Queen Victoria may not have been amused by the local name for the cavern, but it seems a perfect description of the place in many ways. The vast cave mouth is the largest of its kind in Britain and is the entrance to a subterranean labyrinth of caves and passageways that snake deep beneath the limestone cliffs. Local folklore says that the name refers to the flatulent sounds made by water receding through the tunnels cut by the underground streams. Whatever the truth of the matter, the name has been around for a very long time. In 1536, William Camden recorded in his Britannia:
…there is a cave or hole within the ground called, saving your reverence, The Devils Arse, that gapeth with a wide mouth and hath in it many turnings and retyring roomes, wherein, for sooth, Gervase of Tilbury, whether for want of knowing the truth, or upon a delight hee had in fabling, hath written that a Shepheard saw a verie wide and large Country with riverets and brookes running here and there through it, and huge pooles of dead and standing waters. Notwithstanding, by reason of these and such like fables, this Hole is reckoned for one of the wonders of England…
The name stayed in use until Queen Victoria visited the Derbyshire town of Castleton in 1880 to attend a tour of the caverns. Fearing to offend the monarch, the cave was renamed Peak Cavern… but the older, more evocative name has stuck. Today concerts are still held within the cavern, though it is unlikely her late majesty would have approved of rock music either.
We have yet to visit this particular cavern properly, but we wandered around Castleton one grey Sunday and found our way to the little path that runs up to the cave. Kingfishers nest in the banks of the river that runs through the gorge, taking advantage of the old lead mining tunnels that drain into the stream. Mallards nest here too, taking advantage of the security from predators offered by the cliffs… and unusual choice for ducks. The towering cliffs are dark and damp; ferns grow in the crevices of cracked rocks and jackdaws colonise a cliff that was once a great marine reef. It seems odd, so high in the Peaks to realise that these high hills were once the sea-bed and that the stone is made from the remains of billions of tiny sea creatures.
But ‘odd’ is something you get used to in this part of the country…it is quite unlike anywhere else and seems to guard its secrets closely. Even its myths and legends seem, for the most part, to have been lost or discretely remain hidden in local tales. I found only a couple about the cavern…and one is historical rather than legendary. The cavern, natural rather than mined like others in the area, once housed a small community of troglodytic ropemakers. They remained living within the caves until 1915, which makes them some of the last rock dwellers in the country. Another tale, not necessarily true, tells of a meeting between the King of the Gypsies and the leader of the rogues who made their base deep within the caverns.
Cock Lorel, whose name means ‘leader of rascals’, is said to have been a notorious knave and thief in Tudor times. He called himself a ‘tinker’, to cover for his roguery, and he is credited with creating the Twenty Five Orders of Knaves. The problem is that there is no official record of such a person having existed. On the other hand, there is a tradition of an elected leader, usually someone unimportant, assuming the public role of ‘king’ within the fraternities of rogues as a cover for the real power in the band. The idea was that should the ‘king’ be brought to justice, it would be no real loss. Perhaps Cock Lorel was a title rather than a name?
The King of the Gypsies with whom he is said to have met was Giles Hather. Around 1528, Giles became the leader of the fellowship of Egyptians in the north. These Egyptians may have had nothing to do with either Egypt or the Romani, but rode through the north in large bands, with blackened faces and dressed in multicolored clothing. They amazed the common folk with magical feats of sleight of hand and told their fortunes by reading their palms.
Legend has it that when Cock Lorel and Giles Hather met in the deep caverns, they devised the Thieves’ Cant, a language with a complete vocabulary designed to mask their nefarious undertakings. Whether or not the legend is true, Cant was in usage from Tudor times, exclusively linked to criminal activity, rather than to the Gypsies themselves and elements of it are still used today.
While the caverns were a sanctuary for Thieves, above the entrance the cliffs climb sheer to another stronghold… and its history goes back even further…