A fearsome cavern, a hole in the world plunging down vertically to the very centre of the Earth, they say. The Eldon Hole is a place of awe and terror.
The landscapes of Derbyshire can seen bizarre, sudden. In the limestone of the White Peak, a field may suddenly be interrupted by cliffs and holes. Fields may appear folded, or crumpled. In some places the effect is from quarrying or the extensive lead mining which was once carried out across the Peak, but in most of these disrupted landscapes it is quite natural: a combination of glacial action and the working away of water at the rock.
Eldon Hole is of a different scale altogether. It is invisible from the road, found on the flank of Eldon Hill north of the modern village of Peak Forest, concealed behind a screen of trees on private farmland. On approach, the land seems perfectly normal for the Peak – rough, sloping fields enclosed in dry stone walls, grazed by sheep, short grass interrupted by outcropping rock. Then there is an enclosure, the site wisely fenced about to stop sheep falling into the void.
The hole is a gash in the Earth, where all just drops away straight down into blackness. There is grass all about, and gorse clinging to the edge; but the hole, huge and horrible, just opens unforgiving. There is nothing to be seen but the bottomless drop, with sheer, bare sides.
It has long been believed that the hole was bottomless, and in the pre-Hobbesian days when they believed that Hell was physically beneath the earth, that meant the Hole might be a gateway to the infernal regions. It is said that in the days of Good Queen Bess a lord determined to find out how deep the Eldon Hole was and hired a peasant who was lowered down on a rope. When eventually he was drawn up, the poor man was gibbering out of his wits; he was unable to describe what he has seen, and died three days after. That may have been from hellish horrors deep in the pit, or because his landlord had just made him go down into an abyss where he waited to be leapt on by the Devil, supported only by a cheap rope held by nearby farm hands.
Modern times have seen potholers enter the hole – there are steel anchor pins driven into the rock all around the Eldon Hole and marks of descent in places.
Defoe thought the hole might go to the very centre of the Earth and he was greatly impressed. If geologists have set a depth to the hole, they are spoilsports for it is a great legend. Even those geologists recognised that rocks have fallen in and wedged to create a bottom that is not the natural depth, and the hole is apparently part of a wider system of caves and channels, so that even if the hole itself has a bottom to its vertical shaft, it goes on under rother hills, which makes it endless in a sense.
From the lip though, this long chasm drops away forever.