One of my favourite things about exploring the outdoors is the constant new discoveries that it brings. These revelations often occur when visiting a place that you’ve never been before but are most astounding when you expose them in an area you think you know quite well. Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about a different side to the county’s countryside when I took a couple of walks with an archaeologist friend of mine. Normally when I go for a hike my mind is firmly focussed in the present. However, taking a walk with Lucy allowed me to dial the clock back thousands of years to explore Derbyshire’s prehistoric past. The first revelation came when looking at the ordnance survey map. Study one long enough and you’re bound to come across the word ‘tumulus’ written in a fancy, archaic looking font. I’d seen it plenty of times before but never once given any thought to what on earth a tumulus might actually be. Now though, I had an answer. A tumulus, the Latin word for ‘small hill’, is a mound of earth built over a burial site made in either the Neolithic or Bronze Age. This means they could be anywhere from 2,700 to 8,000 years old. These ancient burials could be for one person or multiple and would often involve a wealth of goods being placed inside the grave too. You might assume, as I did, that sites like this must have some kind of protection but you’d be wrong. Instead you can find them more or less anywhere throughout the landscape, with the large ones being particularly easy to spot. Some of them require a bit more searching though as the mound has disappeared over time. These can only be found by looking for a change in the of vegetation which is caused by the difference in soil type and its structure underneath. However, before you start thinking about harnessing your inner Indiana Jones, almost all of the grave goods were removed by Victorian excavations. To experience ancient Derbyshire at its finest though, we made a trip into the Peak District to explore what has been described as “the most important prehistoric site in the East Midlands.” Located close to Youlgreave, Arbor Low is a Neolithic ‘henge’ monument that ranks amongst the best preserved in the country.
It consists of a large, almost completely circular, earth bank with two causeways at each end which lead into the centre. A ditch on either side has been dug against the interior flank of the earth bank and leaves a flat piece of ground standing like a stage in the middle. It is encircled at the edges with huge limestone slabs laying on the ground, while in the centre sits yet more limestone, forming a ‘cove’ that is only present at major sacred sites. If you take a quiet moment to sit in Arbor Low’s centre, it’s not hard for your imagination to crackle with visions of what might have taken place in this most sacred of stone circles. In fact, all of these places forged from ancient human hand have the capability to morph into something far more than a collection of earth and stone. Instead, they become a physical link back through time to some of the very first people to call Derbyshire home and find their own special places within its hills.