The Real Source of the Snake Inn/Pass/Road/Path Namings in the Dark Peak: 

The Same as for Doctors Gate Prehistoric Trackway

Steve Moxon, February 2016. stevemoxon3(at)talktalk.net

[A differently structured and less comprehensive – necessarily shorter – account appeared in the summer (June/July/August) 2016 edition of Stirrings magazine, titled Snake in the Pass]


The currently and long accepted basis of the Dark Peak snake namings – as insisted on by the Chatsworth Estate Office – can be shown to be a rationalised falsehood which ignores logic and the striking mythological actual basis of the namings, which also is the basis of the derivation of Doctor’s Gate; a related place-name that likewise has long been accounted for by mere rationalisation.

This is a very interesting case of a place-name origin that though recent nevertheless has been lost; this recapitulating an ancient origin that also was lost (the same appellation in a former language).

The Snake Road originally was simply named the Sheffield to Glossop Turnpike when it opened in 1821 as a toll road instigated, built and funded by the Dukes of Devonshire and Norfolk; principally the former. Simultaneous with the road, at the remotest toll bar a coaching inn was built, named Lady Clough House. Originally, then, neither the road nor the inn – nor, apparently, any other feature in the locale – had the 'snake' appellaton; at least not officially. A guide to the new road published in 1822 ('Sheffield to Manchester by an entirely new road through Glossop, Mottram in Longdendale and Ashton under Lyme', in A New and Accurate Description of All the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in Great Britain, by Daniel Paterson) makes no reference to 'snake'. Lady Clough House was very soon – within 20 years – re-named the Snake Inn (and then, from the beginning of this century, the Snake Pass Inn): it is thus named on the 1840 Cassini series original (pre-)OS map. Yet even by the 1880 OS map there is no other snake naming. Therefore, the Snake Road, Pass & Path all are named in the wake of the Inn. The road likely took on the snake moniker sometime after it ceased to be a turnpike in 1875.

It is assumed that the 'snake' appellation arose from the tiny knotted serpent on the Coat of Arms of the Dukes of Devonshire, which was also used separately as the Dukes’ Crest, appearing as it once did (allegedly) on the pub sign; and then, it is held, the pub in turn gave its name to the road; but not only is this not credible but an alternative -- the actual – derivation is concrete and clear, as I'll now explain.

Contrary to what has been assumed, not a serpent but a buck (stag) features in the Crest of the Coat of Arms of the Duke of Devonshire incumbent in 1821 and for many decades afterwards – the 6th Duke, William George Spencer Cavendish (‘the Bachelor Duke’) acceding to the Dukedom in 1811, before the inn was built; dying, long after the inn had taken the Snake appellation, in 1859 (See Debrett's Peerage of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1836). [This alteration of the Crest also may have applied to previous or subsequent Dukes in the lineage, but this is not known.] There is no serpent on the Coat of Arms of the Duke of Norfolk.

This fact alone is sufficient evidence against the standard derivation, and the more so when you consider that there must have been some clear reason for the Duke’s decision to change the Crest; likely that a serpent – snake – is a negative and distasteful emblem, denoting, as it does, a predatory, venomous and slippery nature. Having ditched the serpent as a Crest, it’s hardly likely that the Duke then would embrace it as his emblem in connection with any of his property. Therefore, if the publican of Lady Clough House in honour of the past emblem of the Dukeship had for that reason decided to feature the serpent in the pub sign, this surely would have incurred the Duke’s displeasure, even to the point of the Duke considering it a pointed slight. A change of name to the Snake Inn by reason of a connection to the Duke never would have been countenanced, particularly when you consider that the coaching inns doubled as toll bar stations, which the Duke relied upon to recoup his huge investment.

With the Crest changed to a buck (stag), it was then fully in line with the rest of the Devonshire Coat of Arms, which features several, much larger stags. So the emblem of the Dukedom very firmly became only the stag; and, therefore, any naming of the pub after the Duke would have been The Stag Inn or The Buck Inn.

The putative explanation of the Duke’s Crest basis of the Snake naming also falls down when you consider that Lady Clough House was not the only inn built by the Duke of Devonshire as a coaching establishment specifically to serve the turnpike. Ashopton Inn was another, and it remained of that name, and in none of the old photos does it display a serpent on its pub sign, so far as detail can be seen. Originally, though, if Lady Clough House had featured the Duke’s Crest, then surely so too would the Ashopton Inn. The question is begged: why did Lady Clough House rather than the Ashopton Inn change its name to the Snake Inn? Even if we admit of the possibility that the snake appellation could be simply because of the Duke’s ownership, so that it was arbitrary as to which inn took the snake moniker, it hardly could usefully function to distinguish, as is the purpose of naming, between the establishments. Both pubs could not take the naming, and as to which one did so would have been arbitrary on the Crest derivation. And why would one of the pubs only later be re-named because of the Crest rather than from the outset? Even if there were anything in the Crest argument, there must anyway have been some reason separate from the Duke’s ownership behind the re-naming of Lady Clough House.

