I like caves. I’ve not really seen a great deal, but we did a tour around one when I was younger, and then, when I was around 17, we did an outdoor activities week away and did it properly; not just a walk in, walk around, walk out type of thing, but a proper ‘let’s sneak in through this little entrance and see where it takes us’ kind of activity, albeit under full instruction and with all the super-safe equipment you need to stick to the kind of health and safety rules that have pretty much outlawed similar school trips since then. In a way, I’d love to do it again, but in another, I’ve grown in every direction since then, and the idea of getting completely wedged in just because I discovered a fondness for certain types of ale a few years ago puts me off a bit.
I couldn’t tell you what it is I like about caves. They were pretty useful once upon a time when man needed shelter from the cold and a place to defend himself against the nasties of the time, but since we discovered bricks, electricity and Bangladeshi-sweatshops, there really is no need
to live in one. There is, however, some sort of excitement to be found in some secret location hundreds, sometimes thousands of feet below the ground, forged entirely by nature and mostly discovered completely by accident. That is why, when the alarm clock went off, I was more than happy to jump out of bed, leave the warmth and comfort of my newly-rebuilt house and take a small group of friends down a big, dark cave on a grim, grey, sometimes wet and windy day in May.
I arranged for everyone to meet at mine for breakfast to set us up for the day, and the usual suspects of Lyndsey, John and Faith were joined by Emily just before 9.00. With a hearty sausage sandwich inside us and a quick play of some early 90’s hits from the record player, we couldn’t have been more prepared for the day and so we hit the M6 and made our way, first out of the urban chaos of the West Midlands, then through the leafy suburbs of the northern part of Staffordshire, before stopping off at Buxton, slotted in between a bunch of hills on the edge of the Peak District.
As we pulled up on the car park that also doubled up as a market (though the three stalls on the patch of land didn’t actually appear to sell anything), I got the impression that Buxton was very much... a town. Nice enough in its own way, but very much a line of shops and a bunch of pubs much like any other town, although the quality of shops was a significant improvement on Wolverhampton. Where most towns near home have the same big chain superstores taking up the majority of the streets, Buxton had a local violin shop, a Christian book shop and whole clutch of laundrettes, one of which appeared to double up as a cafe. The town appeared to be fiercely independent, and to demonstrate this every other shop window had a big ‘Say No to Tesco’ sign hanging up.
Though we were impressed by the dual purpose laundrette and cafe, we were sure Buxton could do better, and so a quick look on a map and a recommendation courtesy of the internet took us back past where we had parked and down a hill into what turned out to be the real centre of
Buxton. While the market street had a few quirky shops, this part of Buxton had the classic old fashioned buildings, the opera house and The Crescent, something that looked good even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was, and currently under restoration, with just a few little cafes and shops jutting out of it. One of these was Charlottes, a little cafe-come-chocolatier, and the recommended place where we settled down and got ourselves a hot chocolate, something that is now becoming a tradition when we are out on our travels. The hot chocolate was, without doubt, one of the better ones I have ever tasted, and, judging by John’s face after he offered to get them in, probably one of the more expensive as well. Relaxed as we were sitting outside Charlottes, we eventually decided it was time to get up and find some of Buxton’s famous natural spring water then move on if we wanted to get to the caves before they closed.
My only real knowledge of Buxton comes from the water. It’s so wonderfully natural that some clever entrepreneur has arranged for it to be bottled en-masse and sold in every Tesco in the country.
Whether they would sell it at the planned Buxton branch that the locals are set against I have no idea, but we were looking for the real thing, and I had read that there was a well in the town somewhere that I could use to fill up the empty bottle that I had stowed in my bag before leaving home. We took a good walk around the rest of the town, found the opera house and had a walk around the gardens, but couldn’t find the well anywhere, not even in Water Street, which must have been named that to knock unsuspecting tourists off the track. Eventually, our time on the car park was fast running out, so we made a move without our supply of water out of Buxton and on to the caves. I now know that there was indeed a well, St Anne’s well, and that it was pretty much directly opposite where we sat and drank hot chocolate outside of the crescent. Somehow we must have walked straight past without even noticing.
