Hunting for Peak poetry - Middleton and Smerrill’s Sites of Meaning
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 October 2019 | UPDATED: 09:31 08 October 2019
Helen Moat sets off to follow a unique trail in the White Peak created to mark the Millennium – finding peace and beauty along the way
At the end of the 20th century, the parishioners of Middleton and Smerrill in the White Peak pondered ways to celebrate the new millennium. After much head scratching, they came up with an exciting and ambitious plan: they would have specially commissioned stones engraved with poetry, prose and words of wisdom around the parish boundary, alongside existing landmarks. The committee decided to involve the local community as far as possible: school children, workers, poets, artists, craftsmen and women. The 'Sites of Meaning' project was born.
Successfully completed, the Sites of Meaning are a wonderful way to explore this quiet parish of meadows, dales, streams and dry-stone walls, with little human presence beyond Middleton except for the occasional cottage, farm and field barn.
There are seventeen markers as well as a focal stone - too many to find in one go. I decided to spread my exploration of the sites over three days - and not quite in the order they appear on the Sites of Meaning website. I printed off the map, and with my OS Explorer of the White Peak as backup, I drove to Middleton-by-Youlgreave to start my literary treasure hunt.
By road from Middleton to Youlgreave and back along Bradford Dale
00: The Village Stone
I found the focal stone beside the village green - seventeen lines of words radiating out in the direction of each boundary stone. Peak Poetry surrounded me.
01 & 02: Hollow Seat and Roughwood Kerb
Hollow Seat was set into a dry-stone wall on the bend of Weaddow Lane and engraved with words from the Bible: In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength. - Isaiah 3.
I almost missed the second marker right next to the stone bench, the words of Youlgreave school children set into kerbstones: Down the dale feel the wet soggy dogs which have just come out of the river. He's beautiful, golden, white fur, wild, free, ready to come and go as he pleases.
I too felt the peace and joy of this White Peak landscape as I dropped down to Bradford Dale from Youlgreave and headed back to Middleton along the river.
03: Bradford Dale Bridge
I found the words of William Wordsworth inscribed on an old stone bridge: Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide; The form remains, the function never dies.
Below, dippers, moorhens and mallards feasted on waterweed, as they have done through the ages, while rainbow trout curved a path through pondweed in the fishing ponds.
04: Sheep Dip
Further on, stone books were set into a dry-stone wall by Rowlow dale, their spines carved with the words: In late May or June - The farmers brought their sheep - To wash their fleeces - In this deep pool - Burbling, bumbling, bleating - The waters bleat like a flock of sheep it dipped - Dip your ghosts into this hard, cold merky place - Hear their bleat in the water's rush to escape - The foam like wool pulsates - Damp leaves nothing behind but the trees' readiness.
I felt the hand of history in this place so elegantly described by local parishioners. I turned into Rowlow Dale to find my last marker for the day.
06: Clapper Bridge
Beyond the bridge and metal ladder, I found an old clapper bridge - a simple flat stone spanning Rowlow Brook - inscribed with words from Alexander Pope: Consult the Genius of the Place in all; That tells the Waters or to rise or fall.
I'd relished my first day through the poetry of the White Peak, in word and landscape, and looked forward to another day of literature on stone.
From Middleton to Smerrill and Long Dale
I returned to Middleton-by-Youlgreave a week later, a whiff of autumn in the air. The sky was low and dark, birds gathering for the long migration south.
07: Rowlow Brook
Back on Weaddow Lane again, I headed in the opposite direction this time, dropping down through Lowfield Lane to the parish boundary at Rowlow Brook again. An upright stone in the stream was inscribed with the words: The Peace of running water with you.
It was hard to disagree as I listened to the gentle babble of the brook.
05: Over Rusden
On the hillside between Rusden Wood and the brook, a circle of stones lay half-hidden in the grass. The words of WH Auden inscribed on the cobbles could have been a love poem to the White Peak: But when I try to imagine a faultless love / Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur / Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
Weaddow Lane greeted me again. I walked up the road back in the direction of Middleton and found a boulder carved with two faces in profile, the words of William Blake snaking through mosaics of flowers: To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.
How true; the wildflowers of the limestone Peak were a piece of heaven rooted in earth.
Diverging to Long Dale, I found the next marker: three roughly hewn stones carved with birds and words taken from a Nepalese Teahouse: We meet to create memories and depart to cherish them.
Overhead two buzzards circled the sky, hovering on the uplift of air before disappearing. I cherished the moment.
On the site of an old Roman road below Long Dale, where a corridor of tree-lined meadow sweeps down to Friden Bends, the mason had playfully placed two stones opposite each other, one mirroring the words of the other: The road up and the road down are one and the same (from Heraclitus).
11: Friden Bends
I found the last marker for Day Two on a raised section of the Friden road: left - right/quick - march/past - enough/ earth - to spy/and beat - the bounds/breathless - death/ere - owns.
And with the words of poet David Fine ringing in my ears, I marched over meadows and down the lane back into Middleton.
The Country lanes of Smerrill & Middleton
The last markers all sit on roadsides, so I decided to cycle this section - though walking is always an option. I pushed off from Parsley Hay. The air was cooler now but the sun still held warmth, the sky a Wedgwood-blue smudged white.
13: Arbor Low
On the crest of the hill, at the beginning of Long Rake, I found the first marker on the roadside with words from poet Ralph Hodgson: Time, you old gipsy man/Will you not stay/Put up your caravan/Just for one day?
I too was aware that time was slipping away with the summer. The light lay low and intense in the sky, turning the meadows a luminous green.
14: Cales Farm West
On the other side of a stile, I almost missed the cube-shaped stone carved with words from conservationist Michael Dower: Bright Under Green Limestone Edges. With Queen Ann Lace and Cranesbill in her Hedges
I couldn't see any cranesbill, but the Queen Ann lace was thick in the field, drained of colour and moisture and crackling in the breeze.
15: Cales Farm East
Opposite Derbyshire Aggregates, a flat stone was engraved with the words of three employees: The rakes and spoils of man's hard toil, has shaped this land.
How true, I thought, just as the landscape shapes the lives of those living and working in the Peak.
16: Long Rake
Where the road divides, blocks have been slotted into a dry-stone wall with words from Youlgreave school children again: A dull sky, Feel the cold. Touch the snow, A lonely landscape. Hear the wind, See the hills. It's freezing cold, And empty.
There was no snow yet, just a late summer breeze blowing across the uplands.
17: Pen Close
And so, on the side of the road between Youlgreave and Newhaven, I found the penultimate marker. Two field gateposts that said: Live as if you'll die tomorrow/farm as if you'll live forever.
A traditional saying for modern times.
12: Roman Road
Where Green Lane became a rough stone and earth track, every bone in my body rattled. I got off my bike and walked to the line of trees intercepting the track. Here, on the site of an old Roman road, I found the last inscription: Hvivs viae cvram cvratores viarvm non svscepervnt.
I wish I'd paid more attention to my Latin lessons in school, but with mobile internet to translate I realised the Romans were scolding about the poor upkeep of the road. I concurred. Soon I hit the High Peak Trail and my wheels were flying along the dismantled railway, back to Parsley Hay.
My literary treasure hunt was over - each stone found. I'd experienced three extraordinary days along the boundary of Smerrill and Middleton Parish, the words of great poets and ordinary parishioners alike echoing the beauty of this lesser-known part of the White Peak.
Find out more from www.sitesofmeaning.org.uk