The Southern area of the Peak District, known as White Peak, is well-known for its limestone hills that stretch as far as the eye can see; a natural geographic feature which makes the region popular for hill climbers and paragliders alike. The limestone and coal sedimentary rocks, which form most of the Peak District and date back to the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago, have made the region a rich mining area for both coal and mineral veins including lead, silver, copper and tin which formed in the porous limestone rock.
But the limestone rock has also resulted in subterranean tunnels which predate the manmade excavations which would have started during the Roman occupation of Britain. Due to limestone’s porous and soluble nature, glacial meltwaters and water pouring off the Peak’s high ridges have not only carved deep valleys through the region but also found their way into and under the limestone rock, creating large natural cave formations.
Several of the larger and more accessible of these caves are now open as ‘show caves’, open to the public with guided tours of these mysterious and ancient caverns.
Treak Cliff Cavern
Treak Cliff Cavern is undoubtedly the most spectacular of the caverns in Castleton, if not the UK. Treak is a source of Blue John Stone, a form of fluorite with purple-blue or yellowish bands of colour running through it. The walls of the cavern are still studded with the semi-precious mineral thanks to the cave being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the deposits on the visitor route being preserved in agreement with English Nature. As you explore the quarter mile network of caves, the incredible Blue John deposits aren’t the only remarkable discoveries you will find. The limestone rocks are also studded with 300+million year old fossils and run-over with multi-coloured flowstone.
The Peak Cavern is commonly known as the Devil’s… well, it’s named after the flatulent noises that emanate from inside its bowels. The Peak Cavern is part of the largest cave system in the Peak District, is almost completely naturally formed and is the source of Peakshole Water, a stream which runs through and out of it down to the nearby village of Castleton. Located in a jaw-dropping limestone gorge and overlooked by the ruins of Peveril Castle, the entrance chamber still contains remains of a small village of rope makers that formed under the cave opening’s protective ceiling.
Speedwell Cavern is another cave found in Castleton and is accessed through a passageway originally cut by the lead miners’ who would have first discovered the cavern. As this passageway and the floor of the cavern is permanently flooder, visitors make the journey into the cavern by boat. Part millions year old caverns, part 200 year old lead mine, Speedwell offers an eerie underground boat ride through a network of mineshafts, natural caverns and subterranean rivers.
Heights of Abraham
The Heights of Abraham is a hilltop park accessible by cable car from Matlock Bath. As well as the park and adventure play areas, The Heights of Abraham is also home to two caves – The Great Rutland and Great Masson caverns. Originally mined for lead and fluorspar they are now open to visitors where you can learn of how the caverns were formed or experience what it would have been like to be a 17th century lead minor, working in the caverns.
Poole’s Cavern, found near Buxton, is estimated to be around 2 million years old and, as legend has it, was named after a robber who used it as a hideout. Archaeological evidence certainly indicates that it has been occupied by humans since the Bronze Age. It contains some prominent mineral formations including the ‘Flitch of Bacon’, a stalactite which is said to resemble a side of bacon and ‘poached egg’ stalagmites so called due to their unique texture and colouring reckoned to be caused by minerals leached by lime-burning above the cavern. Maybe not one to visit if you missed your full-English!
This article was written by Stately Escapes who offer a range of castles and large cottages to hire in the Peak District and the Heart of England.