Peak Cavern 27th. August 2011


Claire Wilkinson, James, Gill, Christine, Eva, Nadine (Ex-SUSS) Jess and Ann (TSG/SUSS)


This dates from 2011 but it got lost in cyberspace and I only chanced upon it recently.


In 2011, Sheffield University Speleological Society celebrated its 50th birthday. In what must have been a massive feat of organisation, August bank holiday weekend saw well over 100 members of SUSS, past and present, gather in Castleton to celebrate.  As well as food, drink and dancing, there was also the offer of ‘gentle trips for retired cavers’ which sounded like too good an opportunity to miss.


Cavers were requested to meet at 9.30am at Castleton Rotary centre to meet old friends, beg, borrow, or hire equipment, and generally remember how everything worked.  Two hours later and a group of us finally found ourselves en route to Peak Cavern, via the Chapel (TSG Hut), which just goes to show that the faces and equipment change but the faff factor remains the same.  Ann and Jess were our Peak Cavern guides/keyholders from the TSG, while the rest of us were ex SUSS, some not having been underground since the mid eighties, and Nadine, Eva’s friend who was visiting the UK from Germany and hadn’t ever been underground before.  For some reason it worked out as a girlie trip, with James as the token man. 


As an aside, the last time I remember caving with James was probably about 1995 on an aborted SUSS trip to Juniper Gulf.  Stumbling across a sodden allotment in the rain, we could hear the roar of brown water thundering down the shaft a considerable time before we actually found the cave. At this point I decided that something smaller and drier was the order of the day while a few intrepid souls, James included, braved the gulf.  Some hours later, back at the minibus, he complained of a ‘funny tingling feeling’ in his foot which, on inspection, had started to turn a gruesome black colour.  Some loose carbide in his wetsuit sock had been merrily fizzing away all day.  Cue a hasty exit to Lancaster Royal Infirmary for treatment for chemical burns, taking months to fully heal.    

Back to the present and Peak Cavern has to have one of the most impressive entrances in the UK. You wind your way through the village, past tiny crooked stone cottages, under the shadow of an enormous limestone cliff topped by the ruined Peveril Castle.  The entrance is a huge cleft in the rock; the setting is made even more gothic by flocks of noisy jackdaws wheeling around, their cries echoing inside the cave.

The first part of the cave is a show cave, and we thankfully passed through the turnstile without parting with the requisite £8.25.  I’d only ever been down Peak Cavern once before, in the mid nineties.  At the time ITV had been filming a few scenes of the Narnia TV series in the cave and had installed a slide at the end of the show cave for one of the action sequences.  My main memory was of playing on the slide and messing about hurling huge polystyrene boulders at each other. 

A short walk took us the end of the show cave and through a gate and down the slide, which was happily still in situ, although the fake boulders have long gone.  Easy walking along muddy tunnels took us to the Buxton water sump and then onto the Mucky Ducks.   Ann told us this used to be hands and knees crawling in water but in February 2010 a terrific flood changed the geography of the area completely.  Now it is possible to stoop through in waist deep water while a massive sandbank has appeared in an adjacent chamber.  


I found something oddly oppressive about this part of the cave.  It may be the mud, and the total lack of formations, but it all feels very dark, and even though it doesn’t seem deep underground, has the air of a sump that has emptied only a short while before.  I couldn’t get my head round where we were in elevation, but there seemed to be sumps off everywhere in Peak Cavern – big downstream sumps, little sumps down poky holes, digs in the roof and ropes up avens leading to yet more sumps. Curious place, Derbyshire. 


We stopped to regroup next to the junction leading off towards Moss Chamber, where Neil Moss was trapped and died in 1959.  It probably wasn’t the best idea to retell this sad story as Nadine, who had seemed to be really enjoying her first ever trip underground started to look a little less happy.  A short while later we came to Surprise View, which is a fixed iron ladder down into the streamway.  It got its name during the early years of Peak exploration when the divers were exploring Buxton water sump.  The ‘dry’ support team were surprised to come along this passage and find themselves looking down on the lights of the divers who had passed the sump and were stomping up the streamway towards them.  Down the ladder follows one of the most impressive sections of the cave.  A huge canyon streamway winds its way in either direction, its shape changing from a towering canyon into an almost perfect eye shaped phreatic tube before sumping.  Twenty four hours continuous rainfall the previous day hadn’t

made much of an impact on the water levels and after inspecting the sump, we enjoyed a pleasant splash upstream in quite low conditions. At some point the stream disappears and the passage climbs up into a stop-start scramble over muddy boulders reminiscent of Easegill, eventually levelling out at a nice gravel beach.  Ann told up that the only way forward was a grovelly wet crawl leading to Brown’s chamber.  At this point a burst of German from Nadine at the back of the group was translated as ‘Don’t even start to tell me what happened to Mr Brown!’ 


Deciding that unpleasant ducks could wait for another day we retraced our steps back to Squaws Junction, climbed up a small waterfall and looped back to the top of Surprise View, wallowing in lots of sticky, gloopy mud, worn away into convenient knee shaped grooves.  Back at Buxton water sump we were under strict instructions to take one of the many scrubbing brushes from the side, get in the sump and clean all the mud off ourselves so that we didn’t dirty the show cave or tourists on the way out.  I suspected some elaborate practical joke to be broadcast on Youtube the following day, but no, they were deadly serious, Ann even taking her oversuit off and completing the remainder of the trip in her furry suit.


Walking out through the enormous entrance with its streaming sunlight, flocks of birds and steamy green scented air made me feel that we surely must have emerged in Borneo, not Derbyshire.  Tea and flapjacks at the Chapel made a pleasant end to an enjoyable trip. 


Claire Wilkinson


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