There may be even less than is supposed in the Crest argument. It is not possible to establish from the only extant published old photographs of the Inn if either the Duke’s Crest – whether of a buck or a serpent – or some other image of a snake was part of the pub sign. The two old photos date from before the 1920s, when, according to the current management of the Inn, the sign featuring a snake was taken down. It is by reason of this being beyond living memory that conjecture divorced from logic has had free reign. The old sign in any case would not have been original, of course. Surviving the best part of a century exposed to the harsh weather of such a remote high altitude locale is hardly possible; and the original sign would have been for Lady Clough House. Even if we had a good image of the first Snake Inn sign, it would tell us little re derivation, because even if there was a serpent from the old – pre 6th Duke – Devonshire Crest, this could have been adopted for the pub sign through an alternatively derived snake naming which then evoked the use of the former crest as apposite.

The standard putative origin of the 'snake' appears, then, to be at best non-evidenced and most likely a cock-'n-bull story, that only ostensibly is credible with a secondary root in the sinuous -- snaking -- nature of the road. When it was a turnpike road, the Snake Road actually would have been unusually straight relative to the sort of roads that the turnpikes supplanted. It is only from the later 20th century that the road in comparison to new fast trunk roads has seemed to be bendy. The explanation for the route’s naming popularly put forward is, then, an understandable but very modern one that could not have applied at the time of naming. It is a secondary root only inasmuch as it assists with the persistence of the snake namings today. It is not a secondary root of the original snake naming.

Clearly, there must be an entirely different derivation, and a much more plausible derivation comes from a feature at a site, Cowms Rocks, close by the pub on the ancient route parallel to the Snake Road (which, in some sections, the Snake Road actually is built upon): the still extant track known since at least early-modern times as Doctor's Gate (and re this last place-name, see below).

Cowms Rocks (a gritstone outcrop at the top of a steep slope that is what remains after an over-5,000-year-old massive – 1.3km2 – landslip) features atop it a stack of the distinct appearance of a reptilian head with its distinctive mouth and also an eye; this being in full view from Doctor’s Gate, albeit a little distant to spot without venturing a little nearer. There is now a close-up photo of this on the net (https://b.geolocation.ws/v/W/File%3ACowns%20Rocks%20-%20geograph.org.uk%20-%20322166.jpg/-/en), and formerly there was an on-line photo by some Australian tourists who had stumbled upon it as a feature they considered looked like a turtle's head.

The name cowms conceivably may be from Scottish Gaelic cnuimh, 'worm', which has the sense of ‘serpent’ and, therefore, all things reptilian, and likely relates to Northern English and Lowland Scots kow, 'goblin' or 'spirit' (as in the shape-shifting mythological beast, the Hedley Kow). It may be, then, that the association of this site with a worm/ serpent/ snake is thousands of years old. However, the name could be as in coomb – referring to the adjacent Oyster Clough little valley within a valley -- which is the derivation for the Kirklees village of Cowmes and a place in Bradfield parish (recorded in 1297 as Cumbes, in 1379 as Caume, and in 1637 as Cowmes). [Proto-Celtic kumb-, 'a little valley within a greater valley'.] In fact, cowms is (miss-spelt?) coombs on an old OS map edition. Of course, both putative roots may apply.

It might be thought that a possibility would be that this rock is the source of the doctor appellation of the ancient track, in that a snake – a serpent – is an ancient symbol of healing (presumably deriving from 'regeneration' mythology). This symbolism is extant today and would have been particularly well-known in medieval times in connection, notably, with the Knights Hospitallers. But the derivation is far neater and older, in being (as are actually most place-names in the Dark Peak, research reveals*) from a Scottish Gaelic compound word, dearc-luachrach. Today, this denotes 'lizard', but originally it meant 'the primordial creature-from-the-depths on land', being literally 'the salmon of the rushes', where the salmon was considered the very oldest, most elemental of all animals. In other words, dearc-luachrach represented the mythological serpent or dragon.

