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.