Two Tribes – Going Underground

Anybody living through the 1980s will vouch for what a scary time it was.

The Cold War constantly raised the threat of nuclear Armageddon as Russia and the USA faced off, in a real-life and potentially deadlier version of Rocky IV.

While western cinema audiences were rooting for Balboa to overcome the beast from the east, political leaders had contingency plans for dealing with the four-minute warning.

They’d head underground.

My new book, Days Out Underground, is available to buy now and features 50 subterranean adventures beneath the surface of Britain.

I’ve written a couple of other blogs detailing some of the things there are to do deep beneath the Earth, and this week it’s all about how you can take the route that Margaret Thatcher would have taken if it had all kicked off in the 1980s.

In the heart of Essex, you’ll see one of the most ironic road signs in the world. It’s a big, brown tourist sign pointing you towards the “Secret Nuclear Bunker.”

Not very secret now, the underground facility at Kelvedon Hatch contains three subterranean storeys beneath an innocent enough looking hill.

From the surface, all you can see is a bungalow that would be at home on any suburban estate so any spying satellites would not suspect a thing.

Hidden within the house, though, is a lengthy tunnel which slowly slopes into the hillside. At the end of this there are a huge set of thick blast doors, and beyond this a safe haven where officials would have been able to survive for up to three months.

It’s an eerie, captivating place to visit and the self-guided audio tour keeps you well informed about what the many rooms were used for and how life underground would have been for those selected to be in here.

Nobody on the outside knew it was here at the time, of course. The only reason to suspect anything is the location of a mast on the hillside; when it was being built, even the drivers delivering materials had to leave their load a mile from the site and have it transferred to the building by those who had signed the Official Secrets Act.

And if the worst had come to the worst, this hide-out in Essex was to be the home of the UK government. From here they would try their level best to keep some kind of order in the land above their heads.

Radio announcements could be made from here and contact could be maintained with the network of bunkers elsewhere in the country. Air filters, pumps and energy generators were in place to ensure life could continue underground.

Eventually, though, the makeshift government would have to leave and discover what kind of a state the country had been left in.

In doesn’t bear thinking about what those coming out of Kelvedon Hatch would have discovered had the Cold War turned hot.

But visiting this – one of the 50 underground days out in my new book – is helpful to open a window on what life was like before Gorbachev and Reagan met and the thaw began.

 

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Going Underground! Treak Cliff Cavern

Although you might think the best sights to see in the Peak District are the hills, waterfalls and villages that dot many a landscape, the real gems are found beneath the surface – quite literally!

 

Castleton is a small village close to Kinder Scout and Mam Tor. It’s beyond Hope, as the local joke goes (Hope being the village next door where a large chimney at the cement works dominates the horizon).

This small village, which punches above its’ weight when it comes to services like pubs and shops because of the influx of country-loving daytrippers, is pretty much the point where Dark Peak meets White Peak.

To the north, the peaty moorlands and wild tors made of gritstone are found, while the more rolling dales cover the white limestone to the south.

It’s the porous limestone, slowly worn away by streams over thousands of years, that is the creator of wonders in these parts, carving out underground caverns and exposing incredibly features that have been hidden until relatively recently.

Nestled in a hillside above Castleton, you reach Treak Cliff Cavern by travelling on what used to the be the main road from here to Manchester.

A massive landslip in the 1970s rendered the route impassable and journeys across the Pennines now leave via the incredibly beautiful Winnats Pass.

After walking up the steep path to the entrance, there’s usually enough time to enjoy the fossil shop and nip to the loo before the underground tour begins and the hard hats are handed out.

Treak Cliff Cavern is a joy to visit, and it’s not too far from the focus of last week’s blog about Speedwell Cavern.

Part mining operation, part cavernous wonder, Treak Cliff Cavern has so many features to write home about it’s impossible to do it justice without visiting.

You’ll see veins of Blue John – the previous stone that only found in these parts and was used extensively in the 18th and 19th Centuries to create the lamps and decorations of the region’s stately homes.

