Updated: Feb 3
Neither of us have entirely recovered from the incident yet. I expect that we will in time, but it is still a little too recent.
It happened a few months ago when my boyfriend Mark and I decided to take a guided tour of a cavern whilst on holiday in Derbyshire. For your own safety and that of anyone who reads this, I won’t give the exact location.
It was a beautiful July day, sunny and warm and we took a cable car up to the visitor centre in the late morning. We had eaten lunch and two ice creams each by the time our slot for the tour came up. I suppose we were both a little over-excited.
The cave was huge, and it was beautiful. A few of the tunnels were man-made – it had been a fluorspar mine during the Victorian era –but most of the openings that we could see from the main passage had been carved into the rock by flowing water over thousands of years.
As we followed the tour we deliberately hid at the back like naughty teenagers, repeatedly letting the rest of the group get ahead of us so we could explore the caverns on our own and take silly pictures. It was far too dark for any of them to turn out well but we were having fun and feeling a little giddy. The tour guide had to return to where we were a few times to hurry us along.
We lingered in a large chamber as the guide was distracted by a family with two young children, who had decided that he was going to earn his wage that day by answering every question they had. They were at a macabre age, it seemed, and were particularly interested in how many people had died down there and whether the caves might be haunted. Their parents stood by, smiling indulgently at their morbid little angels.
‘Well,’ said the guide, ‘there have been mining accidents down here – conditions were quite dangerous back then. As to whether the place is haunted…I’ll have to leave that for you to decide.’ He leaned down towards the children, conspiratorially. ‘But some of the other guides have said that when they’re down here alone… they can hear scraping in the walls!’
The children giggled, wide-eyed. Behind them their mother dramatically clutched her hands to her chest and exclaimed ‘Oh, how spooky!’
Beside me, I heard Mark give a snort of laughter.
He and I were lurking near the back of the group again so that we could examine some of the pretty crystals that covered the walls in patches. The cavern had a few dim lights dotted throughout so that we could all see where we were going, but they were nowhere near illuminating enough to drive away the darkness. They were, however, different colours, giving the crystals a pleasant rainbow hue.
We wanted more time to take pictures than we had been given, so we hid ourselves in the shadows whilst the group moved on to the next section.
‘Oh no!’ I said to Mark as we stepped laughing back out onto the path. ‘Somehow we’ve been left behind again!’
I spent a few minutes taking photos, first of Mark doing comical poses and then of the crystals. Everything was coming out blurry, though, so I eventually gave up.
‘Come on, we better go,’ I said, tucking my phone back into my pocket.
But Mark didn’t follow me. He had wandered into a recess in the wall off to the side of the path. A small area had been cordoned off with a chest-high plastic barrier. I joined him beside it and looked down. There was a hole. A tunnel dropped straight down for eight metres or so and then sharply curved off to the side. The light in the cavern was just bright enough for us to see down it. It was maybe a meter or so in diameter, easily big enough for a person to fit down.
‘Ooh,’ said Mark, grinning at me. ‘Spooky!’
I tugged his sleeve. ‘Leave the spooky stuff alone and let’s go! Or the guide will tell us off again.’
‘If you were a proper adventurer,’ declared Mark, laughter in his voice, ‘you’d want to explore down there.’
‘Fuck off!’ I exclaimed. ‘I’ll leave that nonsense to the pot-holers and cave divers. Don’t you remember that John Jones guy and how he died?’
I knew he did. That story had messed me up for a while.
Mark gave the plastic wall a little tug. There was clearly no real intent, he was just winding me up… but to both of our surprise, it lifted up completely and came away.
‘Oh,’ said Mark, standing there and holding it. ‘I didn’t expect that.’ He placed it down against the wall then gave me a huge smile. ‘It’s like the universe wants us to go down there!’
I glanced down at the hole, feeling an unpleasant rush of vertigo at the drop and a little chill of fear at the darkness down there.
‘Come on,’ I pleaded, stepping away. ‘Don’t mess around.’
He saw that I was genuinely a little distressed and softened. ‘I’m sorry, love, I was just messing around. Of course I remember John Jones.’ He turned to pick up the screen. ‘I’ll just put this back and then we can…’
But he didn’t finish the sentence. As he reached to pick up the curve of plastic, his foot slipped on the wet rock and with an awkward twist he tumbled into the hole.
I cried out in fear and lunged forward to grab him, my hands clamping round one of his arms as he fell. I was nowhere near strong enough to catch him, but it seemed to slow him enough that he could grab onto the edge and prevent himself from disappearing completely into the darkness below.
I released his arm and instead twisted my fingers into the back of his shirt, hoping to help him as he tried to pull himself up, but I couldn’t get enough of a grip. If I could just reach a little further down and grab his belt, that might do it. But kneeling down at the side of the hole as I was, I felt a little precarious and I was afraid that I would tip in too.
Before I could start calling for help, something deeper into the hole caught my eye. Beyond Mark, right where the tunnel curved away into darkness, was a tiny glint of light.
I stared at it in confusion. What was I seeing? My brain tried to tell me that it was just one of the lights reflecting off a crystal but I rebelled against that, knowing that it was something else. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could finally make out what I was looking at.
It was an eye.
Down in the hole, where the tunnel disappeared from sight, a face was peering up at me.
Only half of it was visible, the rest hidden behind rock, but I could make out it’s too-small pupils, a hole of a nose and a gaping smile, wider than seemed possible, splitting the face open. I could make out its large flat teeth and the shine of saliva dripping down its chin…
A violent shudder ran through me and the only sound I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. For a moment I was completely paralysed by fear.
And then the face began to move out into the tunnel.
With a cry of horror and my previous concerns immediately forgotten, I lunged forward to grab Mark’s belt. I yanked on it, my muscles burning with the exertion, my eyes locked onto the thing in the hole.
‘Climb up!’ I screamed at Mark. ‘Up, up, get up! Jesus Christ, you have to get out!’
Mark had no idea what was happening but was clearly affected by my sudden terror. He began to scrabble desperately against the wall, his feet pushing against the wet rock, wrenching himself up to try and gain a purchase with his hands.
I was trying to lift him, pulling as hard as I could but, god, I was so weak and he was so heavy. My screams had become wails as we made no ground and that thing was getting closer, still just a face in the dark but climbing, its split grin growing wider, coming closer and closer to my boy…
And then suddenly Mark was rising up. I barely registered that there were other people there, other hands lifting him out. We were both dumped unceremoniously on the floor, where we lay, beyond exhausted. I was almost oblivious to their concerned questions or the tour guide standing over me, angrily asking why we’d moved the screen and what we thought we’d been playing at. I just hung onto Mark and cried, my eyes still locked onto the hole in the rock and what might come out of it.
But there was just darkness.
Unsurprisingly, the tour was cut short and we were taken back to the entrance, given stern words, and told not to come back.
On the cable car ride back to the car park, Mark just held my hand in silence and it wasn’t until we were out on the other side that he finally asked me what I’d seen down there.
I told him, even though I knew it sounded ridiculous. I didn’t expect him to believe me. Out here in the bright sunshine I was starting to doubt it myself.
He paused for a moment.
‘It did seem,’ he said carefully, ‘that just before they pulled me out I felt… fingers… on my ankle.’
I exhaled softly, then I reached over and gripped his hand.
We won’t be visiting any more caves.