Monthly Archives: October 2020

Home of Blue John

Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire

The bleak, remote north-west of Derbyshire was in medieval times the Forest of High Peak, a royal preserve for deer, not much blessed with trees, but valuable for its minerals, particularly lead.

It was guarded by Peveril Castle, established by William the Conqueror’s favourite, William Peveril (c1040-c1115), though the earliest surviving structure is the keep erected in 1176, which dominates the town of Castleton that grew up outside its precinct.

Castleton is a tourist honeypot, rich in opportunities to eat, drink and buy souvenirs.

Apart from the Castle, the most significant historic buildings are the Church of St Edmund, with its box pews and six-hundred-volume library “to be lent out to the parishioners at the discretion of the minister”, the bequest of the bachelor vicar, Rev Frederick Farran (d 1817), and the seventeenth-century Castleton Hall, which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “comically ignorant”.

Castleton is world-famous as the only home of the unique form of fluorspar, Blue John, known for its coloration (bleu-jaune), and now in short supply.  Two of the largest artefacts of Blue John remain in the county at Chatsworth House and Renishaw Hall.  Mrs Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), refers to it as “Derbyshire putrefactions”.

There are four show caves, the result of mining activity going back to prehistoric times.

Peak Cavern, known in impolite times as the Devil’s Arse, is a natural opening fifty feet high and 114 feet wide, with enough space to contain a pub and several cottages (Celia Fiennes’ “poor little houses…thatch’d like little styes”) and, until well into the twentieth century, a ropewalk.  Lord Byron visited it with his cousin, Mary Ann Chaworth, for whom he had feelings:  lying in a boat with her to reach the innermost part of the cave, he wrote “I recollect my sensations but cannot describe them.”  Princess Victoria visited the cave in 1834, and again, as Queen, in 1841.

Blue John Mine, now celebrated for its displays of stalagmites and stalactites, appears to have been mined since at least Roman times:  two vases excavated at Pompeii appear to be made of Blue John. 

Speedwell Mine is a mining tunnel begun in 1774 to transport lead and never profitable as such.  In 1778, half a mile from the entrance, the miners broke into a natural cavern they named the Bottomless Pit, because all the waste thrown into it, estimated at 40,000 tons, simply disappeared.  The ultimate length of the adit was 2,650ft, built at a cost of around £14,000.  Only £3,000-worth of undressed ore was removed, and mining ceased around 1790, after which the Mine’s interest to tourists ensured its continuing maintenance to the present day.

Visitors reach the Bottomless Pit by boat, until recent years legged by the guide in narrow-boat fashion, the most exciting of the Castleton cave-experiences:  the adit is 840 feet below the surface at the point where it crosses the Bottomless Pit;  the water seventy-feet below the adit is up to thirty feet deep.  The furthest point of exploration in the system, the Cliff Cavern, is over a mile from the entrance and six hundred feet below ground.

The Treak Cliff Cavern, which consists of old mine-workings leading to a series of caves newly-discovered in 1926, was opened to the public in 1935.  It contains the only known workable vein of Blue John, and its stalagmite and stalactite displays are as spectacular as any others in the district.

The Pumping Station

Former Cropston Pumping Station, Leicestershire

For most of the nineteenth century, demand for water supply in the borough of Leicester and its surrounding area left the waterworks company – and its successor Leicester Corporation – constantly chasing demand by increasing capacity.

The Leicester Waterworks Company was founded in 1846 and the following year secured an Act of Parliament to build a reservoir and treatment works at Thornton, to the west of the town.

The company struggled to attract capital until the Corporation promised to invest £17,000 of the required £80,000 in return for guarantees of a dividend of 4% per annum until 1883 and all the company’s net profits over 4½% for ever.

Thornton Reservoir began supplying up to 1.6 million gallons in 1853, but within ten years Leicester suffered two serious water shortages, in 1863 and 1864, and Leicester Corporation took shares in the company to finance the reservoir and pumping station at Cropston which opened in 1871.

When the Waterworks Company proposed to increase its capital further in 1874, the Corporation decided to purchase the company outright by means of an enabling Act in 1877.

The water level of Cropston Reservoir was raised to increase capacity in 1887, and in 1890 parliamentary powers were sought to establish another reservoir at Swithland. 

A further severe water shortage in 1893 was relieved only by taking an emergency supply from Ellistown Colliery which customarily supplied Coalville, and construction of the new dam began the following year.

Swithland Reservoir was built at almost the same time as the Great Central Railway line to London, which crosses it on two viaducts.  This stretch of railway now forms part of the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) heritage line.

In preparation for the opening of Swithland Reservoir in 1896, the Cropston pumping station was extended to pump water between the three reservoirs.

No sooner was this system in place than Leicester Corporation went to Parliament for powers to extract water from the Derbyshire River Derwent.  Other authorities had similar ideas and were obliged to collaborate by forming the Derwent Valley Water Board and building the reservoirs at Howden (1912), Derwent (1916) and Ladybower (1945).

The Leicester legacy of this race to build reservoirs includes three reservoirs and two former pumping stations.

Cropston Pumping Station, built for the Leicester Waterworks Company in 1870 and extended by Leicester Corporation Waterworks in 1894, was stripped of its engines and boilers in the 1950s and has been sensitively converted, retaining what was left of the internal installation, to a restaurant, wedding and conference venue by the current owners, Simon and Liz Thompson in 2015: https://www.thepumpingstation.co.uk.

The bar and restaurant space is in the former boiler house and the adjacent 1894 engine house retains the overhead winch which serviced the machinery below.  The 1870 engine house is now a private residence which includes the spiral staircase up the truncated chimney to an observation deck.

Visitors park their cars among the ornamental filter beds, below which is an underground brick reservoir which, in time to come, could become an exciting visitor attraction.

Water supply engineering has the happy advantage of enhancing local amenities.  People are resistant to having their land flooded, but the end-result is attractive, from Derbyshire’s spectacular lakeland to the quieter landscape of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.

The Pumping Station, Cropston is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Swithland Pumping Station is not accessible to the public.