© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed for
A couple of miles south of Darlington, in a lonely field near the A167, lies a curious geological feature called Hell’s Kettles. Its story, amazingly, goes back to the 12th century, and it may well hold a unique place in the history of our nation’s literature.
The ‘kettles’ themselves are a couple of ordinary looking ponds by the roadside – the sort of thing you would skirt past without even noticing, ordinarily. They are said to have been formed in 1179 following a dramatic incident of subsidence. There are only two these days, but historical reports suggest that four ponds once existed here – one having been filled in, and two of the others have merged into one.
The sudden appearance of these sink-holes can be explained by the rapid erosion of the gypsum-like rocks near the surface which resulted in the sudden collapse of the ground. Surface run-off and underground springs then filled the voids – and, of course, the seemingly bottomless nature of the little lakes has since fed the imaginations of the locals over the centuries. Of the two that remain, one is unremarkable in that it is filled by run-off water, but the other (the southerly one, called ‘Croft Kettle’) is the only open-water expanse in the county fed by subterranean springs, and has therefore attracted a very special collection of biological growth. Hence, Hell’s Kettles is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
A twelfth century chronicler described the formation of the kettles in dramatic fashion, thus:
In the reign of Henry II, the earth rose high at Oxendale, in the District of Darlington, in the likeness of a lofty tower, and so remained from nine in the morning until evening, when it sank down with a terrible noise, to the terror of all that heard it, and being swallowed up it left behind a deep pit.
Intriguingly, it has recently been suggested that Hell’s Kettles may have inspired the scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice tumbles down a rabbit hole. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) would certainly have been familiar with Hell’s Kettles, living, as he did, at nearby Croft for so long. Additionally, of course, he would have been well versed in the local legends surrounding the feature: animals and humans drowning and being lost in the pools, the voices of lost spirits thereabouts, and endless stories of the ‘bottomless’ nature of their depths.