Some Blue John is still mined and a range of jewellery can be bought in shops throughout Castleton.

A little further into the cavern, you’ll stop to take a look at an amazing wall of fossils.

Sea creatures that lived in these parts 350 million years ago when it was a tropical ocean can now be seen in the limestone on the side of the Treak Cliff walls – and it’s an awesome sight.

Down the tour goes, into caverns created by underground streams, now revealing a treasure trove of crystal formations, stalactites and stalagmites.

Treak Cliff Cavern is open all year round, and if you head out there at Christmas you’ll be able to sing carols beneath the surface of the Earth.

It’s one of 50 Underground Adventures in my new book, with nearby attractions including Speedwell Cavern and Peak Cavern – more affectionately known as The Devil’s Arse.

Days Out Underground: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy here.

 

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Going Underground!

img_3796Standing on top of Mam Tor, gazing out over the Hope Valley towards Castleton, you can’t help but be blown away by the beauty of the Peak District.

To the left is Kinder Scout – site of the famous mass trespass of the 1930s when ramblers dug in over access issues – and to the right the rolling hills of the ‘white peak’ trundle on south.

The Peak District was the first area in the UK to be designated as a National Park back in 1951 and there’s no wonder people rushed to protect this place, which attracts thousands of annual visits from folk in the big cities of Manchester and Sheffield.

This pioneering National Park is not only a beauty on the surface; there are some tremendous sights to be hold as you dive beneath the surface of this magnificent national treasure.

While I was researching my new book, Underground Days Out: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain, it became clear that the Peak District had more than a fair share of attraction below the surface.

In this series of subterranean blogs, I’m going to share with you the subterranean wonders of the Peak District and, one by one, explore the Premier League attractions you can explore on a spare weekend.

We’ll start with an unusual visitor attraction that has fascinated generations of tourists, with Steve McQueen and the cast of Coronation Street among them.

Speedwell Cavern is situated in a glorious spot. It’s at the foot of Winnats Pass, surrounded by incredible limestone scenery and within walking distance of Mam Tor and Peveril Castle.

Back in the 18th Century, the local economy around these parts was thriving thanks to some profitable lead mines. A local prospector saw the chance of making a fortune beneath the hills of Castleton and paid miners to start exploring for lucrative veins of lead.

They found nothing, the enterprise went bust and lead mining never took off at Speedwell, but money started to be made for a completely different reason.

An innovative subterranean water canal was built way below the Pennines to transport miners below the surface.

Even when miners were still looking for lead, some visitors were enjoying boat tours in what was a totally unique experience for them.

The trip took them to a majestic cavern, shaped by underground waterflows over millions of years and now a place where the wealthy could stand in awe of nature.

The little building that stands on the surface is no indication of the grandeur you find in the cavern beneath the hill.

When you descend the stairs lined with fairy lights and clamber into the little boat, you are genuinely embarking on an experience that can’t be found elsewhere.

But keep in mind that it’s not for the faint hearted! You’ll be travelling along very tight spaces, with metres of rock above your head and no way to turn around until the tour is finished.

I’ve known people who have bottled it halfway along because of the claustrophobic conditions down there and wanted to turn around.

But for most, the trip is one that will be remembered for ever. And adventurous kids will be beside themselves with their boat ride beneath the Peak District hills.

Days Out Underground: 50 Subterranean Adventures Beneath Britain is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy here.

 

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Going Underground!

People have always been fascinated by what lies beneath their feet.

It was in 1864 that Jules Verne wrote about a Journey to the Centre of the Earth and that creative tale, which sees an explorer descending down an Icelandic volcano, is still popular today.

The equally fascinating and frightening Time Machine from the literary mind of HG Wells takes a voyage to the future and finds a whole sub species living underground – producers and slaves for those living a better life on the surface.

The Time Machine is a social commentary, written at a time when many of the UK’s poorest families survived on jobs underground, mining coal, tin and lead in extremely unhealthy occupations.

