Roly Smith compiles his modern seven Wonders of the Peak District
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 January 2019
In his new book, Derbyshire Life columnist Roly Smith takes a fresh look at an ancient listing – and comes up with some of his own
Everyone who knows the Peak District – Britain’s first and most popular National Park – knows that it’s wonderful. From the brooding Dark Peak moorlands to the gentle limestone dales, everyone has their favourite spots.
The Wonders of the Peak – based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – have been extolled by writers since the 14th century. The first popular description was by Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher and tutor to the Cavendish children at Chatsworth, in his De Mirabilibus Pecci: Concerning the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire, published in 1636.
In long-winded Latin hexameters Hobbes listed seven ‘wonders’ which he had visited during a two-day horse ride. He described:
Of the High Peak are seven wonders writ,
Two fonts, two caves, one palace, mount and pit.
They were: two fountains (St Ann’s Well in Buxton and the Ebbing and Flowing Well at Barmoor Clough or Tideswell); two caves (Poole’s Cavern and Peak Cavern); a palace (Chatsworth); a mountain (Mam Tor), and a chasm (Eldon Hole).
All but one of his choices were natural features, the exception being Chatsworth, home of his erstwhile employer and the father of his pupils at Chatsworth, the 3rd Earl of Devonshire, which he cannily placed at No 1 in his list.
Hobbes’ listing soon became a well-trodden ‘tick-list’ for the earliest tourists to the Peak. Travellers eagerly sought them out on what was to become a fashionable itinerary, like the Grand Tours of Europe being taken by the well-heeled at the time.
In 1682 Hobbes’ wonders were translated into English for the fast-expanding tourist market by Charles Cotton, the impecunious squire of Beresford Hall in Dovedale, and co-author with Izaak Walton of the anglers’ bible, The Compleat Angler in 1653.
And at the end of the 17th century, Celia Fiennes, daughter of a colonel in Cromwell’s army and the first in a long line of the adventurous family, rode through the Peak alone and by side-saddle with the object of visiting the Wonders in 1698. She recorded her impressions in Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary.
Fiennes was followed 20 years later by satirical journalist and political commentator Daniel Defoe, who is probably best known for his classic castaway novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). His Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, first published in instalments between 1724 and 1726, systematically debunked Hobbes’ and Cotton’s ‘Wonders’, and concluded that only Eldon Hole and Chatsworth – ‘one a wonder of nature, the other of art’ – were worthy of the name.
Knowing about the Wonders got me thinking about what might be classified as the modern seven Wonders of the Peak? To that original group of mostly natural features, we would probably want to add examples of the Peak’s many man-made and wildlife wonders, as well as natural wonders from the gritstone Dark Peak, which was rarely visited four centuries ago.
Although almost completely ignored by Hobbes and Cotton, surely these contributed so much to the Peak becoming our first and most popular National Park in Britain in 1951?
In my new book, which is illustrated by Cressbrook photographer Chris Gilbert and many previously unseen engravings, after revisiting the original Wonders, I have come up with some of my own contemporary Wonders of the Peak. They are categorised into natural landscape wonders; man-made wonders and wildlife wonders, and finally I have taken a speculative look to guess what the wonders of the future might be.
So I’ve included previous notable omissions like Dovedale – described by Cotton as ‘The Princess of Rivers’; the strange limestone butte of Peter’s Stone in Cressbrook Dale; the tottering landslip of Alport Castles on the southern slopes of Bleaklow, and the 100-foot Downfall and the weird and wonderful outcrops of The Woolpacks on the county’s reigning summit of Kinder Scout.
My man-made wonders had to include the great Neolithic stone circle of Arbor Low, sometimes known as ‘The Stonehenge of the North’; stately St John’s Church at Tideswell, dubbed ‘The Cathedral of the Peak’; Peveril Castle at Castleton, and the magnificent castellated Gothic architecture of the Derwent Dams. A more recent addition was the wonderful Millennium Walkway, which sweeps majestically above the River Sett at New Mills.
It was even harder to decide what to include under wildlife wonders. But in the end I plumped for, among others, our beautiful county flower of Jacob’s ladder; the elusive ring ouzel or ‘mountain blackbird’, and the insignificant but unique Derbyshire feather moss, which is found nowhere else in the world.
It must be said that any such listings are bound to be subjective, and most Peak aficionados will have their own particular favourites. So they must not be regarded in any sense as definitive. They are merely the author’s favourites, based on my own knowledge, experience and love of the Peak District, and they should be judged by the reader as nothing more than that.
Wonders of the Peak: Then and Now by Roly Smith, photographs by Chris Gilbert, is published by Byway Publications at £7.99.