22 October 2019
By Michaela Reuss-Daters
Meet Michaela, one of our cheerful Cavern Guides. We caught up with her just before Halloween to find out what a day in the life of a Rutland Cavern Guide was really like...
“Yes I do go to work in a cable car,” is my answer to the regular question about how I get into work as a cave guide at The Heights of Abraham. And it is this journey which is part of the magic of the job. The moment you step into the womb-like space of the cable car, the doors close and you are lifted above the world (well, Matlock Dale, which is so expansive that it feels like the world).
As you soar westward, there are eye-popping views to the north (Matlock) to the east (Riber) and to the south (Black Rocks). The grandiose cliffs of High Tor look distinctly Low Tor from this perspective.
Floating over the dale, you are somewhere else, somewhere other. Your minds shifts gear, so that by the time the doors open at the top, the stress and worries of the morning have been left behind at the bottom of the hill. At this altitude the air is undoubtedly cleaner and fresher and there is a serenity up here on this hill that pervades, even on the busiest of days.
The first job of the day is to open up the cave. Switch on the cave lights. Take a torch. Unlock the grill door. Walk into the hill. Alone.
Some guides find this an unnerving experience. The ghosts of dead miners are said to haunt these dark, subterranean spaces. Eerie, underground noises can play with your nerves – though it’s usually just the sound of water filtering through the limestone. Quite normal, not paranormal. The trick is to keep your mind on the job: check the lights, check for rubbish, check for water levels, check for ghosts – no! Mind on the job, mind on the job.
“If yer get spooked down there,” said one of my fellow cave guides, “just sing a song.” This works, as long as it’s not Thriller or anything by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
Next it’s leaf blowing. Nice and easy after the cave? Uh-uh. It’s tough, up here at The Heights. There are a plethora of paths and walkways criss-crossing this 60 acre park and not one of them is horizontal. Striding up and down the various gradients with a diesel engine on your back pointing a power-puffing nozzle gives you muscles that you never knew existed. If you’re on leaf blowing duty at The Heights of Abraham, bring a change of clothes, because you’ll be dripping with sweat at the end of it.
Next you’re traversing the hills with heavy watering cans, opening up the table umbrellas, cleaning the bird poo off the slides and displays (it is bird poo isn’t it?) hoisting the union jack flag, changing the bins and picking up the litter. Make no mistake this is a very physical job: whether we’re female, male or non-binary, we swagger about the grounds in our blue worker’s tops, rugged canvas trousers and our big, burly boots with a general “I’m tough” kind of aura.
A quick meeting follows in which we hear, amongst other things, our latest reviews on Tripadvisor. This is the moment when every cave guide fervently hopes that they have been personally named in the review as being knowledgeable or funny, or helpful, incredibly interesting or all of the above. (Please let me be named, please, please).
Then we’re outside again as the park opens, standing at the entrance to our glorious cave, calling or spruiking, as the Aussies say, ‘roll up, roll up – greatest cave on earth!’ And the first customers arrive - meandering, sauntering or marching depending on how much money they put in the parking meter down below.
As for the tours themselves, there are two caves at The Heights of Abraham: The Masson and The Rutland. As a guide you need to be able to run both of them (sometimes on the same day). The tours we give are a mixture of geological information, mining history and corny jokes.
Do we all say the same thing on every tour? Not a chance. It’s simply not possible to get across all our knowledge in half an hour (the average tour length). So you tailor it to your audience. School children like to hear about exploding volcanoes, deep cracks in the rock, glittering crystals and Minecraft jokes. University professors like the geology, Americans are thrilled to learn that the Romans once mined the area. Everyone likes the corny jokes. The joy comes when you manage to engage your audience, make them laugh and hold their interest right to the last 171st step.
How many times a day do we do we give a tour? Five, six, seven. If you’re on The Masson Cave, that’s 171 steps each time. To paraphrase the famous line from Bette Davis about old age, ‘cave guiding ain’t for sissies.’
Cavern tours take place at the Heights of Abraham every day during the open season. Admission to both tours is included in the price of your cable car ticket. For the best deals, purchase your tickets online.