Blue John

Blue John is created by the Queen of Darkness from the purple-blue heart of a glacier and the gold of the sun to live with her in the caverns under the mountain. He must never leave the darkness for the light, she warns, or he will turn to stone. But the sound of children’s laughter and games outside is impossible to resist.

Stalactites at Blue John cavern

Photo: Stalactites at Blue John cavern. Photo: Wikipedia user Arbey.

My story is a made-up folktale set in Castleton, in the Derbyshire Peak District, very near to where I live now. The caverns of Castleton are famous for being the only place in Europe, some say in the world, where a fluorite crystal known as Blue John is found. It was originally discovered by French miners extracting lead from the caverns, and they called it bleu-jaune because of its colour. Now it’s known everywhere as Blue John. It is a beautiful semi-precious mineral, and for many years the gemstone has been fashioned into wine goblets, jewellery and other ornaments, and is highly valued around the woprld. Now visitors flock to the Blue John and Treak Cliff Caverns hoping to see it there, and to buy pieces from local shops.

Now, why did I write the story? The internationally celebrated violinist Peter Cropper invited me some time ago to write a ‘story to music’ for the Lindsay String Quartet’s Christmas children’s concert. I chose the haunting piece by the Czech composer, Smetana, From my Life. The music made me think of ice and darkness and sunlight, loneliness and joy. I walked over the Mam Tor mountain with the music in my head, and looked down at the caverns, and I knew immediately what I was going to write about. So I invented a character called Blue John, a little boy who is made out of the blue of a glacier’s heart, and the gold of the sun…

Producer Peter Cheeseman (then artistic director of The New Vic Theatre) directed it as a piece of spoken theatre.

Blue John stone in earrings

The first performance was at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, on 12th December 1999. The players were the Lindsays and the readers were Romy Saunders and David Kendal.

Soon after that it became a picture book, published by Puffin and illustrated by Tim Clarey. It was widely used in schools for drama, music, dance, poetry and art activities, and much mourned when it went out of print. Now I’m very, very pleased to see it recreated as a beautiful Little Gem story book. Thank you Barrington Stoke!

I’m very proud to tell you about a lovely set of felt hangings depicting the story, and inspired by Tim’s illustrations in the picture book edition. They have been made by members of High Peak Community Arts, and they are a feast of jewel-like colours now gracing the walls of Buxton Library, which will be their home.

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