Home of Blue John and Peveril Castle
“. . . a quaint and pretty pageant enlivens the irregular grey streets. Gaily dressed children dance . . .the Morris. . . whilst King Charles and his lady wife. . . ride in state through the quaint streets.”
Victorian novelist RM Gilchrist
Under the watchful presence of Peveril Castle in Derbyshire’s Vale of Hope, sits the village of Castleton. Enclosed by the Peak District hills and approached by the narrow and steep limestone gorge known as Winnats Pass, this former lead mining village crowns a scenic mecca.
To the south, stark limestone crags and cliffs, wild moors, and sheer rock edges attract the eye. To the north, dark gritstone dominates the landscape. 1695 foot high Mam Tor, the “shivering mountain”, so named because of its crumbling horizontal layers of gritstone and shale, is home to a 16 acre late Bronze Age/early Iron Age hillfort.
Sitting at the top of a 280-foot high sheer rock precipice, Peveril Castle lords it over the village that owes its existence to the castle. Concerned about his rights to the rich hunting grounds of the Peak District forest and local lead deposits, William I instructed his illegitimate son, William Peveril, to build the castle to strengthen the royal presence in the area.
Although the castle never saw battle, it did afford the village a sense of security. A stone circuit wall and outer bailey added to the impregnable fortifications. Henry II confiscated the castle in 1155 when Peveril’s son poisoned his mistress’s husband, the Earl of Chester. It was here the King met with Scotland’s King Malcolm in 1157 to accept his submission.
To further enhance its invulnerability, a square keep, now roofless, was constructed in 1175-77. By 1400 the castle’s importance as a administrative and military centre declined, and over the centuries it became ruinous. Sir Walter Scott lent the castle a romantic appeal in his four volume novel, Peveril of the Peak. It is a steep climb to the castle from the village but well worth the effort for the far ranging views.
Evidence of Castleton’s past lies in its surviving stone buildings: the Cheshire Cheese inn, formerly known as the Wagon and Horses was built in 1660 on the site of a 1577 ale house. 17th century Castleton Hall is now a youth hostel. St Edmund’s Church, the ‘Church of Peak Castle’, although restored in 1837, retains a Norman chancel arch, a 15th century west tower, and 17th century box pews carved with their holders’ names. The vestry library has a 1611 edition of the ‘Breeches’ Bible’—first written in 1560 by English Protestant reformers who had fled to Geneva.
Visit the village on 29 May for the traditional Garland or Oak Apple Day ceremony held annually to celebrate spring. Victorian novelist RM Gilchrist wrote, “. . . a quaint and pretty pageant enlivens the irregular grey streets.” He described the ceremony as it still exists today, “gaily dressed children dance . . .the Morris. . . whilst King Charles and his lady wife. . . ride in state through the quaint streets. . .” The roots of the ceremony are pagan, but the festival evolved in the 17th century to become associated with the historic escape of Charles II when he hid in an oak tree to avoid Cromwell’s soldiers.
The festival’s highlight is the horseback ride through the village by ‘King Charles’ and his ‘lady’, dressed in Stuart costumes. Carrying a three-foot high garland, adorned with oak leaves and garden and meadow flowers, they progress from pub to pub to end up at the church. There the garland is placed upon the church tower, a custom that began as a way to honour the bellringers. In Castleton’s museum is a display of Garland memorabilia, which includes a 200-year-old outfit worn by a ‘king’. A smithy and an old schoolroom manage to find a spot in this small treasure trove of local history.
Ghost lovers will delight in Castleton. The Castle Hotel has more than its fair share. This 17th century coaching inn (sadly Americanized today), is reputed to be haunted by not one but four ghosts. Rose, also known as the lady in grey, is either a chambermaid or a jilted bride, depending on who is telling the tale. Then there’s Cooper, a man who appears in a pin striped suit where a side entrance used to exist. It seems he used to sneak into the hotel this way to prevent his wife catching him drinking. There are other ghosts to add to the hotel’s hauntings: a 60 year old housekeeper roams the corridors, and one of Charles II’s soldiers, seen only from the knees up still seeks his regiment.
