Welcome to Part 2 of Contrary Life‘s trip to the depths. I hope you’ve brought a torch, it’s dark down here…
Caves, caverns and mines: from spooky to beauty
Hell Fire Caves – keeping up with the neighbours
Contrary Life likes this underground choice based on its name alone, but once you delve into the history it is even more intriguing. Possibly inspired by baronet Sir Francis Dashwood’s travels, caves were dug out for his amusement and as a way of keeping up with the neighbours as many landowners of the time were building fashionable estates with follies and artificial caves to show off with.
The Caves were re-opened in 1951 with an admission price of one shilling and candles provided free. At weekends, debutantes came to stay and often helped by selling soft drinks to visitors. By the end of the first summer nearly 10,000 visitors had seen the caves. Since 1951 the caves have attracted over two million visitors with many of the profits going to charities, including the National Trust, to help pay for restoration and maintenance work in West Wycombe.
The infamous Hell Fire Club was said to occasionally hold meetings in the caves. The club was rather eccentric, holding mock religious ceremonies with much toasting of glasses (an excuse for drinking), songs and general larking about. Many MPs, titled gents, professors, poets and painters of the time were members of the club including William Hogarth and the Earl of Sandwich.
Admission to the caves today costs a little more than a shilling at £5 for adults and £4 for children.
More info: www.hellfirecaves.co.uk
Unique tours at Chislehurst Caves
Just a short distance from central London is a brilliant underground gem. Chislehurst Caves offer miles of dark mysterious passageways to explore. Hewn by hand from the chalk, forming a maze covering more than six hectares, the caves lie thirty meters below the woodlands and houses of Chislehurst.
Travel back in time as a guide takes you on a 45-minute lamp-lit tour and tells stories of Druids, Romans and Saxons. You’ll see the tunnels that were famous as a shelter during the Second World War, the Caves Church, Druid Altar and Haunted Pool.
No two tours are exactly the same, as each of the guides has their own unique style. Chislehurst Caves should hold the imagination of even the most easily bored child and if nothing else, there are twenty miles of tunnels to wear them out! There is also a gift shop, a licensed café and a free car park.
Open from Wednesday to Sunday, the tours leave every hour on the hour, the first at 10am and the last at 4pm. Tickets cost £6 for adults and £4 for children.
More info: www.ChislehurstCaves.co.uk
Museum of Lead Mining – a hidden treasure
This museum, set in the picturesque village of Wanlockhead, is one of Scotland’s hidden treasures and a four-star Visit Scotland attraction. The 18th century mine is set deep into the hillside. The village itself claims to be the highest in Scotland and is surrounded by beautiful scenery so once you’ve finished exploring underground there is plenty above to admire.
Back above ground there is are also old miners’ cottages to explore, the second oldest subscription library in Europe and the Visitor Centre with displays of rocks, minerals, gold, mining and local artefacts.
More info: www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk
Nottingham, a City of Caves
Accessed, rather unusually from a shopping centre, the City of Caves is a subterranean family attraction that is part of a complex of over 500 caves dating back to the Dark Ages. Fancy stepping from the modern capitalist world into the dark ages? Then this is how you do it.
Nottingham claims to have more man-made caves than anywhere other place in Britain, and furthermore this cave network has Ancient Monument Protection.
It costs £6.50 for adults and £5.50 for children to visit.
More info: www.cityofcaves.com
Follow in the footsteps of Dr Who at Clearwell Caves
In a valley leading into Clearwell village are the ancient iron ore mines and natural cave system known as Clearwell Caves.
The Caves have been worked for iron ore and ochre for more than 4,500 years. Visitors today wander through winding passageways that open up into impressive caverns with displays throughout, giving a mysterious atmosphere, noticed by the BBC who have filmed episodes of Dr Who and Merlin many times here over the past few years.
Visitors with a taste for adventure can try one of the Deep Level visits which involve crawling and climbing down to 70m underground. Caving and events such pop up operas have made good use of this amazing attraction.
A prehistoric music event will be held on May 27th where prehistoric music and sounds will be recreated, with children’s workshops and demonstrations through the day.
More info: www.clearwellcaves.com
The important geological heritage of Marble Arch Caves
Explore the natural underworld of rivers, waterfalls, winding passages and lofty chambers that Marble Arch Caves provides. The caves can be found in a Global Geopark (an area recognised by UNESCO as having important geological heritage) in Ireland. A full cave tour lasts about 90-minutes giving visitors the chance to see unique features such as Martel’s Stalactite and take a short boat journey across an underground lake.
Tours run throughout the day, starting at 10am and cost £8.75 for adults and £5.75 for children.
More info: www.marblearchcavesgeopark.com
The Devil’s Arse or the Peak Cavern to you and me
Peak Cavern claims an awe-inspiring approach as visitors walk along the riverside on a path that leads between old cottages, into a huge limestone gorge. The cave entrance is set back inside vertical cliffs 80m high.
The whole gorge is crowned by the ruins of a Norman Castle that was built some twenty years after the Norman Conquest, 1086, by William Peveril, a favourite knight of William the Conqueror. In those days this area was a wilderness called ‘The Royal Forest of the Peak’, where the nobles hunted bears, wolves, deer and wild boar.
Aside from its physical size, culturally and historically Peak Cavern is one of the most important caves in the country. In recent centuries it has been home to successive generations of rope-making families who built both their machinery and their homes inside “this gloomy porch”. For this reason the tour includes a brief rope-making demonstration.
Whilst on the tour see interesting formations including the The Flitch of Bacon which looks like half a pig hung up and Father Christmas. The cave is still a main drainage system so that after very heavy rain storms when these storm waters recede, water and air are sucked forcefully down a tight “siphon” resulting in a resounding farting noise that gives the cavern its Anglo-Saxon name; the Devils Arse.
The Great Cave is a chamber 150 ft. wide, 90 ft. long and 60 ft. high, a remarkable size when you remember that caves are formed solely by the dissolving and scouring action of water. On leaving the caves travellers once etched their names on the rock wall of the Devil’s Staircase and the name of Lord Byron is said to feature among them.
Admission is £9 for adults and £7 for children.
More info: peakcavern.co.uk
Beer Quarry Caves – a Devon delight
Take an hour-long tour through the underground cathedral of Beer Quarry Caves with its pillars and vaulted roofs of stone.
This underground quarry has been in use since Roman times and has supplied stone for no less than 24 cathedrals. The quarry closed in the 1920s and now offers a unique window into the centuries of stone masonry with Roman, Saxon, Norman and modern areas of the caves.
Tickets cost £7 for adults and £5.20 for children.
More info: www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk
Poldark Mine – not just a tin mine
Part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, Poldark Mine gives visitors a unique insight into working conditions in 18th and early 19th century tin mines.
As well as Cornwall’s mining and social heritage, Poldark also claims to be the only complete underground mine open to the public in Cornwall and Devon. Worked from the Medieval period until 1780, Poldark retains much of its original character and can sometimes be visited in the evenings, partially candle-lit.
Guided mine tours cost £10 for adults and £6.50 for children.
More info: www.poldark-mine.co.uk
Going for gold, Dolaucothi Mine
Yet another underground tour which takes you back in time, this time through the conditions of the Roman, Victorian and 1930s underground workings.
It probably won’t be enough to retire on but you can also pan for gold while you are visiting Dolaucothi. This National Trust site also offers a caravan site near by so you can extend your stay and explore the many paths on the 2,500-acre estate.
Gift aid entry to the mines cost £6 for adults and £3 for children.
Check back tomorrow for the final part of our underground journey…