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The White Peak village of Birchover stands amidst magnificent rock scenery on a west facing hillside beneath the towering bulk of Stanton Moor, and the stone from it`s quarries is famed throughout the land.
This area of Derbyshire is rich in mineral deposits, and lead mining, quarrying for stone, and spar mining for barytes has provided the population with its main industry down the centuries. Birchover stone from Stanton quarries has provided the raw material for the construction of many noteable buildings including the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and the Houses of Parliament.
The earliest settlement was originally located at what is now known as Uppertown, about half a mile south and slightly higher up the hill than the modern-day village of Birchover.
The Saxons were the first to settle here, and the Normans built the first church, but by the Middle Ages the population of `Barcovere` as it is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 had outgrown the available water supply and so the whole village moved further down the hill to where the water was more plentiful.
There is no written record of any church at Uppertown but numerous carved and dressed stones, some bearing decorative Norman chevrons can still be found in the dry-stone walls which mark the field boundaries. A single reference however, in an ancient Derbyshire Charter dated 1300 states that ` a rent of one farthing in silver to be paid yearly on Michaelmas Day in Ye Chapel at Birchover`.
Today`s Birchover straddles the road which winds it`s way up the hill from the main Bakewell to Ashbourne road, becoming steeper as it climbs eastward towards the quarries on the edge of Stanton Moor.
The village is a well balanced blend of ancient and modern architecture and boasts a Spar shop, two public houses, the Red Lion and the Druid Inn, a late 17th century church built originally as a private chapel, and two Non-Conformist Chapels no longer used for worship.
The dwellings are mainly of local gritstone and the hillside village has some unusual and spectacular cottage gardens to please the visitor. The gardens provide an annual highlight on the social calendar in July when the residents open them to the public during Birchover Open Gardens Weekend, and local produce and refreshments are available as the village takes on a gala atmosphere centred around the war memorial and the Red Lion.
The Druid Inn is a well known feature of the village to many visitors, being an old picturesque hostelry known for the excellent country fare provided by it`s restaurant. With it`s ivy covered walls and set back on a bend in the road towards the bottom and western end of the village, it nestles snugly beneath the mass of gritstone known as Rowtor Rocks.
Local legend has it that Rowtor, named from the O.E. `Roos` (meaning `to rock`) and `Tor` (meaning `a rock or rocky hill`) was a sacred site used by the ancient Celts as a Druid Temple. Indeed, this curiously arranged pile of gritstone has a number of strange and fascinating features which lend essence to the legend; a tunnel leads inward from the base of the rocks for about 25 feet until it suddenly narrows, and a chimney rises overhead with stone steps carved into the rock leading upward. The steps lead to a terrace, which in turn leads to two man-made chambers hewn out of the solid rock, the largest of which is 16 feet long, 12 feet wide and 7 feet high.
At intervals along the steep twisting pathways which wind their way around and through the rocks can be seen a variety of rock basins and carvings, post holes which once supported wooden poles, sheltered seating and viewing platforms, old gateposts, and a number of Neolithic `cup and ring` markings. A series of stone steps leads from one level to the next.
A closer inspection of local records will show however that the site was once the garden playground of Rev.Thomas Eyre whose private chapel and vicarage (Rowtor Hall) once stood at the southern edge of the rocks. It is known that Thomas Eyre built some viewing terraces and was responsible for the three armchairs which are carved from the rock near the summit. This work was carried out to commemorate the ascension to the English throne of William of Orange and Mary in 1689.
Rev.Eyre died on November 30th 1717 and Rowtor Hall fell into disrepair. The old ruin was finally demolished in 1869 and the present `Old Vicarage` was built in 1870 by the Thornhills of nearby Stanton Hall. The original chapel still stands although it was much improved by Mr. Thornhill in 1870 and is now administered by the Church of England.
Seventeenth century records tell of no less than three rocking stones at Rowtor, with one weighing at least fifty tons and all capable of being `rocked` by a single person. Today however only one remains, the others having been vandalised by a gang of youths during the Whit Sunday festivities of 1799. At the summit a stone pillar rises, with a thin iron rod at it`s centre. This originally supported a weather vane, sadly destroyed on that same Whit Sunday 200 years ago!
At the western corner of Rowtor at the base of the rocks stands a large cave with socket - holes at the entrance and evidence of a carved altar piece in the interior, with a niche for a lamp beneath. Bronze age pottery and Romano - British artefacts were found in the cave entrance during the 18th century giving evidence of much earlier occupation.
Two hundred yards from Rowtor and in it`s own secluded grounds stands Rocking Stones Farm, magnificently set at the foot of another gritstone outcrop known as Bradley Rocks which also boasts a `rocking stone` at it`s summit. Adjacent to this and on the other side of the road which winds up through the village, stands the wooded Doll Tor and it`s little known and recently restored circle of standing stones.
The rocky fortress of Mock Beggar's Hall, more popularly known as Robin Hood`s Stride commands the skyline to the West, with the Old Portway climbing up the hillside towards the Yew tree guarded entrance of the famous Cratcliffe Hermitage about a mile from the village.
The site of a Romano - British encampment stands atop Cratcliffe Rocks and the area is rich in ancient archeological remains. There are several stone circles within a mile or two of the village and the ancient tracks and pathways which criss-cross the area provide a tourist haven for an ever increasing number of hikers.
The western end of Stanton Moor marks the Parish boundary. The moor itself is one of the largest known Bronze Age cemeteries in Europe and is dotted with cairns and burial mounds. Well known local archeologist and antiquarian, the late J.C. Heathcote, together with fellow archeologist Thomas Bateman excavated more than 70 bronze-age barrows last century and earlier this century, and the many finds are today on display in the Sheffield City Museum.
Birchover owes much to it`s two most noteable families, the Thornhills of Stanton Hall and the Heathcotes of Barn Farm. Down the centuries both have been responsible in shaping and providing the village with it`s history and it`s heritage, and continue to do so today.
The late J.P.Heathcote was responsible for restoring the old village stocks to their original site on the former village green at Uppertown in 1951, and today Gilbert Heathcote, a major landowner in the area, still lives at Barn Farm and provides very popular seasonal camping and caravan accommodation, and along with the holiday cottages the population of Birchover almost doubles during the summer months by the number of temporary inhabitants who enjoy all the benefits that this pleasant and historic Derbyshire hillside village has to offer.