Back Tor, Derwent Edge, Peak District
Salt Cellar, Ladybower, Peak District
Salt Cellar, Ladybower, Peak District

History of the Peak District

The UK's first National Park

The Victorian art critic and pioneer conservationist John Ruskin described Derbyshire as “a lovely child’s alphabet; an alluring first lesson in all that is admirable.” And certainly, the history of human occupation can be read in the landscape of Britain’s first National Park like a constantly over-written manuscript.

From the enigmatic stone circles, burial mounds and hillforts of prehistory; the ruler-straight Roman roads which are still followed by modern roads; the intricately carved Saxon preaching crosses and the wonderful medieval parish churches which dominate most Peak villages, to the stately homes built by the ducal landowners of the 17th and 18th centuries and the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, the Peak represents a microcosm of the history of the nation.

The Dawn of History

The fact that the Peak District is a largely upland and still a mostly uncultivated landscape means that much evidence left by the earliest settlers can still be seen. This is most obvious in the stone circles and burial mounds where they honoured their dead and even, in places like the Eastern Moors, how they lived in the pattern of their field systems and hut circles.

The earliest settlers in the Peak date from the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago. Nomadic families visited the area in search of food, hunting game and gathering berries and fruits. But they left behind little because their camps were usually temporary. They used the abundant rock shelters and caves found in the limestone areas of the White Peak, in places like the Dove and Manifold Valleys, where the awesome void of Thor’s Cave seems to represent the perfect cave man’s dwelling.

Veneration of the dead was an important part of Neolithic culture, and among the only remaining monuments of the Stone Age are those constructed up to 6,000 years ago  such as the chambered tombs at Five Wells, above Chelmorton and Taddington, and Minninglow between Parwich and Elton, above the Tissington Trail. Most impressive among the henges and stone circles used for ritual purposes is Arbor Low, south of Monyash, which has been dubbed ‘the Stonehenge of the North.’ Situated on a ridge at 1,230ft/375m on the limestone plateau, with views extending in all directions, Arbor Low retains its air of ancient mystery.  

Neolithic tribes and families may have gathered here to mark the changing seasons or for the exchange of livestock, in the shadow of the massive henge embankment  enclosing the circle of massive limestone menhirs, all of which now lie flat on the ground. A similar-sized Neolithic henge exists at the Bull Ring at Dove Holes, north of Buxton, which perhaps served the same purpose for the northern tribes of the Peak.

The climate of the Peak District in prehistoric times must have been warmer and less severe than it is today. This is shown by the extensive field systems with clearance cairns, hut circles and burial mounds which have been traced on the Eastern Moors above Baslow, indicating that a sizeable population must have lived here between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.

The dead were still honoured as they had been in earlier times, with the burial mounds or tumuli constructed in prominent positions on many hilltops. Paradoxically these are usually called “lows”, from the Saxon word “hlaw” meaning a burial mound, in the Peak District. Over 70 of these burial mounds dating from the Bronze Age have been excavated on Stanton Moor, an isolated gritstone plateau south of Bakewell. The Nine Ladies Stone Circle, who legend has it were unfortunate women who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath,stands in a grove of silver birches in the heart of the moor.

The Iron Age, about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago, is marked in the Peak landscape by the so-called hillforts which were constructed on the highest and most strategic, points. Most were probably not used primarily as defensive structures, but as summer shielings, from where stock grazing on the upland pastures could be watched.

The most famous of these hillforts is undoubtedly Mam Tor, which watches over Castleton and the upper reaches of the Hope Valley. Mam Tor, standing at 1,695ft/517m and covering 16-acres/six ha, is one of the largest, highest and most spectacularly-sited hillforts in the country, and its name is thought to mean “mother mountain.” The huge landslip on the east face of the hill, which gives it its alternative name of the Shivering Mountain, provides a superb natural defence, combined with the banks and ditches which encircle the summit.

Other notable hillforts in the Peak include Castle Naze, above Chapel-en-le-Frith, and Fin Cop, which overlooks the well-known viewpoint of Monsal Head in the Wye Valley near Ashford-in-the-Water.

The Coming of the Romans

The discovery of several Roman pigs of lead bearing the inscription LVTVDARES, a reference to Lutudarum, which was the name of the ore field or a lost lead mining centre, probably near Wirksworth, seem to indicate that it was the easily-obtained supplies of lead ore in the White Peak which first attracted the Imperial legions to the Peak, around 80 AD.

Typical small square forts, like those which have been excavated at Navio, at Brough near Bradwell in the Hope Valley, and Ardotalia, or Melandra, near Glossop, administered and protected the Roman lead mines, and there is a longstanding legend that the Odin Mine, near Castleton, was first worked by the Romans. Important urban centres were based on the warm springs at Buxton, then known as Aquae Arnemetiae, and at Chesterfield, on Ryknild Street, between Derby and Littleborough. Several Romano-British farmsteads, such as at Roystone Grange, near Ballidon, and at Chee Tor above the Wye gorge, have recently been excavated, indicating a peaceful and settled rural population.

Several Roman roads crossed the area, such as the route still followed by the ruler-straight A515 between Ashbourne and Buxton; Ryknild Street, between Chesterfield and Derby (now the A61); the minor road linking Buxton to Navio, and Doctor’s Gate, between Glossop (Melandra) over the Snake Pass to Navio at Brough, a route still followed by the A57.

