The October sun was getting low as we left Cratcliffe Crags and Robin Hood’s Stride behind us, following the ancient track towards our final destination… or almost. The weather, beautiful but changeable all day, had begun to gather clouds on the horizon and sprinkle us with rain… a lustration before entering a sacred space. Yet even in that, there seemed a blessing as the skies filled with bright ribbons of colour…celestial clouties hanging on the clouds.
The first field was full of sheep who hopped, skipped and jumped out of our way, keeping the required distance from the intruders…apart from one, too busy eating to notice our presence until the last minute, who proved, when she realised she was alone, that a running sheep can break the sound barrier.
Passing into the next field, the sheep moved well away from our path as we saw the first of the standing stones, forlornly evicted from its age-old home to become part of a farmer’s wall. There was no mistaking it, even though it has seen service as a gatepost in its time, but it was the rest of the stones, in the one field where no sheep grazed, that caught our attention.
The circle is no longer a circle but a square. Only four of the stones remain, though in 1780, there were still six of the Grey Ladies standing and Thomas Bateman later recorded seven in the nineteenth century. During the limited excavations around that time the antiquarians found pottery sherds and flints, suggesting evidence of interments. Bateman also records a central mound that is now barely suggested by the contours of the land. The name ‘Grey Ladies’ refers to the legend of maidens who were dancing late at night and were turned to stone…a variant of a story common to many of the circles.
Paul Bennett, of the Northern Antiquarian, recounts that seven maidens were turned to stone, possibly in shock, when they saw Robin Hood, standing upon the pinnacle of the Stride and urinating. Paul suggests that this is a reshaping of an older story where Robin replaces the original giant and the fact that it refers to only seven maidens would bear this out as there were originally more stones at the site.
The circle, or what remains of it, is also known as the Harthill Moor circle or, more commonly, as Nine Stones Close. The stones themselves are huge and the biggest standing circle stones in Derbyshire. The tallest remaining stone is seven feet tall above ground, but in 1936 two of the stones had to be stabilised and set in concrete. The stone was measured at eleven and a half feet in total.
Nine Stones Close had originally at least nine stones, although there have been suggestions of more. Given the placement of the remaining stones, the original circle would have been around forty-five feet in diameter, perhaps around a central mound. It is no surprise that there are suggested alignments between the Close and Arbor Low, just a few miles away.
From the circle you can see the pinnacles of Robin Hood’s Stride rising above the trees, with the Crags away to the left. From here the Stride resembles one of the extraordinary recumbents of Scotland and the Major Southern Moon, the moon appears to set between the pinnacles. And the oddest thing about that is that we had not, on our October visit, found out that the September workshop will be in Scotland, looking at those recumbents and the precision with which they mark the 18.6 year lunar cycle.
Dates and dimensions are all very useful to put a place in context, but you have to be there and ‘feel’ them before you really begin to know them. You have to see where they sit in relation to other sites and features before the landscape comes to life. From the Close, we could see the line of the distant hills and know where other circles and mounds are placed upon them. We could see the crags and the Stride close by and, just beyond the field walls, Castle Ring, a small hillfort surrounded by a ditch. You are in no doubt at all that you are at the centre of an ancient and sacred place.
And that is without the legends. You may see strange sights at the circle. Not only were the dancing maidens turned to stone, but they dance still at noon, or so it is told, though not on the day that we were there. Unlike the farm labourer of another tale, we found no fairy pipe either. He found an old clay pipe and used it to smoke his tobacco, resting against one of the stones. A strange and beautiful fragrance rose with the smoke and as he gazed at one of the stones, it became transparent and he looked through the stone as if through a window, seeing another world, full of light, beauty and colour… the world of the Fae.
It is a magical place, thousands of years old, yet there is a life still in the stones and secrets seem to whisper from the leaves of the ancient tree that is but a youngster beside their mystery. There are many reports of the Faery Folk seen gathering at the stones, dancing and playing their piping music… and the atmosphere there, even with the clouds brewing rain, is an inviting and intriguing one. We were reluctant to leave and spent yet more time noticing the details, shapes and forms…like the basin rain-or hand-carved into the tip of one of the stones.
We knew it was time to go when we looked around and found that our empty field was steadily filling with sheep…all of whom seemed intently interested in us and none of whom seemed to want to run away. Not even with a hop, skip or jump to keep their distance. On the contrary… we were followed. Approached. Communed with somehow… or at least, I spoke to them. And they followed… stopping each time I did, walking with us each time we turned our backs. It was a very strange encounter with which to end our day.
But then, Derbyshire is a strange and magical place. Much of it is still wild moorland… most of it is sparsely occupied and the modern world barely intrudes. Old customs are still followed, ancient sites are everywhere and few legends are collected and recorded in these rural areas. It is a place that still guards its secrets.
We drove away finally, skirting yet another moor we have yet to explore, stopping to be accosted by cows and watch a spectacular light show in the heavens. Our last stop of the day was, as usual, a village pub… and even there, you could see the beginnings of legend grind their rusty gears and start a new story of ‘once upon a time’…