The beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Peak District has inspired artists and writers over the centuries, and the area is blessed with an abundance of ancient sites. Stone circles and standing stones are mute witnesses to the passage of the sun, moon, stars and planets, which regulated the lives of prehistoric peoples in the unending cycle of nature. Burial mounds dot the landscape, some still holding the dead in their long sleep.

For many people in pre-industrial Britain, the strange monuments seemed to have a supernatural element to them, and many stories were told that explained their origins. Stone circles and standing stones were often the haunt of fairies, or sometimes people were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. Burial mounds were the entrances to the otherworld and the fairy kingdom. Spectral figures and phantom black dogs patrolled the moors, and mermaids hid in pools waiting to drag an unsuspecting traveller into the depths.

This is not an exhaustive list of sites in the Peak District, but rather a selection that appeal to me and tell an interesting tale. I have visited them all and would recommend getting out to explore them and the beautiful Peak District countryside. And you must also come to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to look at the archaeological finds from these places.

I’ll start with possibly the biggest and most well-known site, the henge of Arbor Low. A circle of recumbent stones (did they ever stand?) sits in the great sweep of a bank and ditch, and dates to the late Neolithic. In the Bronze Age the bank was reconstructed to allow a huge burial mound to be built to the side. Given the size and importance of the place, there are not many legends connected to it other than the place is crawling with boggarts and best avoided at night. What is a boggart? These are particularly troublesome, frightening, and dangerous spirits that delight in tormenting humans. They generally hide themselves by being invisible and only come out at night, though when they have been seen they are described as being about three feet tall with shaggy hair and ragged clothes. They have a nasty temper!

Arbor Low henge and stone circle. From a lantern slide by William Boyd-Dawkins. Accession number DERSB : 2005.3.749

What of peeing giants? This tale is connected to the four great stones of Nine Stones Close on Harthill Moor, near Birchover. These stones once formed a much larger stone circle, and two of the stones can be seen built into the nearby drystone wall. The remaining four stones are the tallest in Derbyshire and are aligned with the natural rock formation of Robin Hood’s Stride, a great mass of rocks with two pinnacles to either end, between which the Summer Solstice full moon sets.

Nine Stones Close, Harthill Moor. From a lantern slide by JW Jackson, taken 18.4.1927. Accession number DERSB : 2005.3.147

Legend has it that a group of women were out dancing on a Sunday, and in the past, this was much frowned on by the church. As the women enjoyed their dancing, a giant appeared and stood with each foot on one of the pinnacles of Robin Hood’s Stride. He then promptly dropped his pants and peed in front of the women. So shocked were they by this that they turned to stone!

Robin Hood’s Stride, Harthill Moor. From a lantern slide by JW Jackson. Accession number DERSB : 2005.3.582

The Nine Ladies on Stanton Moor also carries a similar tale, though no urinating giants are involved. Here, a group of nine women were out dancing on the Sabbath, and because of this they were turned to stone. The outlying King Stone, also known as the fiddler, because he was supposed to be playing the music, was also turned to stone. The moral of this story – don’t go having fun on a Sunday, especially up on the moors!

There are several legends in the Peak District associated with a fairy creature known as a Hob. Unlike their cousins, the boggarts, the Hobs are generally good natured, though they can turn nasty if you upset one. They usually carry out chores for people in return for some porridge, cream, or ale. But don’t ever give them new clothes as this is guaranteed to upset them, and they will then smash up your house! 

Hob Hurst House is a unique Bronze Age burial mound on Beeley Moor near Bakewell. It is unique because instead of being the usual round shape, this one is rectangular. Hob Hurst is believed to live here and goes out at night to tend to the sheep. This burial mound is one of the first ancient sites taken into the care of the state, through the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882.

Another place associated with Hob is situated in beautiful Monsal Dale. I went up to Hob’s House Cave last year, and it really is an eerie place. I didn’t venture into the cave as I wasn’t reassured by the huge block of stone that looked to have slipped above the entrance! Looking at old photos, this seems to have happened a long time ago. Hob emerges from this cave at night to thresh the corn for local farmers in return for a bowl of cream.

Another cave associated with Hob is Hob Thirst’s Cave in Deep Dale, near Chelmorton. Also known as Thirst’s House Cave, the site was used during the Roman period. Pottery, coins, bronze jewellery, and a series of burials outside the cave entrance, suggest that the cave was used between 100-160CE, and later between 240-280CE. The presence of the burials with fine jewellery, and a natural spring nearby, could mean that the cave was used as some sort of shrine during this period. The finds from the cave are now in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Thirst House Cave, Deep Dale, Chelmorton. Photograph by the author

The name for the cave is possibly derived from Hob o Th’Hurst, which means “Hob of the Woods”. It is also believed that Thirst is derived from “Thryst”, and old word for a giant. Maybe Hob was the same giant who dropped his pants on Harthill Moor!

Roman Dragonesque brooch from Thirst House Cave. Accession number DERSB : 3619

To round off this discussion on the folklore of ancient sites, mention must be made of the numerous prehistoric flint and stone weapons that were found by local people. Not having any idea of the great antiquity of these items, people used to believe that flint arrowheads were made by the elves and were known as Elf-Shot. It was believed that the elves would fire these weapons at humans and livestock, thus causing inexplicable illnesses. To protect themselves, people would wear them as amulets, or hang them over the front door or cattle shed.

Bronze Age barbed and tanged flint arrowhead from Arbor Low. Accession number DERSB : 1979.339

The larger stone axes were thought to be thunderstones and were hung up in the rafters of a house to protect them from lightning strike. Another belief was that they were the weapons used by angels to drive Satan from heaven and they would help protect the home from the evil eye.

Mid to late Neolithic axehead from Arbor Low. Accession number DERSB : 1979.1111

If going out to explore these, and other sites, in the Peak District please take care as the weather can change quickly, and be especially careful going into caves. Make sure people know where you are going and take a torch and warm clothing. Also be on the lookout for boggarts. Alternatively, you can come to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and see the finds from the numerous sites and have a chat with the friendly staff – much friendlier than the boggarts!