Going Underground

There’s only so much we can do for the project from behind a desk. We also need put on our walking boots and get into the landscapes that we want to tie closer with the collections. Last week I was lucky enough to join partners from National Trust in a tour of Fox Hole Cave.

The cave is high up the steep sides of High Wheeldon, a dome-shaped hill that dominates the landscape near the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, close to the village of Earl Sterndale. The museum holds a significant amount of material from the site, some of which will be described below. I’ve visited the area many times, climbing High Wheeldon as a youngster and staring into the gated entrance, pondering what secrets might lie inside. But this would be the first time I ever had the chance to venture into its depths.

Getting ready - High Wheeldon in the background

Getting ready – High Wheeldon in the background

Our guide, Paul, handed us our hardhats and lamps before leading us up the steep slopes of High Wheeldon. The cave entrance is tucked away and easy to miss. The site was rediscovered in 1928 when a dog disappeared down what appeared to be a fox hole. A boy, crawling in pursuit, returned clutching a bear skull and news that the ‘fox hole’ was in fact a cave. Early excavations followed, uncovering the bones of a brown bear, Neolithic pottery, stone tools and a bronze wire armlet identified as Roman.

Venturing into the dark...

Venturing into the dark…

We carefully lowered ourselves through the unlocked gate into the entrance chamber. We followed the passage into the First Chamber. Paul described the layout of the cave and pointed out clues to its formation. The entrance passage was a distinctive keyhole shape, indicating it had been formed by a high pressure stream of water creating a tube in the rock. Later, as the flow lessened, it carved a trough in the base of the tube.

It was in the entrance of the cave, and the passage leading to the Main Chamber, that most evidence for human activity had been discovered. Evidence indicates the cave was used in phases, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Romano-British period, perhaps becoming lost then rediscovered many times. Highlights include worked antler points, dated to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, and pottery sherds and hearths associated with the Beaker culture.

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

I could rattle on about discoveries at Fox Hole for some time, and there’s plenty more to discuss. If you’d like to know more I’d recommend checking out the Derbyshire HER record. It’s also worth keeping your eye on the Buxton Museum website, where we’ll soon be launching an online catalogue of our collections, including objects from the cave.

A lot of material has been excavated from the entrance chambers and passages. A line of carved dots on the wall indicated the original level before excavations began in the late 1950s. This wouldn’t be first the ‘archaeology of archaeology’ we encountered.

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Venturing into the Main Chamber we imagined how prehistoric cavers may have experienced the space, turning off our torches and lighting a solitary candle. The gentle orange light transformed the space, deepening the shadows but providing a more diffuse light than the harsh, directional glare of our head torches. How would only ever experiencing a cave by firelight affect your perception of the space?

Here we also found more ‘archaeology of archaeology’, the remains of a cable system used by the Peakland Archaeological Society to haul sediments to the entrance for sorting.

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Next the cave offered us into two routes. First we pressed straight ahead to the end of the cave. The passage grew lower and tighter as we progressed and we soon ended up on all fours, crouched in a tiny space as far as any sensible human being could go. Amazingly, the mud and stone in which we were sitting was littered with tiny bone fragments from small mammals and amphibians. I learnt this is often referred to as ‘Frog Earth’.

Retracing our steps to the Main Chamber we turned left and followed the passage to Bear Chamber, so called because of the bone material recovered here in the past. Even recent tours had spotted bear remains, so we were all keeping our eyes peeled for a bear skull peeking through the mud. No luck this time though. In fact the only thing we found was a long abandoned trowel, ‘archaeology of archaeology’ again!

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

The bone material from Fox Hole far outweighs the artefact count. Some of the animal remains recovered are particularly ancient and include lion, horse and reindeer, as well bear. None of these were still roaming wild in Britain last I checked.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and informative scramble underground I didn’t really think the afternoon could get any better. Then we emerged to this view:

No words required...

No words required…

Although the cave is usually locked to protect it’s important archaeological value, National Trust can arrange access to the site and run a number of public tours throughout the year. You can find out more by calling the White Peak Estate Office on 01335 350503 or find out more on the National Trust White Peak website http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-peak/.


Dovedale Family Trail

On Saturday 15th March we took to Dovedale to test our new Dovedale Family Trail. It was a windy start but the weather held and we had a lovely day. Myself and Anna were joined by Martha Henson, who has been working with us on all of the Buxton Museum apps.

