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

Related to the Ancient Derivation of the Doctors Gate Prehistoric Trackway

Steve Moxon, February 2016 (with much further work in 2018). stevemoxon3(at)

[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, if not rationalised falsehood, at best only a part, and the lesser part of the story, ignoring logic and the striking more important basis of the namings, which are closely related or parallel to the derivation of the moniker of the ancient trackway parallel to and in places superimposed by the Snake Road: Doctor’s Gate; itself a place-name that has long been wholly accounted for by mere rationalisation. This is a very interesting case of a place-name origin that though recent nevertheless has become if not lost then confused, reviving the ancient basis of another place-name with which it is entwined (effectively 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 initially (or at least was intended so to be) Lady Clough House, after the ravine in which the road here and the pub are located. Originally, then, neither the road nor the inn – nor, apparently, any other feature in the locale – had the ‘snake’ appellation; 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’. Very soon – within 20 years – the pub acquired the name 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.

Most people, naturally enough, assume the appellation to have arisen in respect of the road, given its sinuous — snaking — nature; but 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 circa 1840. Yes, it is a secondary root, but only inasmuch as it assists with the persistence of the snake namings today. It is not a secondary root of the original snake naming.

The received wisdom is that ‘snake’ indirectly refers to the (6th) Duke of Devonshire, but as the putative but mistaken origin of a pub name, the Duke (either himself or a previous incumbent) has form. According to Mountford Baddeley in his Thorough Guide: The Peak District of Derbyshire, 1887, in discussing the Cat & Fiddle pub: As to the origin of the name, a tradition tells of a certain Duke of Devonshire whose constant practice it was to drive up to this lonely habitation in the cheering companionship of his cat and fiddle”. This transparently fanciful notion shows the extreme reverence to nobility at the time; attributing to the most prominent local figure anything and everything of significance. So we should be very suspicious of any similar claim.

The story that has taken firm hold regarding the Snake Inn is that it stems from the tiny knotted serpent on the coat of arms of the Dukes of Devonshire, which was also used separately as the Dukes’ crest, at one time appearing on the pub sign; and then, the pub in turn gave its name to the road. This last at least is not contentious, but there is an alternative derivation of the whole constellation of snake naming that puts the pub taking on the moniker in as secondary fashion as does the road.


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. This is according to the bible of heraldry as it was current at the time, Debrett’s Peerage of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1836. Whether or not this alteration of the crest also applied to previous or subsequent Dukes in the lineage it seems impossible to determine. [The serpent cannot be from the coat of arms of the Duke of Norfolk (the other major figure behind the building of the turnpike), because a serpent was never a part of it.]

This compounds the strangeness of the name change of what was a not unprestigious coaching establishment owned by a Duke. Lady Clough House sounds nicely grand; The Snake Inn most certainly doesn’t. The original moniker is itself a bit odd, though, in that visitors would assume it referred to a particular woman of nobility, either in celebration or commemoration, rather than, as it is, to “Our Lady”, a Christianisation of what formerly was a reference to the pan-‘Celtic’ goddess Brid(h)e/Bridget. [Lady refers to the place-name Old Woman, the source of Lady Clough (the name of both the tributary of the Ashop River and the ravine it has cut); Old Woman being a reference to the hag form of Brid(h)e/Bridget.] With the Duke being commonly, indeed famously known as “the Bachelor Duke”, the appellation might even have prompted speculation about his love life! Yet this hardly would be enough to prompt a name change unless to one obviously far superior. As for a name that would identify the pub in terms of its being owned by the Duke, about the last thing that would have come to mind was “snake”. Why anyway focus on what is just the small crest of the Duke’s coat of arms? And why the crudity of “snake” instead of what actually it is: ‘serpent’? If it were merely the vernacular of locals, then why would the Duke allow this to further take hold through official recognition in the guise of formally re-naming the establishment? Consider that there is no heraldry on the three-arched ‘Doric’ entrance gateway the 6th Duke erected at Chatsworth, but on the gate-posts dating from before his incumbency there are carved serpents, yet neither officially nor informally was the place renamed ‘Snake Hall’! Then there are the several inns in the wider area named from the Dukedom as Devonshire, surely some of which at least must have sported the heraldry, yet none subsequently ditched Devonshire in favour of Snake.

