Peak Forest is a rural village sitting high in the hills of the White Peak, sometimes lost in the clouds and shrouded by mist. However, when the sun does shine it is a very pretty location.
Although the area around Peak Forest has probably always been exposed pasture and moorland, the settlement of Peak Forest takes its name from the Royal Forest of the Peak which once covered an area of 180 square miles, and had three wards – Longdendale in the north, Hopedale in the south east and Campagna (French for open ground) in the south west. The northern and eastern boundaries were marked by the Etherow and Derwent rivers
The three wards met at Edale Cross (077861) which was also known as Champion Cross, a corruption of Campagna. In 1225, Chapel-en-le-Frith (Chapel in the Forest) was founded by the King’s Foresters and in 1275 there is a record of ‘Thomas de Wolfhunt’ who was empowered to take wolves.
Although thickly wooded on the whole, the Royal Forest also consisted of wild open tracts of land. When the Forest was first established, the local peasants and settlers were displaced and strict laws laid down regarding trespass, poaching and the clearing of land for cultivation. Royal parties were arranged when wolves, boars and deer would be hunted. Just outside Peak Forest is Chamber Farm which was rebuilt in the 17th century. It is thought to be the site of a small court of Swainmote where poachers, trespassers and rustlers would have been tried for their crimes by the Steward of the Forest.
From the 14th century onwards the laws were slackened and the Royal hunting parties became less popular, the land gradually fell into private ownership and by the end of the 15th century not much of the Forest was left either. This was due mainly to the demand for timber and brushwood for use in the increasing lead mining and smelting industry. In the 16th century an enclosed park of about 4 square miles was created. The ranger built a house there and further dwellings followed. This was to become the settlement of Peak Forest which in 1657 acquired its Church dedicated to King Charles the Martyr, and built on instruction of Christian, Countess of Devonshire. She intended it to be a private chapel within the Royal Forest and out of jurisdiction of a bishop. In 1674 the Forest was cleared and the remaining deer killed.
From 1665 the minister at Peak Forest church had the power to grant marriage licences. He was given the grand title of ‘Principal Official and Judge in Spiritualities in the Peculiar Court of Peak Forest’. He could also prove wills. The names in the register were without address or details and therefore Peak Forest became similar to Gretna Green. By 1728 so many runaways were wed at Peak Forest that a second register began for ‘foreign marriages’. In 1753 the Marriage Act should have put an end to the solemnising of elopers, but it continued on a lesser scale until 1804, after which time there were isolated cases, the last being a couple married in 1938.
The present Peak Forest church was rebuilt in 1876-7 for the 7th Duke of Devonshire. In 1758 a wealthy couple who defied their parents and set off to wed at Peak Forest called at an inn at Castleton for directions. Their conversation was overheard by some local ruffians who saw the couple were obviously wealthy. They hurried on ahead with the intention of robbing them as the couple went through Winnats Pass. The poor unsuspecting couple were murdered by the five bandits and their bodies hidden. One of the robbers on his deathbed wanted to meet his maker with a clear conscience, so admitted to his crime. He also told of the bizarre deaths of the other four criminals who may well have been cursed for their wrongdoing.
The nearby Peak Forest reading rooms of 1880 are said to have been built using fabric from the 17th century chapel, including a Venetian window.
On Eldon Hill, not far from Peak Forest, there is Eldon Hole. This mysterious gaping chasm was known for centuries as the ‘Bottomless Pit’ as no-one who dropped stones down it could hear them reach the bottom. It was considered to be the largest pothole in Derbyshire, although the newly discovered Titan cavern may well have taken the crown! The mouth of Eldon Hole is some ninety feet by forty feet and is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Peak. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that anyone dare venture down into the darkness.
The Earl of Leicester employed a local peasant to be dangled on the end of a rope down into the abyss on a voyage to the centre of the earth! Such was the shock to him that it is said he was rendered speechless, his hair turned grey and he died within days, and before he could account for what he had seen. This definitely put off any further explorations for quite some time. A cat was the next ‘guinea pig’ to descend in a cage, but this is also said to have died from shock.
The famous Charles Cotton wrote of Eldon Hole:
‘A formidable fissure gapes so wide
Steep black and full of horror, that who dare
Look down into the chasm, and keep his hair
From lifting off his hat, either has none
Or for more modish curls cashiers his own’
In 1780 Mr Lloyd FRS descended Eldon Hole and wrote a narrative of his adventures which was published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’. He reported finding the bottom at a depth of 180 feet. A more detailed exploration was made in 1873 by Rooke Pennington and John Tym of Castleton. At 180 feet they discovered a base slanting at an angle of 45 degrees. This was littered with a deep layer of loose stones, dead sheep and the bones of countless animals which had presumably fallen. Further exploration down a sloping tunnel revealed a huge cavern some 100 feet across and seventy feet high, the walls of which were covered with stalagmitic deposits.
There are many stories appertaining to Eldon Hole near Peak Forest, some true, some debatable, and some obviously exaggerated. One refers to a goose belonging to a local woman that flew down into the hole when chased. It is said to have reappeared some time later out of Peak Cavern, Castleton with is wings singed. Another reference about 300 years ago is of a villain who confessed on the scaffold to robbing a traveller and throwing his body down Eldon Hole to dispose of it. One fact that is probably true is that a local farmer berated the fact that two whole walls had totally disappeared during his lifetime down the hole, stone by stone, as a result of sightseers! In 1958 another farmer lost a prized heifer which fell to its death. He considered blowing up the hole to seal it.
There are numerous mounds, hollows and obvious rakes in the fields around Peak Forest, spoil heaps and reminders to the villages lead mining past. Some of the mines had interesting names such as Starvehouse Mine, Clear-the-Way Mine, Hazard Mine and Slitherstone Mine.
In the early 19th century there was a cotton mill in Dam Dale at Peak Forest, and it is still possible to see the now grassed dams and mill ponds.