To borrow a phrase from The Jam, this time I’m going underground. Allow me to introduce you to Speedwell Cavern, one of the most unique tours I have experienced.
If somebody suggested a boat trip to you, I suspect that a dark, cramped tunnel would not be at the forefront of your mind. At least that was the case for me. So when my friend suggested ‘subterranean punting’ I was immediately intrigued. We were looking for new activities near Sheffield and had no idea such an experience existed so close to us. In fact, after looking at Google maps we were certain we had walked over the top of it without even knowing it was there. When my friend followed their previous statement with ‘inside an old mine’ I became adamant, we had to go.
Speedwell is the product of an ill-conceived lead mining venture dating back to the 1770s. Around £14,000 was sunk into the mine, which boasted an innovative subterranean canal designed to ease the ore extraction process. Tragically, one issue persisted - there was simply not enough lead in the mine. After a measly £3,000 was extracted, the entire operation met a swift end. However this is not the end of Speedwell’s story. The cavern’s novel method of transportation ensured that it survived as a tourist curiosity, attracting the likes of Queen Victoria. What remains today is a long, narrow canal, approximately two hundred meters beneath the Derbyshire village of Castleton.
To reach the tunnel visitors must descend a two-hundred year old stairway carved into the rock. Bear in mind what goes down the mine must come back up, so all I can say is good luck and prepare for some cardio.
Nowadays Speedwell is traversed by motor boat, however ‘back in the day’ vessels would have been propelled by the legging technique, which involved workmen laying down and pushing-off against the ceiling with their legs. If this does not emphasize how confined the tunnel is then take a glance at the picture of an example tour. Fortunately helmets are distributed beforehand, which - I can confirm - come in handy. Due to circumstances beyond my control I was positioned on the side of the boat with the least amount of headroom. I do not consider myself vertically blessed, yet even I found myself needing to duck to avoid scraping my helmet along the damp stone ceiling.
While we drifted down the canal our guide explained the history of the mine. He slipped ghost stories and tales of peculiar goings-on, in case the shadowy chambers branching away from the tunnel were not eerie enough.
Our attention was brought to the infamous lead-veins, the Bellows Hole - where children were tasked with circulating fresh air around the mine - and blast markings - byproducts of old techniques used to create the tunnel. Speedwell apparently took four and a half years to complete, during which labourers faced cave-ins and noxious gasses. A central theme of our tour was the perspective of the miners, with emphasis placed on their struggles against callous investors and the earth itself, as well as the lack of reward for their labours. Our guide performed an excellent job at creating a visceral sense of the daily perils which confronted these workers, fostering an impression that this profession was one of the most arduous in the world.
The canal eventually emerges into a cavern where visitors can disembark and stretch their legs. Like any cavern-tour worth its salt you can expect to discover stalactites and stalagmites, however the main attraction of Speedwell is the Bottomless Pit, a chamber housing a subterranean lake with accompanying waterfall. Now would be a good time to lower your expectations though, as the term ‘bottomless’ is applied rather liberally. While the pit's original depth may have once been an impressive sight, miners began using it as a depository for discarded rock, and over the years its depth has been drastically diminished. Nonetheless, it still plays a vital role in Speedwell’s past; when workers first came across it their imaginations conjured up the story that it was a gateway to Hell.
During our return voyage we discussed more recent survey and maintenance work performed at Speedwell, including the rescue of a sheep trapped down one of the shafts. Exploration is still occasionally performed within this cave network by those brave enough to do it. Recent work has connected the cavern to Titan, the natural shaft which currently holds the title of deepest in Britain (larger than the Blackpool Tower).
Altogether, the trip took just under an hour, however the fresh air and natural light of the outside world were still shocks to the system. After my legs had recovered from the work-out provided by the steps I took time to reflect, and I gained a greater appreciation of life outside of the claustrophobic tunnels. More importantly though, the tour illuminated me to the history beneath our feet, a world which I previously paid little attention to. Copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears have been shed in the caverns and passageways under the earth, and visiting Speedwell has allowed it to finally capture my attention. There’s still much to learn, and I would gladly brave the narrow ceilings, the darkness, and the steps again to do so.
Located at the foot of Winnats Pass, the cavern is west of Castleton, in the Derbyshire Peaks. Some pay-and-display parking is available next to the visitor center, with extra space available at the pay-and-display in Castleton (you can easily reach the visitor center from the town by foot). Alternatively you could travel to Castleton from Sheffield using the 271/272 bus services.
Ticket prices range from £9.50 to £12.50 (under 4's can ride free) and a family ticket costs £42. Although if you book ‘early bird’ tickets online (prior to midnight before your visit) you can receive up to 20% off. Discounts are also offered should you use the on-site pay and display. You can buy a combined ticket for Speedwell and nearby Peak Cavern for up to £20. Finally, gift vouchers are available if you wanted to treat someone special to a trip down the mine
Tours operate between 10am and 5pm from April to October, with the final tour at 4pm, while in winter months the final tour begins at 3pm. Two boats operate in the tunnel with space for approximately 20 passengers each, allowing tours to take place at regular intervals. However you should take into account that these caverns become popular during weekends; queues can build up and the parking spaces can rapidly become limited, so plan your trip wisely.
Something I could not recommend enough is warm clothing and sensible footwear. Two hundred meters below the earth is a frigid, damp place; as much as I'd love the image, the cave is regrettably not the place for flip-flops and sombreros. Fortunately you can purchase blessed tea and coffee at the visitor center to bring warmth back to your bones while you contemplate buying gem-stones and assorted mining memorabilia.
Sadly due to the nature of tour disabled access is restricted, although if you require specific details you can make enquiries through the website: http://speedwellcavern.co.uk/speedwell_front_page/
Speedwell is one of four caverns which constitute the Castleton Site of Special Scientific Interest; the others being Blue John Cavern, Treak Cliff Cavern and Peak Cavern (delightfully also known as the Devil’s Arse). All four are open to the public. Incidentally, Castleton is a great town to explore in itself, you can find great pubs, Peveril Castle, and the route leading up to Mam Tor.
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An avid fan of all things history from an early age, I transitioned from tormenting my parents with facts from Horrible Histories to tormenting them with facts from my university studies. Following my graduation I spent time as a guide for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ypres, and as an English language assistant at a school in Andorra.
I am currently back in the UK and working towards a Masters in Global History at the University of Sheffield. This has involved a work placement with Mr Straw’s House in Worksop, where I helped produce display pieces for an exhibition on the history of the National Trust.