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, seems 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 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.