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An underground boat trip at Speedwell Cavern in the Peak District

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 May 2017

On board below the surface Photo: Lukasz Warzecha

On board below the surface Photo: Lukasz Warzecha

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Peter Naldrett delves deep into the Peak District and discovers how an ill-judged 18th century business investment turned out fine in the end

The Bottomless PitThe Bottomless Pit

I don’t clamber into small boats all that often, but when I do it’s usually associated with a gentle breeze blowing my hair on an afternoon gazing at open water and blue skies.

But sitting in a small boat in the Peak District recently, I ended up wearing a hard hat, brushing past ancient rocks, experiencing scary darkness and listening to macabre jokes on what really was a journey into the unknown. And if all that sounds a little like an appealing trip to Middle Earth, you’d better head out to where it’s all kicking off underground: Castleton.

Mining and caving are long-standing traditions in Castleton. When you’re above ground you can enjoy the majestic views of Mam Tor and Winnats Pass, along with the rolling countryside featuring sheep and cows in the farms of the Hope Valley.

Beneath your feet, however, there’s another world. In the past, miners dug out and exploded passageways so they could access resources such as the rare mineral known as Blue John. Experienced cavers explore the labyrinth of caverns eroded away by underground streams. And today, tourists plod down dozens of steps to see for themselves what it’s like inside the hills.

The entrance to the cavernThe entrance to the cavern

Back in 1771, a group of businessmen from over the border in Staffordshire had a great idea – they would make their fortune by opening a lead mine in Castleton and selling the valuable resource they judged to be plentiful in the Derbyshire hills. Their decision could have been based on a nearby operation that saw lots of profitable lead removed; maybe a deep mine would access more of this and make it easier to remove it.

Together they sank £14,000 into the Speedwell mine, but the investment went down like a lead balloon. There just wasn’t enough of the stuff underground at this site, and to this day only £3,000 of lead has been brought out of what is today Speedwell Cavern.

From a business perspective, the original investment to house a mine here was disastrous. But the innovative transport method employed underground to make transporting the lead easier has proved to be a bigger success than the original venture. Even in the late 18th century, when miners were struggling to get enough lead out of this mine, visitors were taken down to experience the underground boat ride made possible by flooding a purpose-built, man-made channel.

As far as subterranean transport goes, this was forward thinking. There was no room for using horses or wheeled vehicles down there, so the boats were a great help when moving people, rocks and lead. Queen Victoria experienced the trip on to the underground boat, which in those days was propelled by a miner lying on his back, using his legs to move the boat along.

Halfway HouseHalfway House

Today the boats in Speedwell Cavern use a small motor, but this method of ‘legging’ the boats along the journey shows just how hemmed in the channel is, far below the goings-on at street level. If you are sitting at the side of the boat, you’re likely to feel your coat brush against the rocky walls. If, like me, you’re over six foot tall, you’re going to hear the sound of rock meeting plastic as your hard hat catches on the low ceiling.

And what’s at the end of this unusual boat trip? The cavern itself, where the view above your head swirls over the route cut by rivers in the past and the view below dives down into the so-called Bottomless Pit. Note that while this is a pit, it’s far from bottomless. The 18th century miners thought it was, but they discarded so much rock into it that the bottom of the Bottomless Pit is now only a few metres from the surface.

John Harrison is the director of Speedwell Cavern and says the appeal for most visitors is clear: ‘Most people want to go down and go on a boat underground. It’s a very unusual experience that we offer and although there is another underground boat tour in Northern Ireland it is not their main attraction like it is for us. This is our unique selling point.’

Once the mining operations stopped, the owners soon realised that giving boat tours of the cave was the most profitable thing to do. ‘They were giving underground boat tours back in 1778 when mining was taking place, and they used to take them further than we do today, beyond the Bottomless Pit.

Intrepid trippersIntrepid trippers

‘We don’t know how many people they took in those days because there aren’t many records and initially it was probably people like artists and scientists who had a strong interest in the mine. Perhaps it didn’t start out as a commercial venture but they quickly realised the potential of the tours and by 1820 it was an out and out show cave.

‘When the railway came along to nearby Hope it allowed more and more people to come and it has been popular with tourists ever since.’

The cavern and associated shops, still a family business employing 30 local people, pull in many visitors, but a very special one came along in 1964.

Paul Newman, fresh from films like The Hustler and Hud, was a global star and decided to take a break from his filming by heading to the Peak District. Some may think the choice to holiday in Castleton was unusual for such a big name, but he stayed at the Nag’s Head and one day drove up to take a tour of Speedwell Cavern.

John Harrison picks up the story: ‘Of course, he was recognised immediately by people working at the cavern and a photographer from the Sheffield Star was called out. He made it just in time, which is why the picture of Paul Newman outside the cavern sees him reaching for the car door, just about to leave.’

Before I set off for Castleton’s Speedwell Cavern, I told a friend where I was heading and a look of stark fear came over his eyes. There followed warnings of claustrophobia and questions about whether I really knew what I was letting myself in for.

His experience of Speedwell, while trying to show his kids a good day out, went pear-shaped when he had a panic attack in the darkness, pleaded for the boat to return and even asked if he could abandon his family to jump on a boat going the other way.

This is an extreme reaction. There’s nothing to fear in the depths of Speedwell Cavern. The tour guides may make League of Gentlemen-style jokes about losing people and wondering if the group will manage to get back alive, but the job of underground guide is long-associated with a dark humour.

And with such gems to be discovered beneath the surface at Castleton, the joke is really on the folk choosing to stay in the daylight and fresh air.

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