[from Proc IoMNH&ASoc vol 4 #1 1935]

THE CAVES OF PEEL HILL.

17th November, 1932.

C. H. COWLEY.

The definition of a cave is—a hollow place in the earth, a large natural cavity, or hollow, under the earth.

In all countries we find these natural cavities; those with out standing features, giving them worldwide fame, such as, for instance, the Mammoth Cave of America, Firefly Cave of New Zealand, Bat Caves of India, Stalactite Caves of Jenolan, New South Wales, and so on. Generally, the most interesting caves are those found in a limestone formation inland, as being easy of access, and in many instances having been inhabited by early man.

The exploration of caves appeals to everyone, but, unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the wish is unattainable, and the would-be explorer has to rely upon others to describe their wonders.

Sea caverns are different to those found inland; they are invariably difficult of access; the constant grinding and erosion by the force of the sea and the fierce blasts of wind sweeping through them permits of very little animal life, and no human. So far as we know, there are no inland caves of any size in the Isle of Man; and if one speaks of a cave it is generally understood to refer to any of those which honeycomb our coastline.

My experience of our Island caves has led me to the conclusion that the caves of Peel Hill stand pre-eminent, the next of importance being those at Lynauge, known as Gob-y-Deigan. Those behind Peel Hill pierce the cliffs direct from the open sea, whereas the Gob-y-Deigan caves from a chain which runs parallel with the sea, broken at intervals with openings.

My lifetime acquaintance with our coast-line is my excuse for giving this address) and if I bring into it any extraneous matter it is to relieve the sameness of the descriptions of the various caves through which I shall now lead you.

Good Friday fell upon the 3rd day of April, 1931, the weather cold, dry, with a stiff North-East wind blowing, just the weather. for walking. My son, Ernest. and myself, decided to visit the caves below Knockaloe, and the tide being suitable, make notes and take measurements of them. High tide was at 11.36 am., which just suited us for late afternoon, so Donald ran us up in the car to the lane leading to Knockaloe. This used to be known as Mark’s Lane, because of the tenant of the farm being named Mark Watterson, but one seldom hears it called so now.

We left Donald at 2.10 and arrived on the shore at 2.55, by walking along the edge of the cliff, to where the sewage discharge pipe from Knockaloe Camp drops down the cliff. There had been a landslip here last winter, which made it awkward to get down. On the shore at this end is a wall of cliff, around the foot of which one would be able to walk if the tide was full out, but upon our visit it was only half ebb; in any case, we did not intend going further in that direction.

Not far from the foot of this cliff and upon the beach is a vein of white quartz, about 3 feet wide, running from a small opening or cave out into the sea, and close to it a low wall of cement covering the iron pipes; this runs from above high-water mark out into the sea and is now, of course, disused. In front of us stretches a long line of broken boulders, lying underneath huge cliffs. At intervals, hidden by points of rocks, are small beaches and shores—a very rugged coastline indeed.

Caves at Knockaloe

As we walk along, the choughs come swooping down from the cliffs above, uttering their distinctive call. A castle-like rock now stands before us. Ae we walk towards the North, and on the sea-front of it, is a small cave, not large enough to make any notes of. On its far side, however, is another one measuring 30 feet wide by l 5 feet high. It does not penetrate any distance, and is more like a Norman arch than a cave. This brings us to the shore underneath the highest perpendicular cliff in this vicinity; the beach is nearly all gravel, with boulders at low water and at the foot of the cliff. At one point is seen what looks like a huge honeycomb attached to the rock under the cliff. Upon closer inspection, this turns out to be a corrupt mass of tins, their ends eaten away by rust, but the formation still there. A stone thrown penetrates into the middle of the mass with ease. Keeping the whole in position from the inrushing sea is a wall of barbed wire, which , forms a barrier, otherwise they would have been washed away years ago. This barbed wire once surrounded the German prisoners in the Knockaloe Camp compounds, and the mountain of tins was tipped over here during their internment.

