Castleton, Home of peak cavern and Mam Tor

Peak Cavern - (The Devils Arse)

Entrance to Peak Cavern
Entrance to Peak Cavern

Located just west of Peveril Castle and easily accessible from a car park just off Castleton high street, Peak Cavern is one of the most popular landmarks in Castleton. The Peak Cavern is also known by locals as the Devil's Arse, originally because of the allegedly flatulent-sounding noises that used to emanate from inside the cave according to Castleton locals. In 1880 the name of the cave was changed to Peak Cavern from the Devil’s Arse in order not to offend to Queen Victoria when she visited Castleton to watch a concert in the cave. Over recent years, the cave has been promoted by its owners using its traditional, more improper name. It is the most famous of the four show caves in Castleton, with Peakshole Water flowing through and out of the cave.  

The Peak Cavern is the least commercialised of the four show caves in Castleton. It is owned by the estate of he Duchy of Lancaster, but is now managed by the owners of Speedwell Cavern, who are responsible for all maintenance and tourist issues.

Unlike the other show caves in Castleton, Peak Cavern is thought to be almost exclusively natural. The only known synthetic section of the cave was destroyed to bypass a low tunnel that was only accessible by lying down on a boat, and the cave system is the largest in the Peak District.

 
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The mouth of The Peak Cavern is the largest cave entrance in Britain, standing at a staggering 60 feet high, 100 feet wide and 340 feet long. The Castleton cave was home to Britain's last troglodytes – people who set up home inside caves or dens - until approximately 1915. The remaining few troglodytes had built themselves houses inside the cave mouth and earned their living from making rope and selling it in Castleton village. Whilst the troglodytes dominated the cave mouth, the depths of the cave were known to be a refuge for bandits. The Peak Cavern was also purportedly the place where thieves' cant (a secret language that was used by thieves, beggars and general wrong-doers “to the end that their cozenings, knaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known”) was devised in 1530, by a meeting between Cock Lorel, leader of the rogues and the King of the Gypsies, although it has also been claimed this is merely Castleton myth.

Situated more or less directly in the middle of Castleton, the approach and entry to Peak Cavern is breathtaking. A riverside walk takes you past centuries old miners' cottages, which open out into an extravagant limestone ravine. Ahead of that is an immense cleft in the rock below the crag, which is over 280ft high, with the ruins of Peveril Castle towering above you. At this point, it is worthwhile taking a moment to look at the water exit from Russett's Well. You can find this on the left-hand side of the bridge where you turn on to the Peak Cavern path. This is where the water resurges from the River Styx through Castleton, which can be seen in the cave. The River Styx is a subterranean river that flows through Peak Cavern, leaving it near Castleton. This river formed part of the initial cave and as the cave grew, the first part of the cave ceiling collapsed. A small gorge was formed which leads to today’s cave entrance, 20 metres wide and 30 metres high below a high limestone cliff.

The water travels to Russett’s Well all the way from Buxton, taking just over four days to travel its destination, roughly about 10 miles from Castleton. In times of drought it has proved invaluable to the villagers of Castleton, as it has never been known to run dry. On the way to Russett's Well the water passes through Speedwell Cavern, allowing visitors to the Castleton to make the connection between Speedwell Cavern and Peak Cavern.

 

Back Lane to Peak Cavern
Back Lane to Peak Cavern

From there, you can see the broad and spacious cave entrance which was used by the rope makers. The room behind the entrance is more than 100 m long and was used by the inhabitants of Castleton for several hundred years. The cave was used as a shelter against rain and was the largest ‘dry’ place in Castleton for a long period of time, which made it ideal for rope making. Castleton locals – it is said there were about 30 people who worked in the industry - worked making ropes for the local lead mines for more than 400 years, and the area that once accommodated many of the rope makers' small but distinct cottages is still apparent. These cottages were unfortunately destroyed in the early 20th century, but they have still left a distinctive mark on both the cave’s history and appearance and it is still possible to see the terraces of the ropeworks and some of the rope made by the last craftsman. Famously, there is still one craftsman in Castleton who to this day carries on the industry. His name is Mr. Morrison, and he is the only person in Castleton still making the occasional rope in the cave.

