Record-breaking caverns, dramatic mountains . Helen Werin spends a superlative weekend in the Peak District.
ot so long ago I met a young man who told me he lived in Hope; quite literally, as it turns out. The Hope Valley, headed by the postcard-pretty village of Castleton, is, indeed, a place of great optimism, energy and upbeat activity. Not surprising really as it lays claim to many "firsts" and "biggests" as well as "only's". Peak Cavern, for example, also known rather crudely as the Devil's Arse, is the largest cave mouth in Britain. Around Castleton is also the only place in the world where you will find the Blue John stone, a semi-precious fluorspar. And Britain's biggest known cave – at twice the size of St Paul's cathedral – is also here. Its name? Titan.
What's more, the people of Castleton are quick to tell you, there are set to be many further "claims to fame". Experts say that, in this area renowned the world over for its caves, there are dozens, if not hundreds, more just waiting to be discovered.
That's how we came to be strolling along the peaceful riverside path through Castleton. We hadn't just come to "immerse" ourselves in the subterranean network of caverns and mines which has drawn people to the area for centuries. It was more of a mission to be less in the dark about Castleton's other attractions.
My husband Robin Weaver is a landscape photographer and is always eager to capture the spectacular scenery of this part of the High Peak in its
best light. He wanted to share it with the rest of us.
So, after our relaxing stroll past covetable cottages, tempting tea rooms and shops selling the ubiquitous Blue John, reaching the gaping mouth of Peak Cavern was an awesome sight. Until the late 19th century this was home to a community of ropemakers. Some of their equipment and what's left of their tiny homes remains near the entrance. It's hard to imagine the hard lives they must have led; harder still after I had had to bend over double in the very appropriately-named Lumbago Walk through the cave.
Peak Cavern is just one of four show caves around Castleton; the others being Treak Cliff, Blue John and Speedwell Cavern. But I wanted to get up on top of the hills that surround Castleton and that meant donning sturdy boots.
Overlooking Castleton is one of my favourite places in the whole of Derbyshire, Mam Tor. It was an easy climb from the old Chapel-en-le-Frith road up the ancient hill fort. Looking down we could clearly see why they call this the Shivering Mountain. A dramatic landslip creeps down its side and across the road below.
This road was originally built to bypass the steep and breathtakingly beautiful gorge out of Castleton, Winnats Pass.
Now the road below Mam Tor is as buckled and smashed as if it belongs in an earthquake zone, having collapsed
in the 1970s.
From the top of Mam Tor we were rewarded with wonderful views in every direction, including the Edale Valley, Kinder Scout, the Derwent Moors and Stanage Edge. We ate our picnic as we watched the paragliders soaring gracefully in the updrafts off the hill before carrying on across the Great Ridge to Back Tor and our camp site at Lose Hill.
You may well indeed ask how this latter hill got its name? Apparently, it was following a crushing defeat in a seventh century battle between rival kings. The successful army was entrenched on nearby Win Hill; where else?
The vista had whetted our appetite to explore a little further.
Next day we drove north to Ladybower, Derwent and Howden reservoirs and wandered through the pine woods. Even here, in this tranquil spot, there is another exciting "claim to fame". Derwent reservoir was famously used by the RAF's 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, to practise low level flying techniques during 1943, to prepare for dropping Barnes Wallis' "bouncing bombs" on German dams.
On the way back to our site, we took a short diversion to picturesque Hathersage, the village of Morton in Charlotte Bront's Jane Eyre. Bronte stayed at the vicarage here and probably took the name Eyre from memorials to local landowners of that name in the churchyard.
The graveyard is also reputedly home to the remains of Little John, Robin Hood's statuesque friend. In the Scotsman's Pack in School Lane we were amused to find "his" enormous chair. Indeed, we felt we needed it after sampling a large chunk of the Packs' menu.
So whilst it may seem to you that our weekend in Castleton was full of such "boasts" you must understand that, in this part of the country, they mostly come naturally.
Peak District facts
From M1 take junction 35, then A629 towards Chapeltown; left on to A61 Penistone Road. At Hillsborough turn right on to A6101 and continue on until joining A57 Manchester Road. At Ashopton turn left across bridge (A6013) towards Bamford. At junction turn right (A6187/A625) and follow road through Hope to Castleton.
Where to stay
Ancient Castleton Hall in the village square is a YHA hostel open all year; 0845 3719628. www.yha.org.uk.
Helen and her family stayed at the Caravan Club Site, Lose Hill; 01433 620636. www.caravanclub.co.uk
What else to see and do
The views from Peveril Castle above Castleton are well worth the slog up the hill. www.english-heritage.org.uk
Poole's Cavern in Buxton is known as The First Wonder of the Peak. Guided tours. www.poolescavern.co.uk.
Older teenagers and adults can burn off some energy at Go Ape next to Poole's Cavern. www.goape.co.uk.
Nearby Buxton is the highest town in England. The fine Edwardian Buxton Opera House hosts a variety of performances. We like to dine at the Kwei Lin Chinese Restaurant in Lower Hardwick Street.
Scotsman's Pack; 01433 650253.
Kwei Lin Chinese Restaurant; 01298 22611.