This is PhotoArks’s fourth article in a series illustrating our favourite photography walks. Note that these articles are not intended as walking guides, but merely indicate areas we find photographically interesting.
My first foray onto Stanton Moor was made more than 35 years ago, during a much younger period in my life when interests aligned themselves with local archaeology and geology. For several years I had belonged to a local archaeological group, spending many evenings studying and as many days surveying and excavating various ancient sites.
That first encounter with Stanton Moor was enveloped in swirling fog, light drizzle and penetrating coldness that did little to dampen my enthusiasm for this Bronze Age landscape. So what has this got to do with photography? Accompanying me on this day was my secondhand Zenit SLR with 50mm lens - the first SLR I had owned. Back then my photography was very much in its infancy and used simply as a mechanism to record events that I found interesting. It would be a few years in the future when my passion for image making would eclipse my love of archaeology and, pretty much, most other pastimes.
I set off on this miserable morning to discover and photograph the various henges, stone circles and tumuli that lay sombrely in this ancient landscape. Needless to say, the photographic record of this trip was very disappointing but it did ignite a spark of affection that burns deep in me to today.
Notwithstanding its importance in the archaeological world, Stanton Moor is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Situated a few miles north west of Matlock where limestone gives way to gritstone, the views on a clear day along the Derwent Valley are unrivalled. This is a place that rewards the photographer at any time of year; Visit during or after snowfall, on freezing clear days, summer evenings when shadows are long, stormy days under tumultuous skies or late August when heather turns its trademark purple…beauty is everywhere. All of this can be used as backdrops to other subject matter such as wildlife or macro photography (or even location portraiture as has been the case with me on a couple of occasions).
There are plenty of access points surrounding the moor where car parking is reasonably plentiful, but most roads in the area are narrow so care should be taken when driving or cycling. Having accessed the area from most directions over the decades, I have a preference for parking above the village of Birchover, (on Birchover Road which leads to Stanton in the Peak). Not only does it allow for more parking, albeit roadside, but the road is a bit wider and offers a bonus location which I will come onto later. Access to the moor is given away by parked cars, or if you are first, large roadside boulders indicate the entrance. Once parked a well defined path leads to a stile where English Heritage have placed one of several information boards explaining a little about the history and indigenous wildlife.
A short way on from the stile and off to the left, a large stone comes into view. This possible erratic, known as the Cork Stone, has hand grips allowing the more adventurous to climb to the top. Behind the Cork Stone is a small disused quarry. There are some great photo opportunities to be found here using the stone as foreground subject matter. My own archives have many examples taken in different lighting in very different weather conditions. I often wonder how important the stone was in antiquity when neolithic man lived, worked and worshipped nearby.
Following the path over a low rise, the Derwent Valley comes into view with fine views toward Matlock and Riber Castle - there is so much a keen landscape photographer can do with this vista. Walking on, a crossroads in the path is encountered; left leads down the spine of the moor toward Nine Ladies stone circle, which is the direction I tend to head in. Those with archaeological eyes may notice the remains of a Bronze Age burial mound on this crossing of paths. It is very ruined today having had the centre dug out by ‘archaeologists’ centuries past. I have a few monochrome pictures of this tumulus taken around 20 years ago when it was crowned by a silver birch tree and its banks not as tumbled down. The sky was very turbulent and a dusting of snow lay on the hills. It all added up to some awesome composition. I often think that, if the same paths existed millennia ago, this tomb would have made an impressive site to the passer by and it begs the question as to who’s remains were interred within.
The walk from here to the Nine Ladies is a straight one, the path being very clearly defined. To the left and right, other tumuli and henges lie waiting to be discovered, although they can be difficult to locate in summer months when bracken achieves its maximum height. Heather and bracken eventually gives way to stands of Silver Birch and it is worth straying from the path to explore the compositional aspects of these trees and their surroundings. Autumn offers the bonus of some very colourful mushrooms. Not being an expert I suspect the garish tones are a warning to stay away so I'm quite happy to view them through a macro lens.
For those interested in ancient history, Stanton Moor’s jewel in it’s crown has to be the Nine Ladies stone circle and its outlier, the King Stone. This small circle of standing stones is one of the better ones found in the Peak District, albeit not as imposing as Arbor Low. The setting is pretty and it comes as no surprise that it remains a place of pilgrimage today as it must have been when built. When I first visited the circle, the location was not quite as photogenic as a stone wall encircled the stones, destroying any photographic ambience and opportunity. More recently the wall was removed allowing visitors a more spiritual experience. Standing here early or late in the day, particularly when enveloped in the warmth of summer, the past seems strangely closer and I realise that while the architects of the monument have long passed into history, I can occupy the same space as them, as only time separates us.
