The White Peak’s dark side
Listen for tales whispered on the wind, of highwaymen, murder and heartbroken damsels haunting a walk through the Derbyshire Dales.
A grisly tale of highwaymen, murders and damsels in distress.
SPINDLY BRANCHES CLAW at the path, agitated by the wind; an arctic murmur coiling through the dale. It carries the ominous ring of galloping hooves from somewhere up ahead. Alone, I’m pinned to the spot, every sense tuned in to danger. Are my ears playing tricks? Probably.
I’m four miles north of Bakewell in the Peak District, taking tentative steps into Coombs Dale – a deep and sidling limestone valley. Leaden skies cast an unsettling pall over every bump, bend and craggy rib. It’s prime terrain for an ambush. Had I strayed this way in the 1700s, I would have good reason to fear for my money or my life. For these were the thieving grounds of Black Harry – Derbyshire’s most notorious highwayman.
Forget the folklore about gentlemanly ‘knights of the road’ – he was a robber of the roguish kind, preying upon the Peak District’s defenceless roadgoers. In his day, a bumbling writer would be fair game. Little is known about his life and exploits, except for his grisly fate at Wardlow Mires, which is the destination of my circuitous route through the White Peak. His name lives on however, on maps and in the Black Harry Trails, a web of bridleways around Middleton Moor. There’s a cask ale named after him
too – a dark one, naturally.
Like many of his unfortunate victims, I set out from Stoney Middleton. Don’t be fooled by the sashwindowed cottages and the festive well dressings in July – it’s a village with a grim past. In 1762, 24-yearold Hannah Baddeley threw herself from the 80-foot limestone cliffs at the mouth of Middleton Dale. Jilted by her lover, she decided life was no longer worth living. Miraculously, her billowing petticoats slowed her fall, becoming entangled with brambles protruding from a ledge. Except for a few scratches and bruises, she survived unharmed, but sadly died only two years later. The clifftop she jumped from became known as Lover’s Leap.
Around the same time, a Scottish trinket peddler drew the ire of Eyam locals when he snitched on their unlicensed enterprises to the parish constable. A posse followed him to the Moon Inn at Stoney Middleton, where their initially chummy behaviour turned vengeful. The landlord looked the other way as the Eyam mob beat the outsider to death. They hid his body deep in nearby Carlswalk Cavern, only for it to be discovered 20 years later. The scene of the crime no longer exists, but a later tavern took its name, allegedly haunted by the spirit of the Scotsman.
I pass the current Moon Inn as I turn up Stoney Middleton’s high street. With a 20% gradient, it’s claimed to be the steepest high street in Britain. Back lanes and field paths lead me down into Coombs Dale, meandering westwards through sheep pasture and scraggly copses. The valley opens out onto Middleton Moor, where I reach
Black Harry Gate – a crossroads of packhorse routes used since the middle ages.
Black Harry probably took his menacing nom de plume from this place, shared with the green lane wiggling down the hillside from Middleton Dale. The name of ‘Black Harry’ pre-dates the highwayman in local history and the outlaw’s true identity remains a mystery. Presumably, the original Black Harry Gate wasn’t of the five-bar steel variety I unlatch to continue on my way.
I turn south, tracing Black Harry Lane uphill as its peters into a squelchy bridleway, funnelled between fence and wall. When Black Harry plagued these parts, Derbyshire’s highways weren’t in a much better state. Travellers had to navigate rutted turnpike roads, churned up by horses and cartwheels. Highways crossed lawless moors, yet to be enclosed by the drystone walls which neatly divvy up the land today. If erratic upland weather didn’t hamper your progress, a highwayman might.
Highwaymen emerged in Britain after the English Civil War, when the country was flooded with guns and disgruntled Royalists down on their luck. With no police to enforce law and order, the early 18th century was a golden age of highway robbery, when the likes of Dick Turpin terrorised the Great North Road ( see Walk 17). Armed with a brace of flintlock pistols and donning a scarf for disguise, they relied on nimble steeds for a hasty getaway. Dodging danger for lucrative prizes, Black Harry targeted the packhorse trains which frequented Black Harry Lane.
Once over Longstone Edge, imperilled travellers could heave a sigh of relief. I do too as a wavy mane of greens and browns unfolds toward Bakewell, dotted with toytown rooftops. By way of Moor Lane, it’s downhill to the Packhorse Inn at Little Longstone, which thankfully is open when I arrive.
