Last January I went walking on one of those magical winter days when fog and frost swirl in the Peak District dales, but up on the tops, a surprisingly warm sun shines from a piercingly blue Arctic sky and the firm, frosty ground makes walking a pleasure. If you are sceptical about exploring the landscape in deepest winter, a January day half as nice as this will soon convert you. At this time of year, you will not only have some of the Peak District’s most popular places virtually to yourself, but you may also discover a new dimension to the landscape.
Somehow the cold and the quiet of winter seem to make the ancient parts of the Peak District even more mysterious and atmospheric. On the high points of the landscape, Iron Age hillforts dominate as ever (of which more below); but look more carefully and there, on the pale, frosty slopes, you will find many other, fainter signs of the Peak’s past.
The Peak District landscape is sometimes said to be a palimpsest, on which the story of human settlement has been written and rewritten many times over the past 5,000 years. With just a little knowledge, and using what archaeologists call ‘the eye of faith’, you can learn to read this fascinating landscape, whether you are exploring in winter, spring or summer.
Our tour starts at the isolated stone circle of Arbor Low (pictured right), about seven miles south-west of Bakewell. Its clock face of prostrate stones framed within an earthen henge has been dubbed the Stonehenge of the North. Compared to its Neolithic contemporary on Salisbury Plain, these enigmatic stones exude far more of the magic and mystery of our prehistoric past, especially in springtime, when skylarks cascade their silver corkscrews of song down across the monument, just as they have since it was built 5,000 years ago.
Some five miles to the east, on the heather-clad Stanton Moor, you will find a Bronze Age stone circle sheltered by a copse of delicate silver birches. The Nine Ladies, according to legend, were once maidens caught dancing on the Sabbath and turned to stone by the Devil. The King Stone watches on gravely from a respectable distance.
The high ground was clearly important to our ancestors. Tree-topped Minninglow dominates the former railway line now known as the High Peak Trail near Ballidon. Here the suffix ‘low’, taken from the Old English hlaw for hill or mound, actually signifies a tumulus that was invariably placed on a high point in the landscape, where the dead elders could cast a fraternal eye over their descendants.
More tangible evidence of the Neolithic dead was found at our next monument, high above the roaring traffic of the A6 Bakewell-Buxton road at Taddington. Here lies Five Wells, at more than 425m (1,400ft) the highest chambered cairn in the country. There’s no mistaking it: two tall portal stones mark one entrance. This was the last resting place of 17 people, whose remains were excavated in the 19th century.
The Iron Age, the next point of call on our journey, was the age of the hillfort, and the Peak boasts some of the most impressive in the country. Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain, overlooking Castleton at the 515m (1,695ft) head of the Hope Valley, is one of the highest and largest in the Pennines, commanding sweeping views across both White Peak and Dark Peak.
Archaeologists have uncovered a chilling story associated with the Fin Cop hillfort in Monsal Dale, near Great Longstone. A mass burial site containing only women and children – the first segregated Iron Age burial site of its kind was uncovered in 2011, pointing to the fact that some 2,000 years ago it was the scene of a massacre of scores of women and children. Archaeologists believe the victims may have been the targets of an inter-tribal attack while the men were either fighting or hunting elsewhere.
Attracted by the district’s plentiful supplies of lead ore (galena), the Romans left an indelible mark across the Peak in the form of their still-visible roads, such as Doctor’s Gate on Bleaklow, and the ruler-straight A515 Buxton-Ashbourne road. They also built playing card-shaped forts at Navio, near Brough in the Hope Valley, and at Melandra, Glossop.
The Romans were also tempted by the slightly effervescent mineral water springs, founding a town and naming it Aqua Arnemetiae, after a Celtic goddess. Two millennia later, the town of Buxton, with its superb Georgian Crescent and delightful Frank Matcham Opera House, is still the cultural capital of the Peak.
Many of the Peak’s charming villages, such as Hartington, Tideswell, Bakewell and Eyam were founded during the Saxon period, and Bakewell’s magnificent collection of Saxon preaching crosses and early medieval stone sculpture, hopefully soon to be properly conserved, is one of the largest in England.
William Peveril’s magnificent 12th-century Norman castle represents the medieval period. The building still lords it over the eponymous Castleton (below) at the head of the Hope Valley. There are also some beautiful medieval churches, such as those at Ashbourne, Bakewell and Tideswell’s magnificent Cathedral of the Peak, which reflect the wealth of local landowners.
Their ducal stately homes, such as the Devonshires’ 18th-century Palladian masterpiece at Chatsworth and the Rutlands’ medieval and time-worn Haddon Hall, just over the hill near Bakewell, are further examples of the power of local families. Each of these repays a day’s visit, especially Chatsworth, with its magnificent 1,000-acre park, landscaped by Capability Brown. Here, herds of red and fallow deer run free by the River Derwent in surely the most idyllic semi-natural setting of any British stately home.
Much of the gentry’s wealth was founded on the mineral wealth of the Peak, and at the atmospheric Magpie Mine, near Sheldon, are some of the finest and most complete remains of a lead mine in the country. Come here in spring and the old spoil heaps will be carpeted in lead-tolerant yellow and blue mountain pansies.
Many of the thousands who walk the length of nearby Lathkill Dale, between Over Haddon and Monyash, have no idea that it was once a hive of industry. The ivy-clad ruins of the Mandale Mine Engine House, built in 1847 and now looking like an Aztec ruin in the jungle, are visible evidence of the days when the dale rang to the sounds of industry.
Up and over the 300m (1,000ft) White Peak plateau, the Cromford and High Peak Railway was one of the earliest in the country, completed in 1831. Now the High Peak Trail, it’s popular with walkers, horse riders and cyclists. The Ashbourne to Buxton line, now the Tissington Trail, was one of the last of the Railway Age, built in 1899.
Finally, the Industrial Revolution had its roots in Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, Litton and Cressbrook – with their frequent sad tales of the then-common ill treatment of child labour. Now, as they search to find a new use, many provide high-class residential accommodation for wealthy incomers – yet another Peakland paradox.
White and Dark Peaks
The White Peak is the name given to the central and southern part of the Peak District. It gets its name from the silver-grey, 350-million-year-old carboniferous limestone that forms the bedrock.
This limestone outcrops in spectacular fashion in the dales, including Dovedale and Lathkill Dale. It can also be seen in
the countless miles of drystone walling that spread like a spider’s web uphill and down dale.
The Dark Peak is the name of the bleaker, more forbidding millstone grit peat moorlands that enclose the White Peak on three sides, like an upturned horseshoe, or the receding hair on a bald man’s head.
These are the highest points of the Peak, culminating in the iconic 2,088-foot (636m) summit of Kinder Scout, cockpit of the battle for access in the 1930s.
The name of the rock is taken from its former use for millstones, which have been adopted by the Peak District National Park – Britain’s first – as its emblem.