As for the change to the crest: there must have been some clear reason for the Duke to do this; likely that a serpent – snake – is a negative and distasteful emblem, denoting, as it does, a predatory, venomous and slippery nature. Having pointedly ditched the serpent as a crest, it’s not plausible that the Duke then would embrace it as his emblem in connection with any of his property. 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 surely never would have been countenanced, when you consider that the coaching inns doubled as toll bar stations, which the Duke relied upon to recoup his huge investment. With noblesse oblige put aside in the necessity of charging the travelling public for mere passage, even the most elementary business sense would tell you that the last thing needed would be to reinforce any impression of unfair appropriation of money by associating the extorter with a feared predator.

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 in terms of the coat of arms would have been The Stag Inn or The Buck Inn. That the Duke would not have been minded even to do this is attested by a pub owned by the Duke actually being called at one time The Stag Inn. This is the pub in Ashford-in-the-Water that in 1811 was re-named … The Devonshire Arms. Evidently, if a stag was thought emblematic of the Duke, the Duke himself thought it was either insufficiently or inappropriately so. Taking an animal, whether the stag/buck or the serpent/snake, notwithstanding its being a feature of the coat of arms, does not prompt an identification with the Duke, other than an obtuse one. If such identification was the purpose of the name change, then why not call the Inn as quite a few others, and as the instance just now cited, ‘The Devonshire’? Or, to be not so obvious, and to avoid confusion with the others, use the Duke’s actual family name: ‘The Cavendish’? Alternatively, if some colloquialism were judged not inappropriate, ‘The Bachelor’? Most directly, would there be anything amiss with ‘The Duke’s Inn’?

The putative explanation of the Duke’s crest basis of the Snake naming falls down further, in basic logical terms, 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. Another was The Ashopton Inn, named on the same basis as was Lady Clough Inn, from its location — in the village of Ashopton. This pub retained its name unchanged. 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, then it would have been arbitrary as to which inn took the snake moniker, and it hardly could usefully function to distinguish, as is the purpose of naming, between the establishments, given that both pubs could not have taken the same naming, patently. So what possibly could be the basis of the one rather than the other so doing on the crest derivation? And why would one of the pubs only later be re-named because of the crest rather than being accorded the name from the outset? Even if there were anything in the crest argument, there must anyway have been some reason separate from and additional to the Duke’s ownership behind the re-naming of Lady Clough House. It must concern the place. There has to be something pertaining to the location at Lady Clough that does not pertain to Ashopton.


Most recently it has come to light that despite the coat of arms of the 6th Duke reputably recorded as not featuring a serpent, there is a photo to prove that the pub indeed did sport an image of the serpent as from the Duke’s coat of arms — at least latterly. It is known that the last pub sign featuring a snake was taken down in 1923, but the photos that were to be found on-line dating to before this time were not of sufficient quality to be able to see any detail or anything much at all on the pub sign. Now a hitherto non-published (on-line) photo appears [ that had been taken in 1913, and this clearly shows a small coiled serpent above the larger image of the ducal coronet in the centre between the separated lettering of ‘Snake’ and ‘Inn’. [The image as copied and included here ends up of too low a resolution to discern all of the detail, but the detail is there if you see it at the url.]  This, of course, is a pub sign erected in the wake of the pub’s changed naming: the photo cannot tell us about what was on the original sign before the re-naming. With the small size of the snake image even after the naming supposedly in its honour, it does suggest that the serpent was not a sizeable depiction in relation to the rest of the signage, begging the question as to why, then, it would have been seen as significant enough to prompt the re-naming. 

Further research has unearthed evidence that a still earlier pub sign did indeed also feature a serpent — so was Debrette’s Peerage in error? In a letter to the Manchester City News, dated 1831, the pub is described thus: “its portal is decorated with the actual crest and motto of the Cavendish family, namely, a ‘snake nowed’ and the words ‘Cavendo tutus’ ” (a snake nowed is coiled in on itself in a sort of figure-of-eight). But there is no image available anywhere in any context of both the serpent and the motto of the coat of arms outside the context of the full coat of arms, so the description would seem to be selective. Also above the door was the 1821 construction date (J B Firth, Highways and Byways in Derbyshire, 1905), further crowding any space available for the serpent motif,in what is anyway a very narrow space between the door lintel and the sill of the window immediately above it. The serpent image must have been small and not imposing.


