Resting on windswept moors and in shady woodlands throughout the Peak District are more than a thousand abandoned millstones, covered with lichen and moss, weather-worn and often hidden to all that pass by. These relics of a bygone age are reminders that this tranquil part of England was once filled with the sounds of quarrying rather than birdsong, when the steam and dust from hundreds of mills fumed into the now clean, clear air.

These huge stone ‘wheels’ are so synonymous with the Peak District that ornamental versions grace every sign on key routes into the National Park, and the millstone features as the logo for the Peak District National Park Authority.

You may have chanced upon a millstone during a walk in the Peak District and wondered about its origin. In this article I’ll tell you exactly what they were, how they were used, why so many were created in this particular area, and why there are so many abandoned here now.

The Millstones of the Peak District

What exactly is a millstone?

millstones of the peak district

The millstones of the Peak District are flat, round, stone ‘wheels’, often with a hole in the centre. They were once used for grinding grains into flour and were designed for use in the water, wind and steam mills of the area. Those most commonly seen hidden amongst the grass and bracken today typically date from the 18th and 19th Century.

The average Peak District millstone is around 1.8m in diameter and weighs a whopping 2.4 tonnes. Don’t ever try and carry one home in the boot of your car! The largest and heaviest noted in the area is near Burbage Edge, close to Hathersage. It’s 2.2m in diameter and weighs around 3.6 tonnes!

How were millstones used?

Millstones have been used to grind grain for over 2,000 years. The very earliest millstones are known as querns, and were worked entirely by muscle power. Examples of querns have been found on the edge of the Peak District at an early medieval dig in Blackwell near Buxton.

Millstones for grinding grain were used in pairs. The base stone or bedstone remained stationary, while the top stone or runner stone span above, creating a grinding action between the two to turn the grains into flour.

The base stone was usually slightly domed or convex and the top stone slightly concave. This, and a complex pattern of grooves cut into the stones, helped the ground flour run out towards the outer edges of the stones from where it could be collected.

Each pair of millstones needed to be evenly balanced, and achieving the correct separation of the two stones was crucial to producing good quality flour. An experienced miller would be able to adjust the separation of the millstones very accurately.

And that hole in the middle? That’s known as the ‘eye’ and it was how the raw grain entered the millstones to be ground into flour.

When is a millstone not a millstone?

Somewhat confusingly, not all millstones are actually millstones; that is, they weren’t all used in mills for grinding flour.

Some of the stones seen scattered throughout the Peak District were used as grindstones for sharpening steel. Grindstones were generally of a finer texture than millstones.

It’s no coincidence that this part of the Peak District was well known for producing needles for the textile industries. The small village of Hathersage in the Dark Peak had no fewer than five textile mills in the 18th Century, all of which used needles that had been sharpened to a point by local grindstones. The proximity to Sheffield and its cutlery trade also had a bearing on the amount of grindstones for steel tools produced in this part of the Peak District.

A third type of stone, known as edge runners, can also still be seen in specific areas in the Peak District. They were mounted on an axle and used to crush materials, such as lead ore, paint pigment, glass, cork and even apples for cider, as they rolled around a central pivot.

A great example of an Edge Runner stone still in situ is at Odin Mine, just outside Castleton. Here the steel track, stone and steel wheel are still in place.

How on earth were they quarried?

Quite incredibly, by hand!

The quarrying would have involved hand-drilling holes in the rock, inserting metal plates into it, and driving wedges between the plates to split the rock. It was a hard job, and a typical two-man team would probably have been able to quarry only 20 stones per year.

The quarrying of the stones from the rocks in the Peak District was likely to have been carried out on a small scale basis, rather than as part of the large scale quarries we are familiar with today. Many of the stone masons were farmers as well, quarrying during the quieter times in the farming calendar.

In addition to quarrying direct from the rock, it is likely that some fallen boulders were also worked into shape where they lay away from the edges.

The transportation of the finished millstones must also have been an incredible feat. These huge blocks of stone usually weighed well over 2 tonnes each, and there was no mechanical power available to help.

Perhaps surprisingly, little is known about how the stones were transported from where they were made. It is possible that pairs of stones were joined to a wooden axle and literally wheeled down from the edge, where they were loaded on to wagons to be pulled to the mills. It is also likely that simple cranes were used to manoeuvre the finished stones, and there is evidence of tripod crane supports on Beeley Moor.

Why were so many millstones created in the Peak District?

The Derbyshire Peak District produced more millstones than all other millstone-making areas in Britain put together. It was renowned for centuries as being the epicentre of millstone production, and Peak District millstones were exported to other countries worldwide by the 19th Century.

The answer is simply one of geology. The best type of stone for making millstones was coarse and rough, to create the necessary friction to grind the grain. Gritstone is perfect for this, and ‘millstone grit’ is an integral part of the geology of the Dark Peak in the northern parts of the Peak District.

‘Gritstone’ is actually a term for a variety of coarse sandstones, laid down around 300 million years ago. At this time the land was under the sea; the gritstone was created as sand was piled onto the sea bed over millennia.

Many of the edges in this part of the Peak District, including Stanage Edge (pictured), Millstone Edge and Burbage Edge, are all made up of this coarse gritstone, making this part of the country key to the production of millstones in England.

Why were they abandoned?

The millstone industry in the Peak District had been hugely successful for hundreds of years; there is reference to a millstone quarry at Alderwasley, on the edge of what is now the Peak District National Park, as far back as 1257. Right up until the 18th Century millstones made from millstone grit were in great demand and business was brisk.

Then, two things changed.

Firstly, at the start of the 18th Century white bread became more and more popular, which required finer, whiter flour.  Unfortunately, the millstones made of Peak District gritstone often left tiny fragments of stone powder in the flour, which made it undesirable for use in a finer, whiter product.  To address this issue, composite millstones made up of separate blocks of chert (a type of quartz) were introduced, and the Peak District stones suddenly had significant competitors.

Secondly, in the late 19th Century machines became more commonplace in the mills.  They allowed high speed grinding and thus subjected the millstones to more wear.  The millstones made from Peak District gritstone wore down quickly and required re-cutting regularly.  Again, the chert composite stones proved to be far superior.

The chert composite stones are often referred to as ‘French stones’, although they were actually made throughout England as well as in France.  It’s also sometimes claimed that they were cheaper than gritstone millstones, whereas actually they were more expensive; it’s just that they lasted longer and required much less maintenance.

The introduction of these composite stones sounded the death knell for the Peak District millstone.  In many areas the industry died out very swiftly; so quickly that the half-finished stones were simply left in their incomplete state on the moors, or abandoned where they lay awaiting transport to their destinations.

Where is the best place in the Peak District to find millstones?

There are estimated to be around 1,500 millstones scattered throughout the Peak District. Most are located within a few miles’ radius of the villages of Hathersage, Curbar and Baslow, where the gritstone was in plentiful supply on the surrounding moors and edges.

There are many millstones underneath Stanage Edge and Burbage Edge, but examples can also be seen on and beneath Millstone Edge, Curbar Edge and Baslow Edge.

There are also a great number littered throughout Padley Gorge and Bole Hill, near to Grindleford. The well-known and much-photographed collection at the entrance to Bole Hill close to Surprise View are actually pulp stones and were most likely used for grinding wood pulp for paper in the late 19th Century.

The best time of year for millstone spotting is autumn and winter; during the summer they are often hidden away under the bracken that grows in the woodlands and on the moors.

Keep your eyes peeled when you next head out for a walk in the Peak District, and see how many of these echoes of our past industrial heritage you can see resting amidst the undergrowth!