It has become something of a Boxing Day tradition to walk from Tegg’s Nose Country Park, through Macclesfield Forest, to visit St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. Walking through the forest on the day after Christmas Day the traditions of centuries hang heavy in the air as the tamarisk mosses hang from the naked limbs of the trees.
In a quiet corner of the forest, close by the Iron Age earthworks of Toot Hill, crystal clear Peak District water emerges from a spring in the forest floor. Each year at this location someone dresses a small spruce tree with Christmas decorations. A notebook protected in a small plastic container nearby contains comments of passers by and there is a little tin for donations. To whom the donations might go we can only presume as this information is not provided by the mysterious decorator of the tree. I like to think this has some connection with St Stephen’s but the genius loci of the place has more of the votive pagan tradition about it than anything related to the Christian church. I make my offering and descend Charity Lane, leaving the shadows of the forest behind me.
The Forest Chapel stands in a isolated depression among the northern hills of Macclesfield Forest, a stone’s throw from the curiously named Bottom-of-the-Oven.
As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate the chapel was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. In about 1720 Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester noted that the church had not been consecrated and so was dedicated in the name of the martyr Saint Stephen.
To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the families who eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands for some five hundred years since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century. The interior is unostentatious, the basic structure being a single rectangular room, the nave and chancel having no discernible division, covered by a simple oak-beamed vaulted ceiling. A simple stone altar set against the east wall is overlooked by a Victorian stained-glass window.
I sit for some time in the peaceful solitude of the chapel. Here too is erected a Christmas tree. In addition to the customary baubles and fairy lights the hand written prayers of visitors hang from the boughs of the tree. I pack away my flask of coffee in my rucksack and head out once again into the forest.
From Standing Stone car park I climb Buxtor’s Hill. A cold damp wind sweeps across Piggford Moor making the ascent of Shutlingsloe arduous. On the crest of the hill I tuck myself into the relative shelter of a fissure in the Chatsworth Gritstone and eat Stollen, thick with marzipan, which I wash down with coffee.
Shutlingsloe is an anchor in my landscape. The little whitewashed summit monument, once of importance to the Ordnance Survey in the measurement and mapping of this anomalistic archipelago of islands we call home, is without doubt the triangulation pillar upon which I have placed my hands more than any other. Here I place my hands once again, now to steady myself against the buffeting wind.
To find shelter I descend once again into the forest, pausing at Nessit Hill to admire the panorama over Trentabank and Ridgegate Reservoirs. By Bottoms Reservoir I pick up the Gritstone Trail and make the arduous ascent to the summit of Tegg’s Nose Quarry. An information board here informs me that the rocks of the quarry date from the Carboniferous geologic period and were laid down in a mighty river delta some three hundred and fifty million years ago. In comparison to this age the quarry men who split these rocks open a hundred years ago seem my contemporaries.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem The Moon in Lleyn by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregations
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptised. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
This is one of my favourite poems by RST. It speaks to me deeply of my journey in faith, which has been circuitous, and the joy I have found in my solitary exploration of the enigmatic and beguiling country known as Wales.
On the surface, what faith I have in God is founded largely on necessity, rather than any abstract metaphysical concept. It is a belief that has grown and changed over time and is influenced by the traditional teachings of the Anglican Christian Church, some elements of Eastern philosophy and the principles of the Twelve Step Fellowship movement.
At the core of this belief is the need for a guiding, stabilising entity in my life that can be depended upon. It is sustained by an experiential positive feedback loop. The more I rely on this sustaining power the more manageable my life becomes. This need is for a power greater than myself, which I can contemplate in wonder, a power that can and does restore me to sanity.
Self examination of the necessity of faith leads me to an awareness that the foundation of that belief is the sure and certain knowledge of the fallibility of human beings. To put it simply, human beings are not dependable. Whether at a personal or national level, or taking humanity as a whole, they can and will let you down, either as a result of conscious wilfulness, ignorance, stupidity, the manifestation of some mental illness or any combination of these factors. As Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species.”
Moreover, as a member of the human race I am more than capable of behaving in this manner. I too will let you down. Sometimes I feel the outlook is bleak. The ‘wise’ ape is doomed to an eternity of delusional craving and obsession. In this dark place it is easy to believe Yeats was right.
The Second Coming by W B Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
At such times I have to put myself in check. “Why so fast, /mortal? These very seas /are baptised.” And often, sitting quietly, alone, by the sea, I have found solace.
Some years ago I was attending a course at the Welsh language college at Nant Gwrytheyrn. Class having concluded for the day I took the opportunity to walk along Morfa Nefyn to Porthdinllaen. Resisting the temptations of cool ale at the Tŷ Coch Inn, I continued along the headland, beyond the Lifeboat Station and sat among the sun-bleached rocks soaking my feet in the crystal blue waters of the Celtic Sea.
My meditation of tranquility was disturbed by loud snorting from the pool before me. With a cloud of spray a young grey seal surfaced no more than twenty feet from where I sat. She fixed me with an inquisitive eye, drifting towards me on the gentle swell of the waves. I held my breath. For a moment all time stood still. Unanticipated, unsolicited, here was a wild creature of God, a fellow mortal. In that moment there was an awareness of each others presence, a shared repose amongst creation.
With a disinterested snort and a swish of her tail she turned about, her limbs working gracefully until she was clear of the little cove, then with a final cloud of spray she slipped beneath the waves.
“These very seas /are baptised” and blessed with gentle spirits. In comparison to such epiphanies the folly of humans becomes a mere inconvenience.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem Pilgrimages by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches.
The tides in Bardsey Sound/Swnt Enlli are notorious. Between Pen y Cil and the island of Bardsey, known as Ynys Enlli in Welsh, the seabed rises up. In places it breaches the water’s surface to form clusters of treacherous reefs, such as the black rocks of Carreg Ddu. During the tidal flood, water is forced through the sound, up and over the elevated seabed, so that the surface of the sea is higher to the east than to the west. In order to maintain equilibrium the water rushes through the sound, reaching speeds of up to eight knots and creating standing waves that can be several feet in height. Being caught up in this maelstrom in a small sixth century wooden boat would have been terrifying, no doubt. Thus Porth Neigwl became known in English as Hell’s Mouth.