During the war, I visited this place: such a variety of debris, buckets, baths, condensed milk tins and bully-beef bottles, jars, and as auctioneers say, other things too numerous to mention, and now a mass of rust only remains. The cliff here is, roughly, 200 feet high, ivy clad in places, with multitudes of gulls nesting; delicate sprouts of the plant which give the name to the shore, "Traie Cabbag," are seen pushing up between the boulders; they are now beetroot coloured, but later on will turn green and grow to a height of three feet, with fleshy leaves. On the beach is a tree-log, a dead seagull, seaweed, and pieces of honey-comb-like substance resembling petrified sponge, but which really is the spume from the ironworks at Barrow and Cumberland, sea-borne from there to our coasts. Invariably this is mistaken for lava by people who find it washed upon beaches. There had recently been a fall of rock from the centre of this cliff. One huge block is pyramid-shaped, 20 feet high, and has wedged underneath it a huge tree trunk—it may have fallen upon it A little further on, the bottom of the cliff protrudes, and there is an opening in it about 20 feet square, with no covering roof,, and on the far side of it is a huge fiat stone, arched underneath, which would shelter a number of people from rain. The cliff above at this point can be fairly easily climbed to about half way up, above that it is very difficult, as I know from experience. Many years ago, I climbed this cliff, and discovered the eagle’s eyrie. Until I happened upon it, I had no idea what the adventure was going to bring forth, having gone up at this place simply because it was the most dangerous. When about 30 feet from the cliff top, I found a cavity, unperceived from below, into which I crawled for a rest, as my fingers by this time were very tired. As well as I can remember, the cavity would be six or eight feet long and four or five in depth, and four feet high. Instead of bare rock, there was a huge nest built of gorse bons (bonds) and sticks, and lined inside with wool and dried grass. I was glad to get inside the nest, which held me comfortably, and remained there until I felt fit to continue the climb. The gorse bons were as thick as my wrist, but so old they powdered easily by rubbing between the fingers; evidently the nest had not been occupied by the birds for many years. I knew I could not get back the way I came up, and when sitting in the nest, wondered if there was a way of escape out of my predicament. Fortunately, there was, by means of a straight wall with short finger grips, up which I managed to climb to safety.

To continue—we keep to huge yellow lichen-covered rocks,. stepping from one to another until we come to the divide between two shores. To explain the nature of the divide, I shall take you for a moment to a place further on and nearer Peel. It is called "Dreem Lhong" in Manx, meaning ‘Ship’s Back," and is so called because a huge mass of rock runs from the cliff into the sea, resembling a ship’s bottom if turned upside, down. The divide we are now at has two of these peculiar rock formations, with a large hollow between. It is dangerous crossing them, as the footholds are scarce and narrow, and slippery with the filth of gulls resting upon them. At the bottom of the last one is a nasty drop on to the slippery rocks on the beach, but we managee to negotiate it without hurt.

This is now the true Traie-Cabbag; a larger beach than the one we left, and grows a considerable quantity of the plants. It is a much longer shore, and broader; there is a decent strip of sand, and access is more easily gained to this than to any other place of its sort locally. Where we drop on to the shore is the beginning of a cliff, at one time the propagating place of the true Manx maidenhair fern—Lus-y-voidyn; but now, alas, like many other places, destitute of any. In many cases the Sea spleen-wort, Rhennagh. marrey, still flourishes.

The time is 3.30. We are not the first to explore the shore to-day, as there are footmarks in the sand below tide mark. At the North end of the shore is the pathway leading to the cliff-top; it ends in a rough grass brow, and anyone wishing to come down and not knowing the way will find it indicated by a large white stone built into the dry stone wall of the adjoining field. Confronting us at the end of the shore is a long high ridge of rock. During ordinary tides it is not possible to go around its sea end and one has to ascend half-way up the pathway mentioned and then descend the other side. We were fortunate and after rounding its point climbed over ~ stretch of rough massive stones to a smaller shore under a cliff, the intermediate stretch having been a sharp-inclined grass-covered plane.

A peculiar formation of the rock strata is to be observed upon this little shore; the softer rock has been washed away by the action of the sea, leaving three or four lanes running from the cave to the sea. The walls of the lanes are about 4 feet wide by 3 feet high, and perpendicular; this cave is too small to make notes upon. In front of us now is a cliff easily climbed, but we go around its end and walk up to the entrance of the "Chough’s Cave." This is without doubt the grandest entrance to any of the caves. Its mouth is guarded by a few great boulders, and measures 20 feet across; its estimated height, 30 feet. Looking into its outer chamber, masses of petrified moss, fawn and white) are fo be observed hanging suspended from the roof. On the right side the wall slopes at an angle; on this, and beneath the petrifactions is a bank of verdant moss kept continually damp by dripping water from above; the sloping rock is a deep blood-red colour and combines with the green to cover the natural cold slate greyness of the schist.

In the centre of the huge cavern, in the roof, are one or two grottos, containing ferns the fronds of which hang gracefully downwards; also, a hanging curtain of petrified moss.

We measured the length of this cave; from its entrance to end is 210 feet, and its direction is nearly straight. Two large pools of water have to be passed, which was difficult to do as we did not wish to wade through them. We managed safely, but Judy, the little dog, had to swim. The far end of the cave was perfectly dry; the shore stones coated with dust and a few pieces of driftwood was all there was of interest.

Returning to the entrance we mount up a cliff, 30 feet high, easily ascended as if it were by a flight of steps, and an easy descent on the other side to a small opening in the cliff; then through a narrow gullet on the beach under, "Hell’s Neck."