Even more surprising, it turns out that the pub was at this time named not Lady Clough House but The Devonshire Arms — this according to both the 1831 letter writer and James Piggot’s 1828-9 National Commercial Directory. According to a piece of writing included in the New Mills Local History Society Scrapbook (volume 12) compiled by Luke, James & Sam Garside, it appears that  the pub was already renamed Devonshire Arms “at the time it was built in 1821”. This contradicts both Mogg’s Pocket Itinerary of the Direct and Cross Roads of England and Wales by Edward Mogg, 1826, and Paterson’s Roads (the sixteenth edition), by Daniel Paterson, 1838. It’s possible that both of these national guides simply relied on outdated information given that they would not be complete re-surveys, yet Patterson claimed to have based his edition on wholly new maps. Could there be confusion with the Devonshire Arms at Sparrowpit — a coaching inn also owned by the Duke at a high point on the rival Sheffield-Manchester turnpike? No, because it was then called The Three Tuns: it’s name wasn’t changed to The Devonshire Arms until 1839 — which interestingly is just the year before we know for certain that the pub was by then named The Snake. Could extreme deference to the Duke have clouded memory and/or understanding at the time? Unlikely. The sources are quite specific. With these local sources more likely in-the-know, then we should side with both the Devonshire naming and that it was indeed thus named from the outset. Assuming the pub indeed was the Devonshire Arms for a couple of decades or so, and that it had a serpent as a part, albeit probably a small part of its pub sign, there remains a lot of explaining to do, for the reasons above — and now added to: with the pub already named directly after the Duke, then there is no basis of a name change to more obtusely refer to him. In any case, there is not excluded the possibility of reverse causation here: that the inclusion of the Duke’s crest itself was prompted by some basis of wishing to portray a serpent, rather than that the depiction was simply through hosting the Duke’s heraldry.

With the revelation about what became, in 1839, an exactly parallel Devonshire naming — of the corresponding establishment on the rival turnpike — a reason is thereby provided for re-naming (again) what had originally been (or meant to be) Lady Clough House: to distinguish between the two. The Tree Tuns was at the junction of no less than three turnpike roads, not just the older Sheffield-Manchester route; making it an important coaching inn, with which the Duke might wish to be seen to be associated and secure a good reputation by it, thereby to encourage use of the newer turnpike route; the one he himself owned. The adoption of the snake moniker seems not, then, to have come about simply from people being struck by the image of the serpent on the pub sign. In any case, the Duke yielding to such popular pressure would be akin to the British Antarctic Survey vessel being officially named the competition-winning Boaty Mcboatface instead of Sir Richard Attenborough, or to change the name of the statue Anna Livia to The Floozie in the Jacuzzi. So,with an extraneous prompting of re-naming which would not have framed or suggested any particular appellation, then just what is or might be the basis of taking on such a striking re-naming as snake? But note that the sequence of naming the two pubs could be the other way round. Would any considerations regarding the Sparrowpit premises be important enough to warrant renaming only for this to set up an issue with another estabiishment over the hill? Indeed, why would the Duke not want to duplicate the Devonshire moniker for all of his pubs, in the maner of the franchise model we have today? Furthermore, with the Duke attached enough to naming his pubs after himself in terms of his Dukedom, then why would he relinquish this in favour of naming that more indirectly referenced himself, and in the guise, not of the grander-sounding yet nonetheless menacing serpent, but the plain nasty snake?


Well, is there an alternative, or (even better) a complementary derivation? Perhaps one that is not so much plausible in itself as in conjunction with what we now know about the pub signage to make sense of the evolution of the naming? As I pointed out, we need a derivation that gives significance to place — that provides a reason for the naming to apply to the spot where is the pub. Just such 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 – over an area of 1.3 square kilometres – 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 have been several close-up photos of this on the net which have come and gone; the first by some Australian tourists who remarked on what they saw as a clearly reptilian form in describing it as a turtle’s head — a turtle being the most familar reptile to Australians. One current as of January 2018 is by Dave Dunford ( ). [Again, the image as copied here ends up of too low a resolution to capture all of the detail, but such is present if you see it at the url.]

