At the head of the Goyt Valley, towering above Buxton, lies Shining Tor. The Goyt Valley drops down to the east of the Tor. The Goyt Valley has always been a busy place, once it was a place of mining and industry; now it is a place for tourism and sailing. Families come to walk the paths around the two reservoirs which fill the valley, explore the ruins of Errwood Hall and buy ice creams from the vans which park in the many car parks. If you drop down the western side of Shining Tor, the Cheshire side, you enter a very different valley. The hidden valley of Thursbitch, a quieter place; the demon valley; A place steeped in myth and legend. Made famous by the Alan Garner novel of the same name this is a place where, according to Garner, farmers lock their doors at dusk and the local vicar refuses to enter. It is a place of standing stones, ancient magic and pagan ritual. Thurs is the Old English word for demon so Thursbitch is quite literally the Demon Valley, according to the 14th century people who named it.
Garner’s novel is based around the true tale of Jack Turner, a young salt jagger, who died in the snow near Thursbitch on Christmas Eve in 1735, or possibly 1755 – the confusion about dates is part of the mystery. He should have been heading home to Saltersford but was actually heading uphill towards Thursbitch when he died. A single woman’s footprint was found by his body. A memorial stone marks the spot. Garner spins a tale of an isolated community still bound up in the ‘old ways’ – strange rituals devoted to ancient deities.
I am fascinated by folklore and the ancient history of the land under our feet. We walk on a landscape that has been walked for thousands of years and the ghosts that frightened our ancestors still haunt us today. So when someone suggested a Friday evening run in to the valley how could I refuse?
We meet up near the Cat and Fiddle, which used to be the highest pub in the country until it closed down and has been turned in to a gin distillery. It may now be the highest gin distillery in the country. It is a calm, warm evening in early spring and we have a short run up to the summit of Shining Tor.
At the top of Shining Tor we pause to take in the view. How many counties can we see from up here? From Hereford and Worcestershire in the south, to Lancashire and Yorkshire in the North and East. The view of the Cheshire Peak District hills include the alpine point of Shutlingsloe, and on this clear, bright evening we could see the Mersey estuary glinting in the sun.
We enjoyed the easy descent in to the Thursbitch valley. In reality, Thursbitch is a tranquil, verdant valley. It is warm and peaceful in the spring evening sunshine. If this place is has been special for generations, maybe it is because it is a fertile valley sheltered from the worst of the prevailing weather by the ridges of hills.
We looked out for the standing stones which, according to Alan Garner, align with the Pole Star. We couldn’t find them although some people claim that many ancient sacred stones have been repurposed as gateposts in the valley. As we run along the valley we spot the ruins of old homesteads. Small dwellings with even smaller outbuildings for livestock. These are a reminder of the generations who have lived in this remote valley which is still farmed today. I recall Garner’s stories of local farmers who lock their doors at dusk and won’t so much as cross the yard in the dark. I am not sure any sheep farmer would be able to sustain his flock if fear kept him inside after dark at lambing time.
We come across John Turner’s memorial stone. Garner describes how he came across it while running in the area in the 1950s. He describes getting his arm trapped as he looked at it. He panicked, and his panic increased when he read the back of the memorial which describes the footprint in the snow near the body. The experience stayed with him for years and inspired the novel. We tried to work out whether it was possible to get your arm trapped in the 6 inches between the stone and the wall. Are we seeing evidence of a modern myth maker? Much of the reported mythology of Thursbitch that I find online, references a talk Alan Garner delivered at Knutsford Literary Festival in 2003. A talk which marked the publication of the book.
So the myth of Thursbitch is a modern one, spun by a master story teller with a book to sell. Or is it?
On the climb back up to Shining Tor I speed up the steep hill gaining a PR in the process. I tell myself it is because a cold wind has picked up and I am keen to get back to the car; but as the sun sets in to a blood red sky over the Cheshire/Manchester conurbation in the distance, maybe, just maybe, I do not want to linger in the valley of the demon for too long after dusk.
References and further reading
Garner, A. (2003): The Valley of the Demon: The writing of Thursbitch