Sunday 10 August 2008

A Mysterious Corner of Staffordshire


Lud’s Church can be found just beyond The Roaches, north of Leek in North Staffordshire in an area known as Back Forest. This sudden land upheaval is the start of the Pennines with open views across the Cheshire plain to the west. The natural cleft known as Lud's Church, or Ludchurch, is over 100 yards in length and over 20 yards high, created by a massive landslip in the hillside above the river Dane. This whole area of the Staffordshire Moorlands has a tale to tell.

Following the A53 to Buxton road, the Roaches and Hen Cloud dominate the landscape as you cross Blackshaw Moor leaving the North Staffordshire market town of Leek, The Queen of the Moorlands. With the early morning sun shining on these massive gritstone outcrops they look like something out of Monument Valley in Arizona. This a magnificent drive across high moorland following the line of an old Roman road to the spa town of Buxton, but today we are going to Lud’s Church which is tucked away  in Back Forestbehind the rock formations of The Roaches. During the summer you can park at Tittesworth Reservoir and jump on the bus to the Roaches as parking is limited.

Leek’s Double Sunset
Recorded as 'Lec' in the Domesday Book, Leek is a market town in a bend in the River Churnet. The double sunset must be one of Leek’s best kept secrets and a detailed account of the double sunset can be found in Dr. Robert Plot's book, 'The Natural History of Staffordshire', published in 1686 [1] Plot described how on midsummer's day the sun could be seen from a Leek churchyard to set behind a hill called the Cloud. It would then reappear and set again on the more distant horizon of the Cheshire plain. The churchyard contains two crosses; a 10th century Saxon cross and a Norse style 11th century cross. The double sunset even has a local beer named after it.

The Roaches
This superb escarpment of pink gritstone rises to a height of 1,657ft, named from the French 'Roche' (Rock) has magnificent views over Tittesworth Reservoir and the Cheshire plain. Geographically this area features on White Peak maps but this area of the Staffordshire Moorlands is geologically Dark Peak, with gritstone, heather and peat. This high ground from the Roaches, Ramshaw Rocks to Axe Edge, provides the watershed for many famous Peak District rivers, Dove, Hamps, Manifold, Churnet, Dane and the Wye all rise here. Alongside the road here past the Five Clouds outcrops there is a derelict cottage that was sold in July 2008 for £120,000 and that is without any services, land or planning permission! 

The Roaches was once part of the Swythamley Estate, owned by the Brocklehurst family, who established a private zoo here, from which Wallabies escaped (or released) in the 1930’s and a recent sighting near Hangingstone in 2007 indicates they have sirvived in the wild. Peregrine falcons have nested here for the first time in a hundred years. [2]

Hen Cloud
Hen Cloud at 1345ft high, is a solitary outlier from the Roaches , popular with climbers. The name may be derived from Herne Clud, Herne being the ancient Celtic hunter god, Cernunnos, lord of the woodlands, with Clud a Celtic word meaning 'rock'. He is found throughout Celtic lands and folklore as the guardian of the portal leading to the Otherworld.

As you walk up to the Roaches the first thing you come to is Rockhall Cottage, built into the overhanging rocks of the lower tier, a climbers' cottage rebuilt in memory of Don Whillans, a cult figure from the 1950s working-class rock climbing revolution. A legend says that, years before, this had been called Doxey Cottage which some say was named after the daughter of Bowyer of the Rocks, the highwayman and his wife Bess. Their daughter was rumoured to have been carried off by ‘strange men’ one day. Bess died, her heart broken. The ghost – the ‘singing woman of the Roaches’ who walks the ridge on dark nights – is said to be the spirit of her daughter. Some say Doxey pool was named after her.

Doxey Pool
Continuing up the roughly cut steps to the upper tier walking along the ridge you soon come to the dark, waters of bottomless Doxey Pool sitting on top of the Roaches, claimed to be higher than any other in the area. Doxey Pool is said to be home to the mermaid Jenny Greenteeth who lures travellers to a watery grave. In 1949, Mrs Florence Pettit visited this pool for an early morning dip with a friend, and saw:

‘a great thing rose up from the middle of the lake . . . 25 to 30 feet tall . . . and those eyes were extremely malevolent…..’

