Wonders of the Peak 7: The Devil’s Arse

Above the exquisite village of Castleton in the north of Derbyshire the hill rises steeply, a cliff behind the village and a rounded slope above it on which stands Peveril Castle, from which the village is named. Beside the castle is a crack in the rounded slope, a deep, vertical chasm, and at the end a deep hole: this is the Devil’s Arse.

The cave is the village’s concert hall. Since the Victorian Age the cave has been opened as a show cave, under the politer name of the ‘Peak Cavern’ (although the older, more robust name, is used again today in marketing. It has a vast cavern entrance, so large that concerts are regularly held there: big names (or big tribute acts) come from across the nation to perform in Old Nick’s Posterior.

That there should be such an empty void beneath a hill without the earth falling in, achieved by nature which no human architect could achieve, is wonderous in itself. The void in the dark fills the visitor with awe, which today adds a frisson to the concerts here.

Within the dark depths of the Devil’s Arse is more mystery, for the intestines of the cave run deep and narrow. Cavers have found their way through these passages far beyond what the public can see or imagine, tracing them out to the Speedwell Cavern up the valley and a network of channels, sumps and passages beyond number, which perhaps reach even to the bottomless Eldon Hole. There is in these depths more wonder than Camden, Defoe or Hobbes imagines.

Behind a ruin’d mountain does appear
Swelling into two parts, which turgent are
As when we bend our bodies to the ground,
The buttocks amply sticking out are found.
I’th’ midst there is a Cave: and on each hand
A lofty Rock does as supporter stand
Of a vast weight of earth, which else would fall,
So to the midst with safety guards us all,
And now we’re come (I blushing must rehearse)
As most does stile it to the Devils Arse;
Peaks Arse the Natives.
A noble Cave between two Rocks appears,
Unto the Sun unknown, but to the Stars
Fearing to be immerg’d, and both the Bears
Turn’d, it its mouth with horrour does present:
Just like a furnace, or as Hell they paint,
Swallowing with open Jawes the Damned croud.


0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth – 2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well – 3 Eldon Hole – 4 St Ann’s Well – 5 Poole’s Cavern – 6 Mam Tor – 7 The Devil’s Arse

Wonders of the Peak 6: Mam Tor

A lofty mountain, not the highest in Derbyshire (a title which belongs to Kinder Scout, just north of here) but prominent, dominating. Mam Tor stands above the pretty village of Castleton, at the head of the Hope Valley on a great ridge separating the Hope valley from Edale.

This fell is where the limestone of the White Peak changes to the hard rocks of the Dark Peak. It and its neighbours have yielded wealth: bluejohn stone from two shafts here and lead from beneath Mam Tor itself.

No one is sure why this mountain is called ‘Mam Tor’ but it is from the ancient Welsh language once spoken across the peak. It may be from the hill’s pleasing shape from some viewpoints, or the double-tumescent appearance as the summit is approached, because of the earthworks on it. This is another remarkable aspect: the fell-top once had a village, a fortified village within a hill fort, as if the precipitous slopes of Mam Tor were not defence enough. It is a reminder that quiet times are a precious luxury when so many ages have been endless “Warre of every one against every one”.

The name ‘Mam’ though has another, plainer meaning; which is ‘Mother’. At the foot of its slopes are clutches of hillocks formed of the mother mountain as on occasion it shivers and send its rocks rolling down to make new baby hills, and yet Mam Tor does not get the less: it was asserted by some that it continually renews itself after giving birth to new hills.

Today, Mam Tor is a popular walk for the many who visit Castleton for its own charm and other sights it has, one of which is the final Wonder of the Peak, of which more tomorrow.


0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth – 2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well – 3 Eldon Hole – 4 St Ann’s Well – 5 Poole’s Cavern – 6 Mam Tor – 7 The Devil’s Arse

Wonders of the Peak 5: Poole’s Cavern

A sinister, black cavern in a cliff-face, now at the edge of Buxton, has drawn visitors for centuries, and before them a notorious robber: this is Poole’s Cavern, and the wonders that Poole once had to himself are now open to the paying public.

Poole was a thief and a murderer in the Middle Ages. Perhaps he had a manner of charm about him, for one of his habits was to lure travellers to Buxton out of their way, misleading them to his cave above the town, where he would slit their throats for their silver. How well he lived from his trade we may not know, but enough where willing to sell him the means to live in return for his blood-stained coins. He lived within the cave and his skull is believed to be that on display in the hut outside.

Others had been here long before: Roman bodies were found, which had some reason to be here.

The fame of the cave though is not in its gruesome history but something far more ancient, for in these dark passages are the most wonderous natural but unearthly formations that have excited the imagination since at least the days of the Virgin Queen.

A river runs through the cave and carved it out in days beyond number, once the main stream of the River Wye, the river that beautifies the Derbyshire Peak all the way from Buxton to Bakewell, and still a stream flows along the cave floor and still water drips through the limestone roof of the cave, working magical effects within.

The passage is lined with stalactites and stalagmites, and the walls are carved into weird and grotesque shapes. Where water cascades in wet weather down the walls, there a petrified waterfall forms. Some spikes from the ceiling are needles, some more venerable pinnacles. On the floors great mounds rise. In places, over millions of years, they have met to form a pillar.

