The Caverns of Castleton
Castleton, June 30th.
A man to whom I gave sixpence conducted me out of the town to the road leading to Castleton, which was close to a wall of stones confusedly heaped one upon another, as I have before described. The whole country was hilly and rough, and the ground covered with brown heath. Here and there some sheep were feeding.
I made a little digression to a hill to the left, where I had a prospect awfully beautiful, composed almost entirely of naked rocks, far and near, among which, those that were entirely covered with black heath made a most tremendous appearance.
I was now a hundred and seventy miles from London, when I ascended one of the highest hills, and all at once perceived a beautiful vale below me, which was traversed by rivers and brooks and enclosed on all sides by hills. In this vale lay Castleton, a small town with low houses, which takes its name from an old castle, whose ruins are still to be seen here.
A narrow path, which wound itself down the side of the rock, led me through the vale into the street of Castleton, where I soon found an inn, and also soon dined. After dinner I made the best of my way to the cavern.
A little rivulet, which runs through the middle of the town, led me to its entrance.
I stood here a few moments, full of wonder and astonishment at the amazing height of the steep rock before me, covered on each side with ivy and other shrubs. At its summit are the decayed wall and towers of an ancient castle which formerly stood on this rock, and at its foot the monstrous aperture or mouth to the entrance of the cavern, where it is pitch dark when one looks down even at mid-day.
As I was standing here full of admiration, I perceived, at the entrance of the cavern, a man of a rude and rough appearance, who asked me if I wished to see the Peak, and the echo strongly reverberated his coarse voice.
Answering as I did in the affirmative, he next further asked me if I should want to be carried to the other side of the stream, telling me at the same time what the sum would be which I must pay for it.
This man had, along with his black stringy hair and his dirty and tattered clothes, such a singularly wild and infernal look, that he actually struck me as a real Charon. His voice, and the questions he asked me, were not of a kind to remove this notion, so that, far from its requiring any effort of imagination, I found it not easy to avoid believing that, at length, I had actually reached Avernus, was about to cross Acheron, and to be ferried by Charon.
I had no sooner agreed to his demand, than he told me all I had to do was boldly to follow him, and thus we entered the cavern.
To the left, in the entrance of the cavern, lay the trunk of a tree that had been cut down, on which several of the boys of the town were playing.
Our way seemed to be altogether on a descent, though not steep, so that the light which came in at the mouth of the cavern near the entrance gradually forsook us, and when we had gone forward a few steps farther, I was astonished by a sight which, of all other, I here the least expected. I perceived to the right, in the hollow of the cavern, a whole subterranean village, where the inhabitants, on account of its being Sunday, were resting from their work, and with happy and cheerful looks were sitting at the doors of their huts along with their children.
We had scarcely passed these small subterranean houses when I perceived a number of large wheels, on which on week days these human moles, the inhabitants of the cavern, make ropes.
I fancied I here saw the wheel of Ixion, and the incessant labour of the Danaides.
The opening through which the light came seemed, as we descended, every moment to become less and less, and the darkness at every step to increase, till at length only a few rays appeared, as if darting through a crevice, and just tinging the small clouds of smoke which, at dusk, raised themselves to the mouth of the cavern.
This gradual growth, or increase of darkness, awakens in a contemplative mind a soft melancholy. As you go down the gentle descent of the cavern, you can hardly help fancying the moment is come when, without pain or grief, the thread of life is about to be snapped; and that you are now going thus quietly to that land of peace where trouble is no more.
At length the great cavern in the rock closed itself, in the same manner as heaven and earth seem to join each other, when we came to a little door, where an old woman came out of one of the huts, and brought two candles, of which we each took one.
My guide now opened the door, which completely shut out the faint glimmering of light, which, till then, it was still possible to perceive, and led us to the inmost centre of this dreary temple of old Chaos and Night, as if, till now, we had only been traversing the outer courts. The rock was here so low, that we were obliged to stoop very much for some few steps in order to get through; but how great was my astonishment, when we had passed this narrow passage and again stood upright, at once to perceive, as well as the feeble light of our candles would permit, the amazing length, breadth, and height of the cavern; compared to which the monstrous opening through which we had already passed was nothing!
After we had wandered here more than an hour, as beneath a dark and dusky sky, on a level, sandy soil, the rock gradually lowered
itself, and we suddenly found ourselves on the edge of a broad river, which, from the glimmering of our candles amid the total darkness, suggested sundry interesting reflections. To the side of this river a small boat was moored, with some straw in its bottom. Into this boat my guide desired me to step, and lay myself down in it quite flat; because, as he said, towards the middle of the river, the rock would almost touch the water.
When I had laid myself down as directed, he himself jumped into the water, and drew the boat after him.
