05 August, 2011

Locations: Derbyshire’s gritstone tors

Gritstone tors on Kinder Scout

Gritstone is the characteristic rock of the ‘Dark Peak’ landscape, extending in an arc around the west, north and east of the Derbyshire Peak District. As its name implies, it’s a hard coarse-grained sandstone formed from grit laid down on the bed of a vast river delta around 300 million years ago (long before the dinosaurs, to put the timescale into context). Gritstone is hard, abrasive and very strong. Its sharp-edged crystals make it ideal for grinding grain, hence its alternative name of Millstone Grit, and its strength makes it a sturdy building stone.

In the landscape, gritstone forms high windswept moorlands of heather and blanket bog, vertical cliffs called Edges, and strangely sculptured rock outcrops called tors. The tors are among the most atmospheric features of the gritstone moorlands of the Dark Peak, carved by wind, rain and frost into weird shapes.

Part of Paths of Exile is set in the Dark Peak in the Upper Derwent Valley (see map link at the bottom of the post), where the gritstone tors on the high moorlands make for a distinctive landscape.

All along the eastern horizon, an irregular row of boulders and tors marked the edge of a slightly higher plateau. The rock was dark grey in colour and curiously rounded, like stacked cushions or piled cakes of bread. At close quarters it was coarse-grained and abrasive, full of large rounded pebbles and occasional tiny flecks that caught the light and sparkled in the sun. […] A short distance away to the south, a gritstone tor reared its stepped profile against the bright sky.
--Paths of Exile, chapter 11

“...like stacked cushions or piled cakes of bread”
If you look at the topographical map in the link below, you’ll see that one of the tors on Derwent Edge is called ‘The Cakes of Bread’.

“...reared its stepped profile against the sky”

“...coarse-grained and abrasive...”
Close-up of gritstone. You can see the pebbles embedded in the rock; presumably they were washed down the rivers that formed that long-ago delta and deposited along with the sand and grit. The pebbles vary between rocks in different locations. These are quite small, a centimetre (half an inch) or so across, but some of the tors elsewhere on the moors contain pebbles the size of a walnut, and where they have weathered out the tors are riddled with round cavities like a Swiss cheese.

Gritstone tors can weather into fantastic shapes, resembling a natural sculpture park – or, for a (fictional) group of exhausted fugitives familiar with tales of man-eating monsters who “walk nightlong / The misty moorland”, something altogether more intimidating:

Who says trolls are mythical?

Gritstone tors like this one were part of the inspiration for including beliefs in trolls in Paths of Exile. For a discussion on troll-like creatures in Old English myths, see my earlier post on Eotens.

Map link
Upper Derwent Valley. The reservoirs were not there in 605 AD!


Rick said...

Sometimes your location pictures look like they could be in the American Southwest, and this is one of those times.

And yes, that last one suggests a stone-ified troll!

Annis said...

Very intriguing formations and definitely otherwordly in appearance :) Are they climbable or too unstable for such shenanigans?

Carla said...

Rick - the avergage temperature is probably a good deal lower, but that doesn't show up in a photograph :-) Because of the weather-sculpted rock architecture, I guess? If the rock is similar - does the American Southwest go in for sedimentary sandstones? - then it will tend to weather into similar shapes when subjected to similar forces. If you mean the preponderance of rock over vegetation, that reflects a certain amount of selection bias -rocks make dramatic photographs. and this post is specifically about rock tors. Next time I do a location post I'll probably look more at the wider landscapes.

It does, doesn't it? You can see where the idea of trolls that turned to stone in daylight could have come from.

Annis - Gritstone is a legendary climbing rock. The Edges, like Stanage Edge (scroll east and south on the map link; it's east of the village of Hathersage and appears in Exile as 'the Great Stone Edge'), are tremendously popular with rock climbers. Not so much the tors, which I would guess is probably because they are not very high and are usually weathered and fissured into steps and layers so maybe they aren't considered a challenge, whereas the Edges tend to have pitches of vertical rock wall. I've scrambled a bit on gritstone tors in good conditions; gritstone is so abrasive that it has tremendous friction and isn't slippery (unlike limestone!) but on the other hand it has a habit of weathering into rounded shapes so there aren't many holds that you can get your hands round to grip, which I find a bit disconcerting. Sometimes they have weathered out of a slope and then you can just walk round the back and step across, but if I can't do that I tend to admire them from the ground :-)

Gabriele C. said...

They do look like piles of bread cakes and trolls.

In German legend, odd stone formations (not necessarily gritstone, there are others that make for interesting sculptures as well) are usually connected with giants, or the devil. The latter was really busy here, leaving a number of walls and rocks behind. ;)

Rick said...

Yes, the US Southwest look comes from the sculpted rock and relative lack of vegetation - or more specifically, trees.

One other effect is that it was hard to tell the size of these features, except by closely examining the tufts of grass.

I'm puzzled by the reference to reservoirs (another Southwestern-ish feature!), since on the map I don't see any in AD 2011, either.

Carla said...

Gabriele - they form all sorts of strange shapes, with formations called the Salt Cellar, Coach and Horses, Boxing Gloves, among others.
'Devil's X' names occur over here too, e.g. I can think of the Devil's Cheesewring on Exmoor offhand. Sometimes it's figures from folkore instead, e.g. there's a tor called Robin Hood's Stride a bit further south in Derbyshire. (The area has strong Robin Hood connections; Little John is supposed to be buried in Hathersage Churchyard).

Rick - Yes, size can be hard to judge, especially if you're used to American Southwest rock formations! The absence of trees is a feature of upland moor all over Britain, even though the altitude isn't that great (Kinder is 2000 feet above sea level, Derwent Edge rather less). Wind, waterlogged and acid soils, heavy grazing by sheep and periodic heather burning to maintain grouse moor all contribute.
Reservoirs - there's a tiny bit of one just visible in the south-west corner of the map as linked - scroll west and south-west with the arrows and you'll come to the rest. These are mainly for water supply rather than hydroelectric.

esmeraldamac said...

Gosh,I can see that's fertile territory for all sorts of spooky stories! It's a place we were thinking of visiting for our hols next year, and you've just added another reason to do so.

Carla said...

Esmeraldamac - the tors are a sort of giant natural outdoor sculpture park. Who needs Henry Moore? :-) If you want to visit them, Derwent Edge above Ladybower Reservoir (start from Fairholmes car park, or from the big laybys along the Ashopton viaduct over the reservoir) and the south edge of Kinder Scout between Grindsbrook Clough and Jacob's Ladder are good tor-spotting walks that aren't too long (7-8 miles), are on good paths and have spectacular views. If you don't mind tougher terrain, there are more good ones on Kinder's northern edges and on Bleaklow. The easiest to get to are on Baslow, Curbar and Froggatt Edges, where you can park right on the top of the edge at Curbar Gap and not have to walk uphill more than a few yards. Something for everyone :-)
I could post some good tor-spotting walk descriptions if interested - let me know.

For the authentically spooky experience, pick a day when the mist is drifting around just on/off the hills, so the tors loom suddenly out of the mist and then vanish again. They make me jump when they do that :-) Make sure you can navigate with a compass if you do that, though, because the mist and the rocks can be very disorientating.