The roads this time were A roads and back roads and incorporated some pretty hairy bends and hills, akin to those I would expect to find winding up and down the sides of Mountains in the Alps! Little Mudlet was not at all impressed to find herself looking out of the window down a sheer drop which was only separated from the truck by what appeared to be the flimsiest of fences.
“I’d quite like to go home now,” she said in a very plaintive voice.
I have to say that not having the best head for heights, I was in full sympathy with her but we ploughed on regardless, with the most amazing scenery unfolding around us …. not that Middle Mudlet noticed as she had her head firmly stuck in the map book trying to figure out where it was that we were going.
An hour after leaving Bolsover we had nearly arrived at the site of our next adventure when Mud decided to pull over and taken some shots of the truly beautiful view. Finally, we set off again, arriving literally 5 minutes later at the Blue John Cavern, Mam Tor in the Hope Valley.
At this stage both Mudlets were excited about the prospect of going into a real cave, with real stalactites and real stalagmites! Twenty minutes later and Little Mudlet once more announced that she really would like to go home now ….. please!
Now is probably a good time to admit that my dislike of heights in only equaled by my dislike of dark, enclosed spaces and the Blue John Cavern was certainly dark (despite the electric lights dotted about) and was absolutely enclosed and these two factors, coupled with the near vertical and deep treaded steps of the first two flights down, had me in full agreement with our 6 year old.
If the remainder of the 240 steps were like the first 60 or so, then there was a very real danger of Cave Rescue being called out to retrieve me from the depths of the cave, never mind poor Little Mudlet. As luck would have it, the remaining steps were actually both shallower, longer and on a more gentle angle than the first ones, although they were still slippery from the water dripping down. Our guide, Ben, had said at one of the first viewing stops that even walking boots were useless in the caves and he hadn’t been exaggerating.
“Handrails need to be held as you come down the steps,” he informed us, “And they also need to be held as you walk along between the steps.”
The viewing stops more than made up for the stress of coming down the steps and coping with the dark and enclosed chambers and tunnels. Not that the tunnels were particularly long but flashbacks to one of the horror films Mud had actually talked me into watching (that would be ‘the Descent‘ for those of you who wish to avoid watching it) didn’t do much to improve the experience for me. Then there were the weird ‘tentacles’ that seemed to be creeping down the walls, looking for all the world like subterranean versions of the ‘red weed’ depicted in ‘The War of Worlds’, except they were a yellow colour in the half light and were actually mineral deposits leeched from the ground.
From the start Ben acknowledged that he wasn’t a conventional tour guide, with his gruff, no nonsense humour but he gave us a tonnes of fascinating information about the history of the mine, how the name of the semi-precious mineral Blue John came about (it was a British mispronunciation of the French word for it – Bleu Jaune) and the various veins that are either still in operation or have been mined in the past.
Oh and did you know that there were different shaped stalactites? No neither did we but we do now and in the final chamber, way up on the ceiling, we saw a fabulous example of a blanket stalactite that looked just like …. well…. a blanket.
Middle Mudlet was particularly excited when we were told to look out for the 3 inch wide band of fossils that we would be passing, as we made our way through one of the tunnels, As it turned out these were pretty hard to miss and for our fossil mad little girl, it was probably the highlight of that visit.
When we reached the deepest point accessible for tourists (Ben and the other miners were able to go a lot further), the final chamber was breath taking in its’ splendour. By this time we were some 300 feet below ground and putting aside the darkness, enclosed nature of the place, the cold air and 15 other viewers, it was actually very, very peaceful and so beautiful.
I would like to say at this point that we are incredibly grateful to our fellow cave visitors who were extremely patient with the slow progress of Little Mudlet and another little boy who looked to be about the same age and height as her, as we made our descent. We didn’t hear a single complaint about the slow pace set by the children which was a relief, as the added pressure of knowing there were disapproving adults about could have caused more problems or even an accident.
The ascent was much faster, with the Mudlets climbing at speed behind Ben the guide and he was bemused by my urgings to them to be careful and to keep hold of the handrail as we didn’t want any accidents.
“Don’t worry,” he said,”Climbing the steps isn’t usually a problem.”
Little Mudlet can trip up over fresh air, a fact I pointed out to him and Little Mudlet proved just a short while later! She was fine though, just keen to get back into the warmer, fresh air above ground. I suspect pot holing and caving won’t be on her list of favourite past times anytime soon.
As we neared the top, our guide stopped in one of the tunnels to show Middle Mudlet a particular fossil. He then grabbed my arm, pushed up my sleeve, placed my hand on the rough, cold surface of the fossil explaining all about it to the rest of the party before instructing me to put my hand and bare forearm into one of the ceiling holes. I happily did this, interested to feel the different textures of the rock formations and Ben then began to explain all about the tiny Pipistrelle Bats that live in the roof holes.
“Oh wow!” was my excited response,”Really?”
I love bats. I find them fascinating and look out of our back door, or stand in the back garden, lights off, just as dusk changes to night time and you can just about see them whizzing around, demonstrating the awesome power of their inbuilt sonar. I suppose I should have been worried about being bitten if my hand had disturbed a roost but the thought of potentially being so close to roosting bats was amazing and Ben watched in disgust as I slowly withdrew my hand, as excited as Middle Mudlet had been about the fossils.
“Typical,” said this most unconventional of tour guides,”Any other female in the group would have screamed or squealed but not you!”
Actually I think he was being a tad unfair to the other women but I guess he has become accustomed to the affect this party trick has on many females and had misjudged me.
Of course the cave gift shop had to be inspected on the way out and I was particularly taken with the vast amount of Blue John jewellery they had on offer, not that I bought any. As for the Mudlets, they were each given a budget of £5 to spend and came away with a decent haul, including two bits of uncut Blue John each.
In summary we feel that although we enjoyed the sights and experience of the cave, at £25 for a family ticket, it wasn’t as good value as the Castle, mainly due to the obvious and necessary limitations associated with such an experience namely the inability to allow visitors to go down and explore at their own pace. This adventure is obviously something that our children will never forget but Mud and I struggled to see how a £25 entrance fee was warranted, if that makes sence but I guess there are hidden running costs.
That said, if you don’t mind about the value for money aspect, I have to say that this is a place worth visiting but do take the warnings in respect of people with certain health issues seriously. Both the descent and the ascent provide a serious cardio workout which will leave even the fittest of visitors gasping and as for your legs, you’ll feel them the next day, trust me, I know this for a fact!
As we made the slow, steep climb back up to the car, Mud and i smiled to ourselves, as we had one last place to visit on our way home and, once again, the children had no idea where we were going next. Their mystery tour continued but at least our next destination was free ……. well almost ….. and I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.