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The Druids of Derbyshire

Posted Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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The Druids of Derbyshire

At the mention of `Druids’ the mind perhaps conjures up vague, `other-worldly’ images of mysterious hooded figures shuffling eerily through the mists of time; or gathering at obscure secret ceremonies in sacred groves and offering sacrificial gifts, whilst uttering magical incantations to a plethora of `nature’ deities.

Pagan Practices Linger on!

But such imagery is only partially accurate, and modern-day Druids are as likely to meet in the local pub as they are in any sacred groves!

The original Druids were priests of the Celtic tribes who inhabited Germany, France and the British Isles two to three thousand years ago, but first the Romans and then the spread of Christianity is supposed to have put paid to their pagan practices. However, the remnants of what was once the national religion of the Britons are said to have lingered on in certain rural areas until the late middle-ages and beyond.

Indeed, here in the Derbyshire Peak District where change comes slowly, the Druids are said to have remained active beyond the middle ages, and today the nature worship they once espoused is again on the rise, with paganism claiming to be one of the fastest growing religions and ranked 7th overall in popularity in the UK!

"On Foot Through The Peak"

James Croston, in his book `On Foot Through the Peak’ (1868) makes several references to supposed Druidic places, quoting early antiquarian archaeologists like Pegge, Rooke, Jewitt and the celebrated Druid, Rev. Dr. William Stukeley M.D; F.R.S; (1687 - 1765) who was the first ever Secretary of the Society of Antiquarians.

In fact the much quoted Stukeley was mainly responsible for linking the Druids with stone circles and famously claimed that Stonehenge was built by the Druids as a place of worship and sacrifice, viz: a `Druid Temple’.

Stukeley also accorded the same attribute to Arbor Low, and claimed that the Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor, along with the strange rock formations at Rowtor Rocks & Bradley Rocks near Birchover were also Druidic sites.

Druid Revival

His claims were echoed a generation later by fellow antiquarian Dr. Samuel Pegge, and confirmed by the 19th century writings of Major Rooke and Llewellyn Jewitt, editor of `The Reliquary’.

Thus Stukeley was largely responsible for the `Druid revival’ which continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and myths and legends were woven around the `druid’ places of Derbyshire named by these early experts.

Of course, subsequent scientific advances and the system of carbon-dating has since shown Stukeley to be wrong, as most stone-circles were erected and in use two to three thousand years before the Druids ever existed!

The Druid Inn at Birchover, though alleged to be of greater antiquity, is actually of eighteenth century construction, and probably resulted from the relative fame accorded to the nearby Rowtor Rocks as `Druidical’ by Stukeley around that time.

Early landlords sold tickets and acted as guides to visitors who came from all over the country to visit the famous Rocking Stones and `Druid Temple’ next door, and this continued well into the twentieth century.

In actual fact, the `Druid Temple’ at Rowtor was the product of an 18th century eccentric clergyman, Rev. Thomas Eyre, who built himself what can best be described as a `Druid folly’ and pleasure garden at Rowtor between 1680 and 1710! So what is the truth?

The earliest record of confirmed Druid activity anywhere in `modern’ Britain comes in 1819, when the Gorsedd of Bards met at the very first Eisteddfod of Wales in Carmarthen, a tradition which continues to this day, but it was not until a century later in 1920 , that the first English Gorsedd of Bards was held - in Cornwall.

The first Gorsedd of Druids, Bards and Ovates to be held in the Peak District took place on September 14th 1926 at the spectacular Thor’s Cave in the Manifold Valley, and was organised and led by the eccentric Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd, Chief Bard of the Order of the Imperishable Sacred Land.

Sneyd was born into a wealthy family at Basford Hall, Nottingham in 1862, and would have inherited the land and property had his father not disowned him following his conversion to catholicism and his marriage to a woman of whom the family disapproved; thus Ralph lived at a house called `Fairview’, in Onecote, about five miles south-west of Hartington, now within the Peak District National Park. Here during the First World War he built battlements around the house “to keep the Germans out”, and also had a private museum which housed his vast collection of antiquarian artifacts, including stuffed animals and a large collection of skulls. Fairview also boasted a `Chapel of the Holy Grail’ – for Ralph was also the Sovereign Grandmaster and a self-styled Knight of the Round Table, and with a lifetime interest in Arthurian legend, he firmly believed that certain Arthurian events were set here in the Peak District.

