Glossop Heritage Trust
This article was written by G G Taylor and originally published as Occasional Paper No 1 by Glossop & District Historical Society in April 1983.
The old track known as Doctor's Gate has for long been one of the principal antiquities of Glossop dale. For well over a century it has appeared on maps as a Roman road, and indeed still does, though some of us had been doubtful for many years. About ten years ago Peter Wroe traced what is almost certainly the genuine Roman line from Melandra to Brough, via the lower part of Pikes Lane, Brown Kill, Moss Castle and Ashop Clough; though there is little to see on the ground and parts of Ashop Clough would now be very difficult for vehicles. Unfortunately, Peter Wroe's work has not yet been published, but it is hoped it will appear shortly in the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, with information about other Roman roads.
Doctor's Gate is in fact a late-medieval horse-path, and its construction was almost certainly financed by the Doctor Talbot who was Vicar of Glossop from 1494 to 1535. There are dozens of such paths in the Pennines, but some are now buried and forgotten. Many consist of large slabs of stone laid flat, whereas Doctor's Gate consists of vertical thin stones; more difficult to construct but presumably thought to give a better grip. Other examples of vertical construction around Glossopdale are on the Turf Pits Road in Whitfield, and a road near Arnfield, and another which has almost disappeared, between Old Glossop and Cross Cliffe.
Even if we feel that we know who made Doctor's Gate, there are still a few little mysteries attaching to it, and the purpose of these notes is to describe them.
A convenient place to start is Doctor's Gate Culvert, just over the summit of the Snake Road. We go through a wooden gate, past an old iron footpath sign and along a narrow horizontal path, until we come to a crossing of the dough on steps laid by modern ramblers. Just before this crossing are two of the mysteries. On the east bank are the remains of a small square stone building; probably only a shepherd's hut, but if so why is it on the east bank, when a short distance away on the west side are the remains of a large stone enclosure, presumably for gathering sheep?
Opposite the building, on the west bank, there is certainly what looks like a man-made bridgehead; and in Doctor's Gate's 'Roman' days, this was presumed to be for a high-level Roman bridge.
From the crossing we follow the path westward through the aforementioned enclosure (now very ruinous), until we come to the paved part of the track. But our route is not the only, or even the 'official' course of Doctor's Gate. From the wooden gate, the map spears to show a line de so ending the hill side at an angle to the junction of the two streams. There is now no visible path along this line; no doubt due to land-slips, some fairly recent.
At the junction of the two streams there is what looks like a stone bridgehead for a wide, presumably wooden, bridge. There are several things to say about this:
1) wide wooden bridges are not common on packhorse trails; the usual sort being narrow, hump-backed and of stone.
2) the position of the bridgehead does not particularly suit the present course of the streams, which must have moved considerably.
3) the opposite bridgehead, if there ever was one, has gone without trace.
Leaving the bridgehead, we ascend the west bank by a terrace which has some appearance of being man-made. In several places the turf has been cut away, revealing paving similar to that on the summit level of Doctor's Gate. This may have been done as part of the work on improving Doctor's Gate a few years ago. In any case it shows that there is a paved path leading to the bridgehead, and this line is in fact marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Towards the summit the path has been cut through by a small stream, but the paving continues on the far side, approaching the paving pointing to the high-level bridge (?), so that the two routes clearly form a T-junction (perhaps not the best description, as one branch goes straight ahead while the other turns through about 30 degrees).
So, why two tracks of similar construction, and perhaps contemporary? One can only speculate. Perhaps the original plan was for a high-level bridge, with the track going straight ahead to Upper North Grain. But the bridge was found to be impracticable (the ground is certainly liable to slippage), so the planners settled for a low-level crossing and Doctor's Gate Culvert. Perhaps they had already prefabricated a wooden bridge and decided to use it at the low- level crossing, though it does not look as though a large bridge was ever necessary there, and the present stream is easily fordable.
Back on the summit level, we have not quite finished with our mysteries. There are several hundred yards of paving, much of it seemingly intact, though sunken and distorted. To the west the paving ends where the peat ends, suggesting that most of the descent over bare rock was unpaved (reasonably enough). However there are one or two patches of paving beyond the peat, so some other parts of the track may have been paved where it was thought necessary. There has certainly been considerable erosion since the good Doctor rode his horse, and parts of the track now require caution by humans, let alone horses.
