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Castleton, Peak Cavern, 1811 - 1926


"The Peak Cavern is one of the finest specimens of a chambered cave in this country"[1]

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The early nineteenth century description of the Peak Cavern, below, has been extracted from David Peter Davies' "History of Derbyshire", published in 1811.

"PEAK CAVERN, which is also sometimes called the Devil's Cave, is one of those magnificent, sublime and extraordinary operations of nature, which at all times excite the admiration and wonder of their beholders. And the description of the Mantuan Bard, when introducing his hero into a similar excavation, may with propriety be applied to it, -

"Spelunca alta fuit, vastoque immanis hiatu."
Virg. Æn.

This cave has, at all times, been regarded as one of the principal wonders of Derbyshire, and celebrated by several poets. It is situated at the distance of about 100 yards from the Inn at Castleton, and is approached by a path along the side of a clear rivulet, crossed by a small bridge, which conducts to the fissure, or separation of the rock, at the end of which is the cavern. It would be difficult to imagine a scene more august, than that which presents itself to the visitor, at the first appearance of the mouth of the cavern. On each side, the huge grey rocks, rise almost perpendicularly, to the height of nearly three hundred feet; and meeting each other at right angles, form a deep and gloomy recess. In front, the mouth of the cave, overhung by a vast canopy of unpillared rock, assuming the appearance of a depressed arch, strikes the mind as solemnly grand. This natural arch is regular in structure, and extends, in width, one hundred and twenty feet - in heighth [sic], forty-two - and receding depth about ninety. In this entrance, or first cavern, a singular combination is produced - human habitations and manufacturing machines (the appendages of some twine makers, who have fixed their residence within this cavern) blending with the sublime features of the natural scenery. After penetrating about thirty yards into the cave, the roof becomes lower, and a gentle descent conducts, by a detached rock, to the interior entrance of this tremendous hollow. Here, the light of day, which gradually softens, wholly disappears; and candles are put into the hands of the inspector, to illuminate his farther progress through the stygian darkness of the cavern.

After passing through a wicket-gate, which the proprietor unlocks; the way becomes low and confined, and the visitor is obliged to proceed in a stooping posture, twenty or thirty yards, when he arrives at a spacious opening, which from its form is called the Bell-House. From here, the path conducts to the margin of a small lake, locally termed the First Water: - it is, about fourteen yards in length, but, not more than two or three feet in depth. A small boat, or rather a tub, provided by the guide, is ready to convey the passenger to the interior parts of the cavern, beneath a massive vault of rock, which in some parts descends to within eighteen or twenty inches of the water. Owing to the lowness of the vault, the visitor is obliged to stretch himself at full length in the boat ; and the guide entering the lake, and bending his head, almost to the surface of the water, pushes forward the skiff with one hand, while he carries his light in, the other. "We stood some time," says M. St. Fond, "on the brink; and the light of our dismal torches, which emitted a black smoke, reflecting our pale images from the bottom of the lake, we almost conceived that we saw a troop of shades starting from an abyss to present themselves before us". The illusion was extremely striking. "This place, indeed, is very favorable to the wanderings of the imagination; and the man versed in classic lore, is immediately reminded of the passage of the Styx in the fabled bark of Charon.

Landed again on the rock, the stranger pursues his course, like Æneas and his guide,

" Obscuri sola sub nocte perumbram,
Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna;"

and enters a spacious vacuity, 220 feet in length, 200 feet broad, and in some parts, 120 feet high, opening in the bosom of the rocks ; but from the want of light, neither the distant sides, nor the roof of this abyss, can be seen. In a passage at the inner extremity of this vast cave, the stream which flows through the whole length of the cavern, spreads into what is called the Second Water, which is generally passed on foot, but sometimes requiring the assistance of the guide. Near the termination of this passage is a projecting pile of rocks, distinguished by the appellation of Roger Rain's House ; from the circumstance of water incessantly falling in large drops through the crevices of the roof. A little beyond this is an extensive hollow, called the Chancel, where there are many detached pieces of rock; the roof rent and broken, and large masses of stalactite incrust the sides, and glitter with the lights. - The chancel is not an inappropriate name to this cave, and the illusion is still rendered stronger, when the ears are suddenly surprised by the sound of vocal harmony. The strains produced can not be said to be such as "take the imprisoned soul, and lap it in Elysium," but being unexpected - issuing from a quarter where no object can be seen - in a place where all is still as death - and every thing around calculated to awaken attention, and powerfully impress the imagination with solemn ideas, can seldom be heard without that mingled emotion of fear and pleasure, astonishment and delight. After being entertained awhile by this invisible choir, the persons become visible - eight or ten women and children, each holding a lighted taper in her hand, ranged along a natural gallery of the rock, about fifty feet above the floor; a situation they obtain, by clambering up a steep ascent, which commences in the first opening on this side the lake.

