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Speedwell is unique in British show caves for it is the only one where most of the tour is made by boat. It is also the deepest show cave in England.
The trip begins with a walk down 104 steps from the cave entrance to the landing stage at the beginning of the Speedwell Canal. Here the visitors climb into the boat, held steady by a guide, which is to take them 500 yards downstream. The boat is propelled by the guide pushing the rock on either side with his hands, causing it to glide noiselessly along, although with a large party two guides are employed. One lies on his back and 'walks' the boat along the roof in the traditional manner of the old canal barges in the Black Country.
The mining of the tunnel began in 1771 to tap the rich beds of ore thought to occur deep in the hillside, and to provide a means of hauling the ore from the mine workings. The project was led by James Gilbert who was the Duke of Devonshire's agent for the Ecton Hill mines and made a fortune there, but at Speedwell eleven years of digging brought little reward before the venture closed.
The water in the canal has already followed a tortuous underground passage from Perryfoot, near Sparrowpit, and eventually emerges at Russet Well, just near the entrance to Peak Cavern. However, the rich beds of minerals never materialised and the whole undertaking was a financial disaster.
As the boat progresses along the silent canal a dull roaring noise can be heard, and this gets progressively louder, until eventually the boat stops beside another landing stage and the visitors disembark. A short walk from the landing stage and the visitors emerge in a welter of cold air and spray at the 'Bottomless Pit'. Here, in the comfort of a strongly constructed platform, one can inspect a waterfall descending over 70 feet and a roof rising to an estimated height of over 300 feet. This huge natural cavern is so high you cannot see the top and is so deep that when the canal was dug many tons of waste rock were tipped into it without making any visible impression upon it.
Then, it is time to re-embark, and travel back along the canal, back to the 104 steps to the surface and daylight.
(Part of this text is from: Tony and Anne Oldham (1972): Discovering Caves - A guide to the Show Caves of Britain.)