The name cowms may be from Scottish Gaelic cnuimh, ‘worm’, which has the sense of ‘serpent’ and, therefore, all things reptilian, and is the likely basis of the Northern English and Lowland Scots kow, ‘goblin’ or ‘spirit’ (as in the shape-shifting mythological beast, the Hedley Kow) — which may have been rationalised into the Cowberry naming of the adjacent Tor. [Comparative place-name work seems to confirm this etymology: see below.] 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 (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. [Note that most place-names in the Dark Peak are Scottish Gaelic in derivation: see the paper on this within the mythology section on this website: 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, and a revolution in underdanding of prehistoric migration patterns into Britain through fine-scale genetic research]

Immediately below Cowns Rocks and stretching a considerable way along Woodlands Valley and all the way down to the river in the valley floor is strikingly undulating ground, which is the aftermath of the above-mentioned prehistoric massive landslip. This has the appearance of a series of small rounded hillocks in large number, which could be taken symbolically as the humps of the body of the serpent whose head appears petrified, as it were, in the stack atop Cowms Rocks. ‘Round hill’ in Scottish Gaelic is ùird, òrd or òrdan (depending on the particular grammatical form), which through Anglicisation looks as though it would yield wood(lands), explaining this seemingly pointlessly odd and anodyne place-name.

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 appears to be far neater and older, in likely also being 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 can be 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 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 is conjecture and would be thus too far without evidence in support, but such immediately arrives in the derivation being apposite for the only other occurrence of the place-name Doctor’s Gate, in Wearside at Hamsterley Forest. Given the point where the naming appears on the map, next to a quarry taking the same moniker, it suggests the naming is but secondarily of a trackway and primarily of a particular small area within the Forest. It would seem to pertain to where the trackway traverses the side of what appears from this vantage a conical hill, which, as discussed below, anciently typically would have been envisaged as a coiled serpent. [The local explanation is rationalisation of the lamest kind: that rather than a road it’s a literal 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!] Much more support and insight re the naming follows further below, but there is an issue of the plausibility of the long Doctor’s Gate trackway being named after a landscape feature that is not visible from the trackway without venturing a good few yards off the track towards Cowms Rocks. For now I’ll leave it that there is possibly an association of the snake namings with a serpent / dragon of an antiquity measured in thousands of years; so that first I can instead deal with other lines of investigation of the doctor appellation, to clear away any rival, more concrete possibilities of derivation.


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 it’s plausible 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 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 join 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 of the family name in any other recordimg of the trackway’s name, suggests that the epithet ‘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 ( “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” [—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, it must be assumed, is a doctor of medicine, not an academic clergyman. In the nature of such folklore, it’s likely to be far older than the 17th or 16th century. A doctor figure is the one consistently present in all ancient ‘folk plays’, such as the local ‘Old Oss’. This mythological figure in being envisaged as very well-travelled to far-flung lands looks like the origin of the notion of a real personage regularly travelling between Glossop and Sheffield. The ‘doctor’ of generic legend is the key to understanding all ‘folk plays’ and such as regeneration mythology: the annual supplanting of the ‘old king’ by the ‘new king’ (‘red king’) as symbolic sympathetic magic to ensure the continuing fertility of the land with the cycle of the seasons. The doctor revives the seemingly dead ‘old king’ to reincarnate him into his replacement. The doctor is more than he seems, however, in these survivals or only recently extinct pieces of genuine tradition. The original dynamic in this sort of time-immemorial vernacular deeply profound story is simply two foes: more latterly a knight versus a dragon, but before the advent of the knight, simply two figures representing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ kings, often brothers; most notably Robin Hood and Little John. These two fighting figures in turn really stand for different aspects (life stages) of the ‘goddess’ (notably the pan-‘Celtic’ Brid(h)e/Bridget), to whom they are in effect human/supernatural go-betweens. The ‘old’ aspect, the ‘hag’ form’of Brid(h)e/Bridget, was deemed to have turned to stone — and fitting the bill here is the snake head form atop Cowms Rocks — as she was replaced by the ‘nymph’ form. In being the essence of life and its renewal, Brid(h)e/Bridget was envisaged as the serpent — the perennial conception of the archetypal, most primordial form of life and reproduction (from being so obviously evolutionarily primitive, and the ability to completely shed its skin in one go). The generic doctor in all of the hobby-horse dragon and varied related forms of ‘folk play’ in essence is this mythological serpent of regeneration lore. And this surely is the case for our Doctor’s Gate doctor; with the key point on the route, the summit high above the Snake Pass, being named Old Woman in direct reference to Brid(h)e/Bridget.

