What is it like to go caving in the Peak District for the first time?
I generally try to avoid dark, damp and deep enclosed spaces, and yet there I was 100 meters underground, soaked to my skin and quite enjoying myself.
Since I now live so close to the Peak District, I decided to venture out to Castleton and try my hand at caving for the very first time last week.
I would be staying at a caving hut in the village, a short walk from the cave entrance, with my Sheffield friend Michael, who has been caving for five years.
At the hut we got into our caving gear – thermal underlayers, a fleece, boilersuit, wellies, and crucially, hardhat with headtorch.
We also took with us some water and snacks to keep us going.
Michael set a call out, meaning that he arranged for someone to send for help if we were not out of the cave by a certain time – not exactly a cheery thought on your way in.
The cave system that I was to be exploring is Peak Cavern, which is where Michael takes so-called freshers on their first caving experience because it has a bit of everything and provides a good taster of what caving is.
Everything in this case meant narrow passageways, large open spaces, areas with water up to your chest, and places where it was merely up to your knees.
Upon entering the cave, I realised that this activity would not be a popular pastime for those with claustrophobia - such as myself.
I didn’t have too much time to worry about being claustrophobic, as soon after entering the cave, we came across the first of three ‘muddy ducks.’
A muddy duck is a space half filled with water that needs to be carefully waded through.
As the muddy ducks were at the start of the circular route, they guaranteed that we would start and end the trip soaked through.
The best way to tackle the muddy ducks was to dive right in, literally. After doing this three times my bottom half was numb from the cold, but it could only get easier from here.
The muddy ducks were followed by a kilometer of ‘stomping’ – walking through a fairly wide passage and navigating the rocky uneven floor. I think I did quite well for a novice, accumulating only a few bruises along the way.
During the stomping stretch, Michael took the opportunity to throw a lot of caving history at me, and tell me about the history of the Peak Cavern system.
It is several hundred million years old and formed by water pressure. Originally called the Devil’s Arse, it was renamed to the more tame sounding Peak Cavern in 1880 when Queen Victoria visited.
After the stomping came a narrow section that had to be crab-walked side on.
I struggled with this section as feeling the impenetrable rock on either side and having to push myself along it brought back the claustrophobia that I had left behind at the muddy ducks.
But I pushed on and the hard work was worth it and we came out to a Surprise View.
Even with our headtorches on full beam, visibility is not amazing in a cave.
But having seen Surprise View I can confirm some of the views below ground are as awesome as anything above.
The huge rock formations, underground rivers and stalagmites formed over millennia were sites I has never seen before. In fact, I would be tempted to don another boiler suit and go for a return visit in the not too distant future.
There was one part of the trip I didn’t manage. Through a narrow tunnel, Michael explained there was an pool and some diving equipment which had been left by previous visitors.
I made my way into the passage on hands and knees, and felt unable to make my way along it, although it was only about 10 meters long. I think the fact that I could not see the end of the passage, and that it narrowed slightly further along, stopped me in my tracks.
After that diversion, we did a little more stomping and then made our way back. I only realised I had started to dry off when we were back and the muddy ducks, and suddenly I was sodden again.
When we made our way out of the cave I noticed a strange smell. Michael explained that it was the smell of fresh air, which I was noticing now because it contrasted with the stagnant air inside the cave.
When Michael decided to tell me, over a celebratory pint, of the tragic story of Neil Moss who died in the Peak Cavern system in the 1930s, even that didn’t diminish my love of the experience.
Although I am glad he told me that tale once we were safely out of the cave.
The system itself is huge, and I only explored a small fraction of it, spending less than three hours under ground.
Nevertheless, I felt like I had had a proper induction into caving and was glad of the experience.
Not to mention, we spotted the cast and crew of the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon on our way to getting underground.
Who knows if they too will take on the challenge of the Devil’s Arse as part of the filming? It would make for some epic scenes as part of the new series.
For those interested in trying caving for the first time, visit https://newtocaving.com/ to find ways of getting involved.