To stand on the henge of the Arbor Low stone circle, near Monyash, on a bright spring morning, when the only sound is the gentle sighing of the wind and the spiralling song of skylarks, is to be transported back in time 4,500 years to when the monument was created.
Those first Neolithic farmers who erected the embankment and the 50 now-prostrate limestone slabs of the enigmatic circle would have heard exactly the same spine-tingling song drifting down from the azure sky, lighting up a landscape where the views extend for 20 or more miles in every direction across the rolling limestone plateau of the White Peak.
Arbor Low, standing at 374m (1,227ft) above the sea and sometimes dubbed ‘the Stonehenge of the North’, sums up the magic of the Peak – an ageless beauty where time seems to stand still, and where the past is an ever-present, at times almost tangible, presence in every landscape.
In every direction, the walking from here is memorable – such as the dinosaur’s spine of Parkhouse and Chrome Hills to the west, or the sharp gorge of Lathkill Dale to the south. This is the beautiful heart of the Peak District but lightly trod and largely bypassed by the hordes who visit the national park.
Another place where you can experience that uncanny closeness with the prehistoric past is on the mysterious fort known as Carl Wark, on the Sheffield-Hathersage road on the edge of Hathersage Moor (left). Originally thought to be Iron Age in date, it is now believed to be much earlier, possibly dating from the Bronze or even Neolithic Age, and it is unlike any other fortification in northern England.
Rising like an Aztec ruin from the moors, it is the cyclopean, 3m (10ft) high, 40m (131ft) long dry stone western rampart of Carl Wark that makes it so different from anywhere else. It has puzzled archaeologists for years, but was obviously a defensive structure, because the two-acre enclosure is ringed on every other side by steep slopes and gritstone crags. One thing is certain, Carl Wark was an important centre for a thriving community in prehistoric days. Field systems, clearance cairns and possible hut circles dating from the 3rd to 4th millennium BC are fossilised under the surrounding moorland, indicating that like much of the Eastern Moors, this now-barren, sheep-cropped land was once heavily cultivated. With only curlews and golden plovers for company, you can still stand inside the foundations of the houses of these first farmers at places such as Swine Sty, above Baslow, and wonder how they might have lived.
The ghosts of the more recent past can be sensed at Magpie Mine, the most complete surviving example of a Peak District lead mine, and looking like a ruined abbey stranded on the White Peak plateau near Sheldon. The flower-covered humps and bumps in many White Peak fields show evidence of the work of farmers who doubled as lead miners, delving below ground in search of the precious silvery veins of galena, or lead ore.
Lead was mined at Magpie for more than 200 years, and you can still see the circular Cornish-built pumping house chimney alongside the square Derbyshire one, the Agent’s House, and the circular powder house. Even the corrugated iron-clad remains of the engine house of the last unsuccessful mining attempt in the 1950s are now protected, and clank evocatively in the constant wind which seems to blow across the 300m (1,000-ft) plateau.
It was the early Victorian conservationist and critic John Ruskin who first observed: “The whole glory of the country is in its glens. The wide acreage of field or moor above is wholly without interest; it is only in the clefts of it, and the dingles, that the traveller finds his joy.”
While around two million people a year “find their joy” in the honeypot “dingle” of over-populous Dovedale, a fraction of that number visit the neighbouring but equally beautiful Manifold Valley. A wheelchair and cycle-friendly track follows the line of the former Leek and Manifold Light Railway – a short-lived line which, according to a local, “started out from nowhere and ended up there too” – passes the archetypal caveman’s dwelling in the yawning void of Thor’s Cave and the imposing crag of Beeston Tor, frowning down from high above the valley.
Lost river of Lathkill
Equally unheralded is lovely Lathkill Dale, between Monyash and Over Haddon, which is part of the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve and where the river, in a habit it shares with the Manifold, disappears underground during dry summers. The open upper reaches of Lathkill Dale are blessed with a wonderful multi-coloured carpet of wildflowers during the spring and early summer. More than 50 different species per square metre have been recorded, including large stands of the beautiful deep blue spikes of the rare Jacob’s ladder, the only British member of the Polemoniaceae family.
