The Peak District is full of quirky character and oddities. Author Helen Moat reckons she’s found some of the best.
Quirkiest town: Wirksworth
Wandering through the hillside of jitties is something like a scene from a child’s book of fairy stories – it’s not difficult to imagine fabled characters such as Wee Willie Winkie or the Pied Piper slinking between the high stone walls or ducking down cobbled alleyways. No wonder this quirky town, humorously dubbed ‘Quirksworth’ by Prince Charles, has become a magnet for artists, designers and architects. Wander the main street to find delicatessens, chic cafes and tea rooms, old-fashioned grocery stores, eco-shops and craft stores.
Quirkiest church: The Cathedral in the Peak
The Cathedral in the Peak is Tideswell’s crowning glory. However, St John the Baptist is not really a cathedral, but it gets its elevated title because of its grand scale in this village location. Inside are alabaster effigies, grand tombs and fine brass plates, but it’s the wooden carvings that make this church a joy to visit. From the screens, pulpit and lectern to the stalls and organ casing – the detail in the wooden carvings are superb. Many of them were created by local man Advent Hunstone, who portrayed the life of the church through his carvings: baptism, confirmation, ordination and visiting the sick, along with animals, birds, vegetation and buildings.
Quirkiest festival: Saddleworth Rushcart Festival
The August festival has its roots in an ancient tradition in which parishioners replaced the worn-out rushes that covered church floors with fresh reeds. At one time, every village church had its own rushcart, but nowadays there is just one to symbolise the parish tradition. It’s a bizarre sight; the cart stacked high with reeds (cut from the lower slopes of Pule Hill) and decorated with heather and a banner. One of the morris men sits atop the approximately 13-foot-high stack with a copper kettle full of ale as the rushcart is paraded through the parish of Saddleworth. How he manages not to fall off in his drunken merriment is a mystery. Morris dancers come from far and wide to take part in the spectacle. On the Sunday the cart is taken to St Chad’s Church above Uppermill, where the rushes are taken off and mixed with fragrant herbs and flowers before being spread out in the aisles.
Quirkiest competition: World Championship Hen Racing Competition
You may not have a thoroughbred racehorse, but you could ‘beg, steal or borrow’ a hen to enter the prestigious World Championship Hen Racing Competition at the Barley Mow pub held on the first Saturday in August annually. This may sound like an April Fools, but the race is a very serious business (well sort of). The official World Championship Hen Races have taken place in this Derbyshire village since 1992, although the history of hen racing in the area goes back much further when local villages competed against each other using their fowl.
The hens are given sardonic names such as Korma, Kebab, Nugget and Drumsticks or more traditional country names like Flo Jo, Buffy, Jenny, Henry and Betty. Pruned and pampered, they’re coaxed to run the 15-metre course with the promise of the best chicken feed at the end, shaken in a bag or rattled in a tin. The fowls are given three minutes to reach the finishing line. Any squabbles between the competitive, or more likely food-greedy, hens result in disqualification. Beware that red card.
Quirkiest landscape: Lud’s Church
Lud’s Church isn’t actually a church, but a deep chasm hidden in a quiet corner of Back Forest beyond the Roaches – a place you could easily walk right by without noticing. Although Lud’s Church is a natural geological feature rather than a manmade place of worship, the cathedral-like space has a mysterious and spiritual quality to it. Descending into this chasm, it feels primeval with its towering columns of rock covered in moss, fern and lichen. Not much light penetrates this dark, moist place, yet it has an ethereal, magical feel to it. Lud’s Church is associated with knights, princes and protesters and shrouded in tales of mystery and adventure, all mixed up with actual historical events.
There’s much more of the Peak District to explore in our Slow Travel guide: