Reef limestones of the Peak District are of two types, mud mounds (reef knolls) and apron reefs. Mineralisation has taken place around the apron reefs of the Castleton area.

Dove Dale Mud Mounds

The Dove Dale reef limestone is light grey, fine grained and massively bedded. It is mainly unfossiliferous, although there is some crinoidal debris in places. Nowhere in Dove Dale is there any hint of the fossilised calcareous mud mounds. The situation here is different to other limestones of the same age elswhere in the UK.

At the end of Dove Dale, however, Thorpe Cloud and Bunster Hill are prominent examples of mud mounds. The mounds were held together by living organisms such as algae and bryozoa. The presence of life enables the steep sides to develop – normally mud mounds would have low-angled sides. Within these mounds there are localised pockets of very well preserved fossils but very little evidence of bedding planes.

Evidence indicates that later limestones, covering these reef knolls was removed soon after deposition, prior to the Namurian shales and sandstones. The latter are thought to have been removed by the middle Triassic and that the current topography is much the same as during that period.

Classic Peak District Reef Knolls

Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill are excellent further examples of the reef knolls and middle Triassic topography. During Namurian times, the shales that surround these two features were deposited in the valley. They were later re-excavated during the Ice Ages to leave us with the topography that we see today. Today’s topography is believed to be pretty much what they looked like during the Triassic.

Apron Reefs

In the Castleton region it is possible to see the transition from Dinantian times to Namurian times. During the latter, rivers flowing southwards laid down the shales and coarse sandstones known as Millstone Grit.

Image: Close up of Millstone Grit - Peak District Geology.

Millstone Grit

Looking west from Castleton to the head of the Hope valley, you can see that the limestone forms a steep north-facing slope. Investigations show that it is very different to the limestone of nearby Cave Dale. These are very fine grained, show little or no bedding with occasional pockets of well preserved fossils. These are therefore reef limestones and these particular ones have caused much controversy over their origin.

Interpreting the Castleton Reefs

The Castleton reefs do not show a mound-like form, causing problems with interpretation. It is now generally agreed that they represent an apron-reef. This is a marginal facies between a basin and a shelf where the angle of the sea floor is changing. Evidence for this has come from the partial infilling of brachiopods found in the area of the Blue John cavern. These indicate a gently sloping sea floor at the time of deposition.

At Castleton, the shelf was to the south with the basin to the north. The structure of the area can be subdivided into several parts:

  • lagoonal shelf limestones
  • the back-reef
  • the algal-reef (stromatolitic algae)
  • the fore-reef
  • the basin

The basinal area was eventually filled by the Edale Shales and covered by the Millstone Grit.

The lagoonal facies of Castleton is a crinoidal limestone with some corals and brachiopods. The back and algal reef rocks are oolitic in places showing that the water was very shallow. The only fossils present are the calcareous algae.

The fore reef has a wide variety of fossils and a variety of grain sizes and lithology. It can be seen exposed in Cow Low Nick, close to the south-east foot of Winnats Pass. Fossils in the reef limestones are noticeably different to the fossils of the shelf limestones.

Pugnax is virtually absent in the latter but abundant in the reef whilst corals are almost absent in the reef but present in places in the shelf limestone (mainly Lithostrotion and Arplexus).


Please make sure that your party has the necessary skills, equipment and fitness before setting off into the hills to visit these localities.