Just above the Peak District village of Castleton there lurks a very large cave. So large, in fact, that it would take several days of crawling in the dark if one were foolhardy enough to try and traverse its entire thirteen mile extent. Those, like markontour, who regard such exploits as very much for other people to enjoy, can nevertheless experience some of the beauty of the caves from the relative safety of an entrance known as The Devil’s Arse.
The cave earned that soubriquet, as we learned from our guide – a kind of Henning Wehn* of Castleton, because when tourism first started even well-educated people believed that caves were entry-points to Hell. Just inside this grotto there is an opening where, when it is raining hard outside, water pours in, trapping and displacing air and causing a farting sound. This natural phenomenon was sensibly attributed to the bowel movements of the Devil.
It didn’t stop people taking shelter in the cave and, indeed, families of rope-makers lived here for centuries, attracted by the large open, dry space in which to ply their trade. The proper name for these people is Troglodytes – cave dwellers – and fourteen families lived here until the 1950s. Today, Casteleton’s Henning Wehn shows us that the rope-making art is not lost and my cousin walked off with a fine bit of hemp cord for her sterling contribution to the twisting and turning.
Fear of the Devil also didn’t stop tourists venturing past the Troglodytes and deep into the caverns themselves, despite the fact that before Queen Victoria visited in the mid-nineteenth century the only way into the Great Cave was lying flat in coffin-like boat, pushed under a natural arch so low that anyone with a large nose was likely to suffer a bit of nasal grazing. For the monarch, a passageway was blasted out, although as the Empress of half the world was barely five feet tall, access still requires some uncomfortable crouching for most modern-day visitors.
The acoustics here are amazing and it has become a must-perform stage for northern artists, Richard Hawley and Peter Kay amongst them. Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of one of my favourite bands, Pulp, played here recently. According to Henning: “It was a wonderful night. Except for the music of course.”
Unlike many other British tourist caves, everything about the Devil’s Arse is a natural limestone formation (barring Queen Vic’s entrance). The whole structure is formed from dead shell-fish and some of it is gently tilting and crumbling with age.
New caverns are still being (re-)discovered. Our guide was part of one expedition that found a passageway hidden behind a large boulder, like something out of Indiana Jones. Confirmation that previous generations had been there came when an eighteenth century candle-holder was spotted. “It had been there for 200 years”, says Henning, “but Irene broke it within seconds of getting it out. She’s working in the shop today – ask her about it”.
The Great Cave itself was genuinely awe-inspiring, although it seems that many past visitors may have been too terrified to take in its natural beauty. Lying one hundred feet directly below Peveril Castle, unfortunate prisoners were apparently pushed down a chute from the dungeons to save the expense of a hangman. Most died on impact, but a few stumbled around in the pitch-black, until they collapsed in fatigue, leaving the cave littered with dead bodies.
Except, of course, they didn’t. The hole above the bones only reaches a couple of metres upwards. The skeletons were placed there by the Troglodytes to scare visitors into buying more tallow from them – candles that had been specifically designed to extinguish within a few minutes. Such are the wonders of human civilisation.
The bones had been cleared away by the time we arrived. We also didn’t see any Blue John, the gemstone that is sold in seemingly every shop in nearby Castleton. Neither were there any stalactites, although there was an explanation for that: these here caves are prone to flash flooding. An annoying school party was in one day and it only took a few minutes from the alarm being sounded to the inner caverns being completely submerged. “We had to let them out, though” deadpans Henning.
I’m not sure it is a proper cave without stalactites, but it was dead interesting nonetheless and another reason why the Peak District is the second most visited national park in the world (a fact proudly communicated in the visitor centre in Castleton, but hotly refuted as a ‘tinterweb lie by the Peak District website). Who cares – it’s cavernously wonderful and well worth a diversion from the beautiful surrounding hills.
*Henning Wehn is a very funny German. He is, indeed, German Comedy Ambassador to Great Britain.