Founded in 1198 and named for the castle on a hilltop overlooking the village, Castleton lies in the heart of the Peak District National Park. With some of the most beautiful scenery in England on its doorstep, it makes an excellent base for exploring the Park. Although there is no lack of things to see and do above ground, most people come here to find out what the underside of Derbyshire is really like. Many will take home a small piece of the rare Blue John mineral from the specialist gift shops that line the main street.
Local traditions thrive, such as the Garland Ceremony on 29 May when a man rides around the streets wearing an enormous garland of wild flowers. It probably began life as a fertility rite but was adapted in the 17th Century to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy after the failure of Cromwell's Commonwealth. As a sign of loyalty to the crown, children would wear acorns on their collars or risk being stung with nettles by their playmates.
Nestling under the shadowy eye of Mam Tor, often called the Shivering Mountain, Castleton is one of the prime tourist draws of the Peak District. On a hot summer's day the population is easily outnumbered by visitors. The nearest railway station is at Hope where a linking bus service is available, but most tourists bring their cars and traffic congestion can be a major problem.
Four show caves are dotted around the village, each with their own character. Some passages are the result of previous mining activity, others the result of the heavy rainfall in this predominately limestone landscape. The cave systems are naturally decorated with calciferous formations, reminding imaginative visitors of witches on broomsticks, or giant cats, or pieces of soft furnishing. All are safe to visit being well lit and secure underfoot, with staircases and handrails for the sloping sections. Tours are offered in each cave where the guides compete to invent the scariest ghost stories, based on spooky shadows and flimsy evidence.
The Treak Cliff Cavern lies just below the castle. It probably has the best stalactite and stalagmite formations of the four caves. To help remember which is which, think of stalactites gripping tightly to the ceiling and stalagmites standing mightily on the floor.
The Speedwell Cavern has the novelty of boat trips to traverse its flooded passages. The boat trip takes you to the edge of a bottomless well and back. In all fairness the boat trip is the main attraction, although the ghost stories are also particularly well told here.
The Peak Cavern is interesting for the evidence of human habitation. Both ancient and relatively modern people lived here and left their mark. Until as recently as 1915 people lived in the cave mouth, the largest in Britain, making rope used in the nearby lead mines. Demonstrations of ropemaking are frequently given as well as guided tours of the cave system.
The Blue John Cavern is a little further out of the village, but worth a trip for the unique mineral mined here. Blue John is a blue streaked type of fluorspar found nowhere else in the world. The major seams are mostly exhausted and the remaining seams are neither accessible nor extensive, but a small quantity of the mineral is still mined. It is friable and difficult to polish but was sometimes hollowed out into beautiful bowls, one of which was found in the ashes of Pompeii. Generations of schoolchildren have found interest in geology following the purchase of a box of small rocks from one of Castleton's ubiquitous gift shops.
Back to the Village
From the Blue John Cavern head back into Castleton via the dramatic limestone gorge of Winnats Pass. Follow the old road towards Mam Tor to see what happens to a mountain road when the mountain shivers. The hillside is made of unstable layers of shale and landslips are common. Despite this, a road was built across Mam Tor but abandoned in 1977 after being badly damaged by a major landslide.
Back in Castleton, climb up the hill to visit Peveril Castle, built in 1176 and the original reason for the village's existence. Situated as it is on a hill surrounded by sheer drops and steep slopes, providing excellent views across the valley, its natural defences would have been formidable. William Peverel is recorded as the Keeper of the Castle as early as 1086, but the present castle was built after his tenure. Little is known about the Peverel family but that didn't deter Sir Walter Scott from writing a novel - Peveril of the Peak about their exploits.