A FORTY-YEAR dream to link an underground network of caves across three counties is about to be realised.

The long-awaited breakthrough connecting a labyrinth of tunnels between Cumbria, Lancashire and North York-shire could be just ‘20 metres away’, according to an expert.

It offers the prospect of cavers being able to move between the three counties without having to break the surface for the first time.

Once completed, the linked system will elevate the area into the top 10 of world caving destinations.

It could be a major boost for Cumbria’s bid to become the UK’s ‘Adventure Capital’.

Once the link is established, which should happen within months, cavers from all over the world are expected to visit the area to complete what will be seen as an irres-istible underground three counties challenge.

Since 1969, hundreds of keen potholers have been exploring and digging to unite the network, which they believed linked the neighbouring counties.

More than 80 kilometres of caves, grottos, tunnels and subterranean rivers have been connected – and the current phase of the project joining Notts Pot and Lost John Cave near Ingleton, will open the final link between North Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Cavers from a group calling itself the Misty Mountain Mud Miners are clearing a section strewn with ‘big boulders’ to allow people to make the first underground journey between the two counties.

The dangerous work involves clearing rocks and sediemtn from between boulders to make the passage large enough for a person to crawl through.

Dye tests have already established that Lancashire and North Yorkshire are linked hydrologically and a smoke test carried out in January confirmed a dry link was possible between Notts Pot and Lost John Cave.

Local caving clubs say the three counties link will attract international cavers, while Cumbria Tourism said it would help boost the county’s wider credentials as an adventure playground.

Ian Lawton, of Kendal, a leading member of the exploration team said South Lakeland and the Dales would ‘definitely benefit’ from a tourism spin-off.

“What has been done so far is fantastic,” said Mr Lawton.

“We are probably only 20 metres or so away from making a link that a person can get through.

"When all the links are finally established there could be up to 100 miles of tunnels.”

However, he cautioned that cavers faced a ‘dang-erous’ task and it would ‘take time’ to make the final breakthrough.

Fellow explorer Andy Whitney, a member of the Red Rose Cave and Pot Hole Club, said much of the system was ‘not suitable for novices’ but he acknowledged it could boost interest in caving.

“It would be good,” said Mr Lawton. “A lot of people who walk in this area don’t realise the extent of the cave systems beneath their feet.”

Andy Walsh, also of the Red Rose club, said linking the three counties was once thought to be a dream.

However, cavers soon started finding spots that did extend, with a major breakthrough occurring in the 1970s when dozens of cavers managed to unite Cumbria with Lancashire after forcing their way through a series of shafts near Casterton.

From there hundreds of little entries and caves have been linked to what is now a vast system with 30 entrances around the three counties.

“Every new place is different to any other so when you break through to somewhere no-one has stepped or seen before it is unbeatable,” said Mr Walsh.

“You just don’t know what is going to be round each corner.

"It’s a very exciting time to be a caver in this area.

“The new areas haven’t been uncovered since before the Ice Age, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of years.”

Once Notts Pot and Lost John Cave are connected the cavers are looking at other extensions, such as connecting the Kingsdale and Chapel-le-Dale caves.

“A lot of team work has gone into co-ordinating what has been achieved,” said Mr Walsh.

“We all have to work together to get the equipment down there.

"There are lots of over-60s, mainly from Kendal, Grange, Heysham and Ingleton who have been working on it.”

A spokesman for Cumbria Tourism said: “We are working hard to make the area the UK Adventure Capital and welcome new developments in outdoor activities.