10 ‘secret places’ you probably haven’t noticed before in the Peak District
- Credit: Archant
Because the Peak District is familiar to millions of visitors, it might be thought to contain few secrets, but this is far from true. 14 years of writing for Derbyshire Life has shown Mike Smith that the district contains many surprises, some of which are to be found well away from normal tourist routes. Here’s a selection from his recently-published book, Secret Peak District
Is it a castle?
When first glimpsed from a narrow side road in Matlock Dale, the Church of St John the Baptist looks like a fairy-tale castle. Set right up against the side of a cliff, its battlemented retaining wall is formidably blank apart from an oriel window that protrudes from its upper reaches. One can easily imagine a beautiful princess being held captive in the room behind this window. The entrance to the building is reached by walking up the road and then turning sharply to the right, where a secret is revealed. The southern façade of the building is not the entrance to a castle at all, but the frontage of a small country church with a picturesque wooden porch and a small bell-tower.
Ford Hall hides in a deep secluded valley in the hills of the Dark Peak. Nikolas Pevsner called the hall a ‘mixtum compositum’. It has a mullioned seventeenth-century portion, a Georgian wing, some nineteenth-century extensions and twentieth-century neo-Georgian additions. The hall is the ancestral home of the Bagshawe family, whose most famous member is William Bagshawe, known as the Apostle of the Peak. William lost his ministry at Glossop in 1662 when he refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer. Undeterred, he continued to hold secret services at Ford Hall and at several other locations throughout the High Peak, founding new church communities wherever he went. The grounds of the hall contain the Chestnut Centre, a popular otter and owl sanctuary.
Bakewell’s Ancient Stones
Aside from its great octagonal spire and its memorials to the Vernon and Manners families, All Saints’ Church in Bakewell has a less well-known attraction. The south porch contains a remarkably extensive collection of elaborately carved Saxon and Norman grave-slabs, crosses and figure-heads, many of them found during the restoration of the church in the 1840s. The historian David Hey identified some of the symbols on the stones as being a sword for a knight, shears for a wool merchant, a bugle horn for a Peak Forest warden, a bow and arrow for an archer and a chalice for a priest. The ancient stones are so tightly packed that the porch has the appearance of a well-stocked architectural antique shop.
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Tideswell’s Hidden Gems
In 1895, Canon Andrew asked Advent Hunstone, a local stonemason, to turn his hand to woodcarving so that he could decorate Tideswell Church’s new organ and the screen that divides it from the Lady Chapel. Advent took up the challenge with enthusiasm, producing carvings covering over 150 different motifs, including leaves, flowers, birds, a dragon, an elephant, a boar, a hippopotamus, a bear and a rhinoceros. There are also depictions of angels, saints and bishops, along with images of schools, churches and cathedrals. Because some of these carvings are in shadow or well hidden, they are quite difficult to see with the naked eye. Now, thanks to a project by professional photographer Bernard O’Sullivan, the full extravagance of the Hunstone carvings can be appreciated.
The Hidden Hamlet
The little hamlet of Bagshaw is tucked away in a fold in the gritstone hills of the Dark Peak. It was described in a conservation area assessment carried out for The Peak District National Park Authority as ‘sitting within the landscape, following the fall of the land along its length, with individual buildings set either side of a sinuous road.’ This secluded hamlet was founded in 1251 as a new settlement in the Royal Forest of the Peak, a hunting reserve for the Norman kings. It has no pubs or shops, no road markings, no pavements and no street furniture, with the exception of a solitary street lamp.
The secret behind the dramatic impact of the Peak District is that it is a landscape of grand illusions. The hills and gorges of the Peak District create an illusion of being much bigger in scale than their modest dimensions would suggest. Of course, illusions are easily shattered in the presence of large-scale intrusions that provide a guide to the true scale of the landscape. For example, the narrow road that runs through Winnats Pass would not be able to emphasize the apparent height of the flanking crags and pinnacles if a line of tall telegraph poles had not been removed. The drama of the White Peak is based on a different type of illusion. The area’s stone enclosure walls pick out and exaggerate every change of contour, much as a covering net accentuates the writhing of a trapped animal. Bumps are made into hills and potentially monotonous plains are shown to have interesting undulations and shallow valleys.
Ashbourne’s Hidden Heritage
Taken at face value, Ashbourne is a town of fine Georgian town houses, but an illustrated 16th century map, held in the National Archives at Kew, shows that these self-same buildings were present in Tudor times. Dendrochronology (the analysis of growth rings to date timbers) has been used to establish the age of the original timber frames hidden beneath the brick outer skins of the buildings. One example is Natural Choice, a health food shop in St John Street, whose interior features a superb cruck-beam, dated by dendrochronology to 1526. The beam was strengthened at a later date by the addition of a vertical support that allowed the front bay to be raised and the roof to be reorientated to run parallel with the street.
The Exiled Miner
A crude carving of T’Owd Man, the guardian spirit of lead miners, shows a miner carrying a pick and a basket known as a kibble. The carving was originally located in St James the Apostle’s Church in Bonsall, from where it was removed for ‘safe-keeping’ by churchwarden John Broxup Coates during a major restoration of the church in 1863. When it began to look as if T’Owd Man was in danger of taking up permanent residence in Mr Coates’ garden, it was ‘rescued’ and taken to St Mary’s Church in Wirksworth, where it was built very firmly into the wall. Appeals by the people of Bonsall to have T’Owd Man restored to his rightful home have been refused.
Beneath the domes, cupolas and roofs of many of Buxton’s buildings are some truly wonderful ceilings, including the spectacular interior of the Devonshire Dome and the ornate ceiling of the Opera House, but one of the town’s best examples has been hidden from public view for over two decades. This is the Adam-style ceiling of the former Assembly Room in the Crescent, a building that was closed in 1992 following the discovery of acute structural problems. A long-promised plan to save the building by converting it into a spa hotel is finally underway. The Buxton Crescent and Thermal Spa Heritage Trust will ensure that the privilege of seeing the renovated ceiling in all its colourful glory will not be confined to hotel guests, because public access will be guaranteed on at least 60 days per year.
The Remote Shrine
Hidden away in the woods of the Goyt Valley, the ruins of Errwood Hall are the remnants of the grand country residence of the Grimshawe Family, who dominated life in the valley between the 1830s and 1930s. The first teacher at the school founded by the family for the children of estate workers was Dona Maria Dolores de Ybarguen, a Spanish lady of aristocratic descent. It is thought that ‘Miss Dolores’ instigated the construction of a shrine on a remote hillside some distance from the hall. The little building containing the shrine looks like a French Borie, because it takes the form of a beehive-like stone structure with a conical roof. A mosaic in the chapel shows St Joseph holding the infant Jesus.