Christmas at Castleton, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 10:50 10 January 2011 | UPDATED: 21:41 20 February 2013
Mike Smith visits the historic PeaK District village that celebrates the festive season with gusto
In 1848, The Illustrated London News featured a picture that captured the public imagination. It showed Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a decorated Christmas tree, according to a custom that the Prince had brought to the royal household from his native Germany. During the festive season of 1849, Christmas trees were to be found in households throughout the country and, after the erection of a gigantic Christmas tree at the Crystal Palace in 1854, large Christmas trees began to appear in prominent public locations in many towns and villages.
Like most places, the village of Castleton established the new tradition in a modest way with the erection of just one public Christmas tree, but it now has a staggering total of 45 trees, all of which are decorated with bright and colourful fairy lights. Some of the trees are located in Castle Street, where there are two welcoming public houses, and in the villages market square, where fine Christmas gifts can be purchased, but most of them are placed at regular intervals along the flank of the main street, which is transformed throughout the Christmas period into a brilliant tunnel of light.
Castletons Christmas lights were switched on this year by Steph Fearon, who is starring as Aladdin in the pantomime at Buxton Opera House. The Hope Valley College band and choir, Morris dancers from Whaley Bridge and, of course, Father Christmas, also participated in the switch-on ceremony, which marked the beginning of a programme of special events and late-night shopping opportunities that is guaranteed to attract visitors from far and wide.The notion of Christmas as a time for exchanging presents was popularised by the novels of Charles Dickens, and the proprietors of Castletons Victorian gift shops were quick to exploit their new trading opportunities.
Today, there is no better place in which to purchase Christmas gifts than this attractive Peak District village, where there are no fewer than 20 gift shops, all of which stay open until 9pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the Christmas period. Every illuminated shop window contains a dazzling array of carefully arranged gifts that never fails to attract todays discriminating shoppers and would surely delight any reincarnated Victorian shopper.
Many of the gifts on sale in Castleton have a very special quality, because they are fashioned from Blue John stone, a form of fluorspar that is found exclusively in the subterranean tunnels of Treak Cliff, the steep hillside that forms a backcloth to the village and marks the western extremity of the beautiful Hope Valley. When Blue John is cut and polished, its surface is transformed into a stunning pattern of blue, purple, yellow and white bands, making it much prized as a material for ornaments and jewellery.
Small quantities of Blue John are still extracted from Treak Cliff Cavern and from Blue John Cavern, spectacular underground labyrinths that constitute two of Castletons four show caves. The others are Speedwell Cavern, a former lead mine where visitors are transported by boat to a bottomless pit, and Peak Cavern, a natural limestone cave that stretches deep into the hillside below Peveril Castle. In recent years, Peak Cavern has been marketed under its original name of the Devils Arse, a label that was dropped in order not to cause offence to Queen Victoria when she attended a concert in the cave. The proprietors obviously believe that vulgarity is more acceptable these days.
Peak Cavern will be the venue for carol concerts on seven occasions over the Christmas period and Treak Cliff Cavern will host nine carol concerts by candlelight, following a tradition that began in the Victorian era. The Victorians are also responsible for reviving the tradition of carol singing, not only by unearthing