As Vicar of St Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, this was a landscape, a seascape with which RST was very familiar, within which he saw the legacy of the twenty thousand saints who journeyed to Ynys Enlli and did not return. In the company of these saints RST undoubtedly saw himself as a twentieth century pilgrim making his journey across the post-Freudian seascape of the psyche, wherein he sought God. “Was the pilgrimage/ I made to come to my own/ self.” The narration of this journey in his poems defines RST as a twentieth century modernist, in the intertextual company of poets such as T S Eliot, W H Auden and Dylan Thomas.
Although the poems of RST can sometimes seem dark and impenetrable, there is often a subtle wit to his choice of language. As Carys Walsh points out in her book Frequencies of God, the phrase “munching the gravel/of its beaches” from Pilgrimages is likely a reference to the book of Lamentations.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
But RST is also, no doubt with a cheeky wink, making reference to the following passage from Under Milk Wood written by his long-dead contemporary Dylan Thomas.
never such seas as any that swamped the decks of his S.S.
Kidwelly bellying over the bedclothes and jellyfish-slippery
sucking him down salt deep into the Davy dark where the fish
come biting out and nibble him down to his wishbone, and
the long drowned nuzzle up to him.
We have already seen reference to the imagery of this passage in the poem This to do. Imagery and themes are cyclical in RST’s poetry, as no doubt he experienced them in his exploration of God. In the second stanza of Pilgrimages RST contemplates again the idea of the timeless moment.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
This imagery once again calls to mind T S Eliot’s “history is a pattern of timeless moments.”
We know for sure that RST was familiar with Eliot’s works as he made reference to them in his personal letters.
RST lived in the company of all the saints, and the poets, and saw himself as a fellow pilgrim in the journey towards God. What I see in the cyclical imagery of his poems is a growing awareness that the origin of the pilgrim’s journey is God and the destination is God.
This phrase from Little Gidding is now quoted so often it has become a cliché, but for sake of completion, I quote it again.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Out of necessity life involves a physical journey. Undoubtedly, there are places we encounter along the way, suspended in place and time, such as Ynys Enlli, that are portals to an inner journey. But it is through this inner journey that we are ultimately reconciled to God.
Thoughts inspired by the poem The Moor by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In the movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said, But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve spent a fair bit of time walking across moorland, sometimes with fellow walkers, more often than not on my own.
In contrast to the craggy, ice scarred mountains and cwmoedd that define the drama of Snowdonia, open moorland is the predominant landscape of the gritstone uplands of the Pennine hills. The spine of Old England, as they were once known. It is a landscape with which I have become reacquainted as a result of recent travel restrictions, and the increasing restrictions of my ageing body. It is a landscape scarred not by ice but by the slash and burn practices of humans in their quest for the mineral wealth of the earth and their blood lust for the tragic little bird known as the grouse. There are no trees here where the watershed divides the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire as bloodshed once did. Nothing higher than the hearts of the sheep, as Sylvia Plath noted, where the wind pours by like destiny.
There is something about open moorland that is conducive to communion with a consciousness that is both within and beyond ourselves. Perhaps it is the absence of form and colour. There are fewer distractions here for the conscious mind to latch onto. In bad weather, with visibility lost, wind and rain being the soul determinants of direction, the moor can take on the aspect of an isolation tank. Separating me from all the anchors I have attached to my fears.
This is the mind’s cession that RST speaks of. The ego letting go of it’s kingdom. It’s just me, simple and poor, and rude weather. Oh, how I yearn for that simplicity.
Thoughts inspired by the poem Suddenly by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It’s a bright Sunday morning in late November and I drive up to Alderley Edge for a walk in the woods. I arrive at the little car park near Findlow Farm to find it already full. There’s no point in driving up to The Wizard. It will only be the same. Sunshine always brings out the families with their SUV’s, matching Hunter wellies and cross-breed dogs.
I decide to make a try for the Bollin Valley, fully expecting things to be even busier there. And sure enough, as I come around the bend in front of St Bartholomew’s Church, I see vehicles queuing to access the car park. Nothing for it but to cut my losses and head for home.
And then I remember Quarry Bank Mill. The car park there has room for hundreds of cars. The mill will be closed, of course. Isn’t everything? But I can a slip past the turnstiles then head down to the old mill race and walk along the river back towards Wilmslow.
I’ve never seen so many people, but I’m not alarmed. I’m wearing a Buff, which I can discreetly pull up over my mouth and nose if they choose to come too close. And I have my new noise-cancelling headphones with me so I can block out the chatter. I’ve decided to go festive early. I’m listening to the Tori Amos Christmas album, Midwinter Graces.
This is okay, I think to myself. I’d rather be up in the Peak District somewhere but the lockdown restrictions do not permit travel outside our own area. I don’t mind. I can walk to the Carrs, grab a coffee, walk back. That will be at least ten thousand steps.
I find myself standing beneath a sycamore tree, beside the river, watching the people pass by, and a verse from the bible springs to mind. “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s appropriate, I think. We’re all in darkness at the moment, even though the sun is shining. And then the words just start to come. The families are walking their dogs, the children are playing by the river, the elderly couple are holding hands, and I’m typing furiously with one finger on my phone.
By the time I reach Worms Hill I have the bones of the poem. Tori is singing about Jeanette & Isabella. They are bringing their torches to the nativity. Suddenly, emotions surge from within. Tears are streaming down my face. Heat floods my body. I see not with my eyes but with the whole of my being. There is Joy, Joy, Joy!
When such moments have passed I look back and wonder whether the surge of overwhelming emotion was some manifestation of an undiagnosed mental illness. The ecstatic phase of bipolar disorder, perhaps. But really, who cares? It’s only illness if it’s problematic. I cherish these experiences. They are mine. They serve a purpose. A message is transmitted and received. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am redeemed. And no-one and nothing can take that away from me.
