Peak Cavern has been a home for dozens of families, a venue for top musicians and a haven for vagabonds. The popular tourist attraction has a remarkable story to tell
For centuries, families have flocked to this natural wonder for tours, recitals, concerts and even cool gigs.
Peak Cavern – its less crude moniker – has fascinated children with its stalagmites for decades.
But the staff who run the Peak Cavern are also keen to share the cave’s remarkable social history, as director John Harrison explains.
“The cave has been used by men as shelter for hundreds of years but we are particularly keen on telling the story of the cave’s social history.
From the 1600s onwards, when the area starting to become more industrialised, people both lived and worked in the cave.
“Castleton had its own tin mining industry, which required rope. At the time the Duchy of Devonshire owned the rights to the mine but he let rope makers live in the cave rent-free in order for them to continue to make rope all year-round.”
The rope makers dug into the cave’s silt-formed base to create their ‘living quarters’.
“They lived under these terraces and there were about 40 people living there at any one time,” says John.
Remarkably, this happened until 1915 – when middle class families in Nether Edge and Burngreave luxuriated in huge detached Edwardian houses.
“It wasn’t like that in the cave,” says John. “But they did call the cut-out terraces ‘cottages’ but I’m sure they weren’t like cottages at all.”
While not entirely comfortable, the cave also provided good shelter from the weather.
“The cave’s so big that the people living there were well sheltered with a good roof – apart from the odd drip it was dry,” says John.
John says Peak Cavern is possibly the only cave in England in which people lived and worked.
“There are known instances of people living in caves prehistorically such as at Creswell Crags but the case of the rope workers at Peak Cavern is certainly unique.”
But this isn’t the extent of the cave’s fascinating history. According to John it was also a hideout at one point for outlaws. The Peak Cavern’s other name – the Devil’s Arse – stems from the flatulent sound emitted when the cave gets flooded.
“If you imagine the sound of water going through a plug – that farty noise – that’s the noise the cave makes.”
And it’s this that inspired the naming of the cave.
And according to John even Peveril Castle, which stands above the cave, is listed in the Domesday Book as ‘the castle over the Devil’s Arse’.
“Even the stream that came out of the cave was named the Styx, after the river that ran through Hades – the ancient Greek underworld,” says John.
“This put people off going down there, which was good for the outlaws who were using the cave,” says John.
The Victorian’s found the name Devil’s Arse too offensive, so they renamed the cave the Devil’s Hole, then Peak’s Hole and then Peak Cavern, as we know it today.
The Peak Cavern is a family-run business. The Harrisons lease the cave from the Duchy of Lancaster as it is ultimately the property of the Crown.
But even today, in a world where children have computer games, umpteen television channels and mobile phones, the lure of the cave is irresistible: “Families love coming here and that doesn’t change, it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s timeless.”