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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The White Peak of Derbyshire

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The White Peak of Derbyshire:

`the foundation stone of life on earth'

Rock is literally the foundation stone of life on earth; Mother Natures skeleton, the frame upon which is built the flesh of the land; the geological structure not only forms our landscape but is also largely responsible for the fauna and folia which exists upon its surface,

The Pennine Chain is known as the `Backbone of England’, running from north to south through the centre of the country, rising from the Midland Plain and continuing northward all the way into Cumbria and almost to the Scottish border.

The Derbyshire Peak District forms part of the southern Pennines, beginning at the Staffordshire border, rising from the Trent Valley and climbing the foothills as far north as the outskirts of Manchester.

`there is not much flesh on the backbone at the county's highest points'

There is not much flesh on the backbone at the county`s highest points in the north and west, the flesh of the land only increases the further south and east one travels.

Derbyshire is a landlocked county of dramatic and scenically diverse landscapes covering an area of almost 1000 square miles, with a multitude of contrasting moods contained within the framework of it`s boundaries, and the rock beneath the surface is entirely responsible.

The Peak District itself can be divided into two sections, the Dark Peak to the north of the county, and the White Peak to the central and south western area.

The higher and wilder Dark Peak mainly consists of gritstone and shale; the White Peak is the lower carboniferous limestone area, pastoral and deeply cut by beautiful dales. In the east, beyond the gritstone escarpments which form the various `edges` - from Stanedge and Froggat in the north to Curbar, Baslow and Gardom`s Edge in the south, lie the coal measures, which extend into Nottinghamshire.

The carboniferous limestone forms a dome approximately ten miles across which outcrops in the central area of the Peak District National Park and is surrounded by shale and gritstone moors. This is the White Peak.

Bounded in the west by the River Dove and in the east by the River Derwent it covers an area of about 180 square miles and is dissected by a series of dales cut by water erosion. To the east it dips beneath the shale and gritstone, only to re-emerge again at Crich and Ashover.

In the heart of the White Peak there are isolated pockets of gritstone scenery rising like islands in a sea of limestone, and adding a special charm and character to the landscape is the River Wye which runs diagonally from north west to south east through the centre of the area.


Indeed, as the late Sir John Betjamin said, -“there is every kind of scenery in Derbyshire - except the sea”. But this was not always so, for this central area was covered by a warm inland tropical ocean some 350,000,000 years ago, the remnants of which form the limestone dome of the White Peak.

Running throughout the limestone, and the source of much of the ancient wealth of the villages of the area, are mineral veins, containing lead, - the most common type known as `Galena` (lead sulphide), barytes, fluorspar, calcite, etc. – Lead has been mined in this region since Roman times and the landscape is riddled with mines and quarries, many long since closed and of great industrial archeological interest.

Indeed, the Derbyshire lead-field was the largest producer in Europe for hundreds of years up to the end of the nineteenth century, and the Mill Close Mine at Darley Bridge was the most productive of all, finally closing in 1939.

Though the lead mining industry is now a thing of the past, limestone quarries still scar the landscape, and the region provides the country`s richest source of fluorspar, used extensively in the chemical and metallurgical industries.

This landscape had already undergone many transformations before the dawn of civilisation and has undergone many more since the advent of man, whose influence upon it goes back thousands of years. Many hilltops are the sites of ancient burial mounds and the conical shapes of tumbled cairns can be seen throughout the White Peak.

This land has been farmed since prehistoric times when archeological evidence suggests that the limestone was first cleared of trees. Some of the area`s many caves were inhabited by our Neolithic ancestors, -and indeed, human habitation of some caves is recorded up to the end of the nineteenth century.

The area is rich in prehistory and has many sites of interest, perhaps none more so than the mysterious stones and ring ditches at Arbor Low, known as the Stonehenge of the North, and the largest of Derbyshire`s ancient monuments. There are numerous stone-circles in the White Peak, especially on it`s eastern fringes around Stanton and Birchover and notably the `Nine Ladies’ stone-circle in a wooded glade on Stanton Moor which is also the largest known Bronze-Age burial ground in Europe. This site represents one of those `gritstone islands in a sea of limestone’.

Old settlements there are in plenty, some no more than grassy mounds where sheep now graze, - as at Smerrill and Ballidon, both deserted medieval villages, others still enjoying a vibrant life. Most were settled in Saxon times and the majority are mentioned in the Domesday survey.


The limestone scarcely reaches a height of more than 1000 ft and for the most part it forms a plateau, where the bones of the limestone outcrop on the shallow flesh of the land. A network of dry stone walls pattern the landscape, and countless sheep graze the upland meadows and dale-sides, as they have done since time immemorial.

There are many rare species of plants which are unique to this location, found only near lead rakes, like the Spring Sandwort and Alpine Penny Cress with clusters of white and pink flowers, and a rich variety of wildlife hardly rivalled by any other county in England.

It is a spectacular wonderland of breathtaking scenery, which in the winter months has been called `Little Switzerland’, - but can also be harsh, barren and unforgiving. However in full summer the White Peak is a paradise, and especially for the visitor, a place full of wonder, where a stroll across the plateau can lead to an abrupt drop into a spectacular dale, as at Lathkill Dale, Dovedale or Monsal Dale.

The Peak District National Park is the oldest and most popular in the country with over 5 million visitors a year, and the White Peak lies mostly within it’s boundaries.

The area is renowned for the quality of it’s youth hostel accommodation and is most popular with walkers, hikers and almost every other outdoor activity including rock climbing, caving and pot-holing, camping, hang gliding, hot-air ballooning, canoing, sailing, and cycling.


In addition to the hundreds of cross-country way-marked paths there are several major trails for the walker and cyclist, with cycle hire available on both the High Peak Trail and the Tissington Trail. Together with the Monsal Trail these three increasingly popular trails follow the course of old railway systems through the heart of the limestone countryside. The ever popular Limestone Way is a most spectacularly scenic walk running roughly in a north-south direction through the centre of the White Peak, and indeed for 50 miles throughout the length of Derbyshire and accords the walker access to places where the peace and tranquil beauty of the landscape can be fully appreciated, without the noise pollution of traffic, industry, or crowds!

The south east corner of the White Peak provided the perfect place for Sir Richard Arkwright to build the `cradle of the Industrial Revolution’ complete with water-powered cotton mills, purpose-built housing for the workforce, as well as a school and a fine church. England’s first mass-production factories of the new industrial age were built at Cromford and with the whole industrial complex now being restored having been granted World Heritage status, it is now open to visitors who come from all over the world to see the birthplace of the factory system.

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