Water spirits are a common feature of the folklore of most pools and lakes and not far from here is the The mermaid of Black Mere on Morridge (see below).

Lud’s Church
After descending the main ridge to Roach End, cross the road then through the stile and continue along the permissive path along the Back Forest Ridge. Lud's Church is an huge natural chasm in the rock on the hillside above Gradbach, on the north side of the ridge, formed by a landslip which has let a cleft which is over 20 yards high in places and over 100 yards long, though in some places only a couple of yards wide. This chasm can be very muddy in wet weather.

The place has many myths and legends associated with it, most famously Gawain and the Green Knight, were it is said that here the hero of the Arthurian romance slew the Green Knight, symbolic of death, rebirth and fertility.

Fairies have also been associated with Lud’s Church;  “One lived in Thor's Cave, and a whole clan were to be found in the cavern beneath Ludchurch.” Lud’s Church has also associated with Robin Hood and his merry men.

A more recent, addition to the folklore of Lud's Church is that it was used as a refuge for the Luddite movement of the early 19th Century. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of unskilled workers, started to break into factories at night to destroy the new machinery that the employers were using. It is known that the Luddites were operating in this area at the time and were wanted criminals who if caught were often hanged.

The Lollards
The Lollards, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt, were critics of the established church. Founded by John Wycliffe, in the 1370s they quickly found themselves victims of persecution from the church and the monarchy. In the early 15th Century the Lollard’s were persecuted for their religious beliefs after Henry IV legitimised the burning of heretics. It has been suggested, that if not for Luddites, then Lud's Church may have been named after Walter de Lud-Auk, a 'Lollard', who was captured here at one of their meetings. His grand-daughter Alice de Lud-Auk, said the possess one of the most beautiful voices ever heard, used to sing at their meetings in Lud’s Church but was killed here from a stray gunshot after a scuffle with the authorities. At one time a white wooden statue known as 'Lady Lud' stood in a high rocky cleft above the chasm said to commemorate the death of Alice.

Lady Lud
Day trippers were charged a fee to visit Lud’s Church and hear Philip Brocklehurst’s legend of the Lady of Lud and see the figure of a lady clad in white nestling in the rocks of Lud’s Church and were led to believe it depicted Alice de Lud-Auk, the girl with the ‘unearthly voice’ who was shot and died here.

There is a reproduction painting of an old picture postcard in the dining room at nearby Gradbach Youth Hostel showing a strange statue perched on one of the walls of Lud's Church. It was noted after a visit to Lud's Church in the 1930s, there was what looked like the figurehead from the ship Swythamley fixed to the rock just inside the entrance, apparently placed there by Brocklehurst, the land owner from Sythamley Hall, around 1862, which looked very similar to the female in the Gradbach youth hostel painting.

The Back Forest Ridge

Situated on the Staffordshire side of the River Dane, Swythamley Hall stands in a fine park and was originally a medieval hunting lodge belonging to the nearby Abbey of Dieulacres. Swythamley has been identified as Hautdesert, the castle of the Green Knight of the classic medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and nearby Lud's Church as the knight's 'Green Chapel'. It is often suggested that the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a monk at Dieulacres Abbey.

In a patch of woodland to the north of Swythamley, just across the A54 road, lies Cleulow Cross, a 9th century cross shaft thought to be of Scandinavian craftsmanship. Nothing is known of its origin or purpose, but it may have been a boundary marker. Also in the grounds is Knight’s Lowe bearing another old cross, possibly marking an old burial mound.

Dieulacres Abbey
Dieulacres Abbey was a Cistercian monastery established by Ranulf, Earl of Chester at Poulton in Cheshire. It moved to the present site in the valley of the river Churnet, to the north-west of Leek in Staffordshire in 1214, possibly in part as a result from raids at the former site by the Welsh.

By the 14th century, Dieulacres Abbey had become a great landowner in Staffordshire and often behaved as such. In the later Middle Ages the Abbot maintained armed bands ‘desiring to perpetrate maintenance in his marshes and oppress the people’. In 1380 it was claimed that a group had beheaded John de Warton at Leek at the command of Abbot William, and by the beginning of Henry I’s reign (1100-1135), the county was reportedly in a disturbed state, with bands, including monks from Dieulacres, stealing and breaking the peace. Such a reputation must have caused numbers to fall: in 1377 there were just seven monks and at the time of the Dissolution there were only thirteen. Now derelict the few visible remains of the Abbey have been incorported into the buildings at Abbey Farm,

Hanging stone
The Hanging Stone sits on the end of the Back Forest ridge above Swythamley bearing a plaque to Colonel Brocklehurst, who was killed in Burma in 1942. The Brocklehurst's certainly had much influence on this area, one of them even accompanied Shackleton to the Antarctic.