For some years now I have participated in an Advent Book Group located on social media. I have, in the past, found it helpful to reflect upon the meaning of the Christian season of Advent, as a way to reflect upon the year gone by and a time to review the path ones own life has taken. Advent is so often overshadowed by the commercial celebrations of Christmas, which now begin immediately following the American festival of Thanksgiving at the end of November. As far as the Church is concerned, officially, the season of Christmas does not begin until midnight on Christmas Eve, but as we all know, our culture’s aversion to delayed gratification means Christmas starts when multi-national corporations say it starts.
And so I see my participation in the little online book group as a form of rebellion against the leviathan of corporate capitalism. That said, I have just put up my Christmas tree on 1 December. Something which would have been unthinkable when I was a child.
This year the group is reading Frequencies of God by Carys Walsh, a collection of reflections on the work of the Welsh poet R S Thomas.
The poem for Week 1, Day 3 is In Church.
Often I try To analyse the quality Of its silence. Is this where God hides From my searching? I have stopped to listen, After the few people have gone, To the air recomposing itself For vigil. It has waited like this Since the the stones grouped themselves about it. These are the hard ribs Of a body that our prayers have failed To animate. Shadows advance From their corners to take possession Of places the light held For an hour. The bats resume Their business. The uneasiness of the pews Ceases. There is no other sound In the darkness but the sound of a man Breathing, testing his faith On emptiness, nailing his questions One by one to an untenanted cross.
Here we have some powerful imagery from R S Thomas. Imagery with which I am familiar. There have been many times I have sat, alone, in country churches as the darkness thickens around me.
It’s a bit of a Boxing Day tradition for me to walk from Tegg’s Nose, through Macclesfield Forest, up to St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. By the time I have walked through the forest to the church it is often early afternoon, but at that time of year the darkness has already mustered on over the Pennine Hills to the west.
The following is from an article I wrote for the Great Outdoors magazine.
To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century.
I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years.
A similar experience too place some years earlier in The Kirk of Saint Ternan, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk. I had been walking in snow and ice the day before on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms; had fallen and twisted my knee quiet badly. Deciding to assign the next day to low-impact activities I paid a visit to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.
For those unfamiliar with LGG, he wrote Sunset Song, a novel set in the early twentieth century about the loss of tradition agricultural practice in rural Scotland. It is a short walk from the visitors centre to the kirkyard of St Ternan’s, where LGG is buried. At that latitude during the liminal week betwixt Christmas and New Year’s Eve the light begins to fade not long after lunch. Not a soul in sight I took refuge in the church and sat for sometime contemplating the wreckage of my life and the pain searing through my knee. Nailing my questions one by one to an untenanted cross.
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls, and she is for the hunting.” Alan Garner, The Owl Service
Lleu Llaw Gyffes stood upon the rocky outcrop shot through with obdurate, milk white quartz, high above the cascading waters of Afon Cynfal and raised high above his head his fire-forged spear. With every sinew, every muscle and tendon in his body taught with indignant rage, he aimed his lance at the heart of Gronw Pebyr, lover of his wife, usurper of his crown and author of his downfall.
Such is the culmination of a folk tale that over centuries has woven itself into the consciousness of the Welsh nation and the fabric of a landscape. The evocative story of the love triangle between the heroic but gullible Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the devious Gronw Pebyr and the beautiful flower maiden Blodeuedd, manifested into existence by the magician Math son of Mathonwy, is part of a narrative with origins believed to date back to the post-Roman period of British history but which has become known as the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval folk tales of the Welsh corpus, translated into English and popularised in the early 19th Century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The tale of the entanglement of the three lovers is unique amongst the collection in that many of the geographical locations of the story can be identified in the landscape of Snowdonia and in particular the secluded valley of Cwm Cynfal which lies some miles to the south of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd.
At the edge of the forest there were scenes of devastation wrought by the winter storms. Over a dozen large Sitka Spruce lying vanquished across the saturated forest track. With a little persistence I was able to clamber across the fallen timber and make my way over the river by means of a small footbridge. Further along the valley, in the centre of a long narrow farm track, I came upon what at first I thought was a sleeping cat, but which upon closer inspection I found to be a young lamb, cold and curled up upon itself; dead, I assumed, abandoned by its mother. I felt I couldn’t leave it where it was to be squashed by the next Mitsubishi to come blistering down the track, so I resolved to move the cadaver into the thicket and let the carrion crows do the rest. As I touched it, the little thing revived, its eyes thick with mucus, its head lolling like a rudely awoken drunk, reeking of the sour stench of death – if not already off his mortal coil, this little one was not far from it. I checked my map and saw there was a farmhouse not a mile further along the track and so despite the mucus oozing from every orifice and the smell stronger than a hikers sock, I took up the lamb in my arms and set off towards the farm.
Fferm Cwm, 1497 read the sign. A simple but beautiful oak-beamed ‘A-’framed building with a low oak door and an elaborate iron knocker which I raised and let fall loudly. There was no answer. I knocked again, fully expecting a gruff, septuagenarian, hard-minded, Welsh speaking hill farmer with little time for sentimental Englishmen and half-dead lambs, to answer the door. Instead it was opened by a fashionably dress young woman, hair held up with a decorative broad headband, wearing a designer sweater, bright purple leggings and “Ugg” boots. I assumed a holiday let. “Hi”, I said, feeling rather foolish now standing at the door covered in mud and sheep mucus holding a half-dead lamb. I asked if the sheep were her responsibility. She answered in the affirmative, sounding a little vexed, and invited me in.
The lady led me through to a lounge, which took up most of the ground floor of the building. The walls were paneled with wood, bamboo matting covered the stone floor and thick oak beams held aloft the ceiling. But for the large flat-screen television in the corner of the room showing an omnibus of Hollyoaks, I might have thought I had walked into a medieval hall. Already by the fireplace lay another invalid lamb, feeding on freshly cut grass. The lady of the house took my lamb and placed a plastic cover over him and fed a feeding tube into his gullet so as to administer a glucose solution. He was then treated to a gentle warming from a small hairdryer and placed in front of the fire with the other lamb for company and the afore mentioned television for entertainment.
The lady of the house I discovered was Bronwen, whose father had owned the farm for over forty years but who had sadly died some months earlier. He had been a professor of art at Bangor University and Bronwen had grown up at Fferm Cwm but had moved away to Liverpool in later life. Following the death of her father she inherited the farm and the two hundred sheep that came with it. Initial plans to sell the farm were complicated when the two hundred sheep came into lamb during the spring and something had to be done so she and a couple of friends upped sticks from Liverpool and took up residence as temporary shepherds in Cwm Cynfal.
