Secrets of a mysterious sanctuary carved deep in the rock
Carved into the earth, hidden among woodland in the Peak District, lies a natural chasm shrouded in legend and mystery
In an ancient Staffordshire forest, the onset of autumn warms the leaves from shades of emerald green to russets and yellows. The October sunshine creates stripes of pale light as it filters through the gradually dwindling canopy to explore the area below. But hidden within this woodland, near the south-western fringe of the Peak District National Park, is a place where the sunshine struggles to reach, and warmth is a fleeting visitor, whatever the time of year. Wreathed in legend, and hidden in the earth itself, is Lud’s Church, a deep chasm which cleaves into the hillside for more than a hundred yards. This is a place that defines mysterious. On descending the rough-hewn stone steps, the sound of birdsong becomes muffled by towering walls of rosy gritstone, and the air temperature discernibly cools in the deep shadows. Lud’s Church is an ancient geological quirk. It lies in Back Forest, a woodland of beech, oak, silver birch and Scots pine on the north-facing slopes of the valley of the River Dane, a scenic, small upland river. The surrounding hillsides are topped with the moorland typical of much of the Peak District, and at the beginning of autumn, they are still resplendent in a purple carpet of heather. It is a unique landmark, referred to in a wide variety of terms, including gorge, canyon, ravine, cavern, crevice and even cave, indicating that few seem sure of exactly how to describe it. But unlike many of the features to which it is compared, no water was responsible for carving Lud’s Church. Dr Ian Stimpson, a senior lecturer in geophysics at Keele University, describes it as “a spectacular example of a landslip occurring by down-dip slippage of the Roaches Grit along a layer of mudstone”. The grit he refers to is named after The Roaches, a well-known rocky ridgeline which towers over the Staffordshire Moorlands, just two miles to the south-east of Lud’s Church. The result of the slip is a chasm 6-10ft (2-3m) wide and up to 46ft (14m) deep. Now, with the advance of autumn, the colours of the ‘church ceiling’, formed by the overhanging vegetation, change daily. Its furthest depths see precious little in the way of direct sunlight, but what there is permeates nature’s stained glass skylight high above, dappling the sheer, pink-hued rock walls with a weak green light. Away from the direct warmth of the sun, damp-, dark- and cool-loving flora proliferates. Mosses and liverworts, lichens and ferns coat the walls, maximising the benefit of the moisture so readily available in conditions most akin to subterranean habitats. Woodland plants, accustomed to life in the shade, do well too. Great wood-rush provides some structure to the vegetation where the walls hold a little soil, and wood sorrel, with its delicate clover-like leaves, lines the muddy base of the walls. Glancing upwards, the view is bisected by angular ferns sprouting from the walls, their pinnate fronds combing the light, clinging desperately to cracks and fissures. In further competition for the precious resource are trees, twisted and stunted. Shadows of what they may have become if rooted a few feet higher on level ground and in decent soil, they are nevertheless determined not to submit to either gravity or geology.
With so much green, it is perhaps no wonder that Lud’s Church’s most notable claim to fame is the inspiration it provided for the Green Chapel in the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century poem of unknown authorship. When Sir Gawain accepted a seemingly straightforward challenge from an unknown green knight who appeared mysteriously during a Camelot feast, he embarked on a journey that would test him to the very limits of his knightly honour. This was a quest that would lead him through wilderness and temptation to the mystical Green Chapel, to face the green knight once more. Historians have traced the waypoints described on the route he takes, meagre though the clues are, and pinpointed the Staffordshire Moorlands as the most likely area in which his journey terminates. Certainly, the mention of passing ‘mist-hugged moors’ and ‘many cliffs’ fits with the surrounding landscape, particularly the nearby Roaches. Further weight is given to this theory in as much as the Middle English dialect
in which the poem is written has been pinned down to the north-west Midlands, giving the likely author knowledge of the area.
