About the area

Glossopdale, the valley of Glossop Brook, and Upper Longdendale, through which flows the River Etherow, source of the Mersey, together make up the north-west corner of the Derbyshire Peak District. They lie within the Borough of High Peak, and their main settlements are Glossop, Hadfield and Tintwistle. Most of the high ground, together with the oldest part of Tintwistle village, also lies within the Peak District National Park, and local authority responsibility for archaeological matters is therefore split between the County and the Peak Park archaeologists.

However, the valleys face west, from which most population influx and economic change over the centuries has come, and so the Society has strong common interests with its neighbours on that side which is reflected in its membership of the Greater Manchester Archaeological Federation.

Geology and Geomorphology

The area lies between 93 and 633 metres (305-2076 feet), and the underlying geology is sandstone of the Millstone Grit series interspersed by Coal Measures and shale on the west side, it therefore being part of the “Dark Peak” as opposed to the limestone “White Peak” to the south. The sandstone is not very stable in places and there have been several large landslips leaving jagged “edges” such as Bramah Edge and Coombes Edge which are a major feature of the landscape. Much of the stone is suitable for building, including use as roofing slates, and so the area has been heavily quarried, but the coal is of poor quality, that from Simmondley allegedly taking “a week to light and a fortnight to go out,” so mining, although occurring in various places, was always on a small scale.

The overlying drift is mostly Boulder Clay of varying thickness, the bedrock often being close to the surface on the valley sides, and the soils are generally poor. Above about 400 metres the plateaux have in historic times become overlain by a deep blanket of peat, which became heavily dissected due to industrial pollution but which is now starting to recover. The partial loss of peat, however, has in many places exposed the ancient surface and led to multiple discoveries of Stone Age flints.

Longdendale means “long wooded valley”, and due to the high rainfall (around 133 cm/52 inches per annum) the valley bottoms would have been both thickly-wooded and extremely flood-prone, so the early farmers would have been squeezed into the zone between the dense wood and the exposed moorland, the Anglo-Saxon villages mostly lying on the valley sides at around 200 metres. Water-powered textile mills, however, needed to be in the valley bottoms and their builders systematically excavated and straightened the watercourses, reducing flood risk and enabling the new industrial settlements and the roads linking them to be on lower ground. When to this is added the similar efforts by the waterworks in Upper Longdendale to improve stream flow, it is reasonable to assume that there are now very few streams which follow their natural course at their natural level.


Although there have, since prehistoric times, been major trade routes through the valleys, until the coming of the textile industry the combination of poor soils, high altitude and heavy rainfall made the area less attractive for settlement than lower-lying areas to the west. Nevertheless, there is evidence of considerable activity in the later Stone Age and the Bronze Age, plus a large Iron Age fort, and because of its strategic importance the area was for 70 years home to a Roman garrison and Romano-British civil settlement. Whether or not this settlement survived after the soldiers left, there is evidence both for a continuing Celtic presence in the area and for its persistence even after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons from the west around 650.

Although the Anglo-Saxons established at least ten distinct village communities, they remained small and poor, although not isolated from the wider world due to the cross-Pennine traffic, from which they would have derived income, and because Longdendale has always been a frontier – between Romans and Brigantes, between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, between the English and the Danes, between the warring parties in the reign of King Stephen, and latterly between the East Midlands and the North-West. Local legends of battles are therefore likely to have a basis in fact.

However, after 11 centuries on the margins, the valleys were in the late 18th century transformed very rapidly by the arrival of the factory textile industry. Conditions which were so unfavourable to agriculture were ideal for the manufacture of cotton using water power, and with the active encouragement of the landowners the area became one of the earliest centres of factory-based production, by the 1840s housing four of the largest firms in the entire industry. By the 1890s, though, these early mills were becoming obsolescent, and the industry went into a steady decline, from which the area began to recover only in the 1960s with its reinvention as a commuter suburb of Greater Manchester.

The archaeology

With the exception of the Roman fort at Melandra, no site within the area has ever been subject to a major archaeological investigation. However, there is undoubtedly a great deal waiting to be found.

Stone Age

Excavations of a Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) site at Irontongue Hill north of Tintwistle by our neighbours Tameside Archaeological Society point to the likelihood of similar sites within our area, and when complete, the plotting of a large collection of surface finds of flints made by the late Dr John Smith, Chair of Glossop Historical Society, when added to around 30 similar finds already recorded on the Derbyshire Heritage Environment Record, is likely to identify locations worthy of investigation.

