Castleton Village Peak District UK by Steve Meese, ShutterstockThe picturesque village of Castleton is surrounded by dales, edges and caverns © Steve Meese, Shutterstock

At the foot of Mam Tor, Great Ridge and Treak Cliff Hill, this village is home to the unique Blue John mineral and is a great base for walking, paragliding and caving.

Sitting at the foot of Mam Tor, it's easy to see why Castleton has earned itself a reputation as the Gem in the Peaks. Its four show caves are the biggest draw, each with its own individual character and unique selling point: Blue John for its drama and scale; Treak Cliff for its beauty; Speedwell for its atmospheric boat trip; and Peak Cavern (The Devil’s Arse) for its grand entrance and history. 

Before exploring the caves, head for the refurbished Castleton Visitor Centre with its pleasant café. Apart from the opportunity to arm yourself with information leaflets, the small museum gives a potted history of the area from the geological development of the landscape to the people who live and work in it. The section focused on Castleton through the seasons showcases the village as a delightful yearround destination. But, if possible, visit the town on Garland Day (also known as Shick-shack or Arbour day – take your pick). This ancient festival takes place at the end of May, when the Garlanded King leads a procession on horseback with his female escort through the village. Christmas in Castleton is also atmospheric, with carols in the caves and the village decked out in festive lights. 

What to see and do

Blue John Cavern 

The unassuming shack on Treak Cliff Hill does little to herald what lies beneath: a great chasm of rock that descends over 200ft into the belly of the Earth. Here the meltwater of the inter-glacial periods sliced through the limestone, leaving the imprint of swirling, cascading waters. Ripples spread out across the cavern walls, while curtains of flowstone spill to the cave floor. There are smooth sculpted curves where water once circled whirlpools, and in one place a great boulder is wedged in a fissure. The steps follow the course of the dried-up riverbed through six natural chambers. In the Variegated Cavern towards the bottom, the full force of nature is evident, its watersculpted walls and ceiling scalloped, fluted, grooved and etched. Below the Viewing Platform, the dried-up riverbed, strewn with boulders and rocks, plunges downwards through the Great Hall before disappearing into the darkness. Ultimately, it’s the sheer scale and power of nature that merits a visit to this cave, not the traces of Blue John advertised. 

Treak Cliff Cavern

Stalactites Treak Cliff Cavern Peak District UK by Treak Cliff CavernMarvel at Treak Cliff Cavern's delicate stalactites © Treak Cliff Cavern

Treak Cliff Cavern sits in the lower part of the same hillside, below the ‘broken road’, the only other cave to contain the unique Blue John. It’s a long hike up steep steps to the entrance of the site and on through a featureless passageway, leading eventually to a series of spectacular caves – making the arduous trudge worthwhile. The Witch’s Cave has large deposits of the sought-after Blue John, including The Pillar, worth millions of pounds. As the cavern’s pièce de résistance, it will never be removed – and if it were, the cave would collapse. Further along, Aladdin’s Cave is an explosion of colour with its cascading sheets of flowstone: white calcite combined with orange-tinted iron, green copper and black lead. In Fairyland, stumpy stalagmites mushrooming from the floor contrast with the delicate stalactites that hang suspended from the ceiling like tapered candles on their ends. Further on in Dream Cave, you can give free rein to your imagination. Visitors see different things: a crucifix, elephant, stork, curly-headed sheep, trout or dragon. In one place a stalagmite (nearly 42ft in length) and a stalactite almost meet, with just over an inch between them. The phrase ‘so near and yet so far’ has never seemed so appropriate – for it will take hundreds and hundreds of years before the gap closes. The cave system finishes in the grandly named Dome of St Paul’s, not unjustified, for in this cavernous space the almost luminous stalactites drape from the cave in glowing opulence.

Speedwell Cavern

‘Now the door is closed, you’re all doomed,’ the guide said, setting the tone for Speedwell’s main selling point: an eerie boat trip through a dark, flooded underground tunnel. It’s a stripped-back, watery version of a fairground ghost train. The atmospheric cave is found at the bottom of Winnats Pass. The boat bumps its way along the manmade tunnel, the roof inches from heads. The horizontal passageway was blasted by the Speedwell miners hunting for lead. It was, as it turned out, a wasted expenditure of energy: the miners worked the cave system for 21 years only to make a loss of £11,000 – a lot of money in the 18th century. Crashing along the dimly lit tunnel, the guides describe the abysmal working conditions for the men and small children who worked the mine. The natural Speedwell Cavern at the end of the adit is somewhat featureless – but with a height of around 200ft, it has a cathedral-like presence. Below, a deep vertical shaft called the Bottomless Pit once dropped 500ft – until it was filled in by rock spoils dumped by miners – the bottomless pit is a mere 36ft deep these days.

Peak Cavern – The Devil’s Arse

The original name for Peak Cavern is the rather more colourful Devil’s Arse, but the public relations people of Queen Victoria’s day clearly panicked when Her Majesty announced her intended visit, and swiftly changed the name to the more boring, albeit politer, Peak Cavern. 

The approach to the cave from Castleton’s Goosehill along the cottage-lined gorge is delightful, but when you turn the corner to the massive cave entrance, it’s quite a sight. The cavern mouth is the largest in Britain at around 60ft high and 100ft wide. There may not be much in the way of impressive rock formations, but you can
feel the hand of history here. A whole community of rope-makers lived just inside the entrance for approximately 400 years, manufacturing rope for the local mining industry. Nowadays, guides demonstrate how the ropes were made before leading visitors on through the cave, explaining the reason for the cavern’s original name. It transpires that when the cave drains of water after flooding, it emits strange sounds rather like flatulence. Back in the day, folks believed the further you descended into the bowels of the earth, the closer you came to the underworld and the devil – in this case with serious digestion issues. 

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