Pronounced in contemporary native Gaelic approximately (as best rendered in English) as ‘dearcushrach‘, it would have undergone changes with superseding language contexts of Welsh (actually a variant, Cumbric, in these parts) followed by first Old and then Middle English. The alliteration within the second element would serve to contract it down to a single syllable, and then in Anglicisation would sound close enough to 'doctor' to be thus rationalised after Gaelic speaking in the Dark Peak area gave way to (eventually Middle) English. This derivation would seem to be supported in its being precisely apposite for the only other occurrence of the place-name Doctor’s Gate, in Wearside at Hamsterley Forest, where it applies to an area within the Forest of notable habitat for reptiles – lizards and adders. This may be coincidence, but it's a tenable basis for the naming. Much more support and insight re the naming follows further below, but already it is becoming apparent that, after all, indeed there is likely an association of the snake namings with a serpent / dragon of an antiquity measured in thousands of years.

The long assumed but false derivation is the usual sort of rationalisation of a personage – and though erroneous is nonetheless a secondary root aiding the survival of the appellation. The doctor in question, it is claimed, was a doctor living in Glossop who regularly used the track to travel to Sheffield, and/or, in some source(s) that this individual was responsible for paving the route in the 16th century. To cite a source verbatim: “In 1433, the Abbott of Basingwerke leased the whole of Glossopdale to John Talbot from Hallam, Sheffield, in return for an annual rent of £50. In 1494 an illegitimate son of the Talbot family, Dr John Talbot, was appointed vicar, and he paved the road over the moors to Sheffield. The road is known as Doctor’s Gate”. [This is in error in that he was born in 1494, not appointed vicar at that date. The appointment was in respect of Glossop.] So he had an interest in a viable route for him regularly to travel to Sheffield to see his family, which he did on horseback. The notion that he paved the route is fanciful: the route never would have been paved except perhaps at certain points, such as steep hills (for grip) and habitually waterlogged sections, as with other packhorse routes. Paving the whole route would have been a colossal and unaffordable undertaking, which none but possibly the very richest nobleman in the area could even contemplate; never mind an illegitimate son with no inheritance sent off to jon the clergy. In any case, there would be no reason for paving. Packhorse trains require merely a compacted surface. That the personage of this 'doctor' was not the builder but a mere traveller begs the question of why he might have been sufficiently notable as to give his name to the route; and, furthermore, why he is not remembered by his name, Talbot, rather than merely his title of ‘doctor’ – or, if by a title, then not his actual role of reverend (he was a doctor of divinity, not medicine). There is a record of ‘Doctor Talbotes Gate’ in 1627, so it cannot immediately be discounted that the surname was originally in the place-name; but the failure to use the ‘Reverend’ title, and the non-appearance in any other record of the family name, suggests that ‘Reverend’ did not fit the already extant name for the route: that ‘Doctor’s Gate’ had become ‘Doctor Talbote’s Gate’. That there was confusion as to whether he was a physician or a priest is understandable enough and doesn’t in itself signal a false rationalisation, but the other curiosities betray that it’s mere rationalisation.

Indeed, other evidence reveals it to be a latter-day rationalisation built on an earlier one. According to one source (http://allthegearbutnoidea.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/higher-shelf-stones-bleaklow.html): “A local legend suggests that the name comes from a local doctor who was under the power of the Devil. To get his freedom he had to race against the Devil on horseback and win. The doctor lost the race because the Devil used black magic, though the doctor found out that as long as he stayed on the other side of the river he was free from the Devil's powers”. Another source claims that: “Legend has it that Doctor's Gate is so named because a Longdendale doctor once challenged the Devil to a horse race along it and, to the Devil's irritation, won” [http://walks.walkingworld.com/walk/Lady-Clough---Doctor-s-Gate---Pennine-Way---Snake-Path.aspx]. The modern source for these and all similar is the no doubt highly embellished retelling of dimly remembered local folklore as 'The Devil and the Doctor' in the book Legends of Longdendale, by Thomas Middleton, first published back in 1906; in turn gleaned from an 1863 book, Longdendale: Historical and Descriptive Sketches of the Two Parishes of Mottram & Glossop, by Ralph Bernard Robinson.

This local legend evidently pre-dates the rationalisation in terms of a specific individual, being here an un-named, generic ‘doctor’ figure, whom indeed is a doctor of medicine, not an academic clergyman; and in the nature of such folklore is likely to be far older than the 17th or 16th century. As for the Wearside instance of Doctor’s Gate, the rationalisation is lame in the extreme: that it denotes not a road – which, in fact, gate as a place-name invariably does indicate – but literally a gate; at which basic supplies were handed over to quarantined plague victims. No explanation is offered as to why the delivery of basic supplies required a medical qualification! The doctor naming applies to other features in the immediate vicinity, so clearly it denoted an area and never applied simply to a gate. It is clear that here, in both instances, doctor is an ancient rationalisation; fitting the above derivation from a Gaelic compound word meaning ‘lizard’.

