Rites of Passage: Last rites?

On the Sunday morning, the last day of our weekend workshop, we had arranged to meet close to the entrance of Cressbrook Dale, a deep, green cleft in the hills that has a strange and often dark history. Our destination was an orphaned island of rock that stands isolated in the valley that is thought to have slid away from the adjoining hillside. It is called Peter’s Rock and was supposedly so named for its resemblance to the dome of St Peter’s in Rome… though perhaps a Christian overlay was given to an older and forgotten name. Locally, though, it is also known as Gibbet Hill.

In 1815, the same year as the battle of Waterloo, the vicar of Tideswell found his church empty and the congregation missing. They had found something more exciting to do with their morning and had departed, en masse, to witness the gruesome end of Antony Lingard, a convicted murderer, who had killed tollkeeper, Hannah Oliver.

It is said that he had stolen her property to give to a young woman who was carrying his child as some kind of bribe. Hearing what was suspected, she gave him back the goods and eventually testified against him.

The local cobbler, a man named Marsden, had provided the key evidence though, averring that shoes found at Lingard’s home had belonged to the victim. Lingard was hanged following his trial in Derby and his body gibbeted near the scene of his crime. Many accounts say the gibbet was erected on Peter’s Rock, also known as Gibbet Hill, others that it was in Gibbet Field. Lingard’s was not the only gibbeting there… the highwayman, Black Harry had also met the same fate and was hanged in Gibbet Field.

Nick Birds SE Ilkley 2015 uffington avebury cropton Helmsley 112

Lingard was the last man to suffer this final public punishment in Derbyshire, but his bones hung there, rattling in their cage, for eleven years, until the locals complained of the noise they made, rattling in their iron cage.

A few years later, his younger brother, William, was deported for highway robbery committed close to his brother’s remains, and a young girl poisoned her rival in love and was sentenced to death. Shadows seem to gather around this place, even on a sunny day.

Close by, when the turnpike was being built in the mid eighteenth century, two stone coffins were found when a cairn was excavated. Around the coffins were the remains of seventeen other people, buried like the spokes of a wheel. The place has a dark and mysterious history. Even the local pub close by, the Three Stags Heads, still displays the remains of the mummified cat found in the chimneypiece, placed there to ward off evil spirits…

Just beyond Peter’s Rock, the valley changes its name, eventually becoming Ravensdale and leading to Monsal Head and Fin Cop, where an ancient massacre occurred. It was a place of women, set apart and walled from the world. The women whose bodies were found showed no sins of manual labour and it is thought they were priestesses; no men were found to have lived there, though at least one of the murdered women was with child.

The attack was sudden, their bodies thrown unceremoniously into the ditch and the walls toppled upon them. On the slopes below is a ‘fairy castle’ of natural stone and, deep within it, caverns descend into the earth. It is the perfect spot for a sacred college and local legends and folktales appear to confirm the idea.

It is almost inconceivable that, linked as they are by a valley made largely of fluorspar, a stone said to enhance connection to Spirit, and a rise named locally Star Gate, that the two sites should not be connected.

The first time we had climbed up to Peter’s Rock, I had been infected with a quite unreasonable fear. I have little fear of heights and none at all of the rocky high places… yet this place got to me for some strange reason. My own panic infected my companion and, to my shame, while he scaled the rock, I beat a retreat. The second time was worse… and when we took Steve there, I was a wreck.

Quite what I had ‘picked up’ at the site we do not know, though we have our theories based on later visits and research. Whatever it was, it seemed the Rock was warded in some way. Even our recent visit to check the lay of the land had resurrected a ghost of that fear and it was only when we actually began to work with the place that it had dissipated.

There are many fears connected with this site. The gruesome fear of the murderous living… and the fear of the wakeful dead, the superstitions against which locals mummified cats, the historical massacre and strange, radial burial… and not least, the fear engendered by the possibility of a fall from rocky heights. They are all fears of transition, all ask us to look at where we are and where the journey we share might take us.

If a college of ancient priestesses used the Rock, it may have been for an initiatory rite. Every initiation contains a symbolic facing of death… a moment when the initiand must transcend fear so that the fear of annihilation is no longer the baseline against which life is measured.

Fear itself is not the enemy… it is a survival mechanism, designed to keep us safe. It had its place in making us flee the sabre-toothed tiger, but in our more sophisticated world, we have replaced that physical threat to life with more subtle terrors.

How we choose to face our fears and how we choose to transcend them is up to us… and can serve a purpose greater than our own.

Rites of Passage: Off Duty…

We left Tideswell with one eye on the clock and the other on the horizon. The drive to Castleton would take no more than twenty minutes and we had plenty of time before we were due to meet for dinner, but Castleton and its surrounding countryside deserve to be seen and the light was fading fast.

The limestone country of the Peak District in Derbyshire is spectacular. Dry stone walls follow medieval field boundaries, enclosing green meadows, while above them tower the hills, scarred white with old stone that was once a seabed. I took the long way round, driving westwards into the setting sun, because I wanted to drive our companions down Wynatt’s Pass, the narrow, steep sided gorge guarded by pinnacles of rock. We were gifted with a sunset that spilled liquid gold across the horizon before setting the sky on fire.  There are times I wish I had a roof-mounted camera on the car…

As we approached the top of the pass, we pointed out Mam Tor, the Shivering Mountain, so called for its habit of shedding its friable stones. Mam Tor, the Mother Hill, is a hillfort, with traces of the ancient settlement still clinging precariously to its sides.

Below it, Wynatt’s Pass snakes between the hills and there was still light enough to see the valley unfold before us. The Pass is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Alan and Clara, lovers whose family disapproved of their union and who eloped, planning to marry and begin a new life together.  Thieves, seeing their wedding finery, ambushed them in the Pass, stealing their savings and murdering the couple. Their bodies were thrown down a mine shaft and only found a decade later. The thieves, though, did not enjoy their ill-gotten gains for long, as each one of them died in strange and horrible circumstances…

Beneath the Pass are many caverns and mines, from the old lead workings of the Odin Mine to the caverns where the rare Blue John stone is found. Appropriately enough, I had been given a beautiful pendant set with Blue John and peridot as a birthday gift that morning. Wearing it seemed to deepen the connection to this landscape that I love.

On the horizon was Lose Hill, one of a pair of conical hills in the area, steeped in legends of giants and battles. And, on the hillside above the town, the skeletal remains of the Norman Peveril Castle, once one of the most important strongholds in the area, now just a shell of its former glory.

Castleton is one of those place that seems to have everything, from the industrial history of rope-making in the caverns, to prehistoric sites, a medieval church, a ruined castle and a wealth of legends and folklore, from ghostly apparitions to treasure, highwaymen and thieves. It was just a shame there was not enough time to share it properly. We may have to base a future workshop there…

With the church closed, the light fading and the temperatures rapidly dropping, we decided against exploring the town further and headed, instead, for the warmth of Ye Olde Nag’s Head, the seventeenth century coaching inn where we were to meet the others. It was a lovely evening, and a perfect end to my birthday. All that remained was to drive back to Sheffield and fall into bed…  we were going to have a busy morning ahead of us next day….