Castleton, Speedwell Cavern and Winnats Pass: Norman castles, underground boats and precious gems

We head out to Castleton in Derbyshire to explore haunted cave systems, hunt for one of the UK’s rarest minerals, and take defensive positions at a hilltop 11th Century castle. All while accompanied by Sam Buckley of Where the Light Gets In.

By Manchester's Finest | Last updated 17 May 2023

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Walk: Castleton, Speedwell Cavern and Winnats Pass
Time: 1h 50m
Distance: 5.57km
Elevation: 389m

With the weather gradually starting to change for the better, we’re back for another trip to one of the region’s most spectacular outdoor destinations, handily situated within one hour of our city. And this time we’re bringing one of the most respected and unique restaurateurs in Greater Manchester along for the hike. Not to mention the boat ride. 

Sam Buckley is the mastermind behind Stockport’s Where the Light Gets In. “In the loosest sense of the word, it’s a restaurant,” he explains as we head out on our way. Fittingly understated considering the nature of his business, for those who don’t already know this Michelin Green Star eatery sits on the top floor of an historic building in Stockport. 

With a roof garden nearby, where an abundance of the veg served to diners is grown, and mushroom farm down in the basement run by close allies Stockport Fungi, the establishment has rightly earned a national reputation for sustainable food systems, whole-of-animal menu policy, and minimal waste ambitions. All of which we learn more about on this 3.5 mile journey packed with unforgettable features. 

Hanna Outdoors and Sam Buckley

Setting out

We meet Buckley in the quaint village of Castleton, east of Chapel-en-le-Frith on the northern edge of the Peak District National Park. The circular route ahead is more than fitting for the guest in question. Along the way, we’ll explore centuries old fortresses, head deep into lost mining networks, and learn a little about a rare gemstone that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. An odyssey packed with fascinating, often dark local histories, suffice to say the light constantly evolves with the environment. 

Our start point is at the corner of The Stones and Back Street, in the heart of Castleton itself. From here, follow the road due south and then onto the public footpath out of town into the stunning Cave Dale. This relatively shallow valley, flanked by steep green hills, offers a spectacular introduction to the course, not least if the sun is shining and catching on the surrounding rock faces. 

To the ramparts of Peveril Castle

Continue on the footpath until you arrive at a clearly marked fork. From there, double back on yourself and start to head north, uphill towards our second waypoint. Peveril Castle is an 11th Century Norman fortress built by William Peveril, son of William the Conqueror.

Here, you’ll be able to enjoy unrivalled views back into the valley you just came from. As Buckley observes, the area looks like it was plucked straight out of Robin Hood, and this position would have offered ideal defensive advantages against any oncoming forces.

Thankfully, those days are confined to the past, so you’re more likely to see packs of marauding walkers than armed troops. Whether that includes a guy carrying a Corgi dog in his rucksack, as was the case on our hike, is another question. 

After you leave the ramparts behind, continue on the same course until another fork appears. Here, head west for around half a mile until you arrive at Arthurs Way. This country lane quickly turns into Winnats Road, but before that we’re heading down below. 

What lies beneath in Speedwell Cavern

As soon as you reach the road Speedwell Cavern is impossible to miss. Once through the entrance, you’ll descend into the depths for the highlight of this weekend trip. Not just another cave to explore, book yourself onto one of the small wooden boats for a guided tour through this former – short lived and flooded – 18th Century lead mine. 

Josh, the master and commander of our tiny vessel, knows the underground waterway like the back of his hand. Which is good, considering he heads off into the pitch dark at surprising speed, guided only by a small lantern, and isn’t even looking in the right direction. 

Almost as thrilling as the ride, you’ll hear about the eerie history of the cave system. For example, the nine-year-old who first successfully mined lead down here and the brutal working life he endured until death, just before turning 14. 

We also get an insight into where the phrase ‘Legging It’ comes from, and it’s nothing to do with fleeing in terror after hearing the ghosts some believe still inhabit this strange, hidden world. Eventually, we arrive at the eponymous Speedwell Cavern itself, and disembark to put feet back on dry land. Or rock. Here, discover the so-called Bottomless Pit, which may or may not offer direct access to the Earth’s core and devil himself. 

Tree Cliff Hill, Blue John Stone and the Pub

Once you’ve found your way out of the cavern, take the footpath running alongside Winnats Road, known as Winnats Pass. Translated from northern as Windy Gates, it’s a blustery but beautiful stretch that loops around hills under which lie 14 miles of caves and mines. 

Eventually, we arrive at Tree Cliff Cavern – an incredible carboniferous limestone grotto and one of just two sites in the UK where the rare ornamental mineral Blue John Stone can be found (the other is nearby Blue John Cavern). Below ground, a jaw-dropping and dramatic cave system awaits, while back at the surface the visitors centre offers a chance to buy crafts carved from the indigenous gem. 

This is also where we chose to stop for a picnic, featuring dishes straight from the kitchen at Where the Light Gets In. For example, broth made from fish heads and trim – an ideal way to warm up on a chilly day. Better yet, when you’re done it’s just a mile back to Castleton, where a selection of traditional pubs are waiting with pints and roaring fires. The idea way to finish up, especially when Buckley reveals his favourite places to eat and drink back in Stockport. 

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Weekend Walks is a series conceptualised and created by Finest Media