 Twitter grab 

As I have mentioned before, Dovedale posed a different set of problems than the other sites. For starters, there is no mobile signal. We got around this by creating the trail as a pdf that can either be downloaded to a device or printed in advance. There is also a simple web-version available on the Buxton Museum apps site. On the test day we all used printed copies and, although low-tech, everyone thought it worked well and preferred it to a screen-based activity. The paper copy meant families were sharing, ticking things off and writing things down, and not worried about breaking anything.


Everyone seemed to use the trail as a good info sheet and ideas for activities, but several families told us they weren’t always clear where they were. For instance, Lover’s Leap is a great place to stop and have a breather (especially as you’ve just hiked up the hill to get there!) but there aren’t any signs to tell you where you are. Some of our location choices for activities also seemed crazy once we were there. At the Stepping Stones we ask people to ‘Look at the fossils below your feet’, but this location is far too busy for anything else than crossing the river.


Reynard’s Cave was everyone’s favourite spot on the tour (staff favourite too!). We do not encourage people to climb up the slope to the cave itself because the climb is steep and dangerous, however, most families on the event did. Lots of objects have been found in Reynard’s cave, from Roman pottery to animal bones, making it a collection highlight too. One family liked that they could connect visiting the cave, and Dovedale, to objects we have in the museum and said it would make their next museum visit more relevant.


Walking back was the hardest part, even though we knew we had lunch at the end of it! Like many of the families, I would prefer a circular walk of Dovedale and we are looking into the options. We had some great suggestions on how to develop the activity. Could we turn it into an orienteering challenge? Or perhaps run it as a regular group event? If you have tried the activity on your own we would also love to hear your thoughts. Until May 31st we are offering a small prize to anyone who completes the Dovedale trail and fills in our online survey. Prizes can be collected from the museum.

Dovedale, Revisited

Dovedale, Revisited

On a dark, wintery day in November, Anna and I went to Dovedale to try and tackle the problem of what to include in our app. The day reminded us how changeable the Derbyshire landscape can be. In the morning the weather was crisp but cold, I even tweeted about it:

It may be cold but that doesn’t stop us @BuxtonMuseum! Today we go to #Dovedale to think of content for our new app #collectionslandscape

 However, the afternoon soon took a turn for the worse but true to Buxton Museum form we didn’t let that hold us back. Armed with our waterproofs (or not, in Anna’s case) we waded through the flooded path, the nearly submerged stepping stones, and onwards into Dovedale.

The first challenge - navigating the flooded footpath.

The first challenge – navigating the flooded footpath.

The main aim for going to Dovedale was to see how we could link items from our collections with the landscape, and to see what the landscape was like at the points where we have objects. It soon became obvious that we needed to think about this area a little differently. A large amount of our Dovedale collections are either fossils or artwork – how do we tie those in to the landscape in a way that will make it exciting for visitors and families? We decided games and activities would be the most interesting method to use.

Dovedale is traditionally most well-known for its dramatic rock formations. The first rocks we reached were Dovedale castle. One of our colleagues had already suggested renaming the rocks in Dovedale as an activity, so we thought we would give it a go. Anna decided that Dovedale Castle actually looked like a gorilla and chimp sitting together (I couldn’t see it). Next we arrived at the Twelve Apostles. From Lover’s leap these rocks look quite threatening and I didn’t think the ‘Twelve Apostles’ was suitable, perhaps they could be more suitably called ‘The Guardians’ as it looks like they are hiding a big secret. Neither of these areas are well covered by our collection so we moved swiftly on.

Me at Lover's Leap noting down our activity ideas.

Me at Lover’s Leap noting down our activity ideas.

As we descended from Lover’s Leap and made our way to Church Rocks and Reynard’s Cave we were reminded of the tale of Dean Langton, who fell to his death in 1786 whilst cavorting up the hillside with Miss De La Roche. His horse sustained only minor injuries. In full it is a great story and it could work well as audio on our app. Next up were Church Rocks and Tissington Spires. This area was a favourite of artists’ and we have a lot of paintings and prints of here. Could we inspire people to take a photo or make a drawing and share it with us? We would love to see how others view the landscape too, not just 18th Century artists!

Reynard’s Cave is certainly my favourite spot in Dovedale and I have memories of scaling the path up to the cave with ease. Sadly those days are long gone and it is more like a crawl now, but the cave is still a spectacular sight. This is a ‘must –have’ location for our app as Reynard’s Cave is the only site with archaeological remains in Dovedale. We could also get phone signal & 3G here so we can potentially ask more of our app at this point. Anna suggested having a game linking to the archaeology of the cave.

Phone signal! 3G!

Phone signal! 3G!