A century after Black Harry harassed the Peak District’s moneyed wayfarers, a swifter, safer and smokier way to get from Derby to Manchester arrived here. No longer would travellers be accosted by a figure in a tailcoat and tricorn hat, barking “Stand and deliver!”. Coaches now followed rails, not rutted roads, and the only stony-faced characters barring the way would curtly demand ‘tickets please.’
In 1863, the Midland Railway carved out a corridor between Bakewell and Buxton. The line closed 105 years later and the trackbed was repurposed as a route for walkers, cyclists and
"Dank, broadleaf woodland closes in around me as I tread into its bewitchi ng gloom."
horse riders, christened the Monsal Trail. Behind the old coaching inn at Monsal Head, a path slinks through a coarse shawl of bare trees and down to the emblematic viaduct spanning the U-shaped dale. Although I’m crossing it on foot, and not in the comfort of a train carriage, it still feels like cheating the landscape. I cruise past the old platform of Monsal Dale Station, relishing an effortless mile via cuttings and embankments, threading between Upperdale’s cosily-packed contours. But not every nook and corner of the Peak District was tamed by railways.
Dropping to cross the River Wye by the grand old textile mill which harnessed its power, I turn north into Cressbrook Dale, part of the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve. Dank, broadleaf woodland closes in around me as I tread footpaths into its bewitching gloom. Mosses coat the rocks, trees and tumbledown walls. Hidden from view, Wardlow Hay Cop looms over the canopy and crags enclosing the dale. It’s here the story of Black Harry resumes.
Finding himself cornered on this prominent tump, Derbyshire’s most-wanted surrendered to constables dispatched from Castleton. Sent for trial, he was hanged, drawn and quartered, after which his body was taken to Wardlow Mires. Hung in chains from the ‘gibbet’ (a wooden scaffold) on Peter’s Stone, his putrefying corpse would serve as a macabre warning to others who might be tempted by a life of crime. Legend says his bones were picked clean by ‘Derbyshire vultures’ from Ravensdale.
Beady-eyed corvids are watching when I emerge from the cover of the trees and steer a course through the twisting and bare-sloped tail end of Cressbrook Dale. The path skulks around the grassdomed turret of Peter’s Stone, guarding the way out to the main road. The last criminal to grace this limestone outcrop was Anthony Lingard of
nearby Tideswell, convicted of strangling the local tollhouse-keeper in 1815. Curiously, when his body was brought from Derby Gaol to Wardlow Mires, the soldiers escorting it took a wrong turn at Rowsley, along a private road through Beeley belonging to the Duke of Devonshire. Tradition dictated that when a corpse was transported over private land, its route became a right of way. Today it’s the B6012.
11 years later, Lingard’s skeleton was cut down from Peter’s Stone after locals complained about his bones rattling in the wind. Nowadays, the only dead thing on display at Wardlow Mires is found inside The Three Stags Head, where a mummified cat stares out at drinkers from its glass case (well, it would if it still had eyes).
With dusk approaching, I’m relieved to find shelter at the inn – however creepy it might be. Derbyshire’s moors and dales turn frightful as the witching hour nears. Fireside yarns are the broth of myth and mystery keeping their bloody past alive. It turns out, the White Peak is not so white after all.
THE WAYS OF AN OUTLAWAbove: Black Harry lends his name to a bridleway network converging on Black Harry Gate. Download a map at: www.bit.ly/blackharryAbove right: An 18th-century print of a highway robbery on Hounslow Heath.
GIBBET ROCK Dangling from a scaffold on Peter’s Stone, convicts’ cadavers were a deterrent visible from the high road. A WAY OFF THE MOOR Moor Lane veers across Longstone Edge, descending into the village of Great Longstone. LOVER’S LEAP Brokenhearted Hannah Baddeley threw herself from the clifftop here – and survived.
RAIL TRAIL The Headstone Viaduct carries the Monsal Trail over the River Wye at Monsal Head. A MORBID WARNING From 1751, English law required executed murders were publicly hung in chains or an iron gibbet cage. WHERE RARE PLANTS GROW Mosses are among the rare plants found in Cressbrook Dale, including the locally endemic Derbyshire Feathermoss.
WILD THINGS WELCOME HERE Cressbrook Dale is a National Nature Reserve, protected for its woodland and wildflower-rich limestone grassland.