Finding Blue John

Recently I spent a long weekend in the Peak District – not really long enough to explore properly despite it being Britain’s smallest national park.  However, there was time to explore the small town of Bakewell, home of the famous and very tasty Bakewell Tart as well as a drive through the Chatsworth Estate.  The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire had to be ignored on this occasion but lunch at their farm shop was well worth breaking the journey for. For photographs and a description of these places see my earlier post by clicking on the link The Peak District’s Soft Centre.  Finally reaching the area known as the High Peak (despite the name there are no mountains in the Peak District) a roadside sign pointing in the direction of Blue John led through glorious countryside.

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Chatsworth House

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View from the Blue John mine

Blue John is a fluorite semi-precious mineral that in its raw state appears quite dull.  After drying, preparing and polishing it takes on a number of colours ranging from purplish-blue through to yellow.  Despite numerous tests and analyses the origins of the colour has not been discovered.  Blue John is also a rare stone for although similar minerals have been found elsewhere in the world there are only two known places where its unique quality can be found – and those are both in the same hillside in the Peak District.

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Blue John in its raw state

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    Blue John after processing – the bowl is in the Castleton (Peak District) Visitor Centre.         Copyright: Pasicles via Wikipedia

Visiting the Blue John mine is not for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath for that matter: there are two hundred and fifty steps to descend and then, of course, you have to climb back up them to reach the surface once more.  Don’t complain, ‘though, or you may have to descend by rope as the early miners once did.  Fortunately, I only looked down it to see the visitors below.

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The descent into the mine

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The alternative way into the mine – being lowered by rope!

Inside the mine there are low tunnels to pass through contrasting with vast caverns with roof heights of 200 feet or more, either created by ancient rivers or by the miners themselves.  Each cavern has its own unique characteristic although it is difficult to catch it on camera.  The one below is named Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room, a huge circular space formed by a whirlpool and so named after the dinner Lord M gave his miners there.  The thought of the cooks and food being lowered deep into the mine gives a new angle to the term ‘outdoor catering’!

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Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room

The Waterfall Cavern is colourful with the stalactite formations along one side appearing to be frozen water.  Elsewhere there are numerous fossils where marine animals have been ‘captured’ for posterity.

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‘The Frozen Waterfall’

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Fossils embedded into the mine walls

Throughout the mine the colours and texture of the rock formations are extraordinary and constantly changing.  In one cavern it is easy to ‘see’ the rocky and meandering bed of the prehistoric river that formed it, the difference being that it is way, way above one’s head.  In another, a giant, triangular rock has fallen to balance on its point.

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The overhead ‘riverbed’

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Huge and precariously balanced

The tours, which are led by miners, for Blue John is still mined here during the winter months, last about an hour.  At the end of the tour all there is left is to climb the two hundred and fifty steps back to the surface…

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The long climb back to the surface

 

For further details of the history of the Blue John Mine and visiting hours visit their website here.

To give overseas visitors a better idea of its location, the Peak District National Park is approx. 3.5 hours by car, north from London; by public transport allow 6-7 hours.  There are plenty of hotels, traditional pubs and self-catering cottages available for overnight stays.

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The Peak District’s Soft Centre

Ask people what they associate with the Peak District and you will receive many different answers: Chatsworth House and the Devonshire’s, Bakewell Tart, grouse moors, rock climbing and caving.  The UK’s first designated national park is all of these things and more.

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Chatsworth House

A whistle-stop tour last weekend of the Peak District didn’t allow a thorough exploration of all its diverse scenery.  A drive through Chatsworth’s historic parkland and a visit to their farm shop gave a glimpse of the famous cascade in the gardens but that and the house interior will have to wait for another occasion.  If ‘farm shop’ conjures up a vision of a limited choice of vegetables covered in mud at a wayside shack, think again.  Chatsworth’s huge selection is impeccably presented along with breads, cheeses and meat in the former Shire Horse stallion stable block, now beautifully converted.

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Quality is key at Chatsworth Farm Shop

The town of Bakewell is renowned for Bakewell Tart or to be more accurate, as I now know it should be called, Bakewell Pudding.  Forget the oversweet, thickly iced versions available nationwide, the traditional version is packed full of almonds, the shortest of sweet pastry and not much else.  The queues of people waiting to purchase them stands testament to their quality and flavour.

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Prepare to join a queue!

Only moments away from the busy town centre is the River Wye (one of several in the UK with that name), a place of calm and surrounded by historic, stone buildings.  On Sunday morning, Remembrance Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of the Great War, brought silence to the town.  As elsewhere throughout the country, the focus at 11 o’clock was the war memorial with the traditional wreath laying ceremonies of scarlet poppies.

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The old mill at Bakewell is available for holiday lets

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WW1 memorial to the fallen men of Bakewell

As already hinted, the Peak District has broad expanses of heather moorland as well as limestone crags and outcrops.  This weekend’s exploration of the Peaks revealed the softer side of the national park; its gentler views were bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine highlighting the last of the autumn colours.

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Peaceful grazing with a view!

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Lengthening shadows as the autumn sun sets

Another visit to the Peaks is planned, next time exploring on foot the passes of the High Peaks, the Chatsworth estate and the village of Eyam, where in 1665 the villagers chose to isolate themselves during an outbreak of bubonic plague.   Of the three hundred villagers, only eighty survived but their self-sacrifice prevented the disease spreading to the neighbouring population.

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Isolated cottages are scattered throughout the national park

Although time was short, a visit to the Blue John Mines couldn’t be ignored.  The story of this rare semi-precious stone and the descent into the caves via two hundred and fifty steps will come next.  If you suffer from claustrophobia or struggle with steps this isn’t the place for you – it’s a long (and sometimes low and narrow), old climb back to the top!

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The descent into the mine