Today in the UK there are more people working underground in tourism than there are in mining – this an earthy fact I picked up on the road visiting a wide range of subterranean tourist attractions that used to be the work place for tens of thousands.

For my Underground Days Out project, I travelled from the tip of Cornwall to northern Scotland and dozens of places in between, searching for the best things people can do on a trip below the surface which, let’s be honest, is the best way to spend a rainy day.

The result was a wonderful trip through British history and the book, Underground Days Out is published by Conway, a division of Bloomsbury, in March 2019.

Exploring the rich mining heritage of our country is one aspect. There is a trip down a coal mine where you experience a descent down a shaft in the mining cage, while earlier bronze mines provide a fascinating glimpse into how early humans used to trade with settlements across the seas.

Going back even further, Out Underground spaces teach us how people lived in prehistoric times. Early remains found at Kents Cavern, Torquay, or Creswell Crags in the Midlands reveal secrets of the past and rare cave paintings in the case of the latter.

Further back still, cave formations made 350 million years ago make awesome viewing.

A journey beneath Edinburgh’s streets unveils the squalid conditions people lived in during the 18th Century.

And as I ventured beneath towns such as Ramsgate and Stockport I found huge areas that provided terrified townsfolk with shelter during Hitler’s bombing raids.

Churchill planned the D-Day from underneath London and pulled off the Dunkirk evacuations from beneath Dover’s White Cliffs.

Zoom forward forty years from World War Two and people were petrified of a more severe kind of bombing as the Cold War brought a terrifying chill.

Bunkers in Essex, York and Scotland were among a network of underground refuges should a nuclear attack have been launched, and these are the most disturbing destinations I found in a year of subterranean travel.

When I emerged into the sunlight to finish the 50 chapters in the book, I’d been on an epic voyage into Britain’s natural and social past.

The book is now ready to hit the shops in the spring and can be pre-ordered.

I’ll be highlighting some of the trips beneath the surface in future blogs, so get ready to explore Britain’s underground heritage.

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Falling in Love With Autumn

As the days grow shorter and temperature edges towards the chillier end of the spectrum, the criteria for those looking for a decent walk in the countryside changes. Gone are the long, idyllic summer evenings where you can head out for a decent stroll after work; what’s needed at this time of year are routes that a crisp and concise. Just like an autumnal day itself, then. The most obvious thing to include in a countryside walk is a visit to deciduous woodland, where the spectacular show of colour is proudly put on by the nation’s leaves and changes on a daily basis.

Autumn is a special time, reminding me of family walks in fabulous places when the kids were younger. Autumn is the time we’d head into one of our favourite woods and watch for a little mouse that would appear from a nearby wall to get the food people left. Autumn means the candy luscious treats of Halloween, and the smokey traditions of Bonfire Night.  Autumn is a time I pay an annual visit to Silverdale, near Morecambe, to catch falling leaves in the hours before Lancaster’s fireworks display.

But Autumn also brings mental health challenges from those who suffer from SAD, myself among them. It can be a massively disorientating and threatening time of year as darkness encroaches on the end of the working day and practically all free time during the week is under the cover of darkness. It’s crucially important to keep active during these weeks; exercise is well known for reducing levels of anxiety and depression, while getting out into beautiful scenery can boost levels of enjoyment.

The Autumn section of Year Round Walks in the Peak District keeps all this mind. I’ve tried to produce five walks for the season that you can complete in the shorter hours and be given some seasonal vigour by the charming, golden tree canopy. One of my favourites hits the lovely village of Bradfield. It’s such a lovely, quiet and quaint place that I really like to visit. Over the last few months I’ve been popping to Bradfield around once a week. It’s a great place to get inspiration. If you see me there, you can inspire me by buying me a coffee!

 

Year Round Walks in the Peak District contains 20 seasonal walks and is available now.

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Baking in Bakewell

Britain is in the grip of a heatwave at the time of writing, with sweltering temperatures triggering sales of ice cream, beer and BBQs. Summer is well and truly here, and there’s no sign of any rain until the school holidays begin! Great summer days need great summer walks, complete with a cracking picnic spot. In my new Peak District Year Round Walks, I have researched and written up simple instructions for five walks within each season.