All around us was one still, solemn, and deadly silence; and as the boat advanced, the rock seemed to stoop, and come nearer and nearer to us, till at length it nearly touched my face; and as I lay, I could hardly hold the candle upright. I seemed to myself to be in a coffin rather than in a boat, as I had no room to stir hand or foot till we had passed this frightful strait, and the rock rose again on the other side, where my guide once more handed me ashore.
The cavern was now become, all at once, broad and high: and then suddenly it was again low and narrow.
I observed on both sides as we passed along a prodigious number of great and small petrified plants and animals, which, however, we could not examine, unless we had been disposed to spend some days in the cavern.
And thus we arrived at the opposite side, at the second river or stream, which, however, was not so broad as the first, as one may see across it to the other side; across this stream my guide carried me on his shoulders, because there was here no boat to carry us over.
From thence we only went a few steps farther, when we came to a very small piece of water which extended itself lengthways, and led us to the end of the cavern.
The path along the edge of this water was wet and slippery, and sometimes so very narrow, that one can hardly set one foot before the other.
Notwithstanding, I wandered with pleasure on this subterranean shore, and was regaling myself with the interesting contemplation of all these various wonderful objects, in this land of darkness and shadow of death, when, all at once, something like music at a distance sounded in mine ears.
I instantly stopped, full of astonishment, and eagerly asked my guide what this might mean? He answered, "Only have patience, and you shall soon see."
But as we advanced, the sounds of harmony seemed to die away; the noise became weaker and weaker; and at length it seemed to sink into a gentle hissing or hum, like distant drops of falling rain.
And how great was my amazement when, ere long, I actually saw and felt a violent shower of rain falling from the rock, as from a thick cloud, whose drops, which now fell on our candles, had caused that same melancholy sound which I had heard at a distance.
This was what is here called a mizzling rain, which fell from the ceiling or roof of the cavern, through the veins of the rock.
We did not dare to approach too near with our candles, as they might easily have been extinguished by the falling drops; and so we perhaps have been forced to seek our way back in vain.
We continued our march therefore along the side of the water, and often saw on the sides large apertures in the rock, which seemed to be new or subordinate caverns, all which we passed without looking into. At length my guide prepared me for one of the finest sights we had yet seen, which we should now soon behold.
And we had hardly gone on a few paces, when we entered what might easily have been taken for a majestic temple, with lofty arches, supported by beautiful pillars, formed by the plastic hand of some ingenious artist.
This subterranean temple, in the structure of which no human hand had borne a part, appeared to me at that moment to surpass all the most stupendous buildings in the world, in point of regularity, magnificence, and beauty.
Full of admiration and reverence, here, even in the inmost recesses of nature, I saw the majesty of the Creator displayed; and before I quitted this temple, here, in this solemn silence and holy gloom, I thought it would be a becoming act of true religion to adore, as I cordially did, the God of nature.
We now drew near the end of our journey. Our faithful companion, the water, guided us through the remainder of the cavern, where the rock is arched for the last time, and then sinks till it touches the water, which here forms a semicircle, and thus the cavern closes, so that no mortal can go one step farther.
My guide here again jumped into the water, swam a little way under the rock, and then came back quite wet, to show me that it was impossible to go any further, unless this rock could be blown up with powder, and a second cavern opened. I now thought all we had to do was to return the nearest way; but there were new difficulties still to encounter, and new scenes to behold still more beautiful than any I had yet seen.
My guide now turned and went back towards the left, where I followed him through a large opening in the rock.
And here he first asked me if I could determine to creep a considerable distance through the rock, where it nearly touched the ground. Having consented to do so, he told me I had only to follow him, warning me at the same time to take great care of my candle.
Thus we crept on our hands and feet, on the wet and muddy ground, through the opening in the rock, which was often scarcely large enough for us to get through with our bodies.
When at length we had got through this troublesome passage, I saw in the cavern a steep hill, which was so high that it seemed to lose itself as in a cloud, in the summit of the rock.
This hill was so wet and slippery, that as soon as I attempted to ascend, I fell down. My guide, however, took hold of my hand and told me I had only resolutely to follow him.
We now ascended such an amazing height, and there were such precipices on each side, that it makes me giddy even now when I think of it.
When we at length had gained the summit, where the hill seemed to lose itself in the rock, my guide placed me where I could stand firm, and told me to stay there quietly. In the meantime he himself went down the hill with his candle, and left me alone.
I lost sight of him for some moments, but at length I perceived, not him, indeed, but his candle, quite in the bottom, from whence it seemed to shine like a bright and twinkling star.