The Snake Pass doctor naming is what has long been recorded as the ‘official’ one, but this does not exclude the possibility that the concrete presence of the natural sculpture at Cowms Rocks had long given rise to a non-recorded colloquial snake appellation. This could have arisen at any time – or several times over the course of history – either recently or medievally or anciently, to persist (and perhaps to be lost and then revived) outside of official record. A longstanding vernacular snake naming would explain the quick change of the naming of the nearby inn.

More likely, however, the naming arose after 1821, through those working and staying at the inn, stables and the toll bar venturing the very short walk to Cowms Rocks behind the inn to discover anew the snake form of the rock stack atop it. In a very bleak almost featureless landscape lacking any other significant landmark, this surely would have become in a short time a noted topographical feature and talking point, with the inn being the geographical reference point. Thus the inn would take on the 'snake' appellation colloquially. In thus putting the pub more firmly on the map with some real colour, it would be obvious good business sense for the publican to capitalise on such a gift to officially re-name the pub accordingly. He might even have tried to flatter the Duke with a white lie of citing the snake in the Crest of old to overcome any resistance to a name change; though, as I pointed out above, this more likely might have rather backfired. The Duke would have agreed with his tenant on business grounds.

What is clear is that by whatever the route of derivation, the snake form of the stack atop Cowms Rock is the source of all of the snake namings – right back to the naming of the parallel prehistoric track anciently in a former language.

Or so it seemed. Further investigation threw up another source of the dearc-luachrach construction: from comparative work on not just the specific Doctors Gate place-name but doctor in its other place-name manifestationsThere are nine completely separate occurrences of Doctor(‘)s Hill as ‘street names’ on Streetmap.co.uk, with all bar one of them in the Western half of England, where all are lanes leading to conical hills, which in ancient imagination often were envisaged as coiled serpents (probably because of prehistoric concentric lynchets – cultivation terraces – and/or defensive ramparts). That the naming in terms of doctor is of the associated lanes rather than the hills themselves is in keeping with the derivation being a generic epithet re conical hills. Any given hill will have an individual local naming plus the associated place-name reference to serpent mythology to characterise the hill in general mythological terms. Associated place-naming makes clear a serpent association in a good half of the cases. [This is a very good rate of discovering corroboration given how place-names become lost, replaced or mangled beyond dissection.] By Doctor’s Hill near Bromsgrove are Worms Ash, Snakes Lake Lane; and at the one by Box, Corsham, is Wormcliffe Lane. Then there are the occurrences of the giveaway place-name Butt(s) (from Gaelic bior-bhuasach; 'water serpent', and/or bheithir, 'serpent' / beithis -- the largest, most poisonous form) by the Doctors Hills at both Tamworth-in-Arden and Boscastle. The most common form of doctor place-names is Doctor(‘)s Lane, and though some examples are literal-modern and/or too urban to determine derivation, the bulk are connected in some cases with distinctive pools of water or wells -- these being also formerly associated with serpent mythology – and/or again with conical hills. 

A conical hill, and a very large, striking one at that, is just what we find at the very start of Doctors Gate at Old Glossop: Shire Hill. The name doesn't matter, because other instances are variously named but have the 'serpent' epithet applied to them in the name of an associated lane. It may be non-ancient, or perhaps from Gaelic sìorraidh, ‘eternal’ – the hill is the site of Bronze Age burials; veneration of ancestors being central to prehistoric religiosity. As with other notably conical hills, Shire Hill would have been envisaged as a coiled serpent. So is the ‘reptile’ stone at Cowms Rocks not the basis of the Doctors Gate naming? Or might the two putative derivations be co-roots? Confusing or not, we have ample basis of an ancient snake naming, then. 

All roads here seem to have a knack of leading back to the symbolic imagining of a core concern with the endless death/rebirth cycle of life. As with the Dragon of Wantley and the Owd 'Oss hobby horse (really a snapping dragon), the snake namings also testify that historically in our locale, just as across the world, mythology of an elemental serpentine beast or dragon -- the archetypal snake – has proved irrepressible.

This little place-naming saga is an interesting illustration of human yearning for meaning. There’s a tussle between the concrete / mundane and the supernatural, where the merely superficial plausibility of rationalisation can be almost as great a stretch of credulity, and the more familiar, non-’otherworld’ form can take on a cryptic power only amplifying mystery.

Steve Moxon, February 2016

* I’ve done a lot of local place-name research both in itself and in connection with major papers on mythology, either local or with local connections. Even core-central Sheffield street names are almost all Gaelic in derivation. This is surprising, but reflects the geographical and political insularity of the steeply hilly remoter parts of South Yorkshire, which shows up in very recent fine-scale genetic research