The Snake Pass doctor naming is what has long been recorded as the ‘official’ one, but this does not entirely 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. [The rock, being gritstone, would but slowly erode, and therefore the sculpting likely would have persisted to present from prehistoric times.] A longstanding modern or medieval vernacular naming as snake would explain the quick change of the naming of the nearby inn. With no evidence, though, this doesn’t look very plausible.

More likely, the snake naming arose after 1821, through those working and living and/or guests staying at the inn, stables and the toll bar venturing the very short walk to Cowms Rocks behind the inn to discover the snake form of the rock stack atop it. In what is an extraordinarily bleak almost featureless landscape lacking any other significant landmark, this surely would have become in a very short time a noted topographical feature and talking point, with the inn being the only geographical reference point for somewhere so truly remote. With the Inn already having an indirect ‘snake’ association through the coat of arms of the pub’s owner, and with this rendered more concrete with the pub actually sporting the coat of arms; then here there would have been reinforcement for naming in terms of the ‘snake’ natural sculpture — a secondary root, as it were. Thus, the inn could have taken on the ‘snake’ appellation colloquially. In thereby putting the pub and the whole turnpike route 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. With the Duke apparently after all not averse to the associaton of his name with a serpent — otherwise why would he have allowed the serpent on the pub sign? — then his tenant pub landlord would have been able to argue the serendipity of the serpent-‘snake’ coincidence, and the Duke presumably would have agreed with his tenant on business grounds, given the large shortfall in income from the toll bars from what had been anticipated, creating great difficulty for the Duke in recouping his huge investment in the turnpike project. The snake naming provided a useful pointed identification of the whole route to distinguish it from the other Sheffield to Manchester turnpike via Castleton and Sparrowpit; and sure enough the naming extended from the pub to the road. There would have to have been clear business grounds, because the re-naming presumably would not have been palatable to the publican otherwise. John Longden was a local Wesleyan preacher, and used the pub for Methodist meetings until the Duke gave him land nearby on which to build somewhere dedicated to worship (the Hope Woodlands Methodist Church, completed in 1868). Indeed, it may well be objections by John Longden to the mythological and/or (more likely) Catholic religious associations of Lady (as in Lady Clough) that led to the intended name Lady Clough House to be dropped before it was even opened, with The Devonshire Arms naming used instead, being the default moniker for the Duke’s licensed premises.


On this analysis, the naturally sculpted snake form of the stack atop Cowms Rock, rather than the serpent of the Duke’s coat of arms, is the primary source of all of the snake namings — the Snake Path is orthogonal to the Road and Doctor’s Gate, joining just north of Cowms Rock. Presumably, this would be right back to the naming of the parallel prehistoric track anciently in a former language. Or so it seemed. I’ve already flagged up that there is a question as to the plausibility of the whole length of Doctor’s Gate, a substantial distance, taking its name from a relatively small landscape feature that is not evident from the vantage of the route without moving nearer to it. Further investigation threw up another, more likely source in the landscape of the dearc-luachrach construction: from comparative work on not just the specific Doctors Gate place-name, but doctor in its other place-name manifestations. This supplies the further evidence for the dearc-luachrach derivation I’d earlier deferred providing; for whichever landscape feature is the basis of its use; if, as I will outline, it is one other than the Cowms Rocks feature.

