We have been mentioned in the Guardian - a
little tentative maybe - but it is nice to be mentioned in a
National Newspaper without having to pay for it
Guardian article (28/02/04): Oops, there
goes another bit of Britain
by Paul M on Sunday, 29 February 2004
Driving along the A6, it's not immediately
obvious that the Peak District might well be England's most
important national park. In fact, it's easy to forget you're in a
park at all - there are plenty of pretty towns and old farms
lining the river valleys, and old mills and stone-walled inns
worthy of an urbanite's cosiest drinking dream - but the dramatic,
bleakly beautiful heights of the southern Pennines are most often
obscured by steep dales or low mists.
The Peak (as locals call it) is about leisure as much as
landscape. The 555 square-mile national park is a lung for the
people of Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Stoke. The
first national park, it was created in 1951 precisely to put a
green belt between these sprawling conurbations. It's visited by
some 22m people each year (only Japan's Mount Fuji's national park
tops it). And, if it lacks Cumbria's photogenic lakes, the Peak's
landscape of gritstone outcrops, limestone crags, heather and peat
moorland - Daniel Defoe called it "a waste and howling wilderness"
- has a rugged, romantic appeal.
Among the Peak's many secrets are vestiges of the bronze age:
cairns, burial mounds, stone circles and hillforts. Outstanding
among these is the Nine Ladies stone circle at Stanton Lees,
between Bakewell and Matlock. Between 3,000 and 4,000 years old,
these nine stumpy stones, probably built for rituals honouring the
sun and moon, stand in a small circle like old teeth, surrounded
by silver birch, ash and beech trees and, beyond these, a
beautiful stretch of moorland dotted with further Neolithic
remnants and ruins.
No wonder then that any attempt to make any inroads into this
landscape that are not destined for boot-clad backpackers is
resisted so fiercely by locals and tourists alike. Just beneath
the Nine Ladies site is where Stancliffe Stone wants to quarry
3.2m tons of millstone grit for the building trade. While the
development rights to this dormant quarry - on land owned by Lord
Edward Manners, who lives in Haddon Hall, just a few minutes'
drive from the site - are legally binding, villagers, townsmen and
scores of eco-minded travellers have come together to protect the
ancient heritage and the tourism that is the region's lifeblood.
Walking up to the site from the village of Rowsley (also owned by
Lord Manners), I spoke to two of the protesters, Becky Walsh and
David Connolly, who were out on a ramble between sessions of
constructing ramparts to prevent the quarrying firm's diggers from
approaching the rock face. "It's just big money trying, as always,
to get what it can out of the land," claims Becky. "But we've been
here for about four years now and we know how precious it is to
"It's so peaceful - and if this goes ahead, there will be a
massive hole just 100m away. As well as the stones, there are
burial mounds here and lots of ruins that have never been
investigated. These draw pagans who come to perform handfasting
(pagan marriages) or to practise wicca mediation, and whirling
dervishes use the site, too."
Like many other circles, there is a rich pagan-*****-druidic
folklore that extends way beyond the tentative specualtions of
history books. One story is that the Nine Ladies were formed by
people being turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath - the
"King Stone", on a bank just a few yards away, was said to have
been their fiddler. It is also said that when the moon is full,
the stones move around in a ritual dance.
While we are talking, behind me, a young man starts to spin slowly
in the centre of the circle - not quite my idea of a dervish, but
his eyes are closed and his concentration absolute. He claims
"most of the villagers are right behind the protesters, because
they don't want a four-ton truck loaded with gravel passing their
little cottages at 6am, do they?"
Beyond the gentle stir of the wind in the leafless trees, you can
hear the beeps and churning from Dale View quarry, less than a
mile away. If digging was allowed any closer, the serenity and
spiritual value of the Nine Ladies would be completely destroyed.
But it's not all about pagans who cherish the site for sacral
purposes. During the next afternoon, scores of couples, strolling
families and locals walking their dogs pass by as they hike over
the moors. There's even a group of six or seven Sheffield youths
having an impromptu picnic, despite the fact that the grass is
damp and there's a bitter nip in the February air.