Looking toward the outlying King Stone, my reverie is broken by the top of a television mast appearing above the Birch trees…it was nice while it lasted.
Assuming the site is not swamped with visitors, partygoers or tents, photography can be very rewarding here. Naturally, wide angle lenses are very useful for capturing these kind of scenes, but it is also worth using a short telephoto, standing back a bit to allow the compressed perspective to speak.
This area is pretty good for close up photography and the shaded damp areas under the birch trees are a haven for mushrooms and toadstools. My last visit coincided with the season’s crop of Fly Agaric, well known for its psychedelic properties. They also make interesting images due to their bright red caps - particularly striking when set against silvery birch bark.
From the Nine Ladies, my route usually heads north east, towards the edge of the moor, where fine views across the valley are waiting to be captured. Following the path in an easterly(ish) direction the remains of Earl Grey Tower soon comes into site. Also known as the Reform Tower, this folly was built in 1832 and adds man made drama to an otherwise natural environment. Try getting down low with a super wide lens for some unusual results, which can be made all the more better if visiting when dramatic skies are present.
From here, there are a couple of paths that can be followed; One leads along the edge of the moor and passes several large erratics, most of which can be climbed. Views from along here are superb, although marred somewhat by the large lead smelting works in the valley below. Careful composition will result in this being missed from the frame, so it is not too intrusive. Another path strikes out diagonally across open moorland eventually leading back to the Cork Stone. This is a nice section of the walk, particularly late in August on a fine evening when the intensity of purple heather is warmed by golden evening rays. Late spring and early summer has the additional bonus of a large stand of rhododendron bushes along the way - great to include as foreground interest to a wider image, or as isolated close up subjects.
The key to photographing Stanton Moor is to explore. It is not large enough to get lost but a map is recommended especially if it is foggy. Also bear in mind the areas elevation…temperatures can be pleasant in the valley below but much cooler on the moor. Be aware of thunderstorms as well - the sky at such times can add spectacular drama to any image, but I have been here when lightening strikes have caused me to seriously question my sanity.
Earlier in this article I alluded to a bonus location worthy of attention while in the area. Back where cars are parked, and in a field on the opposite side of the road a huge gritstone boulder can be seen, surrounded by rhododendron bushes. Known as the Andle Stone, its imposing size must have attracted curious visitors for millennia. Today there are hand grips and climbing holes hewn into its abrasive skin, allowing easy ascent to the top. But this is not the bonus. Head past the Andle Stone, downhill to the corner of the field where a gate leads to a track fronting a stand of pine trees. Just a few minutes walk down here, a small but beautifully preserved stone circle peeks out of the trees on the left. Known as Doll Tor, this six stoned Neolithic site has a cairn built into its eastern side. Early excavations revealed the remains of several human cremations, beads and urns dating from a period when the world was a very different place.
Since my own ‘discovery' of this site more than three decades ago, it has always remained special to me - its dappled tranquil location soothes the mind and is a wonderful place to sit and reflect for a while. I often put my camera down when I arrive and simply sit quiet and listen to the wind blowing through the pines, trying to image how the area presented itself to those who built the circle. And who’s were the remains found here? Surely important individuals worthy of interment at such a sacred site?
Photography is something of a challenge at Doll Tor. It is very easy to get a standard ‘record’ shot of the stones but capturing an image that speaks of the site’s reverence may take a few visits. One of my own personal favourites came from a visit I made one warm evening many summers ago. It was a couple of hours before an August sundown and the site was strongly lit through the trees. I loaded a roll of T-Max 3200 mono film into one of my cameras, used a neutral density filter and stopped the lens way down so that I could shoot into the sun, with the stones on the foreground. The resulting grainy contre-jour was a magical high contrast study that caught something of the mysticism present here. I have also found a dusting of snow brings out Doll Tor’s isolation that is exaggerated in midwinters bite just before the sun sets and temperatures plummet.
All in all, a visit to this particular part or Derbyshire rewards the photographer with a seemingly endless supply of material that provides subject matter for almost any lens and format. I have walked here with analogue and digital cameras slung over my shoulder for decades. Attached to these have been lenses with focal lengths ranging from 21 to 500mm and all have found their place. My Leica Typ 113 is the most recent camera to accompany me. It’s fixed 35mm equivalent focal length seems a bit limiting as I write this, but I found that it suits my current photographic style perfectly…and what better camera to use than one you feel most comfortable with?