There are nine completely separate occurrences of Doctor(‘)s Hill as ‘street names’ on, 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 not out of keeping with the derivation being a generic epithet re conical hills. Any given hill may well have lost its original name, or from the outset it was given a distinguishing individual local naming rather than a generic naming in terms of ‘serpent’. A lane adjacent to or leading to the hill may be the landscape feature that is named in reference to serpent mythology — perhaps the only one originally to provide the hill with naming in mythological terms, or the only one now remaining. 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 — supposedly 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 either with conical hills or distinctive pools of water or wells — these being also formerly associated with serpent mythology.

A conical hill, and a very large, imposing one at that, is just what we find at the very start of Doctors Gate by Old Glossop: Shire Hill. Now this is a massive landscape feature impossible not to see, and is the start/destination of the whole route. This overcomes the objections in terms of the scale and siting of a landscape feature that plausibly could be the basis of the doctor appellation. Shire Hill is the hill immediately adjacent to and totally dominating Glossop, after which seemingly — with no other plausible let alone likely derivation thus far ever having been suggested — the town is itself named, in a construction meaning ‘green (or grey) conical hill’. The stem appears to be Gaelic glas, ‘green’ or ‘grey’; the suffix cop, ostensibly Old English but of “origin uncertain”, which I would suggest is ScG — the uncertainty of origin being most likely because place-name scholars never venture Gaelic derivations.  There are many examples in Scotland of the place-name element –hope arising from cop being aspirated to chop, with the silent ‘c’ then being lost, leaving hop / hoppCop, meaning ‘summit’, is often or always used for a hill or ridge with a narrow, crest-like or conical top. [The putative derivations of glossop that have held sway are absolutely hopeless — even with the –hope suffix. This is assumed indeed to be Norse -hope, ‘daughter valley’, for want of looking for other possibilities, and taken to refer to a tributary of the Etherow river. The stem is presumed ‘Anglo-Saxon’: either a word meaning ‘silver’ or ‘grey’ to refer to the river Etherow (but with no element denoting a river, and as if denoting water as ‘silver’ or ‘grey’ could ever distinguish it from any other watercourse!), or one of those made-up ‘Anglo-Saxon’ personal names the English Place-Name Society delights in positing when entirely stumped. ‘Glott’ is recorded absolutely nowhere: it is a wholly mythical (that is, invented, not mythological) personal name tailor-made by the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Name Studies (where is based the EPNS) to exercise their academic linguistic gymnastics in covering their failure to bother to consult any of the ‘Celtic’ lexicons for the likely etymology.]

That the name as it is now of the hill not deriving from a word meaning ‘serpent’ is of no matter, as I’ve already explained. Shire Hill may be a replacment name, or it may be original, with the serpent characterisation of the hill being contained in the naming of its associated lane, Doctor’s Gate — that, presumably, once ascended the hill to its summit, serving a settlement there. The shire appellation may be as it appears, after OE scir, ‘administrative office, jurisdiction, stewardship, authority’ — the hill would be an obvious location of the ancient ‘moot’. More likely, though, it’s Gaelic searrach, pronounced ‘shah-rahkh’; an adjective meaning ‘edge’, ‘pointed’ or ‘sharp’, which is known to be used in the construction cnoc-an-searrach to denote a conical hill. In the transition to English, meaning would be lost, and the initial cumbersome generic elements would be dropped, to leave what distinctively describes the hill. It’s then simply a matter of attaching the English word for ‘hill’ and Anglicising and rationalising the Gaelic element: the pronunciation ‘shah-rahkh’ would neatly simplify to ‘shire’.

As with other notably conical hills, with (at the time) its lynchets and defensive ditches modifying the hill’s outline, Shire Hill most likely would have been envisaged as a coiled serpent. Befitting this is the adjacent naming, cowbrook, which takes us back to the Anglicisation, kow, from a Gaelic word meaning ‘worm’ (serpent), as discussed above. The only other instance of cowbrook is a lane of that name leading past Cowley to the distinctively conical Whitemoor Hill, near Gawsworth, Cheshire. So is this conical hill by Glossop, rather than the ‘reptile’ stone at Cowms Rocks, the basis of the Doctors Gate naming? Or might the two putative derivations be co-roots? Well, confusing or not, we have ample basis of an ancient snake — that is ‘serpent’ — naming.

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 the wider 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, 2018