top of page

What’s In Your Parish? Hartington

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Welcome to the second of our blogs on the archaeology in your parish. In this one I’ll be looking at some of the archaeology and heritage of Hartington. For those of you who don’t know the village, it’s in the west of the county, about 12 miles north of Ashbourne, and the parish borders Staffordshire.

What’s in the parish?

Well, there’s a quite a lot going on here. The parish has a long history, and in fact there are now four parishes where there was once one. The four are Hartington Upper, Middle, Town and Lower Quarter. Each was originally a ‘township’ within a large, single parish which was part of the administrative area known as the Wirksworth Wapentake or Hundred. Wapentake has its origin in Old English and from Old Norse and it may refer to voting in an assembly by a show of weapons. It was certainly in use by Saxon times and the term ‘hundred’ was in use by the time of King Edmund in the mid-10th century.

As with many other parishes, there are places and buildings of interest which can add to the topic of ‘local studies’ as part of the National Curriculum. Hartington Town Quarter has archaeological sites from prehistory to WW2 with something of interest for everyone.

Prehistory in the parish

There are quite a few sites from prehistory in the parish. Some of these are just ‘find spots’ where artefacts such as flint arrowheads or blades have been found. There are many of these across the parish and testify to the area being much used and visited in prehistory. This may be due in part to it’s proximity to the henge and stone circle at Arbor Low close by.

There are also sites that have been excavated. For example, between Hartington village centre and the main Ashbourne to Buxton road, and overlooking the latter, is Lean Low. On the summit of the hill is the Lean Low barrow. The 19th century antiquarian Thomas Bateman excavated this barrow on the 17th June 1843 when he, or rather his men, dug a trench on the south side to the centre. They found a flexed burial (legs up to the chest, or crouched position) with its head to the south-west. It had been protected on either side by a large stone, with a third stone placed across them. Close by were two horse teeth. Bateman returned in 1847 and excavated on the north side. Here they found a cist (pronounced kissed!) or stone burial chamber. In it was a type of pot archaeologists call a ‘food vessel’ which was surrounded by a cremation. Within the pot itself were unburnt animal bone and a flint knife. About 30 cm beneath this chamber was another burial, this one was a young adult who had been laid upon the bare rock.

A Food Vessel found in a barrow on Hitter Hill, Hartington Upper Quarter.

‘Food vessels’ are a type of pottery from the early Bronze Age, approximately 2400-1500 BC. They got their name from the ‘archaeologists’ of the 19th century who thought that they didn’t resemble ‘Beakers’ or drinking vessels which were also being found in many excavations of prehistoric burial mounds at the time. The name has simply stuck, despite archaeologists now knowing that these vessels often contained material other than food. This drawing of a Food Vessel is by Llewellyn Jewitt an illustrator who worked with Thomas Bateman.

Lean Low bowl barrow became a scheduled monument in 1970. In the summer of 1972, local archaeologist Barry Marsden undertook an excavation. He found the remains of a disarticulated partial burial, again on the old ground surface. Among the other finds were scattered human bones, a barbed and tanged arrowhead, a large flaked knife, a jet bead, animal bones and a human cremation. The burials on the old land surface may have been earlier than those placed higher in the mound. This could mean that the barrow was utilised over a long period of time throughout the Bronze Age.

Another Bronze Age burial site in the parish is Wolfscote Hill barrow and it too is located on the prominent crest of a hill with good visibility in all directions. It is 26m by 24m and almost 2m high. It was excavated by Bateman in 1843 and he discovered a cist of limestone edges, without a capstone. At the bottom were two young children and a crushed ‘urn’ which may have been another Food Vessel. In the centre were some sherds of ‘urns’, bones of two inhumations and animal bones. Another antiquarian, Samuel Carrington, in 1851 opened two more trenches, and as a result found a spread of splinters of human bone and flint flakes. You can find it on an Ordnance Survey map at the grid reference SK 137 584.

Romano-British Remains

Frank i’ th’ Rocks cave, site of Roman burials.

At the edge of the parish to the east of the A515 is the Roman road, which ran from the fort at Little Chester in Derby to Buxton. This is probably why there are more Romano-British sites nearby as in Roman Britain many settlements and farmsteads were located in the vicinity of such an excellent transport link!

In Hartington, the majority of the sites are settlement or field systems such as the one at Pennilow. It is thought to be a Romano-British settlement with an area of small earthworks, fields, paddocks,possible hut sites, as well as rectangular structures.