This name I gave to it during the Great War, to distinguish it for future reference. I had been exploring the caves one day; and had to climb up this neck to escape the incoming tide, and will refer to the incident later. Rounding the neck, we pass ~ under a perpendicular cliff, over which water falls, summer and winter. At the land end is a grotto of green, and also petrified moss, intermingled with ferns. Getting over a slippery rock, we enter the "Robins Cave," above the entrance of which, in an alcove, is a cormorant’s nest. There has been a nest each year in the same place as long as I have known it. The entrance to this cave is 10 feet high, is 18 feet broad and 120 feet in length. The high water mark is 78 feet from its entrance, after which are the usual drift-wood and dirty shore stones now unwashed by the sea. A constant dripping of water from the cliff above is met with upon entering the cave, but it is quite dry inside. On its right side, and running in for a considerable distance is a low stone natural wall, not unlike a seat. Many years ago, when examining this cave for the second time, I carried candles with me and found an opening extending further in than I had thought before. The opening was at the top end of an old beach of water-worn stones at the far end of the cave, but obstructed by a stalagmite and stalactite growth. These had met together, and by careful removal entrance was gained to the inner part of the cave. It was not very large, say, about 12 feet by 6 feet, and 3 or 4 feet high, but the roof was dripping with numerous beautiful white stalacites. The ones removed are now in our Insular Museum.

Upon a later occasion, I visited this place with Mr. P. G. Ralfe, but I do not think anyone has been in it since. Around the corner as it were from the entrance of the Robin’s Cave is another very fine one. It is under the centre of a high cliff, the strata of which run up and down in parallel wavy lines. It is a larger cave than the last one at its entrance but not quite so long. At the mouth it is 16 feet high, is 19 feet bread, and length, to its end, 111 feet, with water constantly dripping like a curtain at its mouth. Here, again, is to be observed an unusual geological formation, in one part of the roof at the entrance. A mass of conglomerate, composed of petrified moss and slate, is attached to the rock; the slate is not waterworn and has not been rounded by the sea, and appears at first glance to have been built in with mortar as if the cave had been sealed up by a mason’s hand, and then swept away by the sea, leaving only this piece attached to the roof. Before the cave closes in is a huge vaulted chamber, its roof not unlike the interior of a church. Large flat boulders guard the mouth, and lying half-way inside is a huge log of wood or tree trunk which has been battered so much by the sea against the rocks that it has taken on the appearance of a bale of wool.

Climbing over a further long spine of rock, we cross the front a: a rather square opening into a cave, but do not enter as we shall do so from the other end, this being one of the entrances of the famous "Ooig ny daa Kione" (Cave of the two ends), and push on over the last of the many spurs which are such a feature on this part of the coast. We manage again to save ourselves a difficult climb by getting as near the sea as possible, and the drop ends at the mouth of the cave. Dividing this entrance is a huge pyramid-shaped rock. At one time the beach around it abounded with the black periwinkle, but on this visit not one was to be seen, possibly owing to the many recent gales having swept them away. My first visit to this cave, with another truant schoolboy, resulted in a draw, as when we got into the cave proper we were faced by such an army of huge rats, we thought it better to retreat. Upon another occasion, my sons and myself brought the dog, Toby, armed ourselves with bamboo canes found on the shore, and had a happy time hunting the rats. This cave seems to be the receptacle of all the flotsam and jetsam carried on the sea from any point South to the Calf of Man, and one is never sure what they expect to find, especially when the rats are in possession. During the Great War, plunder of all descriptions was to be found. I went in after the loss of H.M.S. Champagne, and the interior was littered with driftwood, boxes, hatches, etc., etc. The "Champagne" was an auxiliary mercantile marine cruiser of 10,000 tons, and was torpedoed off the Calf of Man on October 9th, 1917, with a loss of 51 men and 5 officers. I went up to Corrin’s Tower after the disaster became known in Peel that day, and could see shadowy forms of ships racing through the haze to save lives. One life-boat, No. 8, made of metal, was picked up by the Peel Lifeboat between Peel and Glenmaye. The boat was cast adrift, and floated on to Treiga Beach, and 21 men and a dog taken into Peel. My dog, Bill, was a grandson of this animal.