In September 1926 he had been an active member of the Welsh Order of Druids for twenty years, and with his shock of white hair and long crimson cloak, the 6ft 4in giant cut a striking figure at the head of the long procession which wound its way along the moorland pathway between Wetton and Thors Cave, high on a massive limestone crag above the River Manifold.

A Times newspaper report of the day claimed that a crowd of over two thousand sightseers and day-trippers were carried there by the now long defunct `Leek & Manifold Light Railway’ – and what a sight they saw!

“Swathed in their flowing robes, which billowed out large and impressive in the gusty wind, the Bards and Bardesses carried the new flag of St. George, along with a beautiful red and gold banner depicting the dragon of King Arthur over the fields from Wetton to Thor’s Cave, led by the impressive tall figure of Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd”.

A Welsh choir opened the ceremony by singing a hymn, and the Gorsedd was conducted in both English and Welsh as nine new members were initiated into the Order; the pungent aroma of incense drifted from the mouth of the cave, along with the strains of a Welsh harp, and the large crowd of onlookers remained spellbound as the Chief Bard weilded the two-handed six foot long `Sword of Peace’.

Christian prayers brought the ritual to an end, with the choir singing `Land of My Fathers’ – in Welsh!

Nine months later, Fleet Street reporters again flocked to Derbyshire when another Gorsedd was held at Arbor Low, the `Stonehenge of the North’, with Sneyd once again leading a colourful procession of thirteen Bards and two Ovates from Upper Oldham Farm to the nearby stone circle, where a ritual was performed and the two Ovates initiated into the Order of the Imperishable Sacred Land.

Sneyd held a final Gorsedd at Thor’s Cave in September 1927, this time limited to one hundred ticket holders “to avoid crowding”, but there are no known records of any further Gorsedds in Derbyshire, and no records of any Druid activity – until last year.

There took place on May 1st 2008, at the Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor, Birchover, the annual Fire Festival to celebrate Beltane, the beginning of the Pagan summer, when traditionally young maidens dance around the Maypole.

Amongst the seventy or so pagans assembled was a small contingent who call themselves the Ancient Order of Derbyshire Druids, a title which, given what has already been written, would seem a complete misnomer. Yet I learned that one of the members was a direct descendant of a Rev. Wilson, a Bakewell clergyman who was an eminent member of the Order of the Imperishable Sacred Land, and who assisted Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd at the Thor’s Cave Gorsedd in 1926.

This gentleman, who wished to remain anonymous, was accompanied by `Jason the Druid’ who recently featured in the TV programme `Inside Out’, broadcast from the Nine Ladies Stone Circle during last year’s Midsummer Solstice, and from Jason I learned about the recent rise of paganism, which is far from being the `secret society’ that most might imagine. In actual fact, the Derbyshire Pagans are a well respected `family group’ who hold regular monthly meetings at various venues around the county, and meet locally at Derby, Cromford and Chesterfield!

Intrigued and curious to find out for myself, I accepted an invitation from the Ancient Order of Derbyshire Druids to attend the Fire Festival of Imbolc, which is celebrated annually on February 1st, and duly arrived at Arbor Low at dawn during a blizzard, anticipating a similar spectacle to the meeting witnessed on the site eighty years previously.

However, any vestige of similarity was quickly dispelled as our modern-day `Druids’ were garbed mainly in an assortment of winter jackets, hoodies, sweaters, jeans and wellies - and there wasn’t a Welsh choir in sight.

After waiting an hour in the deepening snow for late stragglers to arrive, a very wet and cold Jason the Druid, looking more like a snowman than a pagan bard, announced that true to modern tradition…….. we were adjourning to the pub!


The Derbyshire Pagans meet locally at the Greyhound Hotel in Cromford on the last Wednesday in the month – whilst the Chesterfield group meet on the second Tuesday every month in an upstairs room at the New Inn, Hasland at 8pm.

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