After battling up stream we arrived at the Straits, a very narrow and overgrown section of the walk. There was such a different feel here that it seemed like we were adventurers. The plant life in this narrow stretch is particularly abundant and you are so close to it – could we have a plant identification activity here? This complements the original purpose of the Dovedale which was to be a nature conservation spot. This ethos is still upheld by the National Trust to this day.

                Pickering Tor and Ilam Rock was our penultimate stop of the day. Here the valley really opens out and you can start to see other areas around Dovedale. This spot was a popular area for activities like fishing and picnicking and with such great views it’s not hard to see why. According to J.W. Jackson, one of Buxton Museum’s main collectors, an old Irish woman used to live in the base of Pickering Tor. The path also splits at this point and offers walkers the chance to cross the river and go up into Hall dale, or continue on to the Dove Holes. We opted for the easier route to Dove Holes.

Me at the Dove Holes.

Me at the Dove Holes.

 The Dove Holes was our final stop. Like a dark set of eyes in the landscape, the caves eyed us suspiciously as we walked closer. Anna and I liked the sense of mystery attached to this spot. We both thought that it would be interesting if there was a story attached to this area, perhaps a sinister tale. We are currently in the process of tracking down stories of the area, however, if you happen to know of any then please get in touch.

At this point we were interrupted by a Tawny Owl telling us it was time to go home. The light was fading fast and we decided the owl was right, it would be a good idea to head back. It was a productive walk and we can only hope that the pilot app is as interesting as our walk through Dovedale. Thanks to Anna for all the photos and for capturing my double chin so nicely. We highlighted a lot of different points in our walk but for our pilot app we will not be using them all. When it is up and running, we would really like to know what works and what doesn’t, as well as if there is anything else you would like to be included. We hope to be trailing the Dovedale part of our app in February half-term and will be looking for volunteers – sign up to our blog or follow us on Facebook and Twitter to here all the latest on the Collections in the Landscape project.

Please note: we would not recommend walking in low-light levels or poor weather conditions, even on good surfaces, as it is potentially very dangerous and you could easily incur an injury. Both Jess and Anna are experienced walkers, are familiar with the area, and were fully aware of the risks before setting out.

Dovedale: making sense of the collection

Dovedale: making sense of the collection

One of the main challenges we face with Collections in the Landscape is making sense, and making the most, of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s collections. This is a particular challenge with Dovedale, one of our trial locations for the project. We are currently working out how to interpret the multi-layered history of the area in a way that is interesting and engaging for visitors.

To begin with we need to consider the area we are dealing with. There is the Dove valley itself, but do we include the offshoots such as Hall Dale, and how far up the valley do we go? J.W. Jackson led a trail that went from Dovedale in a circuit around to the Manifold valley. If we used this template we could also include items held in other museums, including the spectacular Beeston Tor hoard at the British Museum. These are all things we need to consider.

Moonlight at the Straights, Dovedale

Moonlight at the Straights, Dovedale

 In the Enlightenment period Dovedale was a popular site with tourists, travellers and artists, much as it is today. As part of the recently finished project Enlightenment! Derbyshire Setting the Pace in the 18th Century Buxton museum and regional partner sites acquired 6 artworks relating to the area. These acquisitions complement our existing pictures collection which already contains over 35 Dovedale-themed works from different periods.  We also have a collection of books from this period that talk about walks and tales of Derbyshire (including Dovedale) and booklets of tourist prints, plus more that is yet to be catalogued in depth. In addition to these works we have a rich photographic archive, most of which is available on Picture the Past.

Jackson in Dovedale

Jackson in Dovedale

Moving more up-to-date, we also have several boxes of archive material from J.W. Jackson relating to Dovedale. Jackson was heavily involved in the movement to get the Peak district declared as a national park, to do so he focussed on the geological importance of Dovedale which he himself had excavated extensively. These boxes include newspaper cuttings, pamphlets for talks given by Jackson and photographs, but again we need to record this material in depth.

A sample of Jackson's collection, stored in pill boxes

A sample of Jackson’s collection, stored in pill boxes

Interpreting Jackson’s collection is the biggest challenge we face. In total there are 480 records of fossils from the area, but within each record there is anything from 1 – 80 specimens, sometimes even more! These were excavated from various sites along the Dove valley and certainly offer an insight into the biodiversity of the area during the Lower Carboniferous period. However, how do we make this extensive collection accessible? We will be meeting soon with the National Trust to discuss our ideas for the project and learn about their current work too. One of their volunteers, Mike Allen, has been cataloguing the find sites in Dovedale and we are very interested in seeing his work.