Upon a latter occasion, the following year, on the 28th March, 1918, I visited the cave by myself. The tide not being far enough out, I had to gain entrance by climbing down on the North side. Looking into the cave when half-way down. I was surprised to see three or four huge white stones. These I knew had not been there on any previous visit, and not until I was able to touch them did I find that they were not stones. but cocoanut oil and dripping! There were three large casks or hogsheads unbroken, several partially so, and sackfulls of smaller pieces amongst the gravel. Further over were two whole ones in the stalactite cave and loose oil and barrel staves; also in the Robins’ Cave. A few days after this, I visited these caves again, bringing with me a 7lb. seed bag, which I filled with cocoanut oil; and it was upon this occasion I got caught by the tide and had to ascend by Hell’s Neck. With handling the oil, my hands were greasy, not being able to wash it off. There were no hand grips on the sodden earthen banks, and I was able only to use one hand to climb as the other had to hold the bag of oil, and I was very thankful to reach the rocky part of the ascent. The oil and dripping were of the best quality, and were soon disposed of by the gulls and rats. I reported my finds to two fisherman friends, who salvaged the unbroken casks by boat. They told me afterwards they made a nice thing out of it. Many a cottager in Dalby and district was busy that winter, making soap of the oil which had been washed ashore there.

Ooig-ny-daa-Kione is 40 feet wide at the entrance, and 60 feet high. At a distance of 114 feet inside the cave divides, and from the divide to the end of the left arm the distance is 86 feet, making in all 200 feet. The right-hand arm is 71 feet from the divide to the end, making in all 185 feet. At a distance of 43 feet from the divide, going into the right arm is an opening on the right side, about 5 feet high. This opening continues at a right angle for a distance of 39 feet, where it is just high enough to stand upright in; then it turns to the right again towards the sea, not parallel with the main cave but bearing to-wards the South. From the angle to South exit the length is 132 feet; the cave gradually gets wider until at its mouth it is 28 feet wide and 38 feet high, moss-draped, dripping wails and the usual petrifications.

From the cliff where the cave ends the unroofed walls extend a considerable distance towards the sea, but are not included in the measurements At the entrance to this exit, and in the main cave, lay a log of timber, 10ft. 6in. long by 1ft. 3 in. square; also, several pieces of driftwood of various sizes; a basket, a ball, etc., but the most interesting discovery was at a distance of 66 feet from the angle in the South cave. A mass of water-worn tree-trunks stood upright in the centre of it, as if sup-porting the roof, whilst in a crevice of the roof itself three others had been hurled by the mighty force of the waves and wedged there, 15 feet or more above our heads. The largest would be about 10ft. long and 18in. in diameter, the ends being rounded. The number standing upright was 15 or 16; another lay wedged on the floor of the cave under a shelf. Keeping this mass of timber from being washed out by the sea were three pine logs, rather more than breast high and perfectly horizontal. These were all 10 feet long and 3 feet in circumference, These appeared to have floated in recently, being fresh timber, and left in their present position by the receding tide. The others are all rounded and water-worn and were probably part of the deck cargo of the s.s. "Connemara," which went on the rocks under Ballalaa, Dalby, about six years ago. Cement was poured into the holes in her hull and she was afterwards brought into Peel. The interior of the cave at the divide is quite light and very high, say 50 feet, and the chamber 46 feet wide, hut the sea view is obstructed by the huge rock at the opening.

We left the cave at 5 p.m., walking along the foot of the cliff to an inlet south of Creg Vollan. The land runs at a right angle out to sea here, forming an elbow which obstructs the driftwood and sends it back into the caves. The cliff face has been tortured in its formation at this point, the centre of it assuming the shape of a horse-shoe, but the light is too dull to get a photograph. Ascending it was fairly easy, the grass in places being long and affording good hand-grips, and the rocks solid. A deserted greyback’s nest is passed. The birds have built in this place for many seasons. We reach safe ground and sic to rest ourselves. A wonderful view is now before us of the cliff-fronts in the near distance and Bradda Head and Calf of Man forming a background. A cool breeze from the sea helped us up the grassy brooghs, and at the top we turned to take a last view of the white waves breaking in on the brown tangle-covered rocks, scattering the gulls busily engaged searching for food left by the receding tide. A Gareebreck perched on a point of Creg Vollan utters his peculiar note, and a pair of Choughs flash their red orange beaks to us as they dive towards their rocky home We arrive at the Harbour Bridge at 6 p.m., and finish a happy afternoon.

In the following discussion, Mr W. C. Cubbon suggested the possibility of signs of human occupation being discovered by search in the landward terminations of some of the caves beyond the reach of the sea.

Mr Bruce and others thought it hardly possible that the sea-caves could ever have been used by man; but it was pointed cut that there are certain caves on the Manx coast which are at some height above present high-water mark. One of this nature, near the N. shore of the Calf Sound, was at one time quite recently actually used as a temporary dwelling place, and another, at Coan Shellagh, had been commented on by the late G. W. Lamplugh as worthy of investigation as a possible habitation of primitive man.

The beautiful series of slides illustrating Sea-bird Life called forth much admiration, and especial interest was shown in those illustrating the nesting of the Great Black-backed Gull, a species which has only recently been definitely ascertained to breed on Man.


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