Once at the famous cavern mouth, there are numerous passages that lead from the entrance, which is also known as The Vestibule. Beyond the entrance a narrow passage leads to a chamber called the Bell-House. Continuing on along the path (at one time visitors were taken by punt along this part), you come to what is currently the solitary passage open to the public. It is called Lumbago Walk, named due to the fact navigating it requires most adults to crouch down thanks to its low ceiling. The route continues through two main caverns, The Great Cave and Roger Rain's House. The Great Cave is about 60m high and contains an opening in its roof which surfaces near Peveril Castle. Both these routes lead into a passage known as Pluto's Dining Room. From there, the route open to the public has been extended considerably further – the route now also goes down The Devil's Staircase to The Halfway House and then along the Inner Styx, via a series of bridges and under Five Arches.

During walking this route, the wonders of the cave’s interior will reveal themselves. Advancing further into Peak Cavern, you will discover the many sights and sounds that visitors to Castleton regularly marvel at: you will hear the outstanding acoustics of the Orchestra Gallery in the Great Cave (where village maidens used to sing to illustrious guests such as Queen Victoria), see a uninterrupted gush of water at Roger Rain's House (it is necessary for the visitor to pass through a fine spray of water falling from the roof high above), pass through Pluto's Dining Room into the Devil's Cellar where you can hear the source of the river Styx. Effective fibre-optic lighting systems emphasise the majesty of the cavern chambers with their unusual flowstone and stalactite formations to augment the experience of your walk.

Thanks to this specially lit area, the five natural arches are a breathtaking sight, arguably one of the most remarkable sights of any show cave in Great Britain and a highlight of a visit to Castleton. Looking back along the electrically lit passage the visitor can gaze through no less than five perfectly shaped arches, each formed by the action of the river swirling through these passages for hundreds of thousands of years. It is a spectacular sight, fitting of everything that precedes it en route.

Once out of Peak Cavern, it is easy to plot a course elsewhere around Castleton. At this point, several routes are open to cavers. The main path, which veers right, leads to Victoria Aven, a sizeable shaft that moves on towards Far Sump, through which lays the Far Sump Extension. First explored in 1980, this part of Castleton but was considered a difficult access area and the public had limited visits until 1996, when routes through from Speedwell Cavern and James Hall's Over Engine Mine were created. This breakthrough resulted in further exploration and in 1999 Titan Shaft was discovered, notable for being the deepest pitch in Britain at 145 metres hollow.

For any potholers amongst you, in Castleton it is possible to go much further into the cave system, which extends for miles, and at selected times in winter the cavern is open to potholers for this reason.
The owners allow visitors to undergo guided tours organised by the museum at the cave entrance, which include displays of traditional rope making demonstrations. These are available regularly (although the furthest parts of the caves may occasionally be closed off when heavy rains raise the water levels) and also consist of comprehensive information about the Cavern's history and development over the years, and its influence on Castleton. Each tour lasts approximately one hour, is relatively undemanding and is defiantly suitable for a family outing and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

Peak Cavern also offers enjoyable, family orientated annual events that grow in popularity and enjoyment as each year passes. As part of the village of Castleton’s fabled Christmas celebrations, Peak Cavern holds a series of concerts every December. These joyous nights include carol singers, big bands, mulled wine, mince pies, a great seasonal atmosphere and a lot of Castleton style family fun. At Halloween, the cave makes a big effort, encouraging fancy dress (including a prize for the best children’s costume), with ‘spooky’ tours of the cave and ghost stories all night. Peak Cavern even offers the chance to hire out sections of the cave for functions throughout the winter months (November to Easter), giving you the opportunity to organise a birthday party like no other. Occasionally, there is even special, one off events: in 2007, renowned, Mercury Music Prize nominated singer-songwriter Richard Hawley played a special, intimate concert there. Keep an eye on any Castleton website for such announcements.

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