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Descend into the depths of the earth
Blue John Cavern (Castleton, Derbyshire)
Member Name: CarolineR-D
Blue John Cavern (Castleton, Derbyshire)
Advantages: Educational, atmospheric
Disadvantages: Expensive for something that only lasts an hour
The entrance to Blue John Cavern is situated at the top of Winnats Pass, about a mile from the village of Castleton in Derbyshire. It is one of four underground show caves to be found in Castleton. The Blue John Cavern is well sign posted from the main road (as are all the caverns) but is located in an isolated spot close to Mam Tor (the Shivering Mountain) and surrounded by beautiful countryside. Because the Blue John Cavern is not a full day attraction, your visit could be combined with a walk in this scenic area of the Peak District, possibly ending up back in Castleton village to enjoy the delightful craft shops, pubs or tea rooms that are on offer.
What is Blue John? It is a semi-precious stone that is mined exclusively in the Derbyshire area. Blue John Cavern is a working mine during the winter months and the stone has been mined here for centuries. The stone is found within the limestone of the caves and the mined pieces are used by craftsmen to make jewellery and ornaments, some of which can be bought in the gift shop. A tour of the Blue John Cavern enables you to see Blue John stone in its natural state.
On arrival we went into the shop where we paid and waited for our guide to take us on a tour of the cavern. Coffee and tea could be purchased in the shop and I was considering having a hot drink because it was a cold day, but it was served in plastic cups and didn't look particularly inspiring. As it turned out, we didn't have time to have drinks as our guide quickly arrived. I did pop to the loo before starting the tour, however, and was far from impressed. The ladies' toilets were run down and frankly smelled awful. My husband didn't try the gents' loos so I can't comment on them, but I suspect they probably follow the usual Rule of Toilets, which is that if the ladies' are bad, the gents' are even worse!
Not to be deterred, we followed our guide and descended down many steps into the cave. I must stress straightaway that this place is not for people with mobility problems. There are a lot of steps to negotiate and I found them uneven and slippery. You are advised to hold the handrail and care needs to be taken. Obviously, it is not suitable for pushchairs or wheelchairs and I would imagine that small children would quickly get tired of all the steps. I can't imagine it would be much fun carrying a small child around in such an environment, or that it would be particularly safe to do so. Another reason why I would not advise this attraction for very small children is because of the acoustics in the cave. Any screaming or crying would be VERY loud indeed. Having said that, it certainly appealed to my older children. As well as containing fossils and crystals, which are of interest to my children, the cave has a generally spooky atmosphere, which they enjoyed.
We were lucky enough to have a guided tour for just the four of us. I found this much nicer than having to be part of a bigger group of people who I did not know. It meant that our tour felt informal and we were more inclined to ask questions than if we had been in a larger group. For instance, when the guide showed us a magnificent structure called the Balancing Rock and told us it weighed approximately 20 tons, I was able to pipe up - "how many elephants is that?" - without feeling stupid! (He couldn't tell me in elephants, but he did suggest it was probably the equivalent weight of 16 cars.) Our guide was very knowledgeable about the caverns but also had a quirky sense of humour (he probably needed it to handle my obsession with elephants) and a conversational manner. When we asked him about the possibility of getting a good echo in the caves, he took us to the best place to try that out, and because there were so few of us we didn't feel self-conscious about bellowing into the darkness. I am not usually a fan of guided tours and tend to get bored easily when I'm standing around, but I was surprised to find myself listening intently on this occasion. I imagine that the tour groups are usually larger during the summer months when the place gets much busier.
The cave is illuminated and looks quite attractive. Visiting it made me understand why people get involved in caving. It is fascinating to take a winding journey through the different tunnels, looking at the stalactites, the old mining equipment and the fossils on the walls. The tour takes in the Waterfall Cavern, the Grand Crystallised Cavern, Lord Mulgrave's Dining Room, where the miners went for food and entertainment, and the Variegated Cavern, which is 170 feet high and 30 feet wide, and which gives you a strong sense of perspective. It made me feel quite humble and led me to ponder how insignificant human beings are in nature's grand plan, how some structures have been here for millions of years before we existed and will be there many years after we are gone.
The tour took about an hour. Climbing up the steps on the way back was quite exhausting and I felt like I'd had quite a work out. We had another look in the gift shop before leaving. Although the Blue John jewellery and ornamental items are quite pricey, it was possible to buy small samples of Blue John for just £1 as souvenirs. (Only the most attractive and solid pieces are used by craftsmen to make jewellery and ornaments, so the rejected pieces are sold off cheaply.) My daughter bought quite an attractive varnished piece of Blue John for £5.
This was a very costly attraction, considering we were only in there for an hour or so. It cost us £25 for a family ticket. It is £9 for an adult, £4.50 for a child, and £7 for students. However, it was an unusual experience and we all came away feeling we had learned a lot. Anyone with an interest in geology would find it fascinating. Because it is quite dark in the cavern, it might make some people feel uncomfortable. I would not recommend it for anyone who is claustrophobic as there are some narrow confines. There are also places where you need to avoid banging your head, as the roof is low in some parts of the cave and there are a few sharp edges. Children need to be old enough to be able to take care and watch what they are doing. Footwear should be sensible and you'll need to wrap up warm, as it's quite chilly down there. I'm glad I experienced this cavern, but it is not somewhere I can imagine going back to. It just seemed too expensive for what it was.
Although we travelled by car, there is apparently a bus service to the cavern from Castleton village. If you're looking for a different kind of experience and want to understand more about the natural history of the Peak District, this is worth a visit.
Open every day but Christmas Day (weather permitting)
Summary: An unusual attraction
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