A more certain example is near Bank Top Farmhouse on the way from Hartington to Pilsbury. This ancient field system is one of the best and most extensive examples on the Limestone Plateau of the Peak District. Several sites of what were probably timber buildings and of yards can be recognised. There may be as many as four house sites which are sub-rectangular platforms. One possible reason why it has survived so long is that the site occupies a sloping and relatively rocky area on the upper valley-side. This would have been difficult to divide into larger fields that could then be improved in either the medieval or later periods.

Elsewhere in the parish there’s a cave, known as Frank i’ th’ Rocks Cave close by the River Dove and at the entrance to Wolfscote Dale (SK1313 5840) and about 15m above the river. During 1925 the cave was explored and excavated by Dr L S Palmer of the University of Bristol. Dr Palmer found the remains of at least ten individuals, mostly children, two bronze brooches, some bronze pins, a fragment of bronze chain, nine beads of various types, an antler cheek-piece, and other objects, including Romano-British pottery. Eight Roman coins were also discovered. All the coins date to the latter part of the Roman presence in Britain with dates from AD 300-400. It is interesting that among the beads found was a glass one thought to be Anglo-Saxon – so the cave may have been used again later!

The cave is thought to have been used solely as a burial place as there were no signs of habitation. The cave was also used by animals in the past and the animal remains found in various parts of the cave include sheep, ox, fallow deer, pig, horse, dog, badger, pine-marten, polecat and hare. Some of the remains my have got into the cave by human activity, and some by natural means, including animals using it as a lair or shelter.

Medieval Hartington

St Giles’ church overlooking the village centre.

Although there aren’t many domestic buildings left in Derbyshire from the medieval period, the impact of the times can still be seen today. One type of building is left for us to see – the parish church. The church of St Giles in Hartington for example, has parts that date back to the 13th century. Perhaps the most important element of the church is the pre-reformation murals. As was often the case, they were covered over with whitewash as they were seen as symbols of Catholicism and iconoclastic. There are few examples in the county and these are worth seeing. Also in the church, among the many memorials, are a series of 12 painted boards in the south apse. They are said to represent the 12 tribes of Israel and date to the 17th century.

Also from the 17th century but less religious are circular marks on the outside of the church. You may wonder what they are. The story is that there was a skirmish between Royalist and Parliamentary forces in the village during the Civil War. The Royalist forces were said to have sheltered in the church before moving off in the direction of Hide Lane. The circular marks were made by musket balls, fired by Roundheads!

The market place – dating to the early 13th century

But the church is not the only element of medieval life that has left its mark. In 1203, the village was awarded a charter to hold regular markets by King John. This is among one of the earliest such awards made in the county, and clearly the area was thriving economically. The evidence for this can still be seen in the centre of the village. It doesn’t look like much, but the large open space, now mostly road and car park, was once the site of much mercantile activity in the past!

Further out from the village centre, there’s the remains of not one, but two medieval motte and bailey castles. The first of these is close to Bank Top farmhouse and can be seen from the road. You can find it on a map at SK 1262 6155. The monument comprises a man-made castle mound or motte built on a natural crag that falls away steeply toward the River Dove the north and west. On all sides but north, it is surrounded by a broad ditch that is roughly two metres deep, and is shown on the image here.

Bank Top motte – ditch is indicated

As was the case with many monuments in the past, the material from the ditch was used to built the motte. This one has a flat top of between 20-25 metres diameter and we might presume it had a timber keep or palisade. To the north, the side of the mound has partly collapsed, making the top irregular in plan.

Nothing is yet known of the history of the Bank Top motte. A relatively simple earthwork castle such as this usually dates from the 11th or 12th century. If still in use in the late 13th century, many had their timber defences replaced by walls of stone. It seems likely then that Bank Top motte was probably abandoned by this date. It may even have been abandoned soon after it was constructed, never becoming a permanent base for the defence of the valley.

Pilsbury castle is much more imposing, if only because of the rocky outcrop incorporated into the structure. At it’s height the castle would have had a high motte adjoining the rocky outcrop, two baileys (eastern and southern) with ditches and internal banks, and outworks. The earthworks would originally have been topped by timber structures; there are no traces of any rebuilding in stone.

Pilsbury Castle from the air. The motte is in the top right corner.

The eastern bailey is slightly larger than the other, measuring between 45-55 metres across and the southern about 40 metres in diameter. It is defined to west and north by a ditch, to the south by a ditch with slight internal bank, and to the east by a natural knoll with near-sheer sides and a height of over five metres.

