Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2009

Caels' or Gaels' Wark

or the
SKELETON CAVERN, MIDDLETON DALE.

“Even when crime is thought to be securely buried, it will,
in time, roll out of its grave”. - Aries - Young England.

IN the Peak there is no festivity equal to the “Wakes” or feast. Every village, on this occasion, assumes a different aspect; the inhabitants put on their best attire; all employment ceases; the Ivy-adorned cottages are decked out in rural splendour; and a kind of rustic furore becomes strikingly predominant.

Of the occasions and practices connected with this festivity, there is one which is singularly pleasing and social; that is, the assembling of friends, and particularly relatives from distant places, at the houses of their respective kindred, at the wakes. While thus assembled, the bonds of friendship and affection are strengthened; every kind of recreation is brought within the sphere of innocent indulgence; and the good things of this world - almost lavishingly prepared on [Page 111] the occasion - serve not a little in giving a zest to the pleasure and pastimes of these local and pleasingly unique “merry meetings”.

It is now over sixty years since the occurrence of the singular incident which forms the basis of the following short story. It was the wakes at E___, a village in the vicinity of Middleton Dale. On the night previous to the feast day - the wakeseve - Peter M___, a villager of E___, a person of excellent parts, retired to sleep in high spirits, expecting on the following morning the pleasure of once more meeting his numerous friends and relatives under his own roof. Ere he sank into the arms of Morpheus, he took a rapid view of the places of curiosity and interest to which he would take his friends on the forthcoming day; he indulged for more than an hour in anticipating pleasure, and having finished this mental chart, he nudged, or rather elbowed his fifth rib - his beloved wife Betty - and ejaculated, in a kind of snore “Na, let's be up in time i'th morn, tha' knows they'll be here very soon and sartain”. “No doubt o' that, Peter”, replied Betty, “no doubt at all, tha' knows the Scripture words - 'where the body is, thither will the eagles fly!'” “Pooh! pooh!” replied Peter, “'the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof' - Scripture again, Betty”. After a few more words they both went to sleep.

Is there truth in dreams or not? This question has been asked times innumerable - but in vain. There is [Page 112] a mystery in dreams which has hitherto baffled the acutest penetration of intellect. The material world is the undisputed empire of intellectuality; but when the confines of the immateriality are approached, all then is little more than conjecture: - that is, as respects things beyond the sphere of revelation. Dreams have been verified, almost in every age: the dream of Caesar's wife is a striking instance among numberless others, and the following no less so.

Long ere the sun had risen, Betty, the wife of honest Peter, had been busily engaged in preparing for their visitors; viands of kinds more distinguished for their substantial qualities than for deliciousness, were in abundance in their larder; and the busy spouse almost wished the time at hand when - notwithstanding her reputed stinginess - she could exhibit such evident proofs of their standing and worldly circumstances. After a short time Peter was heard on the chamber floor, and in a few minutes he appeared at the foot of the stairs. “Bless me”, said Betty, as she met him entering the house, “what a sorrowful look you've got on for a feast day in the morning; I thought you would have been all joy, like a lark at its matins”. “Ah! Betty, I do not experience what I've read of - 'sorrow continuing for a night, and joy i'the morning' - at present”. “Sorrow! sorrow!” said the wondering wife, “I never heard you complain, although I was awake in the night”. “No, no, my love, mine was not sorrow of the flesh, but of mind. Hearken: I dreamed out [Page 113] friends and I were walking in the dale [Middleton Dale], and after feasting ourselves with beholding the charms of nature as exhibited to the face of day, we repaired with candles to explore a cavern, but I cannot tell thee exactly which of the two - Caels' Wark, or the Wonder. Forward we went with our lights to where the superincumbent rock nearly reaches the floor of the cavern; I was, of course, the guide, and being a little before them, I caught a glance of something on the ground before me which I thought needed examination. I approached, stooped - held out my light, and lo! it was a man, fast mouldered away to a skeleton. His shoes were on his feet - the buckles on his shoes, and some portions of his clothes were on the body - but as thou art, my dear wife, I'll tell thee what troubles me most is, methought I had known him when alive, and ever since I awoke, the image of the man both when living, and as I saw him in my dream, is still vividly impressed on my mind”. “Fiddlestick, man, do not tell me such stuff to break my fast on. See, by the mass, they're coming, our company, Mr. and Mrs. B___, Mr. and Mrs. C__, Lord, a dozen of them - hand them in, my love”.

