The 10 best caving experiences in Britain

A Canal & River Trust team leader canoes through Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal
A Canal & River Trust team leader canoes through Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal - PA

Dark caverns, vaults, tunnels and mines are not everyone’s idea of a grand day out. The underworld has had a bad reputation since the ancient Greeks dubbed it Hades – the realm of the dead.

But to our Palaeolithic ancestors, caves offered safety and shelter from the elements. For anyone planning a staycation this summer, they make for a thrilling alternative to the beach – with no reliance on a sunny forecast.

The UK has countless natural caves, as well as deep underground spaces carved out by humans. They not only offer escape from the summer crowds at attractions above ground, but instil a sense of awe.

Heading below reveals millions of years of geology and the hard labour of those who tunnelled bravely in the Plutonic depths, using rudimentary tools by the light of smoky tallow candles.

Serious cavers relish squeezing through impossibly tight spaces to enter chambers previously uncharted. For the casual day-tripper though there are underground worlds to explore that don’t exert quite so much effort. Some don’t require a hardhat or headlamp, while others see visitors clipped onto an underground via ferrata in full caving suits.

Whatever your thrill level, here is a selection of 10 of the best caves, mines and tunnel experiences in the UK.

They range from places with cafés, gift shops and museums, to modest operations run by volunteers, only open to the public for a limited number of days annually.

None would be suitable for the claustrophobic.

1. Beer quarry caves, Devon, England

A seam of fossil-free limestone has been quarried 200ft below ground here in the Beer (named the ‘best British seaside village for nostalgia’ last year) since Roman times. The remaining voids – once used for hiding contraband – stretch for an area of over 100 football fields.

The interior of the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon
The interior of the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon - Alamy

Lit with bare electric bulbs and with no need to crouch, visitors learn of the 2,000-year history, including how a 24-ton block for Exeter cathedral was hauled out by a team of 26 horses. The place is delightfully low-key, but guides have a wealth of knowledge.

Book an hour-long tour by calling 01297 680 282 (£12 adult; £10 child). Find more information beerquarrycaves.co.uk.

Plan a trip to Devon with our guide.

2. Standedge Tunnel, West Yorkshire, England

This is the highest, longest, deepest canal tunnel in the UK, burrowing under the Pennines. It takes roughly two hours in a narrowboat to travel its dark, unlit length of more than three miles.

The tunnel roof is mostly bare rock, a tight squeeze at times, opening out into spacious caverns. Trains pass in an adjacent tunnel connected by adits. No boat? No problem. In a unique twist, the Canal & River Trust has also launched canoe trips through the tunnel, running from June through August.

The Canal & River Trust operate trip boats. 30-minute trips start in Marsden (£10 per adult; £8 per child) where there is a café and visitor centre. Occasionally there are two-hour trips all the way through. Shorter trips are wheelchair accessible. Alternatively, canoe trips will run on dates in June, July and August (£100 for two in one canoe; £55 solo). Find out more at canalrivertrust.org.uk.

3. Gaping Gill, North Yorkshire, England

Twice a year, potholing clubs set up a rudimentary winch and lower brave adventurers, one at a time, 300ft into the depths of Gaping Gill, one of the largest natural underground chambers in the UK.

The Gaping Gill natural waterfall
The Gaping Gill natural waterfall in North Yorkshire - Alamy

After your one-minute descent, you are free to wander around – there are temporary electric lights – before ascending to daylight. The waterfall that usually gushes through the roof of the cave is (mostly) diverted, but waterproofs and warm clothing are essential.

The next winch days are August 9th to 16th (£20 cash, no pre-booking). Gaping Gill is a 90-minute hike from Clapham village. Find out more at cravenpotholeclub.org

4. Geevor Tin Mine, Cornwall, England

A working mine until 1990, this tin mine still has its above-ground infrastructure, which is the main attraction, but there is also a small section of a restored historic drift mine that visitors can enter wearing a hardhat.

Geevor tin mine in Cornwall
Geevor tin mine in Cornwall - Alamy

Guides – former miners – tell tales of tin and copper mining, then and now. If you are physically unable to visit this 18th-century mine you can enjoy a 360-degree Virtual Reality experience. Finish with a Cornish cream tea.