The Dark Ages and Medieval period

The Peak District actually gets its name from the Dark Age, Saxon settlers of the area. The name of the tribe which occupied the Peak 1,000 years ago was the Pecsaetan – the dwellers of the pecs or hills. The name seems to have been first used around 700 AD, to distinguish the hill-dwellers from the Mercians from the surrounding lowlands of  the Midland shires.

Those Saxon and Viking settlers were also the founders of many of the Peak’s villages and towns, and names like Bakewell, Tideswell, Hucklow and Glossop all take their names from those earliest Peaklanders. They also left behind an unrivalled legacy of intricately carved preaching crosses, like those now kept in the churchyards at Bakewell, Eyam, Hope and Ilam.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 AD saw the construction of simple earthen mounds and initially wooden castles, known as motte and bailey castles, which were designed to overawe the native population. Good examples can still be seen at Pilsbury, in the Upper Dove, and overlooking the bridge crossing of the River Wye at Bakewell.

It was the Conqueror’s illegitimate son, William Peveril, who was responsible for the construction of the Peak’s mightiest medieval landmark, Peveril Castle, which lords it over the planned township of Castleton, at the head of the Hope Valley. The commanding keep and curtain wall dates from the 12th century, and was built to govern the 40-square-mile Royal Forest of the Peak – a royal hunting ground for the King and his retinue. Another medieval hunting forest, this time set up by the Earls of Chester, existed east of Macclesfield in the area still known as Macclesfield Forest.

But perhaps the greatest legacy left by the medieval period are the magnificent village churches, such as Tideswell’s elegant Decorated ‘Cathedral of the Peak’; Bakewell’s hill-top church of All Saints; Wirksworth’s 13th century church of St Mary’s, and Chesterfield’s St Mary’s and All Saints, under its famous crooked spire.

The great landowning families, such as the Eyres, the Leghs, the Manners and the Cavendishes, constructed their mansions in the valleys beneath the hills. Many of the Peak’s most famous stately homes started life as medieval manor houses, such as Chatsworth, the home of the Cavendishes later Dukes of Devonshire, near Baslow; Haddon Hall, the seat of the Manners family, later Dukes of Rutland, near Bakewell; and Lyme Park, owned by the Legh family, near Stockport. These beautifully preserved and opulent mansions now attract thousands of visitors every year.

Markets began to be set up in villages and townships, as the rural ecomony began to prosper, and wealthy monasteries from far-off in the Midland shires set up their distinctively-named granges throughout the Peak District, where they grew even more wealthy from the sale of the wool from their Peakland flocks to the lucrative European market.

The Age of Industry

Apart from the use of water power for corn mills, the start of the Industrial Age in the Peak District really began during the lead boom which started in the 18th century. At one time, at least 10,000 miners, who usually doubled as farmers during the summer months, were employed in the White Peak area. The most notable remains of this lead legacy are those of Magpie Mine, near Sheldon, which was worked off and on for two centuries. The Peak District Lead Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, tells the fascinating story of  “t’owd man”, as the lead miners are known in these parts, the Barmoot Court, one of the oldest courts of law in the country, still meets at Wirksworth to resolve disputes.

That abundant water power was seen as an invaluable source of free energy for the first industrialists of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneering industrialists such as Richard Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt ultilised the fast-flowing rivers of the Peak, such as the Derwent and the Wye, to power the world’s first water-powered textile mills at places like Derby, Cromford, Cressbrook, Litton and Bakewell. This fact was recognised by the designation in 2001 of the Derwent Valley Mills as a World Heritage Site for the importance of its important industrial heritage.

By this time, communications were becoming vitally important, and turnpike roads were constructed across the bleak moors of the Peak replacing the packhorse routes of previous centuries. It was the famous road-builder Thomas Telford who engineered the road across the cross-Pennine Snake Pass in 1821, a route still followed by the modern A57. And James Brindley, the illiterate genius who has been dubbed the father of the British canal system, was born at Wormhill near Buxton, and first started work as a mill apprentice in Leek.

The Railway Age soon followed, and lines such as the Cromford and High Peak and Ashbourne-Buxton line were built across the White Peak limestone plateau in the 19th century. The Midland line linking London and Manchester through the Wye valley, was built at enormous expense in 1860. The construction of this line excited the wrath of John Ruskin, who in a famous outburst wrote: “ every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton, which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you Fools everywhere.”

It was the railways which really opened up the Peak to tourism, and places like Buxton, Matlock and Matlock Bath were soon attracting well-to-do visitors, who came to admire the spectacular scenery and charming villages. The Seven Wonders of the Peak, first extolled by Thomas Hobbes, tutor to the Cavendish children at Chatsworth in the 16th century, became an accepted ‘Grand Tour’ for these earliest tourists. Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton’s The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653, had already described the wonders of Dovedale and other White Peak rivers to a wider audience.

As the working classes of the grim new industrial cities like Manchester and Sheffield which surround the Peak gained more leisure time, either through holidays or unemployment, the hills and moors of the Peak District became a tempting attraction almost on their doorsteps. Pressure for access to the then-forbidden moors of the Dark Peak grew leading to the famous Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, after which five ramblers were imprisoned. But this pressure not only increased the demand to allow access to the moors, but also to make the Peak District a National Park. But it was to take another 19 years before the Peak District became Britain’s first National Park, on April 17, 1951.


Collection of Peak District Photography by Michael Cummins - instant downloads, framed prints & more. 

Video of the Peak District by Terry Abraham for Let's Stay Peak District.

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Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015