Another walker, Jenny Blain, joins us on the grass at the centre
of the circle, and tells me she is researching "how people relate
to landscapes" at Sheffield Hallam University. She emphasises the
academic value of the site: "This is important to archaeologists
with an interest in prehistory, who study the cairns and kist
graves. Then there are archaeologists of the early modern period,
as well as scientists who come to study the bats here - there are
two protected species."
Jenny points out that "the special feel of the Nine Ladies comes
from that fact that they are part of a bigger landscape. This
means so much to so many people - and locals join in at festivals
like Imbolc (ewe's milk, for when sheep lactate in spring)."
The Peak District, like other national parks, came about when the
gentry and working class ramblers united to stem industrial
expansion; as that lobby has dwindled, new alliances are needed.
Lonely as it is on the hilltops and among the burial mounds, the
Nine Ladies are close to dozens of villages. Old pubs and B&Bs -
from farms to hotel-style townhouses. After a day of cold, clean
air and Woden-knows-what spiritual blessings from the Nine Ladies,
I am in my bed - in a converted barn -by 9pm.
The Peak District serves more than just the north-west, though -
it is central enough for Londoners to get to the Nine Ladies
easily, too. I travelled from south-east London to 2500BC in just
three and a half hours.
The following morning, before making the return journey, I drive
up to Stanton Moor to see the Nine Ladies one more time. The
daffodils are still there and, for the first time this weekend,
there's no one else around. After a quick look about me, I stride
to the centre and stand in the empty space - and even gyrate
slowly to see if any thing happens. My sullied modern soul is not
transfigured, but the circle is profoundly calming and, thanks to
Bronze Age man's meteorological intuition, protected from the
harsh elements of the Peak winter.
After a quick stroll over the moor, frightening partridges and
watching the sun struggle to break through the clouds, I turn
round and, cross the hill above the disused quarry. I head back
down the side where the protesters are sleeping in their makeshift
tree houses and where, just a mile or so down the valley, Lord
Edward Manners is no doubt tucking into his breakfast of kippers
and cold meats.
A vicious February north-easterly is now blasting and I leave the
bare, exposed beauty of Neolithic England for the refuge of the
Way to go
Getting there: The Nine Ladies is off the A6, around 45 minutes
drive from the M1 or the M6. Head for Bakewell or Matlock. There
are regular bus and occasional rail services between Matlock and
Derby. Bakewell is served by bus only. From Matlock or Bakewell,
it is possible to visit the Nine Ladies on foot - it's a six-hour
round trip. From the small village of Rowsley, it's just a short,
steep 30-minute climb up the lanes. Alternatively, drive up from
Rowsley to Stanton Peak and park on Lees Road. From the parking
bay, it's a 10-minute walk. Pick up Ordnance Survey Explorer map
OL24 The Peak District: White Peak Area (£6.99) for longer walks.
Where to eat/stay: Bakewell and Matlock are exceptionally good for
B&Bs, and the smallest hamlets also often boast grand
accommodation. The Rutland Arms Hotel (01629 812812, doubles from
£81 per night) is Bakewell's biggest hotel, with a restaurant
serving English country cuisine (three courses with drink from
£24). It is where the Bakewell pudding was born (by accident). The
Red Lion (01629 812054) has steak and kidney pies etc from £15 for
three courses with drink. Renaissance (01629 812687, from £24) is
an excellent bistro in the town centre. In Matlock, the Strand
(01629 584444) is good for traditional grub. Recommended B&Bs
include Sheriff Lodge (01629 760760, doubles from £62) and,
outside the town, the upmarket Riber Hall (01629 582795). In
Rowsley, the Peacock (01629 733518) and the East Lodge Country
House Hotel (01629 734474, doubles from £100, meals from £30) are
grand stone houses turned into hotels.
Further information: Bakewell TIC (01629 813227), Matlock TIC
(01629 583388), Campaign for Rural England (cpre.org.uk), Sacred
Sites (sacredsites.org.uk), Peak District National Park (peakdistrict.org).