Buxton Museum and Art Gallery undoubtedly has the best public collection of Ashford Black Marble in the UK, if not the world. Technically the stone is not a marble, but a dark coloured limestone that is rich in bitumen (hence the colour) and is found close to the Derbyshire village of Ashford-in-the-Water. The stone is quite soft and can be cut and inlaid with other decorative stones and minerals, using a technique known as pietra dura. There was a thriving trade in the manufacture of urns, obelisks, tables, and other decorative items from Ashford Black Marble during the late 18th and early 19th century.

Display of Ashford Black Marble in the Wonders of the Peak, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

What is particularly striking about these items created from stone, is the profusion of realistic plants and flowers that burst with colour and energy from the dense black of the background. Many of these are wildflowers native to Britain, though some are exotic species, brought back by adventurers.

Flowers have always had a hidden meaning, and many are associated with folklore. Below is a selection of some of the plants that are found on Ashford Black Marble, and some of the folklore associated with them. But before reading on, please note that it is illegal to pick wildflowers, and please don’t try any of the remedies!

Pansy

The pretty flower we often put in hanging baskets has an association with romance, and many of its names recall this, such as ‘Heartsease’, ‘Cuddle me to you’, ‘Kiss behind the garden door’, and ‘Love in idleness’. To pick them on a sunny day, or with dew on their petals, will cause a loved one’s death, or rather less dramatically it will cause rain – someone must be picking a lot of pansies in Buxton!

Table top inlaid with pansies and other flowers. Acc. No. DERSB : 1979.2029

Forget-me-not

Apparently, the month of May is the busiest time for witch activity. But fear not! If you wear a sprig of Forget-me-not, then this will protect you against their spells and potions. It is also said to be a remedy for snake or dog bites, and steel tempered with the juice of the plant will cut through stone.

Obelisk thermometer with Forget-me-not and Lily-of-the-Valley. Acc. No. DERSB : 2005.35.T52

Periwinkle

This plant was often given to newlyweds as it had something of a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It was also believed that it could heal wounds, and one of its names is ‘Cut finger’. It could also protect against evil spirits and was known as ‘Sorcerer’s violet’. Sir Francis Bacon recommended wrapping the leaves around a leg to stop cramp, and in Oxfordshire it was a favourite remedy for boils, nosebleeds, and toothache.

Thermometer with Periwinkle. Acc. No. DERSB : 1979.2069

Hawthorn

Hawthorn is associated with the coming of Summer. It is also considered a fairy tree, as they are supposed to live in them, and many a tale was told of people being abducted by the fairies after falling asleep beneath a hawthorn – and don’t think about chopping one down as that will bring very bad luck. In Staffordshire it was once believed that gathering May blossom on Holy Thursday (14th April) would protect a house from lightning if the blossom was laid in the rafters. The thorns of the tree were used to stick into poppets (similar to a voodoo doll) to curse someone.

Vase decorated with Hawthorn. Acc. No. DERSB : 2005.35.T9

Daisy

The daisy is another flower associated with love, especially love divination: “He loves me, he loves me not….”. An old belief was that if a child stood on daisies or uprooted them, then it would grow up stunted – probably those pesky fairies cursing again. The pink ends of the petals are said to be the blood from the Virgin Mary when she pricked her finger gathering daisies. The Ox-Eye daisy is associated with the Summer Solstice as this is when the flowers bloom, and it was commonly hung up in cottages to keep fleas away.

Box decorated with daisy and other flowers. Acc. No. DERSB : 1979.2396

Daffodil

We often have bunches of daffodils in a jug in our homes during the spring, the bright yellow flowers bringing some much welcome colour after the gloom of Winter. However, in the past this was highly frowned upon as they were considered to bring bad luck. Bringing daffodils into a farmhouse meant that the eggs wouldn’t hatch. Stepping on daffodils is said to bring bad luck but giving someone a bunch of them will bring good luck to both.

Dish decorated with daffodil and forget-me-not. Acc. No. DERSB : 1979.2392

Oak

For the people of the past the mighty oak was considered a sacred tree. For the Greeks and Romans, it was associated with Zeus and Jupiter, and the sacred tree at Dodona in Greece was famed for oracular power. For the people of the Iron Age it was considered the most holy of trees, especially when it had mistletoe hanging from it. The Vikings considered it sacred to Thor. In Britain there is an old saying “In old oaks, live the fairy folks” and to cut one down was said to bring bad luck and the wrath of the little people. If an oak tree had been hit by lightning, pieces of the charred wood were gathered up and placed in the home to act as a charm against lightning strikes, and pieces of oak wood hung over the front door were said to be charms against witchcraft.

Mantle clock decorated with oak leaves and acorns, and jasmine flowers. Acc. No. DERSB : 100138.1

The collection of Ashford Black marble is on display in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. We are open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm (last admission at 4pm).