Two young lovers share in the ghostly tales. In 1758, a year after the Winnats Pass road became part of a turnpike to Manchester, they were set upon on their journey by robbers and murdered. Their ghosts are said to add their voice to the wind’s when it howls through the gorge.
Ghosts aren’t the only ‘unseen’ things to interest visitors to the area. Castleton hides impressive underground secrets. Four caverns, each with its own distinctive character, await exploration. What better way to spend a day when the weather outside is wet and windy.
Two of the caves contain a banded form of fluorospar, Blue John (from the French bleu (blue) and jaune (yellow). 18th century miners John Kirk and Joseph Hall are credited with naming the mineral.
Although possibly mined since Roman times, it was modern day seekers for lead who rediscovered the highly prized stone and promoted its decorative use. By 1770, 16 mines were in operation. Such was the demand in the 18th century for vases and columns that the large veins were soon mined out. One of the largest pieces made was the Tazza Vase found at Chatsworth, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The streets of Castleton are replete with shops selling small Blue John ornaments and jewellery, all that is made today from the increasingly rare and highly brittle material.
The Blue John Cave, with its natural caverns, worn by centuries of water action, contains eight of the 14 known varieties of the mineral. Nature has endowed this cave with vaulted chambers, passageways, and stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations.
Near Blue John Cavern is an area rich in marine fossils and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. Here lies Treak Cliff Cavern, riddled with the workings of lead miners. Renowned in the past for its rich veins of Blue John, the cave still yields supplies of the mineral.
At the foot of Winnats Pass, Speedwell cavern tunnels 600 feet into the earth. 104 steps stretch downward to an underground canal boat ride. The 2625-foot long canal represents the flooding which occurred when miners bored a tunnel in the search for lead. A deep natural cavern, the Bottomless Pit—so named when 40,000 tons of rubble were dumped into it without changing the water level—awaits at canal’s end.
The wooded cliff face under Peveril Castle hides Peak Cavern, formed from natural limestone. It winds its way into the hillside for more than a mile, divulging chambers, halls and galleries. It was once named The Devil’s Arse, due to the "farting" noise made when water, built up in the cavern, drained away. The prudish Victorians dropped the name, but in 2001 it claimed its own back.
Peak’s imposing entrance, 60 feet high, 100 feet wide, and 340 feet long, is the largest in Britain. The cave’s mouth, lit only by candles, was put to an unusual use as the site of a factory and living quarters for rope makers. The blackened ceiling gives mute testimony to the former cottage chimneys.
Peakshole Water, once a source of water for the villagers, issues from the cavern’s mouth and wends its way through the village to join the River Noe. Further into the cave is the Great Chamber, 150 feet long and 90 feet high. The Orchestra Gallery’s acoustics were outstanding enough to entertain Princess Victoria when she visited here.
The dramatic grandeur of the countryside, the eerie presence of ghostly spirits, mysterious underground caverns, a ruined castle towering over the valley—Castleton, nicknamed the ‘Gem of the Peaks’, easily lives up to its name.
Castleton is 16 miles west of Sheffield on the A625 route to Manchester. There is regular bus service to and from Sheffield.
Tel: 01433 620578
Fax: 01433 622902
Castleton Village Museum
Methodist Church School Room
Tel: 01433 620950
Tel: 01433 620 613
Under the care of English Heritage
Blue John Cavern
Tel. 01433 620638/620642.
Email: Blue John
Website: Blue John Cavern
Tel: 01433 620285
E-mail: Peak Cavern
Website: Peak Cavern
Tel. 01433 620512
Fax. 01433 621888
Website: Speedwell Cavern
Treak Cliff Cavern
Tel. 01433 620571
Email: Treak Cliff
Website: Treak Cliff Cavern
Blue John Craft Shop and Museum
The Ollerenshaw collection of Blue John
Cross St., Castleton
Tel. 01433 620642
Castleton Information Centre
Castle St., near the church
Tel. 01433 620679
The Peak District National Park Authority
Bakewell DE45 1AE
Tel: 01629 816200
Fax: 01629 816313
Photos of Blue John stone and cavern courtesy Bryn Hughes.
Photos of Castleton market place, Castleton and Hope valley, Peak cavern, Castleton street, Winnats pass, Peveril Castle courtesy John Beres.
Other photos by Barbara Ballard
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