Quitting the chancel, the path conducts to the Devil's Cellar, and Half-way-House; and after passing these, the way proceeds beneath three natural regular arches, to another vast concavity, called the Great Tom of Lincoln, from its uniform bell-like appearance. This part, when illuminated by a strong light, has an extremely pleasing effect - the according position of the rocks, the stream flowing at their feet, and the spiracles in the roof, make a very interesting picture. The distance from this point to the termination of the cavern, is not more than twenty-five yards: the vault gradually descends, the passage contracts, and at length nearly closes, leaving no more room than is sufficient for the passage of the water, which flows through a subterraneous channel of some miles: as the "ratchell, or small stones, brought into the cavern after great rains, from the distant mines of the Peak Forest, evidently prove.

The intire [sic] length of this wonderful cavern, from its entrance to its termination, is above 2250 feet; and its depth, from the surface of the mountain, above 621 feet. From different parts of the cavern, some communications open with other fissures; but none of them equal it, either in extent or grandeur. In extremely wet weather, the interior cannot be visited, as the water fills up a great portion of the cavern, and rises to a considerable height even near the entrance: at other times, the access is not very difficult, and quite safe. On the visitor's return, the eye, having had time to accommodate itself to the darkness around, embraces several objects, which had escaped it before : and the gradual illumination of rocks, which become brighter, as the entrance is approached, and the chastened blaze of day, that "shorn of its beams," arrays the distant objects in morning serenity, is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful scenes, that the pencil could be employed to exhibit"[2].

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Francis Frith's 1896 photograph of the gorge and cavern entrance. You can just about make
out the pathway going towards the cavern on the left hand side of the building
on the far right of the picture.

The cavern entrance, 1896.
In 1888 several men and boys were employed at the ropewalk[1], seen in the entrance.

Thomas Tudor was to observe in 1926 that "An ancient characteristic of the cavern ... is
the old fashioned rope-walk, which has been there for several centuries.
The lines and standards go receding into half light and the figures
of the work people look weird and unfamiliar under the sweeping curves of the wide rock roof"[3].

Castleton is mentioned in the following on-site transcripts:
Derbyshire's Parishes, 1811, Parishes C, which has much more about the village.
Kelly's 1891 Directory shows several members of the Whittingham family as twine makers.
Barker's (1827) "The Panorama of Matlock", includes a section on Castleton and the Peak Cavern in the chapter on The Tour of the Peak.

There is another postcard of the entrance to the Peak Cavern in the series of Railway Cards.

1. Engraving of "Peveril Castle and Entrance to the Peak Cavern" by J. Paterson from the frontespiece of "Black's Guide",1888.
2. "Castleton, Peak Cavern Gorge". Frith's Series, F. Frith and Co. Ltd., Reigate, No.37849. Printed in England. First published in 1896. Unused.
3 and 4. "Castleton, Peak Cavern". Frith's Series, F. Frith and Co. Ltd., Reigate, No.37847. Printed in England. First published in 1896. Unused.
Images in the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Researched, OCR-ed by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.


[1] Black's Tourist Guide to Derbyshire" (1888) pub. Adam and Charles Black Edinburgh.
[2].Davies, David Peter (1811) "History of Derbyshire" pub. S. Mason, Belper.
[3] Tudor, Thomas Linthwaite (1926) "The High Peak to Sherwood, The hills and dales of old Mercia" published London by Robert Scott.

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