Seven wonders of the Peak District, Derbyshire
Since earliest times the route between Chatsworth and Buxton has been acclaimed for its unique 'marvels'. We sent Ashley Franklin to find out if the 'seven wonders' are still as amazing today ...
Within the Peak District’s 555 square miles, there are myriad landscapes of breathtaking awe and beauty, amidst which are 2,900 listed buildings and 450 historic monuments. So many wonders to behold. Officially, though, there are only seven wonders.
These are: Poole’s Cavern and St Anne’s Well in Buxton; Peak Cavern and Mam Tor in Castleton; the Ebbing and Flowing Well, Tideswell; Eldon Hole; and Chatsworth. Why so few ‘wonders’? And why these?
It’s purely a matter of history. As far back as the 14th century, Benedictine monk Ranulphi Higden wrote of Britain as ‘a land of many wonders’, naming the Peak as the first. Curiously, Higden’s singular explanation for the Peak’s lofty position reads: ‘There such a strong wind blows out of the cracks in the earth, that it throws up again cloths that men threw in.’ This is reminiscent of Daniel Defoe’s later description of the Peak’s ‘houling wilderness’, though ironically his words were meant as a criticism.
Between 1724 and 1726, when Defoe toured Britain and famously came to pen his insights into the Peak District, the Seven Wonders were already etched in stone. A century earlier, philosopher Thomas Hobbes visited the Peak and wrote a lengthy poem where he stated:
Of the high Peak are Seven wonders writ.
Two Fonts, two Caves, one Pallace, Mount and Pit
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Of these seven wonders, only the two caves, palace and mount would be on the to-do list of today’s traveller. However, when Derbyshire writer Charles Cotton confirmed these seven sites in his own Wonders of the Peak in 1681, effectively publishing the Peak District’s first-ever travel guide, he was satisfying contemporaneous fascination with superstition and all things strange and mysterious. As Jayne Darbyshire writes in the newly-published Wonders of the Peak District Revisited – in the footsteps of Daniel Defoe: ‘Visitors came in search of wild sensational experiences, to be terrified out of their wits and go home with a tale to tell.’
As Defoe’s tales tell, he was decidedly underwhelmed by his experience of the so-called wonders. What of my own tour? Well, I found two wonders interesting if rather lacking in wonder, four are sensations I would still recommend, whilst one almost did terrify me out of my wits...
‘There stands a stately and stupendous pile’
So wrote Cotton in his verse guide to the Seven Wonders, Defoe following up by describing it as ‘a perfect beauty.’ I need not add further to the reams of literature devoted to the ‘Palace of the Peak,’ only to state that this wonder doesn’t quite fit with the others.
ST ANNE’S WELL, BUXTON
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Buxton became a fashionable spa though Charles Cotton’s 17th century verses would surely have attracted many visitors to the ‘crystal fountain’ that ‘springs in healing streams’, especially if any of the ailing masses took note of these lines:
Hither the sick, the lame and the Barren come
And hence go healthful, Sound and fruitful home
Peter, a Buxton resident I met at the Well, certainly appeared in ruddy health as a result, he told me, of taking these waters. I caught him on the one day of the week when he replenishes his plastic bottles. ‘This water is pure, clear and far superior to the stuff that comes out of my tap,’ he declared. It’s warm, too – 82 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, though a recent visitor from The Times thought the taste ‘brackish’.
One has to agree with Defoe that this shrine to St Anne – the apocryphal mother of the Virgin Mary – is no wonder, though Defoe did believe in the water’s ‘medicinal virtue’ and prophetically declared that the greater wonder was that Buxton, then a small village, so poorly promoted its spa waters, believing it could be as ‘well frequented’ as the city of Bath.
Actually, there is one wonderful aspect to this well: as a young lad quenched his thirst, I thrilled him with the knowledge that the very water he had tasted originally fell as rain even before the Romans arrived – some 5,000 years ago.
EBBING & FLOWING WELL, TIDESWELL
Defoe was even more critical about this spring, describing it as ‘A poor thing indeed to make a wonder of’. It’s poorer still now, its ebbing and flowing days long gone. Although Charles Cotton, like Thomas Hobbes, saw this spring ‘swell and boil up’, and become ‘a little torrent’, this natural siphon ceased from 1790. Also, Defoe could have waited many hours or even days for a spurt as the ebb and flow was very spasmodic. As if to add insult to injury, this well doesn’t even have any connection with the village name: Tideswell derives from a Saxon named Tidi who built a wall.
The well now sits rather forlornly in the front garden of a private house. I was one of very few visitors to enquire of this wonder in recent years.
The title Peak is a misnomer as there are no real mountains in this National Park. The highest ‘peak’ is Crowden Head at just over 2,000 feet. While Mam Tor, overlooking Castleton, is just under 1,700 feet, it has the dramatic look of a mountain. Indeed, Cotton refers to it as ‘a Mountain tall’ which ‘Lifts up his head, like an old ruin’d wall’. The ruin Cotton spoke of lies in its nickname the ‘Shivering Mountain’. The ridge is a mix of layers of shale and gritstone which crumble or ‘shiver’ away due to their unstable nature when rainwater and ice work their way into the layers.
I met a group of young ramblers who had come down from the summit where they pronounced the view to be ‘awesome’. However, it’s legend that has designated Mam Tor a wonder: it’s said that although the surface constantly crumbles and slides downwards, the shadow of the hill never grows any smaller.
