7 must-see ‘Wonders of the Peak’ at Buxton Museum
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:37 13 March 2018
Buxton Museum & Art Gallery’s new attraction and digital experience gathers together the museum’s collection of 1,200 Peak District artefacts, collected over 125 years, Mike Smith chooses his top seven
The wonderful new ‘Wonders of the Peak’ gallery at Derbyshire County Council’s Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, which was officially opened last September by the Duke of Devonshire, is a stunning replacement for the old Wonders of the Peak exhibition, a much-loved feature of the museum for a quarter of a century despite its dim lighting and inadequate signage. As Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood rightly claims: ‘The new gallery is a state-of-the-art visitor experience. It includes many digital displays, has references to a website with further details of the exhibits and contains even more artefacts than the old exhibition, all clearly signed, interpreted and illuminated.’
The entrance to the gallery is marked by a description of ‘Seven Wonders of the Peak’ concocted in 1636 by Thomas Hobbes: ‘Of the High Peak are Seven wonders writ. Two Fonts. Two Caves. One Palace, Mount and Pit.’ Hobbes’ wonders were St Anne’s Well, the Ebbing and Flowing Well at Barmoor Clough, Peak Cavern, Poole’s Cavern, Chatsworth House, Mam Tor and Eldon Hole.
Of course, there are far more than seven wonders in the Peak District and far more than seven wonders in the Wonders of the Peak gallery. However, to whet the appetite of people who plan to visit the gallery, here is a personal selection of seven wonders from the museum’s 1,200 artefacts.
THE BUXTON BEAR
The Buxton Bear has been a favourite with visitors since it was installed in the old Wonders of the Peak gallery in 1987. When Ros was planning the replacement gallery, she was conscious of the fact that the taxidermy bear is probably a Canadian bear and not a former resident of the High Peak. Having wondered whether the animal should have a place in an exhibition celebrating the Wonders of the Peak, Ros realised that its removal would be unthinkable. She even commissioned artist Richard Johnson to create a cartoon image of the bear to act as a marker to help children ‘to get their bearings, discover the bear facts and learn the bear essentials’ as they follow a ‘bear trail’ around the gallery.
As well as being an unforgettable presence, the growling Buxton Bear is a vivid reminder of the wild animals that lived in the Peak District in inter-glacial periods during the ice ages.
THE BEAUTY OF CALCITE
As an interpretation panel in the museum recognises, the miners who extracted rock to process ores for metals such as lead, zinc and copper had a job that was not only back-breaking but was also made hazardous by dangerous gases, frequent rock falls and floods. One compensation for the miners was the chance of discovering beautiful rocks such as Blue John and sparkling crystals of calcium carbonate known as calcite, which they could sell to collectors and travellers.
Calcite crystals are an exception to the general rule that there are no straight lines in nature. As the museum’s fine calcite collection shows, magnificent clusters of calcites often grow together in pyramid-shaped masses with sharp, straight edges. The crystals are often found with a zinc ore known as sphalerite, which is as dark as calcite is white.
NOT JUST OLD BONES
Although collections of old bones are often the least interesting exhibits in museums, old bones in the Wonders of the Peak exhibition are among its most interesting displays. For example, one group of bones that make up the skeleton of a 35-year-old man who died about 4,000 years ago has been put on display by Ros alongside a clay drinking cup found near him.
The beaker is decorated with zig-zag patterns made by pressing a comb made from wood or bone into the clay before it dried, a technique that was probably imported from Europe at about that time.
THE IMPERIAL ALTAR
This exhibit looks like the fossilised seat of a grand armchair. In fact, it is an imperial altar top, dating from between 78CE and 140CE, which was found in the Roman fort at Melandra, near Glossop. The caption explains that carvings on each side of the altar illustrate ‘Roods of Office’. Soldiers in the garrison would gather in front of the altar to express their allegiance to the government in Rome.
Much as it is hard to imagine the colourful appearance of our cathedrals from pillars and carvings from which the colours have faded, it is difficult to envisage this grey altar stone in its original bright colours. Nevertheless, this large stone fragment is a perfect illustration of the power of imperial Rome extending to the far reaches of the Empire. The same point is also made by a remarkable hoard of coins discovered in the Mineral Baths in Buxton. The coins date from the entire period of the Roman occupation of Britain from 70CE to 410CE.
ASHFORD BLACK MARBLE
Ashford Black Marble is a form of grey limestone that contains bitumen and becomes black and shiny when cut, turned and polished. The ‘marble’ was obtained from quarries near Ashford-in-the-Water between the 16th century and 1905. After Henry Watson had developed a technique to cut and turn the marble, samples were fashioned into urns, jewellery boxes, candlesticks and miniature obelisks, often decorated in Italian style with inlays of flowers and butterflies.
The fabulous collection of Black Marble artefacts in the Wonders of the Peak gallery includes a small presentation box containing a brooch and a pair of earrings set in gold. The jewellery set shows to perfection the quality of local craftsmanship and the beauty of Black Marble. It was made by Selim Bright, a Buxton goldsmith and watchmaker. Another exhibit, the stunning ‘Grapes Table’, which won a prize at the Great Exhibition in 1851, was made in Buxton by Thomas Woodruff.
THE BIG WHEEL
According to the information displayed alongside it, this large circular artefact found at the Roman fort at Melandra is the lower stone of a rotary quern used to grind cereals into flour. It has a slightly sloping top and a series of radiating lines to help grind grain between this stone and another one that rotated on top of it. Although the stone had a utilitarian purpose, its geometric form and radiating markings have unintentionally made it an object of striking beauty.
Circular forms are one of the most noticeable shapes in the Peak District, not only seen in vertically-mounted millstones marking the boundaries of the national park, but also in lined circular ponds used to trap water on the porous plateau of the White Peak.
MODERN ART FROM BLUE JOHN
Blue John is a form of fluorspar described by writer Berlie Doherty as ‘blue like ice and gold like the sun’. The caves below Treak Cliff, near Castleton, are the only source in the world of this unique mineral, which has been used for many years to make ornaments such as goblets, jewellery and chalices.
As well as displaying many examples of objects made by Blue John craftsmen of former years, the museum has two new exhibits specially commissioned by Ros Westwood, who was keen to involve young people in the development of the gallery. One of these exhibits is a window comprising a landscape composition made from fragments of Blue John in the museum’s own collection and from a seam in Treak Cliff Cavern. It was designed by young members of Buxton’s Artbox Art Club working with artist Caroline Chouler-Tissier. The museum’s other new example of Blue John art is a chalice made in 2016 by Jack Mosley, a 23-year-old craftsman at the cavern, using stone from the recently discovered Ridley vein.
These two fine exhibits are a perfect way to commemorate the opening of a new Wonders of the Peak gallery that traces the geological and living history of the Peak District, and celebrates the wonderful ways in which human beings have been able to use its minerals for utilitarian and artistic purposes from Neolithic times right up to the present day.
Derbyshire County Council’s Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is situated on Terrace Road, Buxton SK17 6DA. Opening times: Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; Summer Sundays and Bank Holidays: 12 noon–4pm. Admission is free, donations are welcome. For further information, see www.derbyshire.gov.uk/buxtonmuseum
Why stop here? Explore more wonders on the web app www.wondersofthepeak.org.uk