To many neighbours and patients in Menston, Dorothy Shaw was the wife of a village GP and mother of four sons, but her exploits before she got married showed just how formidable a character she was.
Mossdale Caverns, between Grassington and Kettlewell have a reputation as sinister, extremely difficult and lethal.
Mossdale was the scene of Britain’s worst caving tragedy when six young explorers were drowned in 1967. Their bodies remain in one of the chambers.
So perilous is the system still considered today that cavers are officially advised not to enter.
Before the advent of neoprene wet suits and other modern equipment, caving pioneers had to be the most hardy souls and the name Robert Leakey stands out above many.
A legend in caving circles, Leakey explored Mossdale in the early 1940s and, as most of the men were away at war, recruited adventurous young women to help him.
One of these was Dorothy Stone, later to become Shaw. She had been born in Darlington, the daughter of a miner and a seamstress. When war came Dorothy obtained a job in the Civil Service as a clerk in London before being evacuated to Blackpool.
While at the Lancashire resort, at weekends she would cycle 40 miles or so over the Pennines to Settle and spend the time pot-holing and drinking in pubs with the group of friends.
Unlike ordinary limestone caves, Mossdale is trapped in a sandwich of harder rocks meaning that the whole system is squeezed narrowly into a gentle slope.
Cavers dreamed of finding a way through to where Mossdale beck emerges from the caves miles away but Leakey was one of the few tough enough to reach the far ends of the system, accompanied by Dorothy.
While underground he took pictures of the caves, using Dorothy’s human form to provide a scale for the viewer.
Dorothy’s son, John, said that during her time in the Dales, Dorothy met many fellow cave explorers: “The people they mixed with on the whole featured unusual intelligence and the mild eccentricity necessary to go crawling into wet narrow crevices underground.
“As a miner’s daughter, however, Dorothy must simply have seen such an activity as being both right and proper.”
Among the people she met in Settle was Harry Shaw, a medical student from Leeds who visited the Dales on a motorbike.
Dorothy and Harry were married in early 1944 and later bought the medical practice in Menston. The couple had four sons. Too busy with the family to carry on caving, Dorothy turned to crosswords and Scrabble until in the 1970s she competed three times in the National Scrabble championships in London, being placed as high as 18th out of 100 contestants.
She also won a Rolex watch in the fiendishly difficult Sunday Times Mephisto crossword competition.
Family friend Susan Cartwright, of Queen’s Drive, Ilkley, had no idea of her former caving exploits.
Mrs Cartwright said: “It is so amazing to think of those things that she did in her youth.
“I just knew her as Dr Shaw’s wife. I also thought she was a real character and a really clever woman.”
In 1999 Dr Shaw died from a heart attack and Dorothy later moved to Darlington to be nearer one of her sons.
She died in Darlington Memorial Hospital at the end of last year.
Source: Wharfedale Observer