A cemetery of nature.

From 1978 on and off until the late 1980’s I was a tour guide in the Rutland Cavern located in the grounds of the Heights of Abraham, Matlock, Derbyshire. I guided close on 250,000 people through the cavern. Odd to think that so many people spent a half hour in my company in a deep hole in the ground.

Nestes-Nestus-Mettes-Mestes-Nesterside Mine or the Great-Grand-Royal Rutland Cavern

A story of one lead work.

A story of mine. A story of a mine that became a ‘royal’ cavern. A small cave. A narrow passage leading to the Domesday Book, “At Mestesford, King Edward had two caracutes of land without geld (yeald). It is waste. There are eight acres of pasture and one lead work. Wood pasturable in places, three miles long and two wide. Adjoining this manor lies: Meslach, Snitretone, Wodnesleie, Bunteshale, Ibelolon and Tenelege.’

A waste land.

Llewellynn Frederick William Jewitt 1871 in his annotated translation of the Derbyshire section of the Domesday Book stated that:

“Mestesforde or Nestesforde, I believe to have been near what is now Matlock Bridge, which was formerly a forde. Nestes, Nestus or Nesterside are names of the mountain known now as the Heights of Abraham on which is situated the Nestor mine (now known as the Rutland Cavern) which is undoubtedly a Roman mine and was probably the one alluded to as ‘one lead work’. The little village at the foot of the hill has always been known by the name Nestes or Nestus.”

Peter Naylor in A History of the Matlocks read the lay of the land a little differently seeing Mestesforde as Nestesforde or:

A ford at Nestes.

Nestes is thought to be a corruption of new stowse a new windlass over a lead mining shaft. Naylor went on to suggest that Nestesforde lay closer to what is now Matlock Bath down Matlock Dale rather than at Matlock Bridge. Despite the present day steep banks at this site – a result of the river bank having been built up in the 19thC with the coming of the railway – it is possible to visualise a pack horse route leading from Side Road (up the hill in present day Starkholmes – part of the old high level Nottingham-Chesterfield turnpike) wending down to the river and crossing at the ford into Nestes and the community of the mine.

Imagination and supposition.

Little record, archaeological or anecdotal, remains.

The disappeared.

What is not in doubt is that lead mining all but disappeared towards the end of the 19th C and under-employed miners were then engaged converting recently worked mines into romantic caverns or grottos for Matlock Bath’s burgeoning tourist trade. Most mines proved ill-suited for candle-carrying visitors and lasted only a short time.

Nester Mine reborn as the Rutland Cavern.

Nestes/Nester Mine, re-named in honour of the Manners of Haddon, the Dukes of Rutland, was different. It proved to be a huge success.

A royal prefix – the Royal Rutland – followed a visit by the Imperial Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia on the 25th July 1818 ‘to explore the romantic beauties of Matlock and particularly the Rutland cavern.’ The visit of Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent on 22nd October 1832 – with the Bakewell Brass Band in attendance – cemented the Rutland’s reputation.

A right royal cavern.

“On the 31st of July, 1840 the Queen Dowager and the Duchess of Saxe Weimar, accompanied by Earl Howe, the Earl and Countess of Sheffield, Earl of Denbigh, &c., arrived at the Old Bath, from Alton Towers, about three o’clock in the afternoon. The morning had been spent by the inhabitants (who were appraised of the intended visit)in erecting arches, planting evergreens, and otherwise decorating the place with festoons of flowers, hoisting the national and other flags, in fact, making every public demonstration of their pleasure on the occasion. Shortly after her arrival, Her majesty left the Old Bath Hotel to view the various beauties of this lovely spot, when she was heartily welcomed by a Royal Salute, from canon placed on the neighbouring heights, and the affectionate greeting of the assembled multitude. The Royal party went down the river, along the Lovers’ Walk, and round the rocks; again crossed the river, taking the road in front of the Museums, through the Fountain gardens, up the Zigzag to the Rutland cavern Terrace, on to the Heights of Abraham, descended by Guild-de-Roy, and entered the Old Bath Museum, Adam & Co., where her Majesty made several purchases…”

from The Gem of the Peak; or Matlock Bath and Its Vicinity by William Adam 1843


Grotesque forms and craggy appearance.

“The Rutland cavern, in the Heights of Abraham, is remarkably easy of access: the first part of it is a long level path, formed with great labour by miners in the solid limestone, and leading to several very lofty cavities and vaults of great extent, ramifying, as it were, and spreading in different directions. At the side of one of these an easy ascent, by a great number of steps, conducts the visitor to numerous other cavities and vaulted passages amidst rocks of the most grotesque forms and craggy appearance, extending far into the inner part of the mountain. This cavern contains some springs of clear water, and is adorned with various brilliant cyrstallisations, and different metallic ores, which are here commodiously presented to the view in their native state.”

from The History and Gazetteer of the County of Derby ed. Thomas Noble Volume 1. 1831


The easy cavern.

