Derbyshire Life columnist Roly Smith’s new book, an exploration of some his favourite places in Britain, is set to be published next month. Here, he explains the story behind it and why Derbyshire and the Peak just had to be included.


‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)

In Carroll’s famous children’s fantasy, he found that he had to invent an entirely new word to describe how Alice felt as she explored a land which became increasingly strange every time she discovered something new.

Precisely the same word (incidentally, that arbiter of good English, the Oxford English Dictionary, still doesn’t accept it as a word, citing it only as a phrase) could just as easily be ascribed to my explorations of Britain on foot over the past 60 years, some of which are described in my latest book: Short Walks to Curious Places (Conway/Bloomsbury, £20).

Great British Life: Roly in his natural habitat, on Froggatt Edge Roly in his natural habitat, on Froggatt Edge (Image: David Cudworth)

These islands are every bit as curious as Alice’s Wonderland and home to an unparalleled wealth of geological, geographical and extraordinary natural features, in addition to possessing an amazing continuity of history, myths and legends.

In fact, it’s a Wonderland that I suspect even Carroll’s day-dreaming Alice would find ‘curiouser and curiouser.

One of the few benefits of the recent Covid 19 pandemic lockdowns was the huge increase in people out walking, enjoying the fresh air and our incomparable British countryside, something which was very evident here in Derbyshire and the Peak.

Vast numbers of people have realised the benefits, both physical and mental, of a good walk, and discovering the wonders of natural and human history that is literally on their doorsteps, only a step or two away.

A walk in the countryside, for walkers of all abilities, is made immeasurably more satisfying and interesting if it takes you to an interesting or curious place, through countryside with a story to tell, or which is linked to a natural feature or an historical, mythical or legendary event.

The British countryside is rich in these kind of landscapes – richer perhaps than any other country in the world – and it is blessed with a network of footpaths and unrestricted open country which can lead you to them.

Great British Life: Alport Castles Alport Castles (Image: K A Kearton via Getty Images))

Going for a walk in the countryside was already the number one outdoor pursuit in Britain before the pandemic struck, and there is a plethora of purely directional walk guides - from Wainwright-type directional guides and locally published leaflets and magazine and newspaper features, to online walking websites, which aim to satisfy this demand.

But directional walking guidebooks are frankly usually pretty boring to read – after all, there are only a few ways in which the writer can say ‘turn left at the next stile’ or ‘follow the path across the next two fields’.

I suppose, in their defence, they have to be if they are to be truly practical to use on the ground. But let me give you a warning – if you are looking for that kind of guide, my latest book is not for you.

The fact is that most walkers are now competent to find their own way by use of local signposting, the appropriate Ordnance Survey map, app or Google Maps.

The raison d’être of this book is to take the reader to 50 of those curious and mysterious places in England, Scotland and Wales.

You’ll find that directional details are minimal and that none of the walks are excessively long, all being between two to ten miles in length and easily attainable by a reasonably fit family.

I’m a journalist by training so I was imbued from an early age by a series of hard-nosed news editors with the mantra of the great Irish American editor and publisher Sam McClure (1857-1949): ‘The story is the thing.’

So it’s the story – and in many cases, the multiple stories – behind the walk, which usually provide the reason for it and which are paramount in this book.

It takes the reader to some fascinating and sometimes mysterious places in the British countryside. And that applies equally whether you actually do the walks yourself, when planning your next outing, or just vicariously enjoying them while sitting at home.

As you might expect, several of the walks are located in my favourite part of the British countryside, here in Derbyshire and the Peak District.

Great British Life: Lathkill Dale from Parson's Tor Lathkill Dale from Parson's Tor (Image: K A Kearton via Getty Images)

I’ve included three Derbyshire walks – Kinder Scout, Alport Castles and Lathkill Dale – in the North of England chapter.

Kinder Scout just had to be included for the historic place it holds in the history of access to the countryside, as the scene of the famous 1932 Mass Trespass.

The walk from Hayfield takes you to the spot where the historic trespass began. The tottering towers of Alport Castles in the shadow of Bleaklow are still claimed to be the biggest landslip in Britain and are one of the most remote and spectacular landscape features of the Peak; while the former lead mining landscape of beautiful Lathkill Dale – a jewel in the crown of the White Peak – is included as an example of how nature can return tranquillity from a noisy, industrial past.

Some of the earliest traces of humanity and some of the earliest examples of art in these islands have been found in the caves of Creswell Crags, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of the Ice Age, in the former coalfield country on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border.

Another mysterious cave where early humans made their home is found at Thor’s Cave, the gaping void which yawns above the peaceful Manifold Valley in the Staffordshire Peak, and I relate how it featured in one of the earliest of Ken Russell’s cult movies.

Many of the most curious places in Britain are associated with holy men and hermits, such as the mysterious, fern-draped chasm of Lud’s Church, also in the Staffordshire Peak.

This is where banned Lollards once worshipped, and where the ghost of Sir Gawain’s fabled Green Knight of Arthurian legend still haunts the secret defile in wooded depths of Back Forest.

Great British Life: View from inside Thor's Cave Nicola/stockadobe.comView from inside Thor's Cave Nicola/ (Image: Nicola/

Geographically speaking, the walks range from the magical, wizened oak woodland of Wistman’s Wood, sheltering beneath the Dartmoor tors in deepest Devon, to the remote, seabird-haunted cliffs of Hermaness and Muckle Flugga at the very tip of northern Britain in the Shetland Islands – closer to Arctic Circle than they are to London.

Geologically, they start from the very dawn of time with visits to the seductively rolling Malvern Hills in Worcestershire and Bradgate Park just outside Leicester, where the exposed Precambrian rocks are some of the oldest you’ll find anywhere on Planet Earth, to the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay on the edge of the Lake District.

I hope you will join me in my latest book as I explore some of my favourite curious places in Britain.

My earnest hope is that you’ll find plenty of stories which will spark your imagination and maybe even start a conversation about the wonders of Britain, encouraging you to visit some of these curious places yourself.

Short Walks to Curious Places: Exploring 50 of Britain’s Ancient sites, Myths and Legends by Roly Smith is published by Conway/Bloomsbury at £20.