U-turn
chalk mark.”

              “If they had got this far
they would have chalked a wavy water sign.” Rachel said. She was right of
course. We decided that because of the recent dry spell the stream had dried up
but as there was no sign of rain or water now, we would go on for a little while.

              The smooth sloping floor made it
difficult to get a firm foothold so we stayed roped together on a long rope. Slipping and sliding we made our way
another thirty metres, or more, further
down the tunnel. Then I slipped and fell, but continued sliding on my back.
Rachel checked my slide and tightened the rope. I slithered to a stop.

              “Thanks, Rachel,” I managed
to gasp, but then realized that my feet were hanging over a ledge. A drop. It
could have been ten centimetres, ten metres or forever. I didn’t know. How I kept
calm I’ll never know. I was scared.

              “Rachel,” I hoarsely gasped.
“Keep a tight hold on the rope. Don’t let go.”

              She knew I was in trouble but she
didn’t panic either.

              “Just hold the rope tight, Rachel.
Don’t try pulling in case you fall.”

              I felt her brace and tighten the
line. Slowly, very slowly, I inched back towards her. She kept the line taut
until our hands touched. Only then did she let go of the line and helped me to
my feet.

              “What happened?” she

              “I almost slid over a ledge.
I don’t know how far down it goes but I’ve had enough. Let’s go back.”

              “Let me look first, Zach,”
she pleaded.

              Typical, I thought, always wanting
to know the last gory detail.

              I braced against a protrusion in
the wall and slowly she inched forward against the restraining rope. Eventually, she called “I’m coming
back.”  And when she did I asked, “Well then?”

               “I couldn’t see how far down it went. My
torch isn’t powerful enough to reach the bottom. We’d both have been dead if
you’d gone over.”

              “Well, thanks to you, little
sister, I didn’t and we aren’t. Now can we go back?”

              Shaken as we were by the close
call we managed a laugh and set about retracing our steps back up the smooth

              We were almost back to the basin
when Rachel stopped. “Hey! Zach!
There’s a narrow opening here. We must have missed it on the way

              I came alongside her. A dark hole
near the roof just above head height beckoned.

              “Haven’t you had
enough?” I asked.

              “Oh Zach, do let’s at least
have a look.”

              “OK! I suppose we can,”
I conceded to her indomitable
determination, her unquenchable enthusiasm, and her downright persistence to
extract the maximum from whatever situation she found herself in. I bent my
knees. “Climb on my shoulders. Careful!  You’ll have us both over again.”

              I straightened up, lifting her higher
and stared at the grey wall in front of
my face as she peered into the hole.

              “Zach,” she whispered.

              “What?” I grunted
irritably, I was having difficulty keeping my feet.

              “It’s beautiful.”

              “What’s beautiful?”

              “There’s a fantastic cave and
it’s all glowing.”

              “Let me have a look
then,” I said impatiently.

              Down she came and I grasped the
lip of the hole and pulled myself up.

It was like
nothing I’d ever seen before. It was like a living work of art. A gentle green
glow bathed the inside of the circular chamber.

              “Well!” she said. “Are
we going in?”

              “Of course we’re going
in.”  Nothing could have stopped me;
the near-tragedy of ten minutes ago was now a far distant memory.

Author Wallace E Briggs
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