rumbling around in the devil’s cavern

The Devil's Arse cave, Castleton: Jeremy Smith and daughter Polly by the entrance candles
The Devil's Arse cave, Castleton: Jeremy Smith and daughter Polly by the entrance candles

“Recently two guys in their 50s decided they wanted to stay overnight in the Bottomless Pit. One of them was an Ofsted inspector.”

Cave manager John Harrison adds this employment detail to illustrate the men in question were not prone to wild imaginings and outlandish judgments.

The Devil's Arse cave, Castleton: John Harrison demonstrating the craft of the ropemakers

The Devil's Arse cave, Castleton: John Harrison demonstrating the craft of the ropemakers

“When we came to get them in the morning they were white as sheets. They said they’d spent the night listening to lead miners working and talking around them. They were terrified.”

The Peak / Speedwell cave system includes at least ten miles of caves and passageways, a small section of which is open to the public as show caves. As a caver in his 20s, John himself rediscovered a set of chambers that were last mined nearly 250 years ago. “There was a pick axe, bits of lead and buckets. It was if they’d just packed up work one day and never came back.”

Peak Cavern, the country’s largest cave entrance, nestles under the ruins of Peveril Castle, with sheer cliffs and jackdaws circling high above approaching visitors. Like most British cave systems, the stories of the Peak caverns were linked for hundreds of years to their eventual destination, if you were foolish to venture far enough: the fires of Hades.

The cavern’s river was nicknamed the Styx, and the infamous 16th century vagabond Cock Lorel held a banquet with the devil in the cavern (the menu included poached puritan, money lender stewed in his marrow and lawyer’s head in green sauce). And the flatulent sound of flood waters in the depths of the cave came directly from the devil himself, hence the cavern’s local name: The Devil’s Arse.

The name is said to have stood from Anglo Saxon times, with a brief rebranding as the Peak Cavern to calm Victorian sensibilities, until the return of the common title at the turn of the new century. John maintains most local people were in favour. “It’s history, and makes it part of the village again,” he says.

Cave tourism has changed over the years. Wealthy sightseers have toured the ‘wonders of the Peak’ for centuries: Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, Thomas Hobbes and even Princess Victoria are said to have visited the Castleton caverns, guided and entertained by the local rope makers and their families who lived in the cave entrance, spinning rope for local lead mines on the cave’s six terraces of ‘rope walks’.

“There were up to 60 people living in tiny houses in the cave, often no bigger than a modern bedroom,” says John. The huge cave entrance gave rope makers the chance to work all year round, whatever the weather outside.

In the past, said John, tourists would come out on the bus or train and spend the whole day and early evening in Castleton, visiting caves and local pubs and shops, but now the village tends to empty in late afternoon. “They want to be back in time for tea and Coronation Street.”

So cave owners adapt, with varying charges at different times of day, and the Devil’s Arse has found a new purpose as a concert hall for carols and brass bands at Christmas, and musicians ranging from Richard Hawley and the Everly Pregnant Brothers to classical cellist Matthew Barley.

There are also educational tours looking at history, geology and wildlife including bats and crows, blind shrimps, translucent cave trout and even ‘lampenflora’ such as mosses and ferns which make a home in caves around artificial lighting.

Cave guide Irene Healy can turn her hand to all these subjects, but she knows it’s the dark and scary stories that really hit the spot with tourists.

“I’ve had mediums insisting that my tours are followed by two 18th century men and a barefooted child,” she says, “and many people have heard voices and felt children tugging at heir clothes. When you’re here on your own in the winter, you listen to the noises coming from the cave and you’re sure you can hear people whispering.”

Tourists should not expect Disneyland when they visit a show cave but a real experience, says John Harrison. “But when they come, I think the magic is still there.”