There is history of Lud’s Church having served as a chapel in times of religious intolerance and persecution. Walter de Lud-Auk was the ageing pastor of a group who used the chasm for secret worship, and it is from his name that the title of Lud’s Church is thought to have originated. His early Protestant group were Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe, an early Christian reformationist who lived in the 1300s. Open opposition to the Church and its leadership was punishable by death, meaning that meetings had to be conducted in secret. For this, Lud’s Church was an ideal location. However, during one of their services, the group was discovered by soldiers who had been aware of their activity in the vicinity for some time. The story goes that the singing from their worship betrayed their location. During the resulting scuffle, Lud-Auk’s 18-year-old granddaughter Alice was hit by a stray shot and killed. She was reportedly buried just outside the entrance to the church before the other worshippers were taken
“It had a hole at the end and on either side and was overgrown with grass... nothing but an old cave or a crevice of an old crag. He could not understand it at all. ‘Alas, Lord,’ quoth the gentle knight, ‘can this be the green chapel?’” Anonymous, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
away and imprisoned. Walter later died in prison, while the rest of the group were eventually released. According to legend, Alice’s ghost paces the chasm. A permanent memorial to this sad tale was installed centuries later, when Lud’s Church was far less of a secret. During the reign of Queen Victoria, it was a tourist attraction, with guided tours and horse-drawn coaches transporting visitors from the towns of Leek, just over 8 miles away, or Buxton, approximately 13 miles away, in Derbyshire. In the 1860s, Sir Philip Brocklehurst, owner of the Swythamley Estate, whose boundaries Lud’s Church fell within at the time, took the figurehead of a young woman from a ship he owned and installed it at the entrance. There it remained for decades, referred to as Lady Lud, before being moved up to a cleft high in the rock face at the northern end. Old postcards of Lud’s Church from that period depict the statue in situ. Photographs exist showing it remained in place into the 1930s, while local anecdote suggests it was still present as late as the 1960s, although by that time fallen and rotting in the mud. According to legend, Lud’s Church has offered a refuge to other famous figures. Robin Hood is rumoured to have hidden from the law there with his
Merry Men, although details of the stories vary widely. Prince Charles, Bonnie Prince Charlie, sought safety, not for himself, but for the men he led. He hoped to protect them from being found collaborating with an exiled fugitive by soldiers of the King. It has been described in times long gone to be the home of the Devil but, conversely, where one could commune with Mother Earth herself. Many accounts link it to pagan worship, and some relatively recent stories circulate of locals finding evidence of the worship of Druids in a cavern below Lud’s Church itself. This extended right down into the valley and had an outlet near the River Dane. No trace of such a cavern remains today. Whether it was lost through the passage of time, intentionally hidden from a developing world or only ever existed in legend, no one can be certain. What is certain, however, is that, in Roman times, the area would have seen regular traffic. Although no records of Viking origins There is a second story of how Lud’s Church came by its name, albeit one with less supporting evidence. A Viking lord, King Ludd, and his raiding party stumbled across the chasm and used it to offer human sacrifices before moving on south and west, leaving only his name behind. The story goes that eventually Ludd met his end in modern-day Shropshire. There, he may also have bequeathed his name to Ludlow, a town built on and named after a hill with a burial mound, or tumulus, in which he may have been interred. This is a less well-known theory, and it does not match the traditional account of how Ludlow received its name either. The truth seems destined to remain as mysterious as the legends of the chasm itself. Roman knowledge of Lud’s Church exist, legionnaires would have marched past on a Roman road a few miles to the east. The route is still followed today by the A53, which connects Leek and Buxton, and is one of the main routes into the national park. It is also the road required to get within striking range of Lud’s Church.
Unchanged by time
Despite the changes in the surrounding landscape, Lud’s Church is much the same as it would have been centuries, if not millennia, ago. Cultures and religions may have waxed and waned, industry flourished and failed in the nearby valleys, and hordes passed it by, but it remains a cold, dark, damp fissure, firmly in the grasp of nature. It is hidden away from the world at large, even those who have diligently sought for it. For some, it has inspired fear; for others, it has facilitated devout worship or provided protection from prying eyes and violent intentions. Today, Lud’s Church still requires seeking out. It is at least a full mile’s walk from the nearest road and is not directly on the way to or from anywhere. Shrouded in mystery, this only adds to the experience for those who make the effort to find it. But despite this, Lud’s Church is a place that will always be remembered by those who have gazed up from its depths, past towering green walls, to catch a glimpse of the sky.
A prominent gritstone outcrop forming part of The Roaches. Like nearby Lud’s Church, the ridge is mired in legend, with a mermaid said to inhabit a pool at the top.
The descent into the cloistered walkway is made via a curving staircase of irregular worn stone steps.
Once said to have been created by the Devil slashing the earth with his fingernail, Lud’s Church has provided a hidden place of worship during times of persecution.