Take a peak

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Jacqueline Yallop experiences the highs of a new cable car ride and the lows of being a 17th-century lead miner

Dangling 137 metres above the River Derwent in one of the Heights of Abraham's shiny new cable cars, 11-year-old Rebecca Miller admits to having butterflies. "When I look down it scares me to death," she says. "I don't like the rocking." "Stay calm, just stay calm," says her classmate Peter Coss, clutching his seat.

On the hill across the valley, the Year 6 class from St Patrick's RC Primary in Mansfield takes a collective deep breath. The new cable car system, which uses the latest alpine technology, offers what marketing manager Matthew Trembath describes as "an increased experience". "You can see out in all directions now: so it's either better, or even more terrifying, depending on your point of view," he laughs.

After being up in the air, the next stop is three quarters of a mile underground, in the Great Masson Cavern. The Heights of Abraham, named after an obscure 18th-century military victory in Quebec, has been a visitor attraction for more than 150 years, booming in the late 19th century when Matlock Bath became a fashionable spa town. The first lead seams were mined here in 1570, and it's the old workings which provide the underground experience. Once, Victorians flocked to be winched down to the show mines in baskets. Now it's a matter of some 168 steps.

A brief audiovisual show explains the geology of the area, and then begins the long descent behind the guide, Adam Byrne. Like all caves, it's wet and cold, and Adam gets the children to imagine life as a miner under ground.

"At your age, you'd be down here 48 hours a week, with hardly enough oxygen for your candle," he explains before pointing out the tool marks, or "woodpecker work" of generations of miners.

We move up the cavern from one cave to the next, from early 16th-century workings to the final extractions 200 years later. The wet passage to the Great Chamber, which takes seven minutes for us to walk, took miners 99 years to hew out of the stone. "It's about a month's work for each step you take," says Adam.

A quick glimpse of Derbyshire sunlight, and then it's underground again for the shorter tour of the Great Rutland Cavern, where we hear the personal stories of a 17th-century lead-mining family. For a moment, in the dark, it becomes easy to imagine the brutality of their short, tough lives.

Despite the thrill of the cable cars, it's the mines which St Patrick's like best. "It's not something you get to see every day," explains 11-year old Jessica Bower. "It's adventurous: fun and learning together." It's a combination which staff at the Heights try to encourage.

"It feels like going on holiday, something a bit exotic," says Matthew Trembath. "This area was called 'Little Switzerland' by the Victorians, so we've tried to recreate an alpine resort in the heart of Derbyshire."

But resource packs and project sheets, downloadable from the website, also stress a range of curriculum activities. Adaptable for key stages 1 to 3, they explore everything from Victorian history, to design and technology projects based on the cable cars, to working with maps and geology specimens.

In conjunction with the Who? Why? What? exhibition on site, classes get all the facts and figures they need to make sense of this quirky day out.

Queuing at the cable car station, St Patrick's pupils are more confident about the return ride. "We've seen how it works now," says Peter Coss. "And how they'll rescue us if there's a problem."

* Admission pound;4.90 per child plus one free teacher with every 10 pupils for groups of 20 or more


The Heights of Abraham

Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

Tel: 01629 582365


Open 10am-5pm daily, March-October


Deborah Tibble is deputy head and Year 6 class teacher at St Patrick's RC Primary in Mansfield

When they walked into the cave, there was a real "wow!" factor. At this age they can sometimes be cynical of life, but this restored their sense of wonder. It's good for them to be in awe of something, and to think about their own position in the great scheme of things.

We'd done work about rocks and soils, the Victorians, the environment, but this brought it all to life. I think they'll take back an understanding of what mining was like, right down to the smells and tastes. In the cave you could really taste the metals: it was like having an old coin in your mouth. And since we come from a mining area, it helps pupils realise how life was for their own families.

It's a very safe environment. The risk assessment was done for us, and the workbooks are excellent. We've covered everything from technology of cable cars to cave habitats, and I want to work on the sensory responses for our liturgy in school. But, with SATs looming, it's also a nice break. The cable cars are fantastic fun.

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