Castleton 4 mile walk
...starting and finishing in Castleton
Castleton's series of show caverns attract huge numbers of visitors each year, but even if it didn’t have the caves, the area around Castleton would merit a visit...
The Caves and Crags of Castleton
Castleton lies on the “Great Divide” of the Peak District, at the northernmost extremity of the limestone White Peak where it dips under the shales and grits of the Dark Peak. This geology has provided its greatest attraction, and the series of show caverns attract huge numbers of visitors each year. But even if it didn’t have the caves, the area around Castleton would merit a visit.
Castleton was founded in the shadow of the imposing castle founded shortly after the Conquest by William Peveril, William of Normandy’s illegitimate son. The castle was strategically-sited on the naturally-defensive neck of land between the impressive gorge of Peak Cavern and Cave Dale. The present roofless keep dates from 1176, and was built by Henry II to oversee the Royal Forest of the Peak, a hunting preserve of medieval kings and princes. The planned town beneath never quite filled the confines of the still-visible Town Ditch, but the interesting medieval parish church of St. Edmund may originally have been the garrison church for the castle. Castleton is famous for its Garlanding Ceremony, held annually on Oak Apple Day (May 29), which is probably the remnant of a pagan ceremony welcoming the spring.
From the large village square, walk up Bargate and take the concealed entrance to Cave Dale (signposted Limestone Way) and pass through a stile into the dale.
The steep-sided confines of Cave Dale are thought to have been carved out by the rushing meltwaters from an Ice Age glacier. The result is spectacular – a craggy, dry-bottomed limestone canyon watched over, to the right, by the impregnable keep of
Peveril’s Castle. Several caves lead off from beneath the crags of Cave Dale, and beneath your feet as you walk up the dale is the ever-dripping cavern of Roger Rain’s House in Peak Cavern.
As the dale path steepens, with ever-expanding views beack to Peveril Castle and the cone of Win Hill in the background, it narrows again through gates and stiles to a short gated road at the junction with the Dirtlow Rake bridleway. Turn right here over a stile and then a second one (right) which leads onto Rowter Lane.
Rowter Lane is followed for about a mile, passing the farm of the same name over to the right, with the great bulk of Mam Tor filling the skyline ahead. Note in the meadows over to the left, the distinctive bumps and hollows left by old lead mine workings. Several abandoned mine shafts are found here, and on the grassed-over waste hillocks, the beautiful, lead-tolerant purple and yellow flowers of the mountain pansy can be seen in summer.
Reaching the B6061, go straight ahead over a stile on a grassy track to reach the abandoned quarry and gaping, low cave entrance of Windy Knoll (National Trust).
Windy Knoll Cave and Quarry is one of the classic sites in Peak District geology and prehistory. The impressive low cave was the Ice Age den of brown bear, wolf and hyaena, which preyed on the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, reindeer, ox and red deer grazing the Arctic tundra outside. And outcropping in the small quarry above are quantities of the rare mineral, elaterite, a sticky, tarry substance more commonly found today in the “tar lakes” of the Caribbean.
Go down to the road and turn right and right again at the junction beneath the crumbling face of Mam Tor, with fine views down the Hope Valley ahead. A stile leads left across the fields around the back of Winnats Head Farm, which stands at the head of the impressive canyon of the Winnats Pass (National Trust).
The Winnats Pass
One of the most spectacular places in the Peak, the Winnats (the name means “wind gates”) has been the main entrance to Castleton and the Hope Valley from the west, since the collapse of the Mam Tor road in 1977. The steep 1:5 gradient must have made it an exciting ride by coach and four, but it remains one of the most thrilling motor roads in the Peak. Geologists believe that the craggy canyon was formed 350 million years ago as an undersea channel through the coral reefs of the Carboniferous period. The Winnats was also the scene of the grisly murder of Alan and Clara, two runaway lovers, in 1758.
Walking down the Winnats is by far the best way to appreciate the soaring rock architecture of this superb little canyon which cuts through the reef limestones of Treak Cliff, which extends away to the left.
Treak Cliff, with its famous caverns of Treak Cliff and Blue John, is claimed to be the only place in the world where the semi-precious mineral known as Blue John, is
found. A purple, blue, white and yellow banded flourspar, Blue John was formed by hydrocarbons being forced under great pressure into cavities in the limestone where it crystallised. It is said to have got its name from the French “Bleu et Jaune” – blue and yellow – and it is now worked into a range of bowls and ornaments by a skilled process which involves the brittle mineral being impregnated with resin.
Another of Castleton’s show caves, Speedwell Mine, a former lead mine reached by an underground canal boat trip, is at the foot of the Winnats on the right.
A gate leads off to the right just past the Speedwell Cavern and this path leads across the face of Long Cliff below Cow Low to enter Castleton again at Goosehill Bridge. It is a short step from here to visit Peak Cavern, following the footpath alongside Peakshole Water to the right.
One of the original Seven Wonders of the Peak, Peak Cavern was long thought to be an entrance to Hell. It was anciently known as “the Devil’s Arse” and the river which flows through it is still known by cavers as the Styx. The old name for the cave has recently been revived. Peak Cavern has the largest cave entrance in Britain, and for 400 years a small community of rope-makers lived within its gaping maw in “a village which never saw the sun.” Remains of their rope making equipment, and the smoke from their cottages which blackened the cave ceiling, can still be seen.
From Peak Cavern, turn right to return to the Market Square and the village centre.
Start/finish: The Square, Castleton.
Distance: 6 km/4 miles
Approximate time: Allow 2-3 hours
Highest point: Near Rowter Farm, 440m/1,444ft.
Maps: OS Explorer Sheet 1, The Dark Peak
Refreshments: Pubs and cafes in Castleton
Terrain: Mostly easy walking in dales and fields, with a short road section through the Winnats.
These walks have been adapted from Roly Smith’s Rambler’s Guide to the Peak District, published by HarperCollins in 2000.
Copyright Let's Stay Peak District 2010
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015