Speedwell Cavern
Speedwell Cavern
One of 4 caves in the village of Castleton, Speedwell is unique in that visitors can travel through the underground caverns by boat. In places, the roof of the cave is so low that in the past, guides would propel the boat forward by using their feet on the roof of the passage! The boat journey brings you to the Bottomless Pit, a huge underground lake and chamber that has been compared to a subterranean cathedral.


The Speedwell caves are set at the foot of the Winnats Pass, just outside Castleton. Miners began to extract lead from the Speedwell mines in 1771. A group of investors from neighbouring Staffordshire raised 14,000 pounds to launch the mining efforts. They redirected natural underground rivers and used the waterways to carry spoil and ore to the surface.

Despite the huge investment of time and money, the mines proved unsuccessful and no rich veins of ore were discovered. The venture folded in 1790, but even before the mining came to an end, visitors were coming to Castleton to visit the mine and its unusual mode of underground transport. A later visitor was Queen Victoria, who was transported through the underground waterways in a boat navigated by a miner lying on his back, steering the craft with his feet on the ceiling of the adit shaft.

Stairs to the boat landing
Stairs to the boat landing


Visitors descend a 105 step staircase deep underground, then journey along a flooded adit by boat, while a guide recounts the story of the mine and the miners who carved the passage over 200 years ago using only the most primitive of hand tools.

When the mine first opened to visitors the guide pushed the boat along the passage with his hands. Later the guides 'legged' the boat through the adit, lying on their backs and pushing with their feet. Power is now supplied by an electric motor. About halfway along the adit, the river splits in two to allow boats to pass.

When the end of the adit is reached, visitors get out of the boat to view the showcave chamber. Here you can see veins of fluorspar and a few the stalagmites and stalactites that have grown up over time. In the cave is the Bottomless Pit, which is certainly a pit but despite the name, is anything but bottomless! The pit is a vertical shaft running to a depth of about 490 feet straight down.

Over the years miners have dumped spoil into the shaft so that now the surface of rock is about 66 feet from the top of the pit. In olden days miners thought the pit was a gateway to Hell. The pit gained its name because, no matter how much spoil the miners dumped into it, the water level remained the same. What they didn't realise is that there was a small natural shaft at water level leading away through the porous limestone, acting in the same way as an overflow opening in a modern sink or bathtub.

Our family enjoyed the journey enormously; the guide was entertaining and told us what life was like for the miners and their families. He stopped the boat at several places along the flooded adit to point out where the miners had followed veins of lead ore. He also pointed out how miners had created a perilous ladder system to bring ore down from the soaring top of the main cavern.

It is definitely a good idea to wear good waterproof footwear, as, like any cave, it can be damp underground.

The caves are usually open daily, and you can get a joint ticket for Speedwell and Peak Cavern.

Aboard the boat, heading into the hillside
Aboard the boat, heading deep into the hillside
Looking down into the Bottomless Pit
Looking down into the
Bottomless Pit