Caving in the Peak District

The UK's premier caving region, with horizontal and vertical challenges for all abilities.

The Peak District is, remarkably enough, the world's second-most visited National Park and one of the top destinations for caving and mine exploration: a hub for caving clubs, adventure companies and individuals looking to explore the world beneath our feet. Pete Knight, a locally-based caver and tour guide, describes the appeal.

This beautiful region has everything from caves suitable for novice trips to underground assault courses with some of the most advanced rope work found in the country. Add to this the chance to descend centuries into our past and explore long abandoned mines, and you have a stunning variety to keep even the most avid caver occupied for years.

Caving and mine exploration are popular activities in the Peak District, and there are numerous activity companies, private guides, caving clubs and show caves/mines catering to the demand.

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Although the fringes of the National Park contain gritstone caves and mines within sandstone, the main region for subterranean exploration is the White Peak - the area of the Peak District where the exposed rock is a pale grey limestone.

The White Peak can be quite neatly divided into different caving areas, each one having its own particular style. It does not take much time to travel between the areas so don’t feel you need to stick to one.

CASTLETON AREA
Containing some of the deepest mines, longest systems and most varied caving, Castleton is a honeypot for cavers and tourists alike. You’ll regularly see cavers walking through the streets of the village making their way up to Peak Cavern.

The TSG caving club has a base in the heart of Castleton providing beds, cooking and changing facilities for members, as well as being the occasional shopfront for the mobile caving retailer Starless River. Cave shoppers will also find the well-equipped Hitch N Hike not far away at Bamford.
Bagshawe Cavern © Pete Knight
As well as the large Peak/Speedwell system, Castleton makes a great base for visits to the deep James Hall (JH) mine, Oxlow and Maskhill Mines and of course, Titan. Newer cavers, or those wishing to keep their feet on the ground, can enjoy the horizontal sections of caves like Giant’s Hole, Gautries Hole and the nearby Bagshawe Cavern in Bradwell.

STONEY MIDDLETON AREA
Stoney Middleton is perhaps most well known for its high limestone cliffs and hard rock climbing. Shunning the sun and heading underground in this area will give you a good grounding in hard, sharp and soggy caving. The valley sees some of the highest numbers of novice trips in the Peak District and is home to Carlswark Cavern, a horizontal route with the option of a couple of different through trips.

The Dale is also home to some of the harder, more physical expeditions: places like Streaks Pot, Layby Pot and Yoga Hole. All are fun, challenging and wet places developed along an old bed of oyster fossils. Don’t forget the knee pads if visiting this area!

The Derbyshire Pennine Club have accommodation in the heart of the village of Stoney Middleton, but the Dale is positioned quite centrally within the White Peak making travel easy.

MATLOCK AREA
Further south in the White Peak is the town of Matlock and the adjoining Matlock Bath, home of old spas and petrifying wells. Matlock is perhaps best known for its lead mining history and the surrounding areas contain some excellent trips into these man-made caverns.

Devonshire Mine is a short walk uphill and is an interesting place to visit. The mine contains the site of an old showcave as well as a labyrinth of predominantly horizontal passages to explore. Meanwhile, a short drive away is Jugholes Mine, a secluded through trip involving large chambers, muddy crawls, boulder mazes and a climb out to daylight at the far end. The more adventurous or experienced explorer may also wish to read up on the huge Masson or Wapping mines nearby too.

Matlock Bath is also the home to the Peak District Mining Museum, a very worthwhile diversion from being underground. This excellent museum is located on the banks of the river Derwent with copious fish and chip restaurants and trinket shops nearby. It feels very much like a seaside town here.

