Potholing is a sport which has relatively few adherents compared to walking or even rock-climbing, but the Peak is one of the best places in the country to practise this minority sport.
Caver in Eldon Hole
Unlike some other limestone areas such as Yorkshire, there are few natural potholes in the Peak. The only significant ones are Eldon Hole and Nettle Pot, of which Eldon Hole is of course the more spectacular, but Nettle Pot (which is just over the hill to the north-east) is actually deeper at around 170 metres. However, the Peak abounds with natural caves of which Peak Cavern is the largest and most important. Other caves include Thor's Cave in the Manifold, Reynard's Cave and Dove Holes in Dovedale, Poole's Cavern in Buxton, and Thirst House Cave in Deepdale, but though most of these are interesting for the archaeologist they hold little interest for the speleologist. Peak Cavern is the exception for it has an extensive system beyond the show cave which is even linked to the Speedwell system at Winnats. It is open to potholers on a number of winter weekends each year.
Bottomless Pit, Speedwell
One thing Derbyshire has in abundance is old mines and many of the modern show caves are partly natural and partly mined. This goes for all the Castleton Caverns except Peak Cavern and also for Bagshawe Cavern at Bradwell and the Matlock show caves. Some of the old mines are accessible to potholers if they gain permission but most are quite dangerous because of the miners' habit of stacking up tons of waste rock (known as 'deads') above wooden stakes (known as 'stemples'). Though the deads have often calcified together the stemples are now very rotten and whole areas of many mines are very unstable.
The area from the top of Winnats Pass westwards has a number of well-frequented systems. These include Oxlow Cavern, part mine and part natural, and Giant's Hole, where access was once via a difficult sump until a local farmer decided to open it as a show cave and blasted an entrance passage before he was dissuaded from the project. It is now a fairly easy system which is popular with outdoor centres (but note that it has a high level of natural radiation). Further down towards Sparrowpit lies 'Jackpot' or P8 - a very wet pot - and the Gautries system.
Caver in Jackpot (P8)
The Monyash area has a number of natural caverns - Lathkill Head Cave, for example - and two good examples of local lead mines in Hillocks and Knotlow Mines, both of which are relatively safe as old mines go. The Matlock area is also rich in old mining systems. Rutland Cavern at Matlock Bath is now open as a show cave but was once the Nestus Mine; and the Masson Mine, which is part of the same system, is also a show cave but has extensive other sections which are sometimes open to potholers.
There are numerous systems around Stoney Middleton and Eyam. Carlswark Cavern is an extensive system in this area which is popular with beginners - though it has had at least one fatality in the past. A few of the mines in the area are accessible to potholers and between Eyam and Foolow the two Waterfall Swallets are fine examples of their kind.
Caver in Giants Hole
Potholing is a dangerous sport and anyone intending to go underground should be well-equipped and in a party of which at least one member should be an experienced caver. It is easy to get wet and tired underground and it can then be quite difficult to return to the surface, and cave rescue is much more difficult than mountain rescue. Most of the cave and mine systems in the area require permission to descend them and mention of a system in this guide does not imply that permission will necessarily be given.
The guidebook to local systems is 'Caves of Derbyshire' by Trevor Ford and David Gill, published by Dalesman Books. More information about local caving can be obtained from the Derbyshire Caving Association, c/o Sports Council, 26 Musters Road, West Bridgeford, Nottingham. The Caving Supplies shop on London Road in Buxton is also a useful source of advice as well as a place to purchase or hire equipment.
All caving photographs on this page are copyright Paul Deakin - the leading Peak District underground photographer. He can be contacted on: 01782 642778