The western half of the interior of the castle grounds is relatively level and could have held a couple of timber buildings. As with Bank Top motte, little documented evidence has yet been found for Pilsbury Castle – one possible reference states that Edmund, Earl of Lancaster had a ‘capital mansion’ at Hartington in the reign of Edward I. It seems very likely that Pilsbury was almost certainly built by the de Ferrers family. Henry de Ferrers fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings and was rewarded with many estates in Derbyshire and elsewhere.

It seems most likely that Pilsbury was built between 1070 and 1080, although possibly later – in the first half of the 12th century during the Anarchy. There is no evidence for stone buildings on the site, implying that it was built as, and remained, an earth and timber castle. It is unlikely that it was ever intended to provide the buildings and services demanded by an Earl and at best it probably housed a constable and a small number of soldiers providing a garrison. The date when the castle was abandoned is uncertain but the fact that it was never rebuilt in stone suggests it had probably been abandoned before 1200.

So, the two castle sites sit in contrast, with Pilsbury Castle a short distance further up the valley from Bank Top, having two baileys and being considerably larger. It is possible, therefore, that Pilsbury could be seen as a replacement fortification to that at Bank Top. They both occupy similar natural crags in the narrow Dove Valley, each controlling passage  up and down the valley. The use of both castles at the same time would seem unnecessary.

As part of a broader Local Heritage Initiative project, entitled ‘Pathways to Pilsbury’, members of ARTEAMUS (Archaeological Research Team, University of Sheffield) conducted detailed topographical and geophysical surveys of the earthworks, obtained a report on the geology of the site and undertook an exhaustive documentary search. Their report can be found here.

Water powered mill wheel and leat.

Evidence from agriculture in the medieval period in the Hartington is also present. There are extensive areas of ridge and furrow field systems. You can see examples along the western side of Dig Street and Mill Lane. These represent part of the economic history of Hartington – how the villagers in the past made their living. If you go past the ridge and furrow on Mill Lane, you will come to the site of a water-powered mill. This was the Hartington corn mill and is thought to have been established in 14th or 15th century. Although it is now a private house the 4 metre diameter waterwheel can still be seen. Water flows through the reconditioned leat or channel in the garden from the River Dove. In more ‘recent’ years the mill was operated by J W Bassett and Sons and from the late 1940’s it was operated by Caudwells of Rowsley until it closed in the 1970’s.

Post-Medieval Village

Much of what the visitor sees today is from the post-medieval period, or post-1600 AD. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting or historic. Many of the buildings give us clues to the history of the parish. As you walk around the village centre there are several buildings that chart it’s wealth and social development.

One of the earliest buildings of this period is Hartington Hall, dated to 1611 AD. It is a fine example of a 17th century country house, and has triple gables and 3-5 light mullioned windows. The building was originally constructed of coursed limestone rubble with gritstone dressings and quoins (those large stone blocks on the corners) and has stone slate roofs. It was extended in 1862 and again in 1911. It is currently used as a Youth Hostel, and has an excellent restaurant! Should you visit the Hall there’s a guide to it’s history available at reception. Another early building of the period is Wolfescote Grange (1649) which is a building of irregular plan again with mullioned windows. Interestingly, it still has one of its original panelled rooms.

There are fine Georgian period houses, sure signs of prosperity, including the Old Vicarage. Alongside these are small 18th century worker’s cottages. The Wesleyan Methodist chapel was built in 1809, and is one of many such chapels built around the Peak District as a wave of religious revivalism swept across the country. It cost the princely sum of £400, and was a project of the Nadin family. A few years later another local family, the Hopes, built what is known as the ‘market hall’. The building has served a number of functions over time. The Hope family were apothecaries in the mid 19th century and it is certainly a grand building which is now home to the village stores. The decoration on the pediment includes the date of 1836 and a figure holding scales and a pipe. Tobacco also features elsewhere in the design – can you find it?

Currently being demolished is the cheese factory which was originally built in 1876 and established as a co-operative venture by the Duke of Devonshire, c. 1900. Dove Dairy was constructed in 1876 and closed in 2009. At the time of its closure it was the oldest working cheese factory in England. The buildings that comprise the former dairy could date from the late 19th to early 20th century, but after fires in 1894 and 1929 it is unlikely that many of the original buildings survived, and soon none of them will!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


bottom of page