It was now forenoon of the feast day; the wakes had commenced, and the lovely village of E___ wore an aspect of unstinted hospitality and blithsome conviviality. Here and there were groups of ruddy-faced children ambitiously exhibiting to one another their new clothes; others were waddling about in their first [Page 114] breeches, while their smiling parents watched at a distance, feeling in their hearts a pleasure - a joy, which is a counterpoise to hundreds of troubles, sometimes incident on the matrimonial state.

During the afternoon of this day of festivity, Peter M____ and his visitors walked out to glance at the numerous objects of interest with which the village is surrounded. In the course of their ramble they came to the mouth of Caels' Wark, a small cavern in the dale before alluded to; and, what is most singular in the matter, they almost one and all expressed a desire to go therein. Peter, though somewhat reluctant, could not resist the generally expressed wish of his guests, therefore lights were procured, and they commenced their subterraneous exploration. This cavern is not distinguished for stalactitic beauty; it is not spacious, but can at all times be explored without the inconvenience of changing apparel. A small stream (sometimes a flood) runs on the floor of the cavern; indeed it is this water that is the most interesting, for it is known to have a subterraneous channel of three miles. Peter, full of his dream, went forward at the head of his guests; but, to their astonishment and dread, they beheld at the apparent extremity of the place the body of a man lying on its back in the same state of decomposition, with clothes, shoes, and buckles, as before described in Peter's dream. From this place of terror they hastened with all speed; the discovery of human remains in this darksome cavern was in a few hours [Page 115] circulated through the adjoining villages; and a concourse of people were soon assembled at the opening of the chasm. Next morning the body was brought forth and exhibited to the gaze of numerous spectators. The body apparently was that of a man of about sixty years of age, and in frame, stout and well built. The clothes were of a peculiar kind; the shoes and buckles of the ordinary fashion. It was these articles, however, which in the first place led to the identification of the body, which recognition was very soon afterwards corroborated and confirmed. To be brief, it was the body of an itinerant Scotchman, well known in the locality of E___, and, indeed, throughout the peak. The cause which led to his murder, the murderers, the place where the crime was committed, the reason of the body being deposited in this cavern, and the time that had elapsed while there, are matters of notoriety even to the present day. The bones, clothes, shoes and buckles, were deposited in a large box, which stood in a corner of the north aisle of the church at Eyam a many years, trusting that their preservation for a time might lead to the more certain identification of the unfortunate pedler. To peep into the box containing the Scotchman's bones, was for years a great feat with the “brats of the village”. At length it was deemed necessary to inter the bones, and nothing more was seen of the Scotchman except his shoes, which a Matthew Hall, king of the Eyam ringers, wore while they would last.[1]

Notes
[1] The perpetration of this crime is said to have taken place [Page 116] in a room in the yard of the old Moon Inn, Stoney Middleton: it is also said that the then landlord knowingly permitted it, but had no further hand in the job; probably he did not anticipate murder; nevertheless it is further stated that he could not die at the Moon Inn, but was taken away. One of the principals in the dark deed was a woman, the two or three others, her friends, if not relatives - the latter, it is believed. She had her flesh eaten off her face by a cancer, and lived and died miserably. She and her associates were natives of, and resided at, T___ll, a market town in the Peak. The maternal grandmother of the author bought a pair of buckles of the pedlar two days before he was murdered. His body was in the cavern about twenty years.

Editorial Note:
There is an entry in the Eyam parish register on 3rd March 1773 which records that a “corpse and other human bones found in a cavern in Eyam Dale by a person who was trying for a lead mine”. [q.v. Eyam - Church Records]

Transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in January 2009.

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