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Castleton: Folklore Jewel of the Peak District

The Peak District is one of the most ruggedly beautiful areas of Mercia, and indeed all of Britain. At it's heart lies the small town of Castleton, a magnet for hikers and general tourists all year round and a great base for exploring the surrounding areas. The town itself though has it's fair share of strange history and folklore before we even begin to look further around.


Garland Day is usually held at the end of May in Castleton, this tradition sees a huge bell shaped wicker structure being entirely covered in flowers at the start of the day, before being placed completely over the head of the “Garland King”, who then proceeds to ride a horse, with his consort The Lady, around the town. This garland usually covers the King, dressed in full late 1600s period dress, down to his knees yet somehow he manges to see where he is going! Together they lead a procession of a brass band followed by groups of dancing girls in white dresses carrying sticks. The travelling dance stops at every pub in the town where the girls perform a kind of Morris dance with the sticks before moving on to the next location. Once the circuit is complete the whole ensemble stops near the church. They watch as the Garland King rides on to the church gates and removes the top part of the Garland. This is kept to place on the town war memorial. He then rides to the door of the church and the entire Garland is lifted slowly off him by a rope winched from the tower, where it is placed over the pinnacle to stay for the next week. The King retreats back to the procession where they finish at the town marketplace. A maypole is set up and dancing around it commences, before the whole folk of the town join in the parade and follow the king back to the beginning.


While it's roots may lie in a much earlier pagan tradition, the style of today's Garland Day is based around the Oak Apple tradition, where celebrations were held all around the country to commemorate the return to the the throne of Charles II. Different counties had different styles, some towns just drunkenly hurled crab apples at each other while others hunted down and thrashed with nettles anyone not wearing a sprig of oak! The oak apple association is from Charles hiding in such a tree from Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester.


Several cave systems surround Castleton but some of the oldest such caverns collapsed thousands of years ago and formed dramatic gorges. The most well known example of this is the magnificent Winnats Pass, through which most visitors to Castleton make their entry to the town. Looking like a scene from Game of Thrones, the pass is simply stunning on one's first drivethrough and well worth a walk across to it's summits to take in the view down. Winnats pass wasn't always the road in, in fact it only became the main road after the brooding peak of Mam Tor literally “shivered”, gradually shrugging the old road off as it underwent a slow rotational earth tremor. This crawling landslide is still going on today at a glacier like pace. Before it was opened up to general traffic, Winnats Pass was a desolate, lonely place. A local tale of death in the pass is still told today.


A young couple known as Alan and Clara had eloped, travelling to Peak Forest and be wed in the church there. The village was known as England's Gretna Green, a sanctuary for runaways with curiously individual laws regarding marriage. One the way back home they stayed at an inn in Castleton , blissfully happy but maybe just a little too open with others about their future plans. They were carrying around two hundred old pounds in savings which apparently today would equate to around £30,000. A group of miners learned of the money and their plans to travel home and so lay in wait at Winnats Pass. As Alan and Clara rode slowly through the dark dale the men attacked them, beating them both and dragging them into a cave. There they murdered the tragic lovers, taking all of their money and splitting the proceeds. The bodies were found but nobody was ever brought to justice – or at least official justice. One miner fell from a peak above the pass and died, another was crushed by a boulder which fell on him near the same place. One more went insane and died in the Bedlam. The last survivor was tormented by his deeds, lost every penny he gained in bad deals and was unsuccessful in every attempt to take his own life. He faded away in anguish, a miserable beggar. Alan and Clara are said to be buried in St Edmunds churchyard in Castleton – I say “said to be” as I haven't been able to check personally – and a saddle claimed to be Clara's is on display at Speedwell Cavern caves.


Another example of this type of natural cave/pass is Cave Dale, the doorway (it is literally a door) to which is just by the aforementioned war memorial. Hidden from view behind buildings, this gnarled and slightly sinister looking rocky valley opens out into a green dale far beyond, but it is overlooked by Peveril castle, a Norman stronghold that in it's aged and semi ruined state fits perfectly in with the rugged landscape of Cave Dale. Although a strategic castle for some centuries after it's construction during the Norman conquest, by the 1500s it lay derelict, not worth the cost of it's maintenance and raided for building materials. With Mam Tor in the background the castle on the Cave makes a brilliant subject for photographers, in fact it has featured on an album cover by the band Winterfylleth. With tragic irony a brutal murder occurred in this pass too but in more modern years. In 1983 a student named Norman Smith strangled Susan Renhard while she took pictures in Cave Dale for her photography degree. Smith remains in custody for the rest of his natural life, and may Susan rest in peace.


One last, and creepy if I'm honest, place on the outskirts of Castleton is a cave just off the path up to Mam Tor. It is called Odin's Mine. It is what remains of an old Roman lead mine but how it got this name is still up for argument. Danes definitely lived in the area, it was just within the Danelaw, and may well have resurrected the old Roman mines if the Saxons hadn't already, so the connection there is obvious. A lonely, silent cavern with atmosphere and, if I dare say so, some paranormal presence.


If you haven't visited Castleton and it's many attractions then please do so as soon as the strange world we are in now reasonably allows – but avoid bank holidays!



Mam Tor - the Shivering Mountain

View from the summit of Mam Tor showing the shrugged off old road down in the valley

Odin's Mine

Peveril Castle brooding over Castle Dale

Winnats Pass

The Garland King

Garland girls prepare to dance on the maypole

The Garland King enjoys a surreptitious pint

The Maypole on Garland Day

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