After I had enjoyed this indescribably beautiful sight for some time, my guide came back, and carried me safely down the hill again on his shoulders. And as I now stood below, he went up and let his candle shine again through an opening of the rock, while I covered mine with my hand; and it was now as if on a dark night a bright star shone down upon me, a sight which, in point of beauty, far surpassed all that I had ever seen.
Our journey was now ended, and we returned, not without trouble and difficulty, through the narrow passage. We again entered the temple we had a short time before left; again heard the pattering of the rain, which sounded as rain when we were near it, but which at a distance seemed a sonorous, dull, and melancholy hum; and now again we returned across the quiet streams through the capacious entrance of the cavern to the little door, where we had before taken our leave of daylight, which, after so long a darkness, we now again hailed with joy.
Before my guide opened the door, he told me I should now have a view of a sight that would surpass all the foregoing. I found that he was in the right, for when he had only half opened the door, it really seemed as if I was looking into Elysium.
The day seemed to be gradually breaking, and night and darkness to have vanished. At a distance you again just saw the smoke of the cottages, and then the cottages themselves; and as we ascended we saw the boys still playing around the hewn trunk, till at length the reddish purple stripes in the sky faintly appeared through the mouth of the hole; yet, just as we came out, the sun was setting in the west.
Thus had I spent nearly the whole afternoon till it was quite evening in the cavern; and when I looked at myself, I was, as to my dress, not much unlike my guide; my shoes scarcely hung to my feet, they were so soft and so torn by walking so long on the damp sand, and the hard pointed stones.
I paid no more than half-a-crown for seeing all that I had seen, with a trifle to my guide; for it seems he does not get the half- crown, but is obliged to account for it to his master, who lives very comfortably on the revenue he derives from this cavern, and is able to keep a man to show it to strangers.
When I came home I sent for a shoemaker. There was one who lived just opposite; and he immediately came to examine my shoes. He told me he could not sufficiently wonder at the badness of the work, for they were shoes I had brought from Germany. Notwithstanding this, he undertook, as he had no new ones ready, to mend them for me as well as he could. This led me to make a very agreeable acquaintance with this shoemaker; for when I expressed to him my admiration of the cavern, it pleased him greatly that in so insignificant a place as Castleton there should be anything which could inspire people with astonishment, who came from such distant countries; and thereupon offered to take a walk with me, to show me, at no great distance, the famous mountain called Mam Tor, which is reckoned among the things of most note in Derbyshire.
This mountain is covered with verdure on its summit and sides; but at the end it is a steep precipice. The middle part does not, like other mountains, consist of rock, but of a loose earth, which gives way, and either rolls from the top of the precipice in little pieces, or tears itself loose in large masses, and falls with a thundering crash, thus forming a hill on its side which is continually increasing.
From these circumstances probably is derived the name of Mam Tor, which literally signifies Mother Hill; for Tor is either an abbreviation of, or the old word for, Tower, and means not only a lofty building, but any eminence. Mam is a familiar term, that obtains in all languages, for Mother; and this mountain, like a mother, produces several other small hills.
The inhabitants here have a superstitious notion that this mountain, notwithstanding its daily loss, never decreases, but always keeps its own, and remains the same.
My companion told me a shocking history of an inhabitant of Castleton who laid a wager that he would ascend this steep precipice.
As the lower part is not quite so steep, but rather slanting upwards, he could get good hold in this soft loose earth, and clambered up, without looking round. At length he had gained more than half the ascent, and was just at the part where it projects and overlooks its basis. From this astonishing height the unfortunate man cast down his eyes, whilst the threatening point of the rock hung over him, with tottering masses of earth.
He trembled all over, and was just going to relinquish his hold, not daring to move backwards or forwards; in this manner he hung for some time between heaven and earth, surrounded by despair. However, his sinews would bear it no longer, and therefore, in an effort of despair, he once more collected all his strength and got hold of first one loose stone, and then another, all of which would have failed him had he not immediately caught hold of another. By these means, however, at length, to his own, as well as to the astonishment of all the spectators, he avoided almost instant and certain death, safely gained the summit of the hill, and won his wager.
I trembled as I heard this relation, seeing the mountain and the precipice in question so near to me, I could not help figuring to myself the man clambering up it.
Not far from hence is Elden Hole, a cavity or pit, or hole in the earth, of such a monstrous depth, that if you throw in a pebble stone, and lay your ear to the edge of the hole, you hear it falling for a long time.
As soon as it comes to the bottom it emits a sound as if some one were uttering a loud sigh. The first noise it makes on its being first parted with affects the ear like a subterranean thunder. This rumbling or thundering noise continues for some time, and then decreases as the stone falls against first one hard rock and then another at a greater and a greater depth, and at length, when it has for some time been falling, the noise stops with a kind of whizzing or a hissing murmur. The people have also a world of superstitious stories relating to this place, one of which is that some person once threw into it a goose, which appeared again at two miles' distance in the great cavern I have already mentioned, quite stripped of its feathers. But I will not stuff my letters with many of these fabulous histories.