“The Heights of Abraham, so called from its resemblance to the mountain near Montreal, where the brave Wolfe so nobly distinguished himself, is beautifully studded with villas to it very summit; the plantation of firs also, which grow with great luxuriance, giving it an effect enchantingly picturesque. In this mountain is contained the noted Rutland cavern, formerly worked for lead ore, and producing prodigious wealth for the illustrious family whose name it bears […] The access to the mine is rendered easy by a horizontal path that conveys the visitor into the very bosom of the mountain; and here another person attends to shew the caverns the grandeur of which cannot easily be described; they must be seen to be understood.”

from The Northern Star of Yorkshire magazine 1837-52



A cemetery of nature.

“The discovery and opening of this tremendous cemetery of nature, has given to this country a rich treasure of the most brilliant gems, rare fossils, and numerous minerals, forming the most splendid grotto in the world. Philosophers, mineralogists, and the public may now avail themselves of a visit to this treasure – this grand lesson and lecture on science; capricious as a city, and extending many miles, with pillars, arches, and bridges of every denomination and order – Nature the great architect. The lakes, fish-ponds, fountains and rivulates of the most delicate rock-water. The labyrinths, arcades, walls, roofs and floors, embellished with the most glittering crystals, and the ores of silver, lead, copper and zinc in every combination:

Here, ranging through her vaulted ways,
On nature’s alchemy you gaze:
See how she forms the gem, the ore,
And all her magazines explore.

The Rutland cavern, as an object of general curiosity, and the terrific grandeur of the immense natural cavities, far exceeds the wildest pictures of romance, or the fearful scenes of enchantment, and gives a most interesting and perfectly new subject of the mind. From the finest terrace, commanding all the beauties of Matlock, you can enter the rock by a dry, roomy, and even mountainous archway, perfectly safe and pleasant for the most timid female. […] The principal objects of general observation within the cavern, are the rocky mountain archway, imbedding marine shells; the druses, or grottos; fish-ponds; Ossian’s hall; and arcade to the hall of Enchantment, in the Castle of Otranto, of indescribable grandeur; the den of lions; a grand cave, with the extraordinary distant glimmering of daylight; and fine arcade to Jacob’s Well and Fountain; the waters of life; the ascent by one hundred steps to the ancient mine workings of the Romans; other fishponds, with fish living in perpetual darkness; the dark and gloomy cave of black stone; the enemy of the miners; the den of wolves and bears; a romantic bridge: a fine rocky scene. These recesses lead to the most fantastic, grotesque, and whimsical distribution of rocks, imbedding the most rare and delicate fossils, grottos, and druses, that defy all attempts at description or relation.”

from The Atheneum, or the Spirit of the English magazine Volume 2 October 1817 – April 1818


An object of general curiosity or a grand lesson and lecture on science.

“The Rutland Cavern, which is situated on the Heights of Abraham, claims pre-eminence over all the others for the extent of its natural excavations and the beauty of its mineral decoration. It is said to have been worked as a lead mine as far back as the period of the Roman occupation, and it is recorded that during the reigns of some of the Plantagenet kings convicts were condemned to labour in it. A narrow passage leads from the entrance beneath a succession of archways, with openings leading off in different directions to openings and cavities that ramify and extend into the heart of the mountain. Huge cracks and openings reveal themselves here and there in the roof, and occasionally a cavern is entered where the walls are incrusted with crystallisations of calcareous spar, that reflects the lights and gleam and sparkle with dazzling scintillations

A succession of vaulted passages leads to an immense natural cavity in the further recesses of the rock, which has received the name of the Roman Gallery, and the not less fanciful name of the Druid’s Altar has been given to a huge block of limestone, that appears to have fallen from the superincumbent mass. Upon the “altar” the guide usually places a chemical preparation which, when lighted, illuminates the whole place, and casts a weird-like glare upon every projecting crag and inequality. The cavern is now lighted with gas.”

from Illustrated Guide to Matlock by John Heywood 1910

A gas-lit stage.


My Great-Good-Royal Rutland Cave-Cavern-Grotto.

Back in the late 1970’s when I first guided the cavern much of what has been experienced by the Victorian visitors remained. The cavern was entered from a broad terrace of levelled and landscaped spoil that’d been formed when the artificial adit/passage was driven in 1810 through toadstone into the dolomitised limestone beneath. The terrace housed a simple tearoom serving refreshments to the visitors. My grandmother ran the tearoom for many years during the 1950’s and 60’s.


The passage into the hillside was low in places, wet too. At 240 feet the Roman Hall was entered. A cavern-like stope (or man-made opening create by ore extraction) some 300 feet long and up to 100 feet high, running in a north-westerly direction into the Masson hillside. At the top of the rising cavern was a short passage leading south-westward into the Nestus Grotto, another cavern-like stope with a steeply rising floor.

From the Roman Hall a short passage also led northwards to a wishing well, a small pool under a rock overhang.Passing this on the right the passage continued to the Major Oak, a pillar of rock pitted with mined-out pockets of lead ore which it was claimed made it resemble the Major Oak of Sherwood Forest.

Much of this part of the cavern is no longer shown to the public, instead they stand in the Roman Hall by the Roman staircase and watch and bit of augmented reality, all time-travelling miners and smoke.

I spent many hours enjoying the silence of the cavern and the showmanship of being a Guide.



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