Birchover: Druid's Caves, Stone Circles & a Sacred Landscape
Updated: Sep 14
Birchover is a small village nestling on the east side of the Peak District. Although the village itself is quaint enough, it lies at the centre of a host of ancient and mysterious locations. Starting at the village pub The Druid Inn, the extraordinary edifice of Rowtor Rocks rises behind it.
Rowtor Rocks is one of the strangest places in Mercia. A massive stack of giant boulders piled around a central natural stone structure, it has been shaped and altered by humans since the neolithic age. The bulk of the alterations were carried out by Thomas Eyre, a bizarre local figure, during the late 1600s. Legend says that while Eyre was a parson at a local church, he led a double life and was also a pagan who held rituals at the rocks. There is a lot of gossip and misinformation about Eyre around the internet, much of it insisting that he was a founder member of the Ancient Order of Druids, a group based around masonic and fraternal societies. This is impossible as the AOD was formed in 1781, while Eyre died in 1717! Whatever the truth of it, his ceremonies were of a secretive and dark nature, with at least two of the caves extended and shaped specifically for this purpose. Eyre also had a chapel built close by that stands today, it was once completely windowless – make of that what you will. One cave, extended and shaped into a cube by Eyre, has a tiny hole bored all the way through the rock – what purpose would this have been used for?
Such is the magnitude and chaotic nature of the rocks it is difficult to tell what is the work of Eyre, what is natural, and what is ancient. Time seems to bend and stop completely as you explore the many tunnels, caves and passageways. Experts say that deep crevices between rocks were considered sacred to Bronze Age druids and that the dead were often wedged into them. Another practise was to place the body between two large rocks then put another large rock on top – all of these formations exist in spades at Rowtor Rocks. The stairs and square caves were carved by Eyre's men but ancient people left their permanent marks too. A set of cup and ring marks is clearly visible on one rock along with a curious serpent figure of the same age. I have no doubt that between the neolithic age and the 1600s many different communities held Rowtor Rocks as sacred. The actual name of the place is believed to be derived from an old word for “rocking rock”, and still today some of the gigantic stones could be made to wobble a little, perfectly balanced as they are. One such rocking stone was the target of a dozen local lads on Whit Sunday 1799, who decided to see how much they could get the rock to wobble. They succeeded in rocking the stone completely out of it's cradle, sending it crashing down the hill and taking two of the youths with it...
Walking out of the village northwards you arrive at Stanton Moor. This entire beautiful heather covered heath is a scheduled ancient monument as there is so much evidence of ancient communities living here. Among the many burial mounds and old trackways the most well known site must be the Nine Ladies. In reality an early Bronze Age stone circle, in legend what became of a group of women who danced on the Sabbath, turned to stone for their sins. It is a beautiful, peaceful spot but very popular as a picnic spot for families so get there very early or very late in the day if you hope to soak up any atmosphere. The whole of Stanton Moor is magical, other than the two small quarries left to nature it is little changed from the age our pre-Christian ancestors lived here. Walking back out of the Moor and past the curious natural rock formation known as the Corkstone, you can cross the road and walk on to the Andle Stone, a huge gritstone outcrop standing surrounded by a drystone wall in the middle of a wheat field. Like the Corkstone, someone has carved out rough footholds on it to enable a fit person to clamber up to it's summit.
Walking a little further on from the Andle Stone and down the hill you near a wood, and hidden within its peaceful confines lies one of my favourite ancient sites – Doll Tor. With most stone circles lying on open fields this one is unique in its location, dappled by golden sunlight through the trees and having an amazingly peaceful atmosphere. One could sit here for hours, listening to the birdsong and contemplating what this little circle might have meant to our ancestors. Off to its side is a cairn with a large recumbent stone laid on top, this is believed to have been a ceremonial altar for funerary rites. A lot of offerings had been left in the centre of the circle, mostly corn rigs and rowan berry bunches. Traditional country magic items and all natural, there is no problem with these kind of rapidly biodegradable things left here as opposed to the beer cans and throwaway barbecues that had recently blighted the place. Dol Tor's hidden location worked against it, making it a draw for some cretins who even pushed a stone over and used it to put their barbecue on!
Many other weird and mythical sites lie around the area such as Robin Hood's Stride but this is enough for one day. I highly recommend a day out walking around Birchover, you can lose yourself and go back in time several times over...
The Druid Inn, a must for any traveller
One of Eyre's modified cave entrances, may have once had a door on it
One of the many strange staired tunnels on Rowtor Rocks
Inside Rowtor Rocks
The Corkstone on Stanton Moor
Rowtor Rocks, a much older carving here than Eyre's work. Bowls like this were often used to house offerings in the religions of our more ancient ancestors
The Nine Ladies
The wonderful Dol Tor - please take care when visiting this place - if you can find it
The Andle Stone