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Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007
Peak Forest: The Gretna Green of England:
Derbyshire is a county of contrasts and contradictions with it’s own unique delights and attractions and perhaps more than it’s fair share of weird and wonderful places – and the isolated outpost of Peak Forest, which lies on the A623 Baslow to Chapel-en-le-Frith road and roughly half way between Buxton and Bradwell - is a typical example.
Like many place-names in Derbyshire, Peak Forest is a bit of a misnomer, for whilst you might find plenty of Bakewells in Bakewell, lots of funny people in Clowne and some great long stones at Great Longstone, conversely there are no temples at Temple Normanton, no clay crosses at Clay Cross and hardly any doves in Dovedale – and as at Lathkill Dale where there are no dead Laths, then similarly at Peak Forest - there are no peaks and no forest!
The origins of the settlement here are rooted in the sixteenth century when the Royal Forest of the High Peak was shrinking rapidly and losing its deer and wildlife as new settlers moved in. In an effort to preserve the remaining herds a new park was enclosed as a reserve covering around five square miles between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Tideswell and a house known as ‘The Chamber of the Forest’ was built. For at least two hundred years foresters from around the High Peak trod the footpaths that led to the Swainmotes or forest courts which were held here and were presided over by the Steward or Ranger who occupied the house. The village gradually grew up around the original house and took the rather obvious name of Peak Forest – although at the time of the Royal Forest of the High Peak this particular ward of the forest was known as Campagna – which means ‘open country’ and was probably always a relatively bare landscape. Eldon Hill which dominates the skyline to the north is entirely devoid of trees and todays ‘forest’ consists only of a shelter belt to the west of the village and a large wooded and enclosed copse planted by the Dukes of Devonshire up on Snelslow above the Old Dam to the east.
The original Chamber of the Forest which stood above the village to the north-west was re-built in the late eighteenth century when Palladian windows were added, and again in 1831 by which time it had become Chamber Farm, which it remains today.
When the railways and new roads allowed the first tourists access into the largely untravelled wilderness of the Peak District in the eighteenth century, thousands flocked here to see Eldon Hole, described a hundred years earlier by Thomas Hobbes, philosopher and tutor to the Cavendishes at Chatsworth House as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Peak’. Visitors were enthralled by local folklore which variously described it as ‘a bottomless chasm’, and ‘the home of the Devil’ or ‘the entrance to Hell’ and it was said that a man lowered down on the end of a rope to check the depth in 1698 was hauled out a jibbering wreck who had lost his wits and could not speak of what he saw!
Another tale tells of a goose being put down the hole and disappearing – only to emerge five miles away from the entrance to the Peak Cavern in Castleton minus it’s feathers - which presumably had been singed off on its subterranean journey through the Derbyshire underworld!
When Dr.H.H.Arnold-Bemrose explored it thoroughly in 1900 he discovered that the hole – which is the Peak District’s only true pot-hole, i.e. a cavern with a vertical pitch – was just over 180 feet deep. The ‘bottom’ was littered with boulders and the decaying bones of sheep and cattle, but an archway led into a large cavern which went down another 76 feet to a depth of over 250 feet. Modern sightseers to this Wonder of The Peak should approach with great care for only a decade ago a woman out walking with her two dogs on a foggy morning fell into it and was killed.
Eloping couples were drawn here like a magnet too for the old chapel, built by Christian, Countess of Devonshire in 1657 and unusually dedicated to Charles, King and Martyr, was once known as the ‘Gretna Green of England’ and the incumbent had the power to marry any couple at any time without the usual consent or residential qualifications. This was possible because the original chapel was built when church building was illegal - and on land belonging to the Royal Forest and so outside the jurisdiction of any Bishop. The incumbent held the unlikely sounding title of Principal Officer and Judge in Spiritualities in the Peculiar Court of Peak Forest and was empowered to issue marriage licenses on his own terms. In 1728 a special register of ‘Foreign Marriages’ was opened, but following the Marriage Act of 1753 which insisted on weddings being conducted only in daylight hours, and in face of fierce competition from the better publicised Gretna Green on the Scottish Border, the register was finally closed in 1804 with the words, ‘Here endeth the list of persons who came from different parishes in England and were married at Peak Forest. This was a great privelege for the Minister, but being productive of bad consequences, was put an end to by an Act of Parliament’. The original chapel was demolished in 1876 when the 7th Duke of Devonshire built the present triple-roofed, square towered church by the roadside in the flat-bottom of the steep-sided valley in which Peak Forest sits. The stone from the old chapel was used to build the Reading Rooms 1880, whilst the school across the road was built a little earlier in 1868.
A right turn at the crossroads just past the villages sole pub, the Devonshire Arms, leads into Church Lane, which in turn leads up past the old Wesleyan Methodist Chapel of 1857 (now a private house) to the prettiest part of the village by the Old Dam. Here a lane leads down past Eldon House at the base of Eldon Hill and there are one or two large farms and a huddle of quaint limestone cottages surrounding the remnants of an old village green along the lane to Perryfoot. An old village pump stands on the green beside Greenhead Farm at the end of Old Dam Lane, the scene of an annual well-dressing, whilst the renovated Apple Tree Cottage and Daisy Cottage both bear the date 1845 on their gable ends which face the roadside opposite Elm Tree Farm.
At the main road end of Church Lane stands the Post Office and General Store owned since 1968 by Mr and Mrs Robert Skidmore. Mrs Skidmore, nee-Morris is from Birkenhead, whilst Mr. Skidmore's mother was formerly a Bower and her family have been resident in Peak Forest for almost five hundred years; there is a monument to a Bower ancestor in the church.
Robert Skidmore has an amazing collection of some 18,000 local Derbyshire postcards, some of them with old Peak Forest scenes showing the now dried up Old Dam as a vast expanse of water during the early years of the twentieth century. Next to the shop, which used to be the old Co-op Stores, Mr. Skidmore has a small site approved by the Caravan & Camping Club for five touring caravans, and en-suite bed & breakfast accommodation is provided across the road at the Hernstone Lea Guest House.
A left turn at the village crossroads leads to Wormhill and Smalldale, and just beyond this and halfway up the hill out of the village to the west is the Unique Petrol Station – unique one would suppose because it’s the only one for miles – complete with a small shop selling antiques and bric-a-brac and ably run these days by the Hatherall family, who took over from George Lomas ten years ago.
There may not be any peaks here and not much forest, but Peak Forest is surrounded by a magnificent landscape of gentle hills and rolling meadows – most of which is merely glimpsed by motorists who thunder through the village on the raceway of the A623!