MONYASH & LATHKILL AREA
The small village of Monyash is a good base for exploring both local mines and also the nearby Lathkill Dale. There is a rich history of mining in this area and some classic vertical and horizontal trips nearby. Monyash is also the home to the Orpheus Caving Club and their club hut, providing another good base for caving trips.
Holm Bank Chert Mine © Pete Knight
The nearby Hillocks and Knotlow Mines are an interconnected system with a number of vertical trips. Different routes drop down from the surface via both a series of short technical pitches or a huge old engine shaft. A number of exchange trips are possible for bigger parties. Water Icicle Close Cavern is another worthwhile stop. Recent extensive discoveries and ongoing digging make this a very interesting location.

Lathkill Dale is home to some more challenging locations. Caves such as Critchlow, Cales Dale and the Lathkill system are all serious and very weather-dependent excursions that make up some of the most physically arduous caving in the region.

There is also more relaxed caving in places like Mandale Mine and some excellent surface remains of the old lead mining industry.

SOME NOTES ON CAVING
Caving and mine exploration should really only be undertaken by those who have the knowledge and skill to keep themselves safe in the underground environment. Each cave or mine is unique and they will each require a different set of skills to visit safely.

Some trips are simple and horizontal and will require little more than a fleece and some boots, but others demand specialist caving clothing and vertical caving equipment and, of course, the knowledge of how to use it. Old mines can have false floors and bad air, while caves can be confusing to navigate and can flood with little or no warning. It is essential to read up on any trip you plan to make.

Take the opportunity to join a club or hire a professional caver for some basic training if you think that caving is an activity for you.
  • Always research your trip beforehand, identifying the equipment you’ll need and, most importantly, whether the cave or mine is safe to visit in particular weather conditions.
  • Always leave a call out with a responsible person on the surface. Ensure they know how to ring cave rescue and give them details of your route, group and have a cut off time for your safe return. For more information visit the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation website www.derbyshirecro.org.uk/
Caves and mines are exciting, magical, alien and ultimately beautiful places that few will ever visit. Look after yourself and also respect the underground environment; it is far more fragile than it may appear. Cave safe!

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Peak Cavern

Peak Cavern (aka the Devil's Arse) is a show cave in Castleton. By joining a caving club trip or hiring a local instructor you can enter the main system beyond the tour route. The cave contains stunning formations, mineral deposits, thundering waterways and the sloppiest mud crawls you've ever experienced. Even better, the trip is mainly horizontal in nature, keeping kit requirements down. A must do trip for all cavers.

2. P8 (AKA Jackpot)

P8 is a vertical rabbit warren of a trip. The main route follows the water down pitches to the far reaches. Venture up into the roof as you go along to discover alternative routes and abandoned passages. P8 never fails to entertain and has a great variety of passage and technicality.

3. Titan

This one is for the experts only. At around 145 metres top to bottom, Titan is the UK's largest natural underground shaft. Titan forms part of the Peak/Speedwell system and is accessed from the surface via a 50-metre entrance shaft and then in two long pitches. Routes from Titan out to Peak Cavern and JH Mine are popular through trips but none should be undertaken lightly. A truly amazing place for those with the skill and a head for heights!

4. Giant's Hole - the round trip

The Giant's Hole system is long and varied. The top sections are regularly used to take people on their first caving experience and a good few hours of fun can be had exploring up here. The main part of the system follows on from the 8-metre shaft of Garlands Pot. The round trip is a circular route leaving and arriving back at the pot. En route the caver can enjoy such delights as the 600 metres Crabwalk, climbing cascades, the soggy Giant's Windpipe and a pull through abseil.

5. Bagshawe Cavern

A magnificent underground space accessed from the village of Bradwell in the Hope Valley. There are some great horizontal sections plus some challenging verticals. The system here is still being explored with new passageways being discovered.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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Caving can be undertaken throughout the year, the shelter of the cave environment made the sport a draw for summer climbers in the past. Winter of course brings a higher chance of rainfall and snow melt which will effect the water levels in active systems but rainfall is something that will need to be checked on every trip, whatever the season.

One thing about being underground is that the air temperature is almost constant all year, around 10°C. This will cool you off as you head under in the summer but will feel almost warm on your face as you enter in the depths of winter.

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