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

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy: Richard Guy

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.

Lit­er­ary set­ting

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.

Risky wor­ship

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.

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