Conscious of my boots dripping mud onto Bronwen’s bamboo matting and happy that my little rescued lamb was in the care of someone who was actually capable of restoring him to life, I made my excuses and carried on my way eastwards to the cascades at the head of the valley.
Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllyn was hunting in the forest of Hafod Fawr when late in the evening he came upon Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was absent at the time at the court of the magician Math son of Mathonwy, having left his wife Blodeuedd in charge of affairs. Concerned that her husband would be unpleased if hospitality was not offered to the lord, Blodeuedd invited Gronw and his entourage to stay the night at the castle. However, as soon as Gronw entered the castle and his gaze fell upon that of Blodeuedd, were they both filled with the deepest love for each other and sought that very night to consummate that love in each other’s embrace. Rather than take leave from his host the following day, Gronw sought to stay a further night in his lovers arms and together they conspired how they might rid themselves of Lleu Llaw Gyffes.
Some days later Gronw departed and the lord of the house returned. That night Blodeuedd feigned concern for her husband’s life. Lleu replied that she had little to fear for by virtue of his birth, his mother being the sorceress Aranrhod, daughter of Dôn, it was all but impossible to slay him. Blodeuedd pleaded with Lleu to tell her that way in which his death might come about, so as she may always ensure that such circumstances should never occur. Foolishly, Lleu agreed. Firstly, he told her, any spear able to strike the mortal blow would have to be forged only when people were at Mass on the Sabbath and be a year in the making. Further, a bath of stone would need to be made on the riverbank and that with a thatched roof and by bringing a Billy goat along side the stone bath so as Lleu would place one foot on the edge of the bath and one foot on the back of the goat. Only then could the mortal blow be made. Blodeuedd laughed nervously, for she knew such circumstances were never to occur by chance. None-the-less she sent word to Gronw Pebyr who immediately set about making a spear in his forge.
A year later Blodeuedd entreated her husband to again regale the details of how his mortality may come about and to demonstrate the same. In order to please her he agreed and so she prepared a stone bath with a thatched roof on the banks of the river Cynfal and gathered as many Billy goats as she could find in the valley and sent word to Gronw Pebyr to make himself ready under the lee of the hill known as Bryn Cyfergyr which overlooks the river. Then Blodeuedd asked her husband to show her the position in which his mortality may be taken by placing one foot on the edge of the stone bath and one foot on the back of one of the Billy goats, and again, foolishly, to please her, he agreed. No sooner did he do so Gronw Pebyr rose up from behind Bryn Cyfergyr and threw the year-forged spear at Lleu Llaw Gyffes such that it struck him in the side, whereafter Lleu leaped into the air in the form of an eagle issuing an ear piercing scream, flying away into the mountains of Eryri.
Beyond the meadow to the east of Fferm Cwm the ground rises steeply to a spur with a natural viewpoint above and the Afon Cynfal tumbles over a series of cascades culminating in the dramatic Rhaeadr y Cwm with a drop of thirty-seven metres over Ordovician shale and sandstone turbidites. Above the cascades the landscape broadens out into open moorland, much of which is above five hundred metres in height. There is a lot of open space up here on the edge of Yr Migneint, an expanse of blanket bog of over two hundred square kilometres, the most extensive in Wales. Sadly, the remoteness of this landscape has encouraged its exploitation for the management of utilities. A line of electrical grid pylons now transect the forest plantations of Hafod Fawr, strung together like enslaved giants, striding westwards to the controversial (it being located in the national park) and since 1991 decommissioned nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd, the presence of all of which somewhat detracts from the sense of wilderness. As I wandered south from Pont yr Afon Gam towards the forest I was struck, as I often am in such places, by the emptiness of the terrain. As I climbed up onto the undifferentiated summit of Pen y Foel-ddû the sense of isolation just grew and grew.
The Ramblers Association have for some time expressed concerned that since the passing of the CROW Act in 2000 the use of open access land has not been embraced by those who engage in outdoor activities as perhaps was expected. This may be due to several reasons, not limited to a lack of confidence in navigation skills, over-dependence on GPS units, guide books which still slavishly stick to established rights-of-way and perhaps more than any other, the fear of getting lost. In her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit laments the disappearance from our maps and atlases of the term ‘Terra Incognita’. With our reliance on technology, we in the 21st Century often rest under the assumption that no region of the globe, no square kilometre of our planet, remains unknown, for everything is photographed and mapped by satellites, charted and measured by global-positioning systems. Something the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 must remind us all is that this protective veil of technology is not infallible.
Solnit argues that any map only provides a restricted view of a particular landscape, limited by the information left out: the unmapped and unmappable. We may look at the Ordnance Survey map of the Vale of Ffestiniog, look at the ochre contour coils against the pale yellow patches between reference squares 7138 and 7642 and notice the lack of little black or green dotted lines there, but unless we take our compass in hand and step out into those contours, to all intents and purposes they remain ‘Terra Incognita’, their story forever silent.
Nineteen hundred years ago this moorland may have bore more trees, but perhaps this broad, open landscape and sense of isolation was what drew the Roman Legions to use the area for training camps. Where the Afon Llafar tumbles down from the twin lakes of Llyn Conglog-mawr and Conglog-bach are remains of many Roman practice works. It was common, when moving large numbers of troops across hostile territory, to build fortifications overnight and raw recruits had to be trained how to do this efficiently. Here too, passing Dolbelydr, Sarn Helen, the main Roman artery through occupied Welsh territory, climbs towards the Roman complex at Castell Tomen-y-mur, in its time the most extensive Roman complex in Wales comprising a military tertiata fort of over four acres, a stone built principa, annexe buildings and even a small amphitheatre for troop entertainment. When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain, the territory left behind fell into the hands of tribesmen and warlords. The presence of a Norman motte here indicates that the site was variously occupied until around the early twelfth century and the ruins of a hafod, a small farm dwelling, indicate that the site was occupied for agricultural rather than military purposes well into the nineteenth century. But today the once centre of Roman provincial power, Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, as imagined in the Mabinogion, is occupied only by sheep who ruminate on the abundant thistles.
