Peak Cavern

1829

Byron’s Wonder | Matthew Clegg

He was charming to me in the Cave Mouth,
Holding me close as water came slow-dripping
In long dives from the rocks above. We played
At catching it on our fingers and faces
Till a rope-maker came to be our guide.
The shacks the rope-folk slept in were no bigger
Than hen coops; everywhere smelt of pig fat
And open privies. Byron paid his money
And I followed them both into the dark.
We were heading, he said, for Hell’s own river.

The boat was no bigger than a child’s coffin,
Or a pauper’s. He made me lie on top.
The rope-man’s face was almost kissing water
As he pushed us through the crack. Byron swore
As we tried to do whatever it was he wanted
And it didn’t happen. We were both glad
When we made it through and could uncramp ourselves
From that leaky crate of muck and straw.
The great poet had to bribe the rope-maker
To keep dumb about what we didn’t do.

I felt drowsy once we reached the big cave.
Byron told me some yarn about a portal
In the castle above. Prisoners were dropped
To fall and flay themselves through a shaft that ended
Somewhere right above our heads. Those that lived
Were left to crawl in the dark until madness
Took them; then slow death by hunger and cold.
He asked me if I still admired the gentry
Now, but I said I’d heard of far worse
Done to girls by gentlemen. I wasn’t lying.

At long last we came to the Devil’s Cellar;
You could hear the River Styx from there.
The rope-man lifted his candle to the ceiling
And it shone like satin or snakeskin boots.
I’m not sure why, but I let out a shiver.
‘No one really goes to Hell,’ Byron said,
Pulling me close. ‘Not even whores and blasphemers.
All this is just water, limestone and dark.’
He smiled; said my body was the real wonder.
The dog! I saw him once more after that.

Peak Cavern, also known as the Devil’s Arse (so called because of the flatulent-sounding noises from inside the cave), is one of the four show caves in Castleton, Derbyshire. It has the largest cave entrance in Europe and was once home to a community of rope-makers.

Click here to listen to Matthew Clegg reading ‘Byron’s Wonder’.

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