Subterranean Blue John Blues

07Jun10

We made a quick stop at the information centre in Castleton in the Peak National District Park to choose our grotto, then headed uphill to the Blue John limestone Cavern where we hoped to find the ultimate in geological shelters.

About 30 of us shuffled into the entrance. Had it been 25 degrees hotter and somewhat dustier, we might have been queuing for a tour of KV-14 in the Valley of the Kings. Alas, the only hieroglyph was on a roughly-rendered outer wall warning that those with cardio and bronchial issues might want to reconsider the descent into this ancient cave system.

Once you’ve handed over your £9 the sign also told us, there are no refunds – and as proved later, few escape routes either.

Everyone else but us seemed to already know about Blue John, the ornamental variety of Calcium Fluoride that lies here in 8 of the 14 known seams. You can see it in Roman Pompei and in this cavern’s shop, a translucent mineral carved into tacky pendants and brooches. More the bling of Babs Windsor in the Queen Vic than Nefertiti.

Our guide was a Blue John miner who chuckled at the end of every sentence (“I don’t actually dig on Bank Holidays – hee, hee!”), as if he was on some deranged mission to lure the innocent into his personal abyss. Our descent started well enough. The hand rails were cold but solid, the concrete steps wide if damp. Further down in a minor antechamber, an elderly lady stood panting in the dank air. We had just visited Eyam, the nearby plague village and I imagined spores and postules spreading among us, a Quatermass drama unfolding.

The steps twisted into underground switchbacks, they narrowed too and the height become so low that I, a 6-foot-something, stooped to clear the rounded limestone ceiling. One of our number ahead stopped to photograph some wet rock feature and someone else was heard to shout ‘get moving will you, it’s claustrophobic!’ My worst nightmare is of potholing underwater into a dead end so until that point, I felt pretty happy but I was starting to sweat too.

A vertical 300 feet later, the cavern’s floor opened out and breaths of relief could be heard amid the slopping of modest fall of mountain water into buckets and pots. A young lad asked our mining guide if there had been any deaths down here and he replied that yes, there had been but went into no detail. I asked him if this area was seismically stable and he giggled again like the nodding pooch in the Churchill ad: ‘Ohh yesss. It’s been here for thousands of years!” and I looked at the fallen boulders on the cavern floor and at fissures on its walls. And then for any safety equipment. Was .. this terra really firma?

“Are you licensed to mine here?” I put to our subterranean chaperone, thinking about the endless applications and risk assessments that needed filing regularly with the local authority, or maybe the NUM.
“Well I don’t know really,’ he said. ‘I think someone applied about 80 years ago.”
“And is there any record of how much Blue John is lifted out of these seams?”
“Er, no idea but someone once told me it was about a third of a ton.”
“What, a year?” I pressed.
“Aye, I think so. A year, yes.”

Why, this Hell hole was a health & safety catastrophe about to happen! No council allows it’s contractors anywhere near a field and a car park sign without a high-vis jacket and here was our crocodile of lardy tourists stumbling about in the semi-darkness with 300 feet of limestone between this dark place and the bright Derbyshire skies. No emergency exits. No hot-wire lines to the surface. No helmets, whistles and no safety glasses. No canary or Davy Lamps or steel-capped boots. No harnesses, stretchers nor defibrillators. Twenty years ago this tour would have been an adventure but now my visual senses are used so to fluorescent greens and oranges – New Labour’s new prime colours. It sounded pretty vague and well, risky.

I decided we’d stay to the back of the return upward slog and saw the same elderly lady stagger then come to a grinding halt with her husband, resting in a hairpin passing place about half-way back up. They waved me on looking sheepish rather than distressed as if stopping to enjoy the vertigo-high view from a cathedral spiral staircase. A bit later in the car, I listened to hear if they were reported on local news .. ‘A husband and wife .. couple didn’t make it up, nor got their refund’.

No reports of them at least but something far worse in Cumbria.

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3 Responses to “Subterranean Blue John Blues”

  1. 1 lom

    Well I was going here for my birthday, I don’t think I will bother now

  2. 2 lom

    Well I was going here for my birthday, I don’t think I will bother now

  3. Oh dear – sorry to put you off the Caves! Still, the surrounding countryside is well worth it!


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