And so Gronw Pebyr wasted no time. He returned victorious to Mur Castell and with Blodeuedd by his side took possession of the lands of Ardudwy, which once were the province of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. When Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle heard of his fate he was greatly distressed and set off to search for his wounded nephew. Through all the country of Gwynedd and Powys he searched until he came to a valley where he saw a sow feeding on rotting flesh and maggots beneath a great oak tree. When Gwydion looked up into the tree he saw a wounded eagle resting in the upper branches and every time the eagle shook itself, the rotten flesh and maggots would fall from his wound and so the sow ate them. And so by means of singing an enchanted song to the bird, Gwydion was able to entice it down from the tree whereupon he struck it with his magic wand and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was restored to his former shape, yet gravely ill.
After many months recuperation Lleu Llaw Gyffes mustered an army and set out to Ardudwy determined to reclaim his lands. Upon hearing of his coming Gronw Pebyr and Blodeuedd fled, Gronw to Penllyn and Blodeuedd into the mountains with her maidens, who, being so filled with fear would only walk backwards and so fell into a deep pool and were drowned, that lake now bearing the name Llyn Morwynion, the lake of the maidens. As for Blodeuedd, when Lleu finally caught up with here he intended to kill her for her betrayal, but was none-the-less filled with love for her and instead transformed her into the shape of an owl, a bird so cursed that she may only hunt at night and towards which all the other birds were filled with enmity. And her name was henceforth known as Blodeweudd, Flower-face.
Gronw Pebyr appealed to Lleu Llaw Gyffes for clemency in exchange for silver and gold, but Lleu would have none of it and instead requested that Gronw meet him by the cascades upon the river Cynfal and receive from him the same blow that Gronw had unleashed upon Lleu. Gronw reluctantly agreed, and so they both came to the banks of the river and Gronw stood by the stone bath on the banks and Lleu Llaw Gyffes took up position under Bryn Cyfergyr and aimed his spear at the heart of Gronw Pebyr. Wait! shouted Gronw, pleading with Lleu for clemency, that as he had not acted alone in his deceit he be allowed to place a stone, which he saw by the river bank, between himself and the spear. Lleu Llaw Gyffes agreed and so Gronw Pebyr held the stone before his chest and Lleu Llaw Gyffes threw his spear with all of his strength and the spear pierced the stone and Gronw’s chest and broke his back and he fell to the ground dead.
And should you care to, you may wish to visit, on an overcast, rainy afternoon, an innocuous, rather muddy field, populated by indifferent sheep, above a farm known as Bryn-saeth, the hill of the arrows, and find under the dripping hawthorn Llech Gronw, the stone of Gronw Pebyr, with a hole right through the middle of it made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. And as you walk from the stone, as the light beings to fade and the gloaming gathers amid the oak trees of Cwm Cynfal, you may hear the cry of an owl as she mounts her nightly hunt.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Great Outdoors Magazine
The Staffordshire Moorlands are nothing if not a surprise. In the formative years of my exploration of the Peak District, I was astonished to discover that a sizeable portion of the gritstone uplands of Britain’s most popular national park, including the village of Flash, at 463 metres (1,519ft) above sea level the highest in Britain, lie within the administrative county of Staffordshire, more famous perhaps for pottery, Stoke City football team and the dolesome Alton Towers amusement park. More recently, as I find my time increasingly consumed by worldly concerns, it is among the nearby hills and dales of the Peak District that I find solace.
So with Hallowe’en fast approaching, the turning of the year echoed in the turning of the leaves to amber hues, I had hitched a lift from an old friend to the market town of Leek, from where I intended to make the long journey home to Manchester on foot.
Approaching the hamlet of Upper Hulme along Whitty Lane, the sky to the west began to cloud over grey and the fresh smell of cold air heralded light rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour. Before long I found myself beneath the slim finger-like battlements of Hen Cloud – Cloud being a Staffordshire dialect word for hill – and sought to take shelter in a small wooden shed, which had been erected by the side of the road. These impressive towers of Carboniferous stone extending almost vertically into the leaden sky constitute the most southerly outcrop of the gnarled and contorted sandstone escarpments that are collectively known as the Roaches, their name being taken simply from the French word for rock.
By the tiny dwelling I was accosted by a man bedecked in dark green waterproofs, clasping a large and slightly threatening pair of binoculars. “Can I help you?” he ventured, and for a moment I wondered if, given recent seismic political movements in the country, the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 had overnight been repealed and I was trespassing on ‘his’ land. I subsequently noticed that I was standing beside a large and colourful banner proclaiming the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which I had not previously noticed having been cocooned within the hood of my waterproof jacket in a vain attempt to keep out the driving rain.
The gentleman in question was not an irate gamekeeper but rather an enthusiastic volunteer named David who wanted to show me a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons who had taken up residence some weeks earlier in the lofty fingers of Hen Cloud. “Do you see that central finger of rock, up there?” he pointed through the now stair-rod thick rain to the top of the aforementioned hill, “well, if you drop down on the crag about fifteen feet you can just see where the nest is.” I couldn’t see a thing and David offering the use of his steamed up binoculars made little difference, but for a good twenty minutes the pair of us stood there in the criminally torrential rain, two relatively sane, intelligent men, becoming increasingly saturated, trying to spot a pair of nesting birds of prey who probably had far better sense and were bunkered down within a protective crevice high up on the south face of Hen Cloud waiting for the storm to pass. In many ways I wanted to prolong this very British folly but I made my excuses to David, consulting both my watch and map, thankfully both contained within a waterproof casing, as to the next leg of my journey, and left him to his stewardship of the mighty Peregrines of Hen Cloud in the rain.