Bronze Age

There is also mounting evidence for the existence of a major “Bronze Age landscape,” marked by burial cairns, on the high ground between our area and Greater Manchester. Shaw Cairn in Mellor is currently being investigated, the cairns at Coombes and Ludworth Intakes are Scheduled Monuments, and the Society has recently undertaken a major project in the vicinity of these established sites which has already produced significant finds.

Iron Age

With the assistance of Lidar imagery, GLAS in 2016 finally proved the longstanding belief that the early-mediaeval castle on the summit of Mouselow sits within a bigger Iron Age fort. This in turn reinforces other evidence of Iron Age/Romano-British activity in the vicinity, including at least two possible village sites.


The Melandra Roman fort, more probably known to the Romans as Edrotalia after the river which it overlooks, is by far the largest and most important archaeological site in the area, and the best-preserved of its kind in the region. Four, and possibly five military roads link it to neighbouring forts, and GLAS has recently established the final approach to the fort of the road from Buxton and the existence of a road up Longdendale heading into Yorkshire, passing the Scheduled fortlet at Highstones. Further work is needed to clarify some uncertain sections of this road and to establish the final approach of the road from the fort at Brough.


Mouselow Castle, also a Scheduled monument, is likely to date from the civil war in the 1140s between Stephen and Matilda, when opposing forces faced one another across the Etherow. It was excavated to a limited extent in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, but a full excavation would be a major task due to the chaotic nature of the site, the consequence of extensive stone robbing plus recent quarrying and dumping of spoil. 3D Lidar imagery produced in 2016 by GLAS has however helped to confirm that in form it was a motte-and-bailey castle of “Russian doll” plan, rather than the simple ringwork implied by the Scheduling description. It was of stone construction and would have been substantially bigger than Buckton Castle on the other side of the river, which is also thought to date from the Norman civil war period.

Its significance was, however, military and temporary, there being no evidence that it was a centre of civil administration. GLAS recently carried out an initial survey, of the present building and the documentary record, at Lees Hall in Simmondley, and established that this had been the site of a large mediaeval manor house, headquarters of the Earl of Shrewsbury’s farming operations in the manor and possibly the site of an earlier monastic grange.

Fields and Farms

The Anglo-Saxon settlements grew very slowly, being constrained both by climate and soil and by their being, until the later Middle Ages, in a Royal Forest with restrictive laws, but as they were mostly built on higher (and drier) ground they were largely untouched by the establishment of new industrial settlements in the valley bottoms. As a result, the original form of the villages has largely been preserved, and although there are no surviving buildings dated earlier than 1600 it is likely that there are the remnants of earlier structures within and beneath them.

However, no detailed internal building surveys have ever been conducted, and on the Derbyshire side of the Etherow the destruction of most of the Howard estate leases at the sale of the estate in 1925 means there is little documentary evidence of building histories. There is only limited scope for excavation in the old village centres, but at Arnfield is the site of a “deserted village” which was presumably of mediaeval origin and which seems to have been abandoned, for reasons unknown, at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The visible farmed landscape itself is also historic. There are six open-field systems still apparent, their pattern of strips “fossilised” by walls or fences set up when collective agriculture was abandoned, probably in the 16th century if not earlier. During the same period there was extensive enclosure of common land for sheep farming and creation of satellite farms away from the village centres, and most of the walls survive, together with many farmhouses and other farm buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. In Upper Longdendale there are also the ruins of others which were abandoned when the area was deliberately depopulated by the waterworks. Some structures, for instance the barn at Mossylea in the valley of the Shelf Brook, may be a great deal older and reflect monastic farming activity in the Middle Ages, but none has been formally investigated or dated.

Travel and Industry

Finally, the area has a wealth of industrial archaeology. Many centuries of cross-Pennine travel have left evidence of early tracks and roads and substantial remains of the 1840s Manchester-Sheffield railway, and the Longdendale Waterworks, started in 1848 and the largest in the world in their time, are a still-functioning industrial monument over eight miles in length.

The remains of the early mills are, however, not so easy to find. Although there were over 25 of them by 1800, two-thirds of all the textile mills in Derbyshire, many failed before the end of the 19th century or disappeared under later expansion, and the industry was largely extinct and its sites cleared and redeveloped before it became mandatory for developers to make an archaeological record. This, together with the loss of the Howard leases and plans, means that the area now has very little to show for its pioneering role in the factory textile industry, with the precise identity and location of many early sites being uncertain, and no detailed plans or preserved remains of the very complex water power arrangements which were the key to its success. Several mill sites originally re-used for light industry are now being comprehensively cleared for housing or retail use and so the surviving mill buildings and any sub-surface remains such as wheelpits are at risk if the planners are not made aware of their significance.