The journey from Buxton to Speedwell Cavern was pretty short, but the final thirty seconds of the journey, where we suddenly took
a steep road down, left us wondering if Emily’s brakes would cope with the incline, particularly as they smelled slightly of roasted chestnuts when we parked. Luckily, the car didn’t roll away, and the fact that nearly everyone else’s car also smelled slightly charred gave us comfort that we were all in the same boat. Speedwell Cavern was one of two real caves we were planning to visit during the day, and the big queue outside made us think that we would be better off going to the other one first and hoping the line of people died down. Peak Cavern was only a twenty minute walk away, so we followed the brown walking man sign down a pebbly pathway between a hill and some farmland, skipping past some ferociously bleating sheep (and let’s face it, sheep can be pretty ferocious at times), and straight to a sign that said ‘The Devil’s Arse – This Way’. The Devil’s Arse is apparently the fond nickname for Peak Cavern, so called because of some unusual and humorous noises that can often be heard from inside the cave, rather than some big, red rock formation with a split in the middle as I had originally guessed. Our timing couldn’t have been much worse; entry was only allowed with a tour, which left every hour, on the hour, and we had not long missed one. The caves closed to tourists at 4.00 so we were now struggling to fit both in and had to make a choice: did we want to see a cave with flatulence or a cave that we had to travel to by underground boat? The lack of teenage boys in the group meant that the boat won it, and off we trudged back to Speedwell.
The queue was about as big when we got back as when we had left, but now we knew that the tours ran every twenty minutes so there wouldn’t be long to wait. Sure enough, within minutes, the queue started to move. Then it stopped again. Turns out these boats aren’t as big as the Titanic, though luckily they seem to be more reliable. The second trip almost got us to the front, but not quite, but by the third attempt we were inside and putting our hard hats on. The hats were pretty useful, as the steps that led down to the boat seemed to give less and less headroom as we went down to the point where even the shorties in the group had to duck down.
The boat lay waiting to take us straight into a deep, dark tunnel, like that freakish moment in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory except without the chocolate. The path had been dug out over 200 years earlier by a bunch of miners risking life and limb for a bit of lead and tuppence a week in wages, spending twelve hour days chipping away at rock that had been immovable for tens of thousands of years until they could put a few sticks of dynamite in and run for cover before the bits of rock ripped their faces off. No wonder they stick to the local church roof these days. Our guide pointed out all of this and more as we sailed through the narrow tunnel until eventually we broke through, as the miners once had, into the cavern. Here we jumped off the boat and watched as another tour party sailed off in it and left us trapped. Now was a bad time to be told that the cavern floods a couple of times a year, but the guide told us anyway. He also told us about the bottomless pit, where the cave dropped down, apparently never stopping, a theory which was tried out once by dumping a bunch of rocks down it, proving that it had a big bottom but was by no means bottomless. The water in the pit also glowed in the dark slightly, the result of some local over-enthusiastically pouring fluorescent dye down to see where the water went from the pit and promptly making ponds and tap water in the local town turn bright green.
The cave network carries on from Speedwell for a few miles, and eventually joins up with Peak Cavern, but for the average amateur caver this was as far as we could go, and so once another boat load of tourists arrived, we hauled them off and stole their ship as enthusiastically as Somalian pirates and headed for home, doing our level best to rock the boat enough to make the guide fall off along the way. The guide stood proud, the boat somehow didn’t sink, and in no time at all we were back out on the surface, ready to move on to our next cavern.
The way down to Speedwell Cavern had taken its toll on Emily’s car; the burnt chestnut smell was gone but Emily was convinced that the car didn’t feel right. We reasoned that going back up the same hill was a recipe for disaster, dug the map out and went back by the scenic (flatter) route, then we left the Peak District behind and headed in the general direction of Manchester. Though the day had been cloudy and wet on and off all day, the last few hours had brightened up, but grey clouds returned the closer we got to Stockport, where the rain returned once more. This came as no surprise to me; I spent a week of my life every year for six years auditing a company in Stockport and never once saw the sun. Despite spending a week a year doing audit work in a grim, grey Manchester satellite town, I have some good memories of Stockport and made some good friends there, Emily among them, and so we felt almost excited by our route. The sat-nav must have sensed this as well, and took us in a big circle around the town instead of straight to the M56 where we were heading. As our excitement waned, I gave the sat-nav a kick, we struck the M56, bypassed Manchester and drove on to Liverpool.
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