Don Whillans Hut
Nestled beneath the lower escarpment of the Roaches, half enclosed by the earthen-red rocks themselves, stands Rock Hall, formerly a summer house of the Roaches Estate, now owned by the British Mountaineering Council and given the epithet of the Don Whillans Memorial Hut. Don Whillans, a dour, stocky Salfordian with as much a taste for scrapping as for making breakthrough climbs on northern grit during the 1950’s with his buddy Joe Brown, is a bit of a hero of mine. Don, who grew up on the hard knocks streets of post-war Salford in Greater Manchester and quite literally punched above his weight when it came to breaking into the elitist world of British climbing, put up some of the landmark climbs on Peak District grit, most notably, at the Roaches. In his beautifully written biography of Whillans “The Villain” Jim Perrin describes how on 21 April 1951 Don had travelled to Leek by bus and having walked up to the climbing crags on the lower tier of the Roaches had watched as Joe Brown’s second had been unable – or unwilling – to follow the line of Joe’s ascent of Valkyrie buttress. Don had quickly volunteered to take up the slack, sprightly following Joe up the route that they later named as Matinee (grade HVS 5b) because of the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. This was the first recorded climb of these luminaries who would go on to revolutionise traditional climbing. Just three years later Joe Brown and Don Whillans would have moved on from the gritstone crags of the Roaches, via the volcanic crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Snowdonia, to the lofty needles of the Alps, making the first ascent of the Petit Dru West Face, Chamonix in 1954.
Whillans went on to be a leading figure in the British mountaineering community of the 1960’s and 1970’s completing the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Chris Bonington and Ian Clough in 1961, the first ascent of the Central Torres del Paine, Patagonia again with Chris Bonington in 1963 and most famously the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston in 1970. Don Whillans sadly died in his sleep on 04 August 1985 – he was just 52 years old.
As I ascended the climbers’ steps at the rear of Valkyrie Crag to the second tier of the Roaches, the weather turned from inclement to tempestuous. The occluded Atlantic front which earlier that day had swept across the Western Approaches of the British Isles now slammed into the elevated ridge of the Roaches with all the malignant force of the wailing Banshee supposed to inhabit the moorland tarn known as Doxey Pool, beside which I now stood. Surmising that the Banshee’s curse had certainly come upon me by virtue of hail stones like shot pellets which now dug themselves into the saturated sandy ground around me with sufficient velocity to create tiny craters, I struggled manfully away from the accursed pool with as much speed as I could muster, soon arriving at the white washed ordnance survey triangulation pillar that marks the highest point along the ridge. I continued bravely northwards, losing some altitude through the swirling mists and biting hail, until I caught a glimpse of a sizeable object sheltered in the lee of a dry stone wall.
Being chilled thoroughly to the bone by precipitation as cold as a widow’s elbow, I considered the possibility that first stage hypothermia had set in and as a consequence I was hallucinating, when the object in question assumed the tangible form of an ice-cream van, its colourful logos enthusiastically advertising ice-cold drinks, various flavours of ice cream and cheerfully exhorting me to ‘have an ice day!’ Salvador Dali himself could not have conjured up such a surreal juxtaposition. I considered ordering a ‘ninety-nine’ but my fingers were too cold to open the pocket in my rucksack where I had stashed away some lose change. Thinking better of it I pushed on and as I followed what sometime earlier that day had been a path but now was most definitely a stream, towards Gradbach Wood, the hailstones ceased their torrent of abuse, and in their place came a relatively welcome fine British drizzle.
Amongst the mixed deciduous woodland of Back Forest on the north facing slopes of the Dane Valley, where larch, pine and hazel give way to a plantation of slender silver birch trees, is hidden a narrow chasm, sunk some twenty metres into the fractured millstone grit. My understanding of this curious feature is that it is post-glacial in origin, most probably having formed following the retreat of the ice caps at the end of the most recent glacial maximum, some twelve thousand years before present. It is essentially an expansion crack, as might appear as the result of settlement in the plasterwork of new buildings. In much the same way, as the weight of ice was removed from the land and isostatic uplift resulted in geomorphological instability, the rock has fractured, moving several metres into the Dane Valley, itself a product of glacial run-off waters, the line of fracture exploiting weaknesses in the Carboniferous rocks that may have existed for millions of years. This geomorphological phenomenon is known locally as Lud’s Church, the etymology of which is anything but certain.
Myth’s and legends gather about Lud’s Church just as the emerald mosses, ferns, grasses and liverworts cling to the near vertical walls of the chasm. Being in shade for much of the year, the direct rays of the sun only penetrating the depths of the ravine during the season around midsummer when the midday sun is directly overhead, Lud’s Church provides the perfect habitat for woodland species that are able to exploit the dank, moist ledges, crevices, corners and fissures in the rock face on the cavern walls. Rock ledges are garlanded with Oak and Holly Ferns. Wood sorrel grows in abundance among Elegant Silk Moss (pseudotaxiphyllum elegens) and Crescent-cup Liverwort (lunularia cruciata) and where the dominant species allow, waxy green lichens such as Sticta Canariensis take a hold, punctuated by the occasional cluster of Cladonia coccifera or devil’s matchsticks.
Followers of the 14thCentury non-conformist preacher John Wycliffe, known as Lollards, were thought to have met at Lud’s Church for religious worship in order to avoid persecution. It is believed that following one such secret meeting a notable Lollard, Walter de Ludank was arrested here, the chasm thereafter taking his name.
A popular misconception holds that the term Lud’s Church is associated with the Luddite movement of the early 19thCentury. This is no the case. Luddites were textile workers, mainly in the north of England, who protested against the mechanisation of the textile industry by the deliberate vandalism of new weaving technologies such as stocking frames and power looms. Any similarity in name is purely coincidental. Despite these associations, and further legends that other notables employed the chasm as a refuge from authority, including Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is more likely that the name ‘Lud’ has a much older etymology and may be Celtic or pre-Christian in origin.
Sir John Rhys, the 19thCentury pioneer of Celtic philology, identified several characters from the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion as potential Celtic deities. One such character is Nudd, whom Rhys believed to be cognate with the Roman-British deity Nodens, or Núadu in the Irish literature. It was Sir John’s belief that three specific characters from the Mabinogion could be linked to the deity of Nudd, these being Lludd Llaw Eraint (Silver Hand) father of Creiddylad who appears in the Arthurian tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Skilful Hand) whom appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and Lludd ap Beli, ruler of the Island of Britain and brother of Llefelys, the primary characters in the brief tale of Lludd & Llefelys. Rhys, partly influenced by the French historian Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, went even further to suggest the existence of a pan-Celtic deity combining all of these characters known as Lugus (Hutton, 2013). It was this association that linked the name of Lud’s Church in Staffordshire with worship of the pagan god Nodens. In contemporary times Lud’s Church is still an important location for those practicing the Wiccan or neo-Pagan path of spirituality to which the presence of a votive coin log in the main chamber of the chasm attests.