In parts of the descent the track is accompanied by a small ditch. This does not seem to be a necessary feature of the track, so it may be a land boundary, perhaps part of the Devil's Ditch system.
As to a further mystery: in 1911 William Smithard published a description of Doctor's Gate (which he believed to be Roman) in the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal. His account is brief, and concentrates on the paving on the summit level. There is one photograph, which seems to show only the edge of the paving, the rest being overgrown. There is also a full-page cross-section of the paving, a rough copy of which appears below.
SECTION OF DOCTOR'S GATE (after Smithard)
The paving is shown as 57 inches wide, between high kerbs, with a longitudinal centre rib of gritstone slabs, 9 inches wide, the remainder being filled in with thin strips of stone, set vertically.
This cross-section does not seem to represent any part of the paving as it exists today. Die only part which is around 57 inches wide is some 50 yards at the west end. The majority is 36-40 inches wide and there is nowhere any sign of the longitudinal centre rib. Both kerbs are present in many places, with transverse paving filling in between them. These parts of the track appear to be as originally constructed.
How did Smithard come to describe the paving as he did? He (or somebody else) clearly visited it, and took measurements. Smithard lived in Derby and Doctor's Gate was not very accessible at that time. Even with permission (it was jealously guarded by gamekeepers) a visit might involve walking from Glossop Station, or chartering a horse-drawn vehicle to Doctor's Gate Culvert; either way be might not have had time for a prolonged survey.
If the paving had been as described by Smithard it would have been remarkable. At 57 inches it is just wide enough for carts; practically a tramway, with the high kerbs to keep vehicles 'on the rails'. To this day the gauge of British railways is 56½ inches. The earliest tramways in England, probably of longitudinal timber 'rails', date from about 1605. Perhaps Smithard wished to suggest that Doctor's Gate was a sort of small-scale version of the
celebrated paved road on Blackstone Edge, with its centre rib, which also at that time was unanimously believed to be Roman.
Even at 40 inches, Doctor's Gate is unnecessarily wide for a horse-path. Most of the flat-slab paths are little more than half this width. Perhaps the extra width was intended to avoid horses stumbling against the high kerbs, which themselves were intended to keep the paving in place, but were of no help to a horse. The flat-slab type of path was far cheaper and more practical; horses of the day were no doubt perfectly able to follow a narrow path.
On the remainder of the route to Old Glossop there is very little to see, but on the piece beside the Shelf Brook there is one small patch of paving. It would be rather reckless to suggest on the strength of this that all of it was paved. If it was, the paving on the lower ground has disappeared very completely.
At about ¼ mile from Mossy Lea Doctor's Gate is joined by the quarry road from Shelf Benches, and the remainder of the route consists of this quarry road. Doctor's Gate was very probably on the same line, though there ia some sort of road on the south bank of the brook, below Shire Hill, the purpose of which is obscure.
At the other end, beyond Doctor's Gate Culvert, the track has been destroyed for miles by the Snake Road, though in parts it was originally separate. The First Edition Ordnance Survey map (c. 1840) shows a track to the west of the Snake Road from Lower North Grain to ¼ mile beyond Birchen Clough. By 1935 this had been reduced to about ¼ mile beyond Lower North Grain, and it has now entirely disappeared from the map.
At ¼ mile south of Birchen Clough Doctor's Gate crosses to the east of the Snake Road, and is visible as an avenue through the trees, joining the Roman road through Ashop Clough at a point behind the Snake Inn.
This was very possibly the termination of Doctor's Gate. The Roman road was probably still usable, though the area from Oyster Clough to Alport Bridge has always been liable to landslips, and the original line (as shown on maps) may have been lost in places. In any case, the route is here entering a reasonably fertile valley which has probably been farmed for many centuries. In the Middle Ages there was considerable monastic farming based on Derwent Village. So that by the year 1500 a network of roads and tracks leading to Sheffield and Hathersage probably existed, and there was no need to construct a fresh track.
Doctor's Gate may thus be seen as a valiant attempt to connect Glossop with the outside world to the east. In the event, however, it remained as a horse-path or packhorse trail, and Glossopians (who had had a good road to the east in Roman times) had to wait another 300 years, for the completion of the Snake Road in 1821 before they could again travel east in wheeled vehicles.
Even if the Roman legions never tramped over Doctor's Gate, it is still curious and interesting structure. There is a good deal more that might be said about it, and it is hoped that other members will contribute to the discussion.
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Page last updated: 1 May 2017.