Prehistory, Iron Age, Romans, Saxons and Normans.
We start our story around 6000 years ago. Buxton was an important place in Neolithic Britain. Around this time agriculture first became important to the native inhabitants, replacing gradually the old “hunter-gatherer” methods of existence.
Monumental structures for ritual purposes were built all over the Peak District- Arbor Low, The Bullring and many more. One such structure lies a little over a mile away from White Hall –Ladder Hill embanked stone circle.
The old road running behind White Hall may have existed then, so people living in Buxton’s Neolithic settlement would have been able to travel there and beyond to other sacred sites. Maybe White Hall with its own spring was a convenient stopping off point for travellers.
We now journey forward through time by several thousand years to the Iron Age – the time before the Roman invasion, when the Peak District was inhabited by the tribe known as the Brigantes. Over a period of several hundred years they built and re-built the hillfort at Castle Naze. Its actual function is unclear, but like most other hillforts in Britain it probably had a variety of uses, both practical and ceremonial.
Moving forward again, The Romans arrive in A.D. 43 and quickly conquer the south of Britain. By the 70’s all evidence leads to the conclusion that Derbyshire and the Peak District have been absorbed into the Roman way of life with very little in the way of an armed struggle. As the country’s centre for lead production, it had a considerable Roman army presence. The small settlement of Buxton was re-built as a spa town with the Roman name of Aqua Arnemetiae.
The old track behind the Hall received a Roman Makeover and became a well surfaced road leading north in the direction of Mamucium – modern day Manchester. Evidence for Roman occupationat Castle Naze and White Hall have been found in the form of pottery and coinage. The coins can be seen in the local museum.
Once again, we move on through time and Britain now sees the immigrant Angles and Saxon people from the near continent taking up residence in the Peak. Towards the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries, stone crosses begin to be placed at important sites, such as parish boundaries which become fixed at this time. A fragment of one of these crosses – The Lady or Womans’ Cross can be found at the back gate of White Hall, although its original site lies inside the grounds.
Time to move on yet again, this time we move forward to the Norman Conquest in 1066.
In 1086 there is no mention of White Hall in the Domesday Book, indeed there is no mention of Buxton! All of the area is recorded as “waste” – a term meaning that there was nothing worth taxing! But why I hear you say-no mention of Buxton? The answer cannot be definite, but the probable cause is the Saxon habit of not building towns or villages. They tended to limit themselves to small family – based farmsteads; usually no more than a handful of buildings. So Buxton, after the end of the Roman era, was abandoned, robbed of its building stone and fell into almost total disrepair.
Time to move on yet again and White Hall gets its first mention in records.
A local court (Chapel-en-le-Frith) noted in one of its Assart Rolls that a Richard de Whitehall had been fined for making an illegal assart. This was common practice of the time; an assart being the clearing of land for either habitation or the growing of crops.
Instead of throwing the culprits off the land, the courts would fine them and let them continue to use the land. This then brought in more taxes.
The next time that White Hall appears is some four hundred years later, when it is seen on a map by the famous map maker, John Speed, in 1604.
Elizabethans, Stuarts and Georgians.
In 1614, from the list of tithe payers, we know that a Jo Lowe of White Hall paid a fee of three pence (old money). This would suggest a working farmstead at White Hall. White Hall appears again on maps of the 1640s, which also features “Archers Wall” – a wall of the same name can be found in an old Derbyshire Ballad – The Ballad of the Buckstone Boss. The Boss is a prominent gritstone outcrop on the edge of the moor close to White Hall. Legend has it that Robin Hood took part in an archery competition here which resulted in the local village being named Buckstone – later corrupted into Buxton. A nice story, but one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny!
1675 is significant for recording the “last wolf in England” being killed not far away. However, many other places in England lay claim to this dubious honour as well.
In 1724, a turnpike act saw White Hall mentioned yet again as the opening of Derbyshire’s first turnpike (toll) road between Buxton and Whaley Bridge. This road remained the only route between the two towns until 1789.
Victorians, Edwardians and interwar period
Most of the buildings we see today were built between 1813, (the date is above the old stable block which is now used as the main stores and boot room) and 1851. In 1842, William Pass is the farmer at White Hall. There is one other owner until Henry Shaw, a devout Catholic, purchased the ‘estate’ in 1884. Shaw added the chapel and had sufficient wealth and influence to have the turnpike road, which followed the Roman road through White Hall grounds, redirected to its present location outside of the boundary walls. During this work, workers found 2 small silver Roman coins and some shards of pottery. This was possibly votive (an offering) as the spring (sacred to many Romans) lies close by.
Shaw died in 1900 and the estate passed to his son. In 1934, the Staveacres bought the property. They were 1930’s socialites, without the same Catholic tradition as the Shaw family. The White Hall chapel, so much a part of the Shaw household, was used by the Staveacres to store gardening equipment! Today the chapel houses an indoor climbing wall. We aren’t sure which use Mr Shaw would have frowned upon on the most!
The Staveacres equipped the house with electric lighting powered from a generator. They also enjoyed trips in their open top Rolls Royce and lavish picnics in the countryside. The Staveacre family continued to live at White Hall until the beginning of the Second World War when the building was leased to Derbyshire County Council and used as a school for evacuees.
The war years – Guernsey’s Elizabeth College in exile
Pupils from Guernsey’s Elizabeth College for Boys were evacuated to White Hall during the Second World War. Over the intervening years, many an ex-pupil has knocked on the front door of White Hall wanting to take a look around and relive some of their memories. They were struck by the setting of the house near the moors and remember seeing snow for the first time in their lives.
