Carol-singing underground in Peak Cavern at Castleton
00:00 10 December 2015
Looking for an unusual way to celebrate the festive period? Peter Naldrett pulls on his Santa hat and gets into the subterranean Christmas spirit
Walk around Castleton in the run up to Christmas and you may well find the hills actually are alive with the sound of music. You might not see Julie Andrews spinning around on top of Mam Tor or the Von Trapps legging it to safety, but if the bitter winter winds of the Peak District die down for a few a moments you might hear a few familiar tunes drifting up into the dark skies. ‘Silent Night’, perhaps. Or maybe ‘We Three Kings’.
Those from outside the area might think they are hearing things and put the audible festive merriment down to an indulgence in Christmas ale or celebratory sherry. But there’s no need to get your ears checked or question the alcohol content of your Christmas pudding. Singing beneath the surface of the earth in this part of the world is commonplace and now forms part of a well-established seasonal tradition enjoyed by thousands.
The caverns of Castleton, well-visited by travelling tourists during the summer months, throw open their doors for a very different kind of attraction during December, with local bands and musicians taking advantage of the excellent acoustics to belt out some of your Christmas favourites. The reason they’re able to do this here, of course, is down to the type of rock you stand on as you ramble around Hope Valley. This is the place where the gritstone of the Dark Peak gives way to the limestone of the White Peak. As limestone has been worn away by underground streams over thousands of years, we are lucky to be left with these enormous caverns under the ground, which thankfully are very enchanting places to enjoy a mulled wine and a mince pie.
Wandering out of Castleton, I could hear a selection of interesting sounds coming out of the Devil’s Arse. I’m not being rude here, for that is the nickname given to the Peak Cavern on account of the flatulent sounds emitting from the depths as flood water drains away. The name was dropped in the 19th century prior to a visit by Queen Victoria as people didn’t want to offend her. But in more tolerant recent times the reference to the Devil’s backside was adopted once more – and I decided to walk right inside the opening.
It’s a bit of a climb to get inside the Devil’s Arse. There is a pleasant stream flowing out of it and a few picturesque cottages on the approach to the entrance, but nothing quite prepares you for the scene once you get inside. It’s a true winter wonderland, with fairy lights all over the place and Christmas trees making it feel like one of the most special grottoes I’d ever seen. There’s enough space for 700 people, each of whom get a mince pie and mulled wine on arrival before making their way over the often slippery rocks to take their subterranean seat.
At the entrance to the Peak Cavern there’s an area where the band is set up, tightly packed together around their music stands. It’s this vital addition of brass and silver bands from the Peak District that gives this event such a magical charm. On the evening I visited, Tintwistle Silver Band were up. The extra dimension that these local bands bring to the proceedings cannot be overstated; when you’re singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ or ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, much better to do it with tubas, trombones and cornets behind you.
Folk singer Kate Rusby, who lives not too far away from here, is a big advocate of having brass bands raising the roof when carollers belt out their Christmas favourites. She has worked with several herself and told me how special local carols from South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire are to her Christmas. ‘We have done a Christmas tour for years and we’re already planning our fourth Christmas album. People do ask me if I get fed up with Christmas, but I just love it so much. I adore it and adore going to the carols and we love going on tour with Christmas songs. People come back year after year. We love to do it, and it wasn’t until I started talking to people about it that I realised singing carols in the pub was a rare event.
‘At one time I thought that it happened everywhere, and it doesn’t. I have family in Cornwall and they have the local carol tradition as well, as do some places in north Derbyshire, but I don’t know anywhere else.’
The local carolling tradition is kept alive deep underground in Castleton.
Don’t get the impression, though, that being grouped together in a cavern with nearly a thousand other carol singers is going to be a warm, cosy affair, even if you do have a mulled wine or two to heat your cockles. This is, after all, a giant hole in the ground. And one that you choose to sit in during one of the coldest months of the year. Taking warm clothes and preparing for an icy blast is a must.
Just down the road from the Devil’s Arse, you’ll come across Treak Cliff Cavern. It lies further out of the village and to get to it you have to make your way up a steep path before you go down amongst the stalagmites, stalactites, deposits of Blue John and the fossils that were once animals in ancient tropical seas.
The experience here is a different affair; you enter the cavern in small groups and instead of the big brass band there is one man with an accordion. Standing around fighting the cold and sharing carol sheets, this is just as enjoyable an experience and one that is friendlier for youngsters.
The sun was just setting as we went inside Treak Cliff Cavern and by the time we had sung along to ‘Jingle Bells’ and other festive favourites for an hour, the countryside had darkened and the temperature dropped. Feet frozen and teeth chattering as we walked down the hill back to Castleton, there was no grumbling from anybody. The underground carolling session had given us all a warm, contented glow. I used to think that the first sight of the illuminated Coca Cola lorry on TV signalled the start of Christmas. But no more. Now, the season of goodwill starts with an underground ‘First Noel’.