Choirs at Castleton…Déjà-vu

I had some déjà-vu moments reading the letters and travel journals at the Beinecke Library.  A lot of the early tourists to the area visited the same places and they used very similar phrases and words to describe their experiences.  These three excerpts describe Peak Cavern and illustrate the point:

Commonplace book  
‘From this place [Roger Rains House] you continue to the Chancel where calmly proceeding on your way, you are suddenly aroused by a choir of [?] chanting in a niche above you, and elevated about 77 feet…… here then we stopped, the airs were slow and solemn, which were sung, everything tuned the mind to meditation, nature appeared in awful majesty before us, in short, we could  fancy ourselves transported to some other World’. (Letter written by unknown author, to an unknown recipient and copied into a common place book, possibly written in the summer of 1770)

Unknown diary 1807

 ‘From this you continue to the channel, where calmly proceeding you are suddenly arrows’d by a choir of voices, chanting in a niche or gallery 60 foot elevated, sounds which the vaulted roof re’erted sweetly to the ear, near this orchestra of nature, in a recess 80 feet above the spot, where such a sublime scene almost [revels?] you, are placed a number of lights, the purpose of such an illumination adds grandeur to the effect of the whole, the vaulted roof appears bent and broken, and the spar in many parts glistening with the reflection from the lights add to the magnificent beauty of the channel…..we return’d with slow and solemn pace till we arriv’d at the Channel, where our senses were again charr’d by a fine and melodious air, it was the 104 psalm, never shall I forget the sensation and glow of devotion my heart felt at this moment’. (Excerpt from an unknown Peckham women’s travel journey, 1807)
Mary Kerr's diary 1808
 ‘When you have reached about half way, you are surprised by singing and on looking up you discover an open part of the Cavern 60 feet above you, where stand 3 or 4 of the very old women whom you see at your entrance with candles in each hand and others stuck about the place, singing God save the King, the 104th psalm, or anything else they like, the novelty of the scenes is rather reviving’ (Mary Kerr, ‘Notes on visits to various Country Houses’ 1808)


There are differences, for example we have the choir at 77 feet, 80 feet and 60 feet respectively, but on the whole they are very similar.  While Mary Kerr is very matter of fact in her account, the other two tourists are far more emotional in their description.  They both mention the awe-inspiring power of nature and their spiritual response to the scene.   It would be interesting to compare these descriptions with published accounts of the cave and see if there is much overlap in the language and sentiment used .  Could it be that the tourists were – maybe even subconsciously – reiterating from texts they had read about the cave? This might explain the similarities in their choice of words and phrases, or it might just be a coincidence….   How similar would three visitors’ descriptions and emotional experiences of the cave be today?


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