Hanging stone marks the end of the ridge running from Hen Cloud and offers a vista from Morrdige to Alderley Edge. (left)

The Mermaid of Morridge
Leaving Leek on the A53, turn right at the Moss Rose pub (now closed) and follow the road to Morridge, there is The Black Mere, also known as the BlakeMere or the Mermaid's Pool, nearby is a suitably named pub. The Black Mere is very similar to Doxey Pool, being another bottomless dark pool on the moors between Buxton and Leek, at a similar elevation and part of the high ground extending south from Axe Edge. Merryton Low is the highest point on Morridge at 1,604 feet. There are excellent views from here and superb views are also gained at the trig point on Royledge across the Roaches to the Cheshire plain and Alderley Edge.

It is said that cattle refused to drink the waters of the Black Mere, fish could not live there and birds never flew nearby. Black Mere’s mermaid was supposed, like the siren, rose from its depths at midnight and lured the young to their deaths. Legend say that on Easter Eve, a young man who sees the mermaid will be granted riches for one year. But he will be so infatuated with her beauty that he will be drawn to throw himself into the pool to be with her forever.

Alderley Edge
Alderley Edge is about 5 miles to the northwest of Macclesfield, just south east of Wilmslow, situated at the base of a steep sandstone ridge known as The Edge overlooking the Cheshire Plain. Copper and lead mining are known to have taken place in the past at Alderley Edge in the Bronze Age and Roman times and continued from the 1690s to the 1920s. Several ancient gold bars have been found at Alderley Edge.

There are several local legends, the most famous being The Iron Gates, the exact location is unknown, but they are supposed to lie somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well. There are several versions of this legend but a letter published in the Manchester Mail in 1805 from a reader claiming to be the "Perambulator" stated that he knew the location of the Iron Gates:

Tradition says that a farmer from Mobberley was taking a milk white horse to sell at the market in Macclesfield. Whilst walking along the Edge, he reached a spot known locally as "Thieves Hole." Suddenly an old man clad in a grey and flowing garment stopped him. The old man offered the farmer a sum of money for his horse but the farmer refused, saying he could get a better price at the market. The old man told the farmer that he would be at this spot again that evening when the farmer returned, not having found a purchaser for the horse. The farmer failed to sell the horse and, cursing his luck, made the journey back home along the Edge. At the same point, the old man appeared again, offering the farmer the money, which this time was accepted. The old man told the farmer to follow him with the horse. As they approached an area just past Stormy Point, the old man banged on the ground with his stick and, to the farmer’s shock, the rock opened up to reveal a set of Iron Gates. The old man beckoned the farmer to follow him through the gates into a large cavern. In the cavern, the farmer saw countless men and white horses, all asleep. The old man explained that all these sleeping warriors were ready to awake and fight should England fall into danger. The farmer was shown back to the gates and stepped outside back onto the path. Immediately the gates slammed shut and the rock face returned to its previous state.”

Further variations say that the Wizard was Merlin and the sleeping men were King Arthur and his knights. There is a restaurant on The Edge aptly named "The Wizard Inn".

Lud's Church series is Copyright © 2008-2009 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Dr. Plot and the Amazing Double Sunset.
2. For up to date information visit the Roaches website
3. Roaches Tea Rooms
4. Hen Cloud Cottage
5. Doug Pickford, Staffordshire: Its Magic and Mystery, Sigma Leisure, 1994.

* * *

I have walked across this landscape in North Staffordshire many times and find the legendary atmosphere around the Roaches totally captivating.

But I'm not convinced that Lud's Church is named after Luddites or Lollards.

In the following pages I propose to totally reject the suggestion that Lud’s Church is named after The Luddites, a group of modern day anti-technologists, who followed the teachings of the so called Ned Ludd, an opponent of technology in all its forms, and that it is named after an ancient cult from the dawn of time.


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