Our last Elizabeth College old boy called by some years ago. It was fascinating to hear about his White Hall and which rooms were used for which classes etc. It was also enlightening to hear his recollection of leaving his parents and siblings behind on Guernsey that was war-torn and under German-occupation.
Time must have caught up with most of the ‘old boys’, however the impression of their stay must have been so powerful that we do sometimes get visits from their sons and daughters who had grown with stories of White Hall. In many ways, this was the beginning of White Hall as an inspirational place for young people to develop through new experiences and activities in the countryside. It certainly made an impression on the Guernsey old boys.
The beginnings of outdoor education
The power of sport and outdoor activities has long been used as an educational tool – from the fields of Eaton, Rugby and Harrow for the privileged, to Victorian ‘muscular Christianity’ where sport was used to instil morality, rules and values for the working classes. Baden Powell established the scouting movement in 1907 after a career as a military officer, he’d noticed how bush craft and outdoor survival techniques fostered greater independence and self-reliance in soldiers.
There are reports that Baden Powell actually spent two weeks visiting White Hall as part of his honeymoon tour of friends and family with his new wife. Kurt Hahn, a German educationalist who had been forced to leave his own country, used ideas from scouting and his own experiences as a head master in Germany to develop educational principles that used education outside the classroom as a core theme. He established Gordonstoun, an independent school in Scotland, on these principles.
He also created Outward Bound in 1941 after concern about the inferior survival rates of young seamen compared to their older compatriots in the North Sea convoys. Kurt used outdoor activities to teach confidence, tenacity and perseverance to give young seamen the ability to survive. He later went onto develop the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme from a similar scheme already running at Gordonstoun.
The first local authority outdoor education centre: White Hall
Talented climber Jack Longland (later to be knighted) became the Director of Education for Derbyshire in 1949. Anyone who has climbed Longland’s Climb on Clogwyn dur Arddu using modern equipment, or marvelled at how anyone could have climbed Javelin Blade on Idwal wearing boots from the 1930’s, will appreciate his exceptional ability! He was also an accomplished mountaineer and was on the 1933 Everest expedition where his leadership and courage were demonstrated when he led six sherpas down from near the summit at 8200 metres (27,000 feet) in white-out conditions.
The concept of outdoor learning and education for state educated students was new in the 1940’s. Sir Jack had to convince Derbyshire’s councillors of the benefits that an outdoor education centre would bring to the young people of the county. He presented his arguments at a full education committee meeting, and afterwards one Swadlincote councillor was so convinced that he is reported to have said that “I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them after leaving the meeting, had gone down to Sadler’s Gate to Wakefields and brought themselves a full rig-out, boots, anoraks, ropes, the lot!”.
White Hall’s first residential outdoor education course ran in 1951 from 26 February to 2 March for a group of boys from Spring Bank School, New Mills. Walking to local rock faces or longer walks with bivouacs was the main transport of the day until a mini bus and old Land Rover were acquired. Over the next seven years, White Hall’s reputation grew as more Derbyshire young people came to stay and teachers reported back on the positive effects the experience had had on their students. The ‘educational experiment’ was seen as a success and began to be taken up by other local authorities.
Recognition for Derbyshire County Council and White Hall was to come in the form of Royal approval with a visit in 1958 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He watched a group canoeing on Whaley Bridge canal and a climbing session at Castle Naze. To reach the foot of the cliff at Castle Naze, the Duke needed to walk uphill for 10 minutes so was given a pair of White Hall wellingtons to wear. Story has it that the Duke’s shoes were somehow mislaid on his return, so he had to leave for his next engagement wearing the wellies! Somewhere in the Palace may sit a pair of White Hall wellingtons. If you are ever there, you’ll recognise them by the holes punched in the tops to mark the size. It is a system that is still in use today.
To skip over the next fifty years would seem to be an injustice for all those who have worked at White Hall, attended courses here, been assessed for outdoor qualifications and have been influential in outdoor education for the benefit of so many. Staff from the centre have played their part in setting up the mountain leader scheme, the cave leadership scheme and local accreditations in climbing and mountain biking which have allowed thousands of people to experience the outdoors safely. Some of the greats within the outdoor world have played their part in White Hall’s history; Eric Byne, Geoff Sutton, Joe Brown, Don Morrison, Eric Langmuir, Doug Scott, and in more recent times world champion climber Simon Nadin and local expert Sam Whittaker.
At the time of our 60th anniversary in 2011, we estimated that over one million young people from all parts of Derbyshire had walked through the front doors of White Hall. Add in all the young people who have participated in outdoor activities because their teachers or youth workers had been trained and assessed at White Hall and that figure could be double or even treble.
So has White Hall as an outdoor activities centre changed? Yes and no. Education has developed, government and local priorities have evolved and young people’s expectations change. White Hall hasn’t sat on its laurels but has developed and adapted to meet the challenges of today and even to prepare for tomorrow! However, at its core, it remains the warm welcoming house on the hill where visitors can have life-changing experiences, eat well, sleep well and have fun!
AB Afford, who worked at the centre, wrote that Peter Mosedale, the first principal, returned for a visit in 1975, after the efforts of three intervening principals and twenty years, he concluded that ‘it still seems the same’. AB, after initially feeling a little hurt from all the work and development they had put into the centre, concluded, on reflection, ‘Yes, that’s how it should be’.