Taking medieval linguistics as prima facie evidence, scholars generally agree that the Staffordshire Moorlands are the dialectal epicentre of a piece of late 14thCentury poetry written in Middle English, known to the British Library as manuscript Cotton Nero A. xbut more widely known as the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This surviving manuscript, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, was held in a private collection in Yorkshire during the 16thand 17thCenturies. It was first edited and printed in the original Middle English in 1839 and most famously translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and EV Gordon in 1925.
Thought to have been transcribed around 1390, the alliterative poem is without doubt one of the finest examples of medieval poetry in the English tongue and tells the story of a young, perhaps somewhat naïve knight of King Arthur’s court named Gawain whom is challenged to a rather gruesome duel by a most curious and unearthly creature.
The Story begins at Christmas time as the King’s courtiers are enjoying the commencement of a fortnight of feasting, when the festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a ghastly creature, half man half ogre who seemingly unchallenged rides into the court astride a green horse, himself dressed in garments of emerald green, his hair and skin the very same colour. The uninvited guest lays down a challenge before Arthur and his knights, that he will permit any such knight brave enough to take up the challenge to strike him at the neck with an axe, on the understanding that the very same knight will seek out the green ogre at the turning of the year to receive from him the very same blow. Thinking he cannot possibly lose this strange engagement, the young Gawain steps forward to accept the challenge and with a single swing of his axe cleanly smites the Green Knight’s neck, the severed head coming to rest at the feet of King Arthur himself. The assembled guests look on in horror as the beheaded Green Knight steadies himself, then grasping the bright green locks of hair, picks up his own head from the reed strewn floor and turning to Gawain, repeats the terms of the pledge, counselling Gawain to keep his word or be forever known as a coward. With all mouths agape the Green Knight mounts his green horse and, head in hand, gallops from the hall. Over the course of a year, Gwain is forced to overcome many obstacles and temptations before he ultimately finds his way to the Green Chapel, with which Lud’s Church is colloquially associated, to keep his ominous appointment with the ghoulish Green Knight, the outcome of which I will refrain from revealing.
Naturally, doubt exists as to the validity of the transposition of a fictional story onto an actual geographic location, but standing within the richly abundant cascade of verdant plant life, everywhere alive with the whispered drip, drip of water, it is easy to see how the human imagination could transform the deep, narrow rock chasm into the cathedral nave of some long forgotten nature cult, or the great hall of some malign ogre or pagan god.
Emerging from the rank foliation of Lud’s hidden Church, blinking in the now brilliant sunlight of early afternoon, I saw ahead of me the outcrop known colloquially as Castle Rock, where I found a suitable prospect from which to view the valley below. Vaporous pennons of mist rose incrementally upward from the body of the forest, the saturated trees exhaling into the clearing sky, patches of blue breaking apart the sulphurous clouds. Having rested, I descended through the forest to Gradbach Mill, no longer a place of textile production but a beautifully situated youth hostel, alongside which, by means of a narrow stone bridge I crossed the ebullient waters of the River Dane, into Cheshire.
At Heild End Farm I crossed the A54 Buxton Road and wound my way passed a fine, though slightly dilapidated two storey barn, its slate roof still more or less intact, an ideal place to shelter from a storm or even spend a night, should one find oneself benighted on the moor, and dropped into the vale of Wildboarclough. By the time I reached the Crag Inn the weather had turned around again and the fresh smell of rain and the vanguard of descending, distended drops forced me to stop and adjust my clothing. The east slope of Shuttlingsloe is the steepest of the sharks-fin hill, known locally with much conviviality as the Cheshire Matterhorn, and I certainly felt the pull of gravity on my calf muscles as I laboured my way to the hills crazy-pathed summit. Sticking my head above the outcrop of Chatsworth Gritstone on the south east edge of the hills summit plateau, I was met with a blast of cold, damp air a across the Cheshire Plain translucent sheets of rain swept inwards, propelled by cadaverously oppressive clouds. I elected not to linger and instead descended rapidly to the north and the relative shelter of the Sitka Spruce plantations of Macclesfield Forest, finding shelter beneath the interlaced branches of pine needles as swathes of sleet blew in form the west.
To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15thCentury.
I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years. Outside, a Highway’s sign proclaimed Charity Lane unsuitable for motor vehicles, the very sandstone bedrock having been exposed by years of runoff water from the surrounding hills. As I contoured the higher ridges, the forest below me exhaled again into the now blinding evening light, plumes of vapour rising effortlessly through the suddenly undisturbed forest. I had been walking for over ten hours and as I climbed the steep hard-set path towards Tegg’s Nose, the sacroiliac joints of my pelvis began to complain vociferously. Not wishing to chance a sustained injury, I staggered down the Old Buxton Road to Macclesfield Station from where with prospects of real ale and painkillers, I telephoned a friend and procured a bed for the night.
This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.
“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” said Alison, as we made our way beside Torside Clough onto the plateau expanse of Shelf Moor, an icy north-easterly wind picking up the spindrift of the overnight snowfall and whipping it against our faces. “We’ll head for the Wain Stones at Bleaklow Head,” I suggested, “we might get a little shelter there.”
Alison’s meteorological prediction was correct. As the black clouds pressed down on the featherbed heather of Bleaklow Hill, they gave up their cargo of ice crystals in abundance. Carried along by the same northeasterly wind a wall of white soon bleached the sky and moorland of any contrast and within minutes where there had been clearly distinguishable shapes, there was only whiteout. “We best get the emergency shelter out,” I suggested. Alison, daughter of a Malpas farmer and raised to the harsh conditions of the farming calendar gave me a look far colder than the blizzard which now engulfed us. “Behind the stones will be fine,” she shouted above the now howling wind. We crouched down in the few metres of relief from the wind that the kissing gritstone gave and searched for the hot chocolate hidden somewhere in our rucksacks.