Adult £20.50, child £11.60. Find out more at geevor.com.

Plan a trip to Cornwall with our guide.

5. Nenthead Mines, Cumbria, England

This former lead mine is a labyrinth of 30 miles of underground workings 1,000 ft up in the Pennines. On a 90-minute guided tour led by volunteers, you will enter a horizontal tunnel in the hillside that once carried a horse-drawn railway and explore about 250 yards of underground spaces before exiting down a 30-foot ladder.

Mining waterwheels at Nenthead
Mining waterwheels at Nenthead - Alamy

A remarkable feature of this Cumbrian mine complex is the centuries-old drystone walling (rather than timber) that lines adits and shafts.

Nenthead Mines Conservation Society holds open days in summer. A donation (suggested £11 adult; £5 child) is requested. Find out more at nentheadmines.com.

For a bespoke tour to more challenging parts of the mines, contact Steve Cousins at rockshowman.com (from £165). 

6. Wild Wookey, Somerset, England

This hugely popular cave complex below Somerset’s Mendip hills, and neighbour to Cheddar Gorge, needs little introduction. The Wild Wookey experience, guided by professional cavers, sees you kitted up in overalls, gloves, hardhat and headlamp.

Cavers enjoying the Wild Wookey experience
Cavers enjoying the Wild Wookey experience in their harnesses - Andrew Horeckyj

The adrenaline-fuelled adventure lasts up to three hours and criss-crosses the floodlit show caves. You need to be physically fit to abseil (up to 75ft at one point), hang onto via ferrata and crawl through tight spaces.

From £72 per person. Find out more at wildwookey.co.uk and bring wellies (or hiking boots).

Plan a trip to Somerset with our guide.

7. Llechwedd, Gwynedd, Wales

The former slate mine of Llechwedd has been turned into a world-first underground playground, with trampoline nets in vast caverns where children (and adults) bounce, while the more adventurous indulge in the adrenaline thrills of the underground high ropes course.

Llechwedd quarry in North Wales
Llechwedd quarry in North Wales - Alamy

This includes rope bridges, via ferrata and 13 zip wires. There is also a Deep Mine tour, where you learn about the 16 underground levels and how that, sadly, most slate now comes from China. Europe’s steepest cable railway will take you back above ground.

A three-hour Caverns experience costs £68 per person. Bounce Below costs from £25. Find out more at zipworld.co.uk.

8. South Bridge Vaults, Edinburgh, Scotland

A 19-arch viaduct became Edinburgh’s first purpose-built shopping street in the 18th century. Below the arches, over 100 vaults were built, and used as workshops, taverns and storage.

They were soon abandoned due to dampness before the poor, homeless and criminals moved into the hidden spaces. Today, guided tours of a small part of this man-made warren focus on ghosts and tales of witches’ covens. It can still be damp.

A one-hour tour costs £20. Find out more at auldreekietours.com.

Plan a trip to Edinburgh with our guide.

9. Cresswell Crags, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, England

Britain is mysteriously devoid of cave art but in 2003 there was a landmark discovery in this limestone gorge that is honeycombed with caves.

Church Hole Cave has depictions of wildlife – such as bisons and ibis – that would have roamed the area over 12,000 years ago.

Church Hole Cave
Rock art depicting ibis at Church Hole Cave
Visitors pass by the caves at Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire
Visitors pass by the caves at Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - Alamy

The engravings are difficult to spot without the help of a guide. Archaeologists have also found quartzite and flint tools, and others made from bone and antlers, used in the last Ice Age.

An Art in the Ice Age tour costs £15 adult, £10 child. Find out more at cresswell-crags.org.uk.

10. National Coal Mining Museum, Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Kitted up with a hardhat, battery pack and lamp and clutching your metal miner’s check (a token to keep tabs on how many are below ground), a former coal miner is your guide as you descend over 400ft in a colliery cage.

Below ground, on a 90-minute tour covering a third of a mile, you see pit props and mine workings. Above ground, there are canaries and pit ponies as well as a café, library and museum where a rare miners’ strike chess set is on display.

Underground tours £7.50 requested donation. The above-ground museum is free. Find out more at ncm.org.uk