Because the Lathkill runs for the whole of its short, 12-mile length over limestone, it is one of the purest rivers in England. It so impressed local man Charles Cotton that he wrote in the perennial fishermans’ bestseller The Compleat Angler (1653): “The Lathkin (sic) is, by many degrees, the purest and most transparent stream that I ever yet saw, either at home or abroad, and breeds, ‘tis said, the reddest and the best Trouts in England.”
If you are really lucky, you will be thrilled by the iridescent flash of a kingfisher zipping through the middle reaches of the Lathkill. And you’ll almost certainly see the bobbing, chocolate-brown shape of a dipper, curtsying like an obliging waitress on a favourite mid-stream rock, as well as the smooth glide of Cotton’s “reddest” trouts in the gin-clear water.
The moors of the Dark Peak are often regarded as a desert for wildlife, and walker John Hillaby memorably described them as “land at the end of its tether.” And at first sight, the bleak, chocolate-brown dunes of sticky peat, which seem to stretch endlessly on the highest points at places such as the evocatively named Kinder Scout, Bleaklow and Black Hill, can seem like that. But they have been undergoing something of a green transformation in recent years. Sterling work by organisations such as Natural England, the National Park Authority, the National Trust and the Moors for the Future Project are gradually re-vegetating this barren wilderness. And in a nice irony, the peaty summits of both Bleaklow and Kinder Scout were recently temporarily fenced off by Natural England – but this time to keep sheep, not ramblers, out of the former access battlegrounds of the 1930s.
At long last it has been realised that one of the major causes of the rapid erosion of our peat moorlands is not pollution or over-use by walkers, but over-grazing by sheep, many of which had no permission to be there. So the fencing, aided and abetted by a comprehensive programme of re-wetting and re-seeding (usually by helicopter), is slowly bringing the heather, cotton grass and molina grasses back to these moorland wastes.
And wildlife is returning, too. So as you tramp along Tom Stephenson’s now largely paved Pennine Way between Edale and Black Hill, you are likely to encounter, in addition to the croaking ‘go-back, go-back’ call of the ubiquitous red grouse, exciting glimpses of the mountain hare dashing through the heather – white-coated in winter – or the heart-lifting sight of a peregrine falcon streaking through the skies. Look out also for the peregrine’s dashing smaller cousin, the merlin. This inveterate hunter of skylarks and meadow pipits whips across the moors at low-level to surprise its bird prey before taking them back to a fence post or stone wall to pluck and eat.
A slice of Bakewell
Of course, most visitors to the Peak – and there are estimated to be around 22 million every year, the second-highest for any national park in the world – do not venture on to the high moors of Kinder or Bleaklow. They come to visit the charming market towns of Bakewell (where cake makers vie to offer you the definitive ‘pudding’) and Buxton, or pretty villages such as Castleton, with its show caves and castle; Tissington and Hartington, clustered around their village mere (pond), and plague-haunted Eyam, each of which hold colourful well-dressings during the summer.
Many also flock to the palatial stately homes of Chatsworth, Haddon Hall and Lyme Park. But for a more intimate view of how the other half lived in days gone by, a visit to Eyam Hall, home of the Wright family for 300 years, or Tissington Hall, seat of the Fitzherberts for even longer, will repay the more discerning visitor.
Probably no other area of Britain has had as many books written about it than the Peak, so perhaps not surprisingly, the area is blessed with some outstanding bookshops. David McPhie’s wonderful Bookstore at Brierlow Bar, on the A515 just outside Buxton, is claimed to be the largest bargain bookstore in the country, and here you can help yourself to a coffee while your browse the groaning shelves.
Looking for Mr Darcy
And if you are exhausted after all that shopping, why not enjoy a relaxing light lunch in David Mellor’s stylish Design Museum Café next to his award-winning Round Building cutlery factory just outside Hathersage, as the familiar roadside traffic lights – another Mellor design – flash red, amber and green over your cappuccino.
Then don your walking boots again and head out for the dramatic gritstone escarpment of Stanage Edge, which frowns over the village and affords spectacular vistas of the Hope Valley and Kinder. You might recognise it, for this was where Keira Knightley gazed, windswept and wistful, for Mr Darcy, in the 2005 blockbuster Pride and Prejudice. But I guarantee you’ll find even more romance in the Peak landscapes than in a Jane Austen novel.