One of the summer-inspired chapters of the book takes in the delightful town of Bakewell and visits nearby Chatsworth House. On a long, bright day, this provides a great family day out. The walk can be combined with a visit to the famous country house, a stroll around its ornate gardens, and there’s plenty for kids to do in the farmyard and adventure playground. The walk in the book calls in at Bakewell, too, giving you the chance to grab a famous Bakewell Pudding and sit a while by the river. The route covering Bakwell and Chatsworth is just one of the summer walks – check out my blog on Dovedale and visit the famous stepping stones across the river.

 

The wonderful parkland at Chatsworth is a fantastic place to explore, whether it’s gazing at ancient trees, meandering to Edensor village or gazing at the hunting tower. It is a truly inspiring landscape, worked on by Capability Brown and with many of his features surviving to this day. He straightened the river flowing past the house and added many of the trees that are still planted around the grounds to improve the quality of the view. He also moved the village of Edensor to its present location, so that the houses could no be seen from the windows of Chatsworth. But it is the actual house that commands the most respect and dominates the parkland as soon as it comes into view. In the early 20th Century, alterations to tax collection and a wave of social change put a lot of pressure on grand country houses such as Chatsworth. Unlike many similar houses, Chatsworth has survived as the family home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire through 16 generations of the Cavendish family. Today, it generates money from allowing visitors into the house, garden and farmyard, where there is a great playground for children. The house is extremely popular at Christmas, when each year it is decorated with a different theme and opens its doors to coach parties and family day trippers from all over the country. There are many splendid rooms to look at inside, but if you don’t fancy entering the house make sure you give it a good examination from the outside. There are many important people who have been here and shared the view, including Queen Victoria. You can absorb the history of this country house as you wander through the park.

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Summer in Dovedale

 

We’re moving forward to another season, and so there’s the opportunity to try out five great walks in my new Peak District Year Round Walks Book. We’ve already enjoyed spring and the chances of a bluebell walks that it throws at us, but now it’s time to get down to picnics and paddling in rivers. There are wonderful spots for this all over the National Park, but a particular favourite is Dovedale. The walk from Dovedale sets off from Ilam Hall, a great National Trust property with a fantastic cafe, and meanders over the hills before dropping down into Dovedale itself.

No visit to Dovedale would be complete without a hop over the famous stepping stones that have made this place picture-postcard perfect since the 19th Century. Like many occasion when people have altered the countryside landscape, the stepping stones did not have an instant appeal but over the decades they have become strongly associated with this quaint, beautiful valley. In truth, you don’t have to go over the stepping stones to get to the other side because there is a bridge a little further down the valley towards Ilam. But where’s the fun in that? In the summer months, it’s quite normal to see people queueing for some time until it’s their turn to head across. People can only make the journey across the River Dove in single file and so there can be a fair bit of congestion at either side, but it’s something you just have to do! Storms leading to rising river levels and flooding have swept away the stones and led to significant damage. There have been times when the popular tourist cross-river route has had to be closed off. But it’s always been worth investing money to get the stepping stones renovated and the picturesque scene back to its best. The fossil-laden stepping stones are one of the main reasons this remote dale has the high number of visitors that it does.

Here are some “must-do” recommendations for a day out in Dovedale.

  1. Get involved at the National Trust cafe at Ilam Hall. Treat yourself to a cream tea, and debate whether it’s jam or cream on top.
  2. Enjoy an ice cream at the entrance to the Dovedale trail – there’s some amazing flavours going on there!
  3. Queue up to take a trip across the famous stepping stones. And don’t fall in. Everybody will be watching.
  4. Annoy everybody waiting to cross the stepping stones by taking time to crouch down and see the ancient fossils in the limestone rock. These are amazing. Take your time.
  5. Save time for a paddle in the river on a cool, summer day.

@peternaldrett 

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