Twice I came to capture Mam Tor in its photogenic glory but in vain. The second time, after I had snapped a few shots from a lay-by, a Castleton man sitting in his car apologised for the haze as if local pride had been hurt. However, he then pointed to the reason he had driven to this spot: to simply soak in the expansive grandeur of Hope Valley. That was his Peak wonder.
There are many other drama-filled sights around Mam Tor and not all are outside. There are several caverns to explore, notably Blue John, Speedwell and Treak Caverns, though it’s Peak Cavern that is able to promote itself as a wonder. At approximately 100ft wide and 60ft high, it can also boast the largest natural cave entrance in Britain and the second largest in the world. I didn’t exactly warm to the prospect of entering the bowels of the earth, especially as the car park sign told me I was about to visit ‘The Devil’s Arse’.
Also, Charles Cotton writes of:
... a dreadful cave
Whose sight may well astonish the most brave
And make him pause, ere further he proceed
However, as I entered these ‘gloomy vaults’ I lightened up: I joined a party full of smiles and laughter as our guide took us on a tour both fascinating and entertaining. I was amazed to discover that a whole community lived in this cave, making ropes for the local lead mines.
The name Devil’s Arse derives from the flatulent noises caused by water and air being sucked down a tight ‘siphon’. I preferred the silence of the more sophisticatedly named Orchestra Gallery, in whose high and wide acoustics village maidens sang to distinguished visitors, notably Queen Victoria. By contrast, claustrophobics might feel uneasy traversing Lumbago’s Gallery, socalled because adults must stoop to pass through. At this point I decided that if I had to choose between being a potholer or a sky diver, I would plump for the parachute rather than the pit helmet.
The Souvenir Guide to Poole’s Cavern is a wonder on its own, written in both an informative and entertaining way. It professes in its Welcome page that ‘if the public image of damp holes in the ground ever needed a makeover, Poole’s Cavern provides it.’
Cotton’s poetry would certainly have encouraged visitors both daring and inquisitive, citing one dark chasm as
So deep, and black, the very Thought does make
My brains turn giddy and my eyeballs ake.
Defoe felt let down after reading Cotton’s romanticised verse. However, as Jayne Derbyshire points out in Wonders of the Peak District Revisited, ‘crawling on all fours through the notoriously narrow entrance into the dark, dank hole, seems to have put him in particularly bad humour.’
Had Defoe been more pleasantly disposed, he might have more readily acknowledged, as the tour guide promises, ‘the fantastical results of a centuries-old relationship between water and limestone.’ As the guide continues, this ‘phantasmagoria’ of natural rock formations appears ‘like an inspired meeting between Salvador Dali and Fred Flintstone’, as much a reference than any to the cavern’s Poached Egg stalagmites. There’s a further phenomenon with a food title: The Flitch of Bacon, a 6�ft long stalactite resembling half a pig hanging in a butcher’s shop. I was especially taken by ‘The Sculpture’, so-named as it appears like the work of Henry Moore, a massive, surreal alien-like mass of boulders cemented together by calcite-laden rainwater.
While visiting, a group of special needs adults was clearly absorbed by the sights and, on a similar note, it was pleasing to see a level wooden walkway making much of the cavern accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs. Take note: a visit to Poole’s Cavern can be even more fulfilling if you stroll across nearby Grin Low, capped by Solomon’s Temple, a charming folly.
Defoe would surely have approved of my rounding off my tour with a trek up to Eldon Hole – a case of ‘leaving the best till last’. For Defoe, this 100ft long, 20ft wide rift in the hillside above Peak Forest Village was the only real natural wonder of the seven. Cotton wrote of
A gulf wide, steep, black, and a dreadful one
Which few, that comes to see it, dare come near
In spite of this, he proclaimed it a wonder, as did Defoe, both believing this chasm to be a bottomless hole, possibly leading to the centre of the Earth. It long held a morbid fascination, with Hobbes describing how the Earl of Leicester lowered a suitably bribed peasant into the abyss to a depth of 750ft. The poor victim was hauled up raving, and died eight days later without saying what he had seen.
I read this horror story before my visit and even though I had also read that the actual depth of this hole is a paltry 245ft, its fearful aspect brought my cremnophobia (fear of precipices) rushing to the surface. I took my photographs as quickly as possible, using my longest lens to avoid getting too close as I increasingly felt its yawning mouth beckoning me. For me, Eldon Hole was not so much a Major Wonder as a Great Worry. Once I had escaped its awful grasp and reached lower ground, I got my camera out again, this time to capture a more pleasing sight: a panorama of lambs gambolling in the green fields against a backdrop of criss-crossing dry stone walls. Now that’s what I call a Wonder of the Peak.
Curiously, on the Peak Wonders page of the official Peak District website, the seven wonders have become nine. The extra two are: Peveril Castle which sits on a lofty hill above Peak Cavern and is regarded as one of the most dramatic Norman castles in England; and Thimble Hall in Youlgreave, a tiny one-up, one-down cottage officially confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest detached house in the world. It measures 10ft 3in by 12ft 2in and is 11ft 10in high, with only one door, a ladder instead of a staircase and no bathroom or kitchen. About 100 years ago, this cottage was home to a family of eight. In 1999, Bruno Fredericks, of ice cream firm Fredericks of Chesterfield, bought the property for �39,500, beating off bids made by telephone from Hong Kong, Athens and New York. Worked out at price per square metre, Thimble Hall cost as much as properties in the most expensive areas of London.
Do you have your own Peak Wonder? Let us know and tell us why ...
Wonders of the Peak District Revisited by Jayne Darbyshire is published by DB. Price �14.99