They reckon that they have in Derbyshire seven wonders of nature, of which this Elden Hole, the hill of Mam Tor, and the great cavern I have been at are the principal.
The remaining four wonders are Pool's Hole, which has some resemblance to this that I have seen, as I am told, for I did not see it; next St. Anne's Well, where there are two springs which rise close to each other, the one of which is boiling hot, the other as cold as ice; the next is Tide's Well, not far from the town of that name through which I passed. It is a spring or well, which in general flows or runs underground imperceptibly, and then all at once rushes forth with a mighty rumbling or subterranean noise, which is said to have something musical in it, and overflows its banks; lastly Chatsworth, a palace or seat belonging to the Dukes of Devonshire, at the foot of a mountain whose summit is covered with eternal snow, and therefore always gives one the idea of winter, at the same time that the most delightful spring blooms at its foot. I can give you no further description of these latter wonders, as I only know them by the account given me by others. They were the subjects with which my guide, the shoemaker, entertained me during our walk.
While this man was showing me everything within his knowledge that he thought most interesting, he often expressed his admiration on thinking how much of the world I had already seen; and the idea excited in him so lively a desire to travel, that I had much to do to reason him out of it. He could not help talking of it the whole evening, and again and again protested that, had he not got a wife and child, he would set off in the morning at daybreak along with me; for here in Castleton there is but little to be earned by the hardest labour or even genius. Provisions are not cheap, and in short, there is no scope for exertion. This honest man was not yet thirty.
As we returned, he wished yet to show me the lead mines, but it was too late. Yet, late as it was, he mended my shoes the same evening, and I must do him the justice to add in a very masterly manner.
But I am sorry to tell you I have brought a cough from the cavern that does not at all please me; indeed, it occasions me no little pain, which makes me suppose that one must needs breathe a very unwholesome damp air in this cavern. But then, were that the case, I do not comprehend how my friend Charon should have held it out so long and so well as he has.
This morning I was up very early in order to view the ruins, and to climb a high hill alongside of them. The ruins are directly over the mouth of the hole on the hill, which extends itself some distance over the cavern beyond the ruins, and always widens, though here in front it is so narrow that the building takes up the whole.
From the ruins all around there is nothing but steep rock, so that there is no access to it but from the town, where a crooked path from the foot of the hill is hewn in the rock, but is also prodigiously steep.
The spot on which the ruins stand is now all overgrown with nettles and thistles. Formerly, it is said, there was a bridge from this mountain to the opposite one, of which one may yet discover some traces, as in the vale which divides the two rocks we still find the remains of some of the arches on which the bridge rested. This vale, which lies at the back of the ruins and probably over the cavern, is called the Cave's Way, and is one of the greatest thoroughfares to the town. In the part at which, at some distance, it begins to descend between these two mountains, its descent is so gentle that one is not at all tired in going down it; but if you should happen to miss the way between the two rocks and continue on the heights, you are in great danger of falling from the rock, which every moment becomes steeper and steeper.
The mountain on which the ruins stand is everywhere rocky. The one on the left of it, which is separated by the vale, is perfectly verdant and fertile, and on its summit the pasture hands are divided by stones, piled up in the form of a wall. This green mountain is at least three times as high as that on which the ruins stand.
I began to clamber up the green mountain, which is also pretty steep; and when I had got more than half way up without having once looked back, I was nearly in the same situation as the adventurer who clambered up Mam Tor Hill, for when I looked round, I found my eye had not been trained to view, unmoved, so prodigious a height. Castleton with the surrounding country lay below me like a map, the roofs of the houses seemed almost close to the ground, and the mountain with the ruins itself seemed to be lying at my feet.
I grew giddy at the prospect, and it required all my reason to convince me that I was in no danger, and that, at all events, I could only scramble down the green turf in the same manner as I had got up. At length I seemed to grow accustomed to this view till it really gave me pleasure, and I now climbed quite to the summit and walked over the meadows, and at length reached the way which gradually descends between the two mountains.
At the top of the green mountain I met with some neat country girls, who were milking their cows, and coming this same way with their milk-pails on their heads.
This little rural party formed a beautiful group when some of them with their milk-pails took shelter, as it began to rain, under a part of the rock, beneath which they sat down on natural stone benches, and there, with pastoral innocence and glee, talked and laughed till the shower was over.
My way led me into the town, from whence I now write, and which I intend leaving in order to begin my journey back to London, but I think I shall not now pursue quite the same road.