Cycling the Peak District - Arbor Low to the Bull Ring
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 March 2020
As the clocks go forward and we celebrate the Vernal Equinox, what better way to see in the spring than with a two-wheeled pilgrimage to three important prehistoric sites, including the ‘Stonehenge of the North’?
Derbyshire boasts several impressive prehistoric sites - and this month's rural ride features three of them: Arbor Low, the Nine Ladies, and the Bull Ring. Each gives a tantalising glimpse into the area's Neolithic past - when there was an important shift from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian culture. Tribes started to settle in one place, grow crops, keep livestock, and bury their dead in long barrows, and then later in the Bronze Age, round barrows (such as the one at Gib Hill). They also put huge amounts of effort into the creation of the massive, mysterious stone circles. We can only speculate on their purpose, but many have been proven to be in alignment with key solar, lunar and celestial phenomena - the most significant of which seem to be the winter and summer solstices, and, to a lesser extent, the spring and autumn equinoxes. The latter were connected with the rising and the setting of the Pleiades - another significant alignment - and marked the beginning and end of the main growing cycle. Whatever took place at such sites at such times, it is tempting to imagine that by turning our wheels with pedal power we are somehow synchronising with the greater turning wheel of the year. Regardless of one's thoughts on the matter, there are few things more enjoyable than a brisk cycle ride on a bright spring day - feeling the blood flowing through one's body, and the cobwebs of winter being blown away, as one coasts down a country lane lined by hedgerows and woodlands coming alive with birdsong and new growth.
Arbor Low is considered to be a very important site and has been called 'the Stonehenge of the North'. Those who dowse 'leys' have estimated that around 50 converge there making it, in effect, the Spaghetti Junction of Neolithic Britain. It currently consists of a ruined circle (actually egg-shaped) of around 50 large locally quarried limestone blocks with seven smaller blocks in the centre forming a cove, close to which human skeletal remains were discovered. All but one of the stones are now recumbent with only one to the west-south-west remaining partially upright. Some of the fallen, broken stones do appear to fit together, indicating there were probably between 41 and 43 standing stones originally. They are of varying shapes and sizes ranging from about 1.6m to 2.1m in height, with the exception of the monoliths at the entrances which are between 2.6m and 2.9m tall. The stump of one stone, perhaps the remains of a portal stone, can be found in the southern entrance while a large pit in the northern entrance indicates this may also have contained a stone. However fallen from its former glory, Arbor Low remains a numinous site reminding us of our ancestors presence in this land, and their connection to the sun, moon and stars.
Nine Ladies is an early Bronze Age circle situated on the edge of Stanton Moor, and enclosed by a conspiratorial grove of birch. The stones are composed of Millstone Grit. A tenth was exposed during the summer heatwave of 1976. An outlier stone, the King Stone, is sometimes referred to as a flautist or fiddler - could this be the sinister 'man in black' who was said to appear to offer musical accompaniment to those haunting the stones when midnight strikes? There is a local tale of how a group of revellers were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath - including
the devilishly-good musician too, it seems - a cautionary tale against heathen practices which the site shares with Stanton Drew 'wedding stones' in Somerset, and others. Clearly local pagans and druids disregard such superstition in their regular use of the site to mark the ritual calendar.
Both sites are managed by English Heritage, who allow free access (although there is a £1 charge at Arbor Low for access through private farmland). Both are considered important archaeological sites (and sacred sites to some) so please respect them accordingly. Take any litter with you.
The third site on our spring tour is to a 'henge' known as the Bull Ring. A henge is a Neolithic bank-and-ditch enclosure, of which the most famous is Stonehenge (although that is somewhat anomalous, having the bank on the inside. Most henges have the bank on the outside, suggesting they were not meant as defensive structures but as perhaps ways to demarcate sacred ground). To confuse matters, the Bull Ring, near Dove Holes, has the bank on the outside too! Ostensibly the least impressive of the three sites, its situation - at the head of three valleys - suggests that at one point it may have been a significant place of gathering, trade, celebration and adjudication. Nearby are two barrows, one oval (late Neolithic), one bowl (Bronze Age) in shape. A single standing stone (an 'orthostat') was recorded as remaining in 1789 by Pilkington, potentially the remnant of a stone circle. There is a possibility that stones from the henge were used as sleepers for the Peak Forest Tramway circa 1790. Considering there is often folklore warning against the removal of stones from circles (eg the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire), one wonders how this went for the tramway builders and users… It is often wiser to go with the flow, so we'll wend our way back to the start of our 'full circle', at Arbor Low, suitably charged with vernal energies, ley lines, and tea and cake (perhaps even a placatory Bakewell Tart)!
Starting at Buxton head south up Harpur Hill, following Sustrans 68 until you join the High Peak Trail.
Follow this until you reach Parsley Hay cycle hire centre and café - a good place for a pitstop.
From Parsley Hay head east along The Rake/Long Rake to Arbor Low, which is a short detour off the trail.
Return to Long Rake and continue east, heading to Youlgreave, Alport, then Stanton in Peak.
Push on to Stanton Moor, and follow signs to the stones. They can take some finding, so best to bring an OS map, as you can lose signal on your phone. If you get lost, use the Earl Grey Tower to navigate by - the Nine Ladies are close by.
Return north up Pilhough Road, then continue past the junction with Pilhough Lane onto Stantonhall Lane.
Continue past Congreave Farm until you join the A6, turn left and keep heading northwest.
Head to Bakewell, then cross Bakewell Bridge to join the Monsal Trail.
Leave the Monsal Trail at Milne House Cottages (be careful not to miss this - look out for Millers Dale car park). Follow the road from the car park to Worm Hill, Hargate Hall, Peak Dale, then finally Dove Holes.
At Dove Holes follow signs to the Bull Ring Henge.
Return to main road and head south on the A6 to Buxton.
Distance: 38.4 miles
Level: Medium (2,556 ft of ascent/descent)
Refreshments: Buxton; Parsley Hay cycle hire centre; Bakewell
Toilets: The nearest public toilets (to Arbor Low) and a café are at Parsley Hay, just over a mile away to the west near the A515 junction with The Rake
Transport links: To Buxton and Bakewell
Long Rake, Monyash, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1JS
Parking: There is a small car parking area on the track up to Upper Oldhams Farm.
Access: It is a 300-metre walk from the parking area to the stone circle through fields with gates or stiles, which can be challenging, particularly for wheelchairs or buggies. Be aware that access is through a working farmyard and private landholdings, for which the landowner issues a £1 charge per person.
Lees Rd, Stanton in Peak, Matlock DE4 2LS
Parking: There is no car park for the site but there is a small stretch of Lees Road 300 metres from Stanton in Peak near the easiest footpath to the stone circle where it is possible to park in an informal lay-by just off the road on the right hand side.
Access: The site can be accessed via a number of footpaths depending upon your starting point. The most straightforward one involves a 700-metre walk from the parking place described above to the stone circle. It passes through fields and woodland with gates, stiles and uneven surfaces, which can be challenging, particularly for wheelchair users or buggies.
Useful Links & Addresses
Route of the Trail: goo.gl/maps/LaYyHUh5aYjygtYeA
Maps: Ordnance Survey The Peak District: White Peak Area, OL24
Arbow Low: www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=0003
Nine Ladies: www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=125
Bull Ring: www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/bullring.htm
Derbyshire: exploring the ancient tracks by Shirley Toulson. Wildwood House, 1984
The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope, Thorsons, 2011