Castleton, Home of peak cavern and Mam Tor

Speedwell Cavern

The second of Castleton’s show caves is Speedwell Cavern, considered by many observers to be the most popular of the four caves. Speedwell is unique amongst show caves in Castleton – and indeed Britain as a whole - due to the manner in which its visitors access its many features. Guests must journey by a special underground boat to get to Speedwell’s several natural chambers and witness its captivating qualities, most notably of all its famous ‘Bottomless Pit’.

Speedwell Cavern is found at the foot of Winnats Pass, high above the village of Castleton. The name Winnats Pass is derived from Wind Gates and it is an impressive high peak, limestone gorge. Winnats Pass veers to the west of Castleton, and is now the only road to do so since the road that travelled from the foot of Mam Tor has been closed down.

 
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The first port of call for Speedwell is just over half a mile from the very centre of the village of Castleton, making it a very accessible, calm, relaxing walk along the road. Steps lead down from the entrance to the canal, which was hacked through the rock by miners in search of lead in the 1770s; a project was led by James Gilbert, who was the Duke of Devonshire's agent for the Ecton Hill mines in Worsley, near Manchester. However, even though Speedwell began life as a lead mine in1700’s Castleton, it closed after two decades due to the limited amount of lead it produced.

Speedwell consists of a horizontal lead miners' adit (a level passageway driven horizontally into the hillside) leading to the cavern itself, which is a limestone cave. Partially thanks to its relative dormant nature, Speedwell was flooded during the lead mining period in Castleton. The lower part of the adit and the floor of the cavern are permanently flooded as a result, which is what gives the cavern its unique quality - unlike the other show caves, Speedwell Cavern can only be explored by underground boat. From here you glide quietly through the workings of a lead mine that was built in Castleton over 200 years ago. Picture in your mind what it must have been like to carve out these tunnels using only the most primitive tools as your guide recounts the story of the mine which opens into a network of natural caverns and underground rivers.

Several years ago, the boat was propelled by the guide pushing the wall on either side. Later, a second guide would lie on his back, and literally walk along the ceiling as it was so low. Though that was often fun, the boat is now powered by an electric motor under the supervision of a Castleton tour guide. This underground canal is over 800 metres long and takes the subterranean seafarer directly to the entrance of Speedwell. At Halfway House the canal tunnel splits into two to allow oncoming boats to pass as you wend your way 200 metres below the surface of the hill before entering a magnificent cathedral-like cavern containing the awesome Bottomless Pit - a huge subterranean lake.

When the adit comes to an end, everyone alights from the boat and walks into the cave. Once you enter the inner world and absorb the atmosphere of Speedwell, the boat ride from Castleton’s dry land is justified immediately. A peculiar watery silence echoes all around the different chambers, giving visitors a warm, tranquil sensation. 

When safely into the chambers of Speedwell, there are also spectacular natural sights to observe. There are fluorspar veins (minerals that are fluorescent in ultraviolet light), stalactites (icicle-shaped mineral deposits hanging from the roof of the caverns, formed from the dripping of mineral-rich water) and stalagmites (conical mineral deposit built up on the floor of a cavern, formed from the dripping of mineral-rich water) that look fantastic, making the cave appear multi-coloured.  

And then there is Castleton’s much fabled 'Bottomless Pit'. The Bottomless Pit is an extremely deep vertical shaft, now choked to within 35 metres of the surface by rock spoil dumped by Castleton miners. The Bottomless Pit lies at the end of the canal, a large water-filled hole. This huge natural cavern is so high you cannot see the top and is so deep that when the canal was dug many tons of waste rocks were tipped into it without making any visible impression upon it. The original depth of the shaft has been estimated, from the amount of spoil placed in the shaft over the years, at around 150m.

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