In some places the stalagmites rise from the floor in he form of needles, and in some mounds, in some clinging to the cavern wall, and in one stretch they are like a forest of erect snakes, seeming alive, white with yellow heads.

The walls look as if they could be moving, shapes and glistening like the tentacles of an octopus, or the serpents in the hair of Medusa: the imagination can choose its own analogies.

In the dark, by a flicking candle the formations leap from the shadows; even by the modern lamps fitted to the cave they are breathtaking. In candlelight one may see too that the forest of pillars glows faintly in the dark.

In most places stalagmites and stalactites grow slowly – an inch in two hundred years or so, but in the depth of the cave they grow so swiftly that there are mounds of rock half and inch or more tall on the flagstones and handrail put in just twenty years ago.

At the far end of the accessible cave, names and initials have been carved in the rock by visitors (when this was acceptable behaviour); the earliest from 1607.

When this was a robber’s den, it was a fearsome place because of Poole, but long after his time, men were finding fearsome sights of nature. The unearthly forms here ensured that long after Poole left his bones here his hideout is known as a true Wonder of the Peak.

This Cave by Gorgon with her snaky hair
You’d think was first possest; so all things there
Turn’d into Stone for nothing does appear
That is not Rock. What from the ceiling high
Like hams of Bacon pendulous you spy,
Will scarce yield to the teeth; stone they are both
That is no Lyon mounts his main so rough,
And sets as a fierce tenant o’th’ dark den,
But a meer yellow Stone. That grave old Man
That leaning lyes on his hard Rocky bed,
Himself may truly part of it be said.
Those Stars from the clear roof that shine so bright
Are nought but Stones which sparkle ‘gainst the light.
The drop which hangs upon the pointed Stone
Is that so to? it is or will be one.
Took up between our fingers it is seen
To be nor Stone, nor Water, but between.
Of such a substance as a leaven’d Mass.


0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth – 2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well – 3 Eldon Hole – 4 St Ann’s Well – 5 Poole’s Cavern – 6 Mam Tor – 7 The Devil’s Arse

Wonders of the Peak 4: St Ann’s Well

At the foot of the Slopes stands a well with a tap continually running water. This is a modern wellhead of the famous St Ann’s Well, which is a spring continually bringing water up from the depths of the earth, and the water is warm and clear. Since before the Romans the well was held to be a miraculous healing well, and so a wonder indeed.

The spring gushes many thousands of gallons a day, not just to this wellhead but into the Pump Room next door and other outlets. The town is built on water: this was Aquae Arnemetiae and every later age has come for the waters

The Sun burnt clouds but glimmer to the sight,
When at fam’d Buxton’s hot bath we alight.
Unto St. Ann the Fountain sacred is:
With waters hot and cold its sources rise,
And in its Sulphur-veins there’s med’cine lies.
This cures the Palsied members of the Old.
And cherishes the Nerves grown stiff and cold.
Crutches the Lame unto its brink convey,
Returning the ungrates fling them away.

Hobbes continues to relate swimming in a pool of the waters, then supping well before another morning bath in the warm waters. This is a curative indeed to weary limbs.

The well today usually has a line of local people filling bottles, sometimes a row of gallon containers, as well they might as it is good, clear water.

The town itself is the finest town in the Peak. This is Bath in miniature, and the most elegant town in Derbyshire. In the Georgian and Victorian Ages, fashionable society flocked here and the town was created anew around the well and the riverside. There is an Opera House, there are theatres, and pleasure gardens: the Pavilion Gardens are at least equal to any other in any other town. It speaks of confidence and entrepreneurship: the Duke of Devonshire made the town look like an elegant resort, and it became one.

Fashions have come and gone and the resort of the gentry is democratised. The hydropathic establishments are gone – where they used to wrap patients in wet towels to cure every ailment known to man. The waters still flow unchanged.

Modernity wants to scoff at claims of the curative properties of spring water, but we should not. Today we have the incredible luxury of clean water piped to our homes, and hot water to bathe in, but it is only a few generations since this was unknown even to a wealthy household. A hot day toiling in the fields or on horseback over the moors could in most places be met only by a beer made of fœtid cistern water or a costly wine, as water was unsafe to drink on its own, and no rest for the limbs. What a wonder then there is in a flagon of clean water, or a bath, immersing and lifting the heavy limbs, cleaning off their foulness. There is no medicine in the water, but there are things that are better: cleanliness, comfort and warmth.

Now the well is still spewing forth its healing waters just as it did in ancient days, even if we now see it mainly in the flow of a small well you might pass by unseen.

The greatest wonder of this well is found not by looking at the water, but by raising your eyes and looking around: its miraculous quality is that this little well has created a town, and such a town as it the Jewel of the Peak.


0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth – 2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well – 3 Eldon Hole – 4 St Ann’s Well – 5 Poole’s Cavern – 6 Mam Tor – 7 The Devil’s Arse

Wonders of the Peak 3: Eldon Hole

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.


0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth – 2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well – 3 Eldon Hole – 4 St Ann’s Well – 5 Poole’s Cavern – 6 Mam Tor – 7 The Devil’s Arse