Boom! And then again, Boom!
From the south the heart stopping sound of explosion fell through the cloud with oppressive weight. “What the hell was that? It sounds like they are dropping bombs over there.” “I don’t know,” said Alison, “but I don’t think we should stick around to find out.” “It could be thunder,” I suggested, “but I’ve never heard thunder like that. And we’re at the highest point here. Not a good idea in a storm. We’d best get to lower ground.” But the Pennine Way, elusive at the best of times on Bleaklow Hill, had vanished into a chiaroscuro landscape of black peat groughs and white snowdrifts glimpsed briefly through the brief respite of the spindrift swirling around us. “We’ll have to do this on compass,” I said.
I took a bearing to the north-east and began to pace out the three-hundred metres to where, as indicated by the map, our intended path turned northwards, but the undulations of the peat groughs, the eye stinging snow and the rapidly deepening snowdrifts made the going almost impossible. The cairn that indicated the swing in the Pennine Way to the north was lost somewhere between the rough white landscape and the bleached white sky.
“I think we’re lost,” I shouted to Alison above the wind. “We can’t be,” insisted Alison.
I suggested we retrace our steps on a back bearing to Bleaklow Head, but that wasn’t going to get us off the moor, or down to lower ground. Instead we decided to head out north from our current position, the logic being that ultimately we would descend into the Woodhead Pass. Staggering north through the biting wind, we eventually reached a wire fence transecting our path, which, for no other reason than it being the only distinguishable feature since leaving the cairn at Bleaklow Head, we elected to follow it to the west, which thankfully, turned out to be a good decision as it led directly into Wildboar Grain from whence we had originally come.
Even the harshest winter will give way to snowdrops and catkin-tails, so spring once again took it’s fecund hold over the Derbyshire hills and I was keen to return to Bleaklow Hill to retrace navigationally challenging steps and to explore what I knew to be up there on the sandy soils of the gritstone plateaux and what had been eating away at my imagination since Alison and I had heard the sounds of explosion in that blizzard.
On this occasion Allison (same name, spelt with two l’s, different person) and I approached from Glossop along the course of Doctor’s Gate, the old Roman route across the Snake Pass, the precipitous cloughs sweeping down from the high moorland making one of the most dramatic landscapes in the Dark Peak. The magnificent re-entrants slicing through the Namurian millstone grit proved too tempting and so we crossed Shelf Brook and began to scramble up Ashton Clough. We had not climbed far when we stumbled upon the first evidence of what I had been expecting to find. A hunk of silver metal, possibly some type of steel, about a metre in diameter and very badly weathered was sitting in the centre of the small stream that falls from Ashton Clough, its once moving parts petrified by decades of rust.
Sure enough, another fifty metres higher, now half buried by soil, we found what was still just discernable as the fuselage of an aircraft. The skeleton of this airframe was thin and flimsy, constructed of aluminium alloy. This cocoon like relic was the remains of a C-47 Dakota aircraft operated by the 314thTroop Carrier Group, which crashed on 24thJuly 1945 on Shelf Moor. Over the course of seventy years parts of the aircraft, including this section of the rear fuselage, have been moved down slope into Ashton Clough. Alan L. Clark, author of a walkers guide to aircraft wrecks in the British Isles, reports that the aircraft was on a transport sortie from Poix, near Amiens, northern France to Renfrew (now Glasgow airport) but failed to arrive at destination. All five crewmembers and two passenger were killed. The official USAAF report on the accident blamed low cloud.
At its steepest point, in situ gritstone causing the little stream of water to tumble in pleasant cascade, Ashton Clough suddenly pops out onto Shelf Moor below James’s Thorn and the full unsheltered expanse of the Bleaklow plateau becomes visible (in good weather that is). Allison wishing to practice some navigation skills suggested we ‘leap-frogged’ our way over to the trig-point at Higher Shelf Stones. The navigation technique of ‘leap-frogging’ can be used in restricted visibility, such as in low cloud or at night whereby two or more people can use each other as reference points from which to correct a directional bearing.
Just a few hundred metres north of the trig-point we found the first piece of twisted aluminium lying against the black peat, shining in the sun as if it were newly cast, while in fact it had lain here, high upon the moor, for seventy years.
It can take a little while to orientate yourself over the expanse of wreckage spread out over a hundred square metres, but eventually the fragments of an aeroplane begin to knit together to form a whole: engines first, four of them, then undercarriage, wings, tail-plane, and then you think of the crew. This USAF Boeing RB-29 known as “over-exposed” on 3rd November 1948 was taking payroll and mail from Scampton in Lincolnshire to Burtonwood near Warrington, once one of the largest USAF supply bases in the UK. Due to poor weather conditions the flight was being conducted on instruments, the pilots effectively flying blind. It is thought that due to a navigational error the captain understood his position to be further to the west than it actually was and began to descend on the approach into Burtonwood too early, with disastrous consequences. All thirteen crewmembers were killed.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine in todays age of computer assisted flight and instrumental landing systems, but the vast majority of wartime aircraft did not carry on-board radar and did not have pressurised cabins. This meant high altitude flight was often not an option and that navigation in poor visibility could only be achieved by a process using compass bearing, airspeed indicator and stopwatch, a type of aeronautical Naismith’s Rule. As a consequence, errors were common. The high ground of Britain, in particular the Peak District is littered with such tragic sites.
Unsurprisingly, a modern mythology has grown up around the area. There are tales of phantom aeroplanes and ghostly apparitions. Gerald Scarratt of Longdendale, whilst exploring the RB-29 crash site discovered what he thought to be a washer, but on later inspection found to the gold ring belonging to the aircraft’s captain Langdon P. Tanner. Returning to the site with a group of aircraft enthusiasts, Gerald was recounting his tale when his companions turned ashen faced and began to walk away from the site. They later claimed to have seen a pilot in full post-war flying gear standing behind Gerald, although Gerald himself remembers seeing nothing of the sort.
The reservoir cascade of Howden, Derwent and Ladybower were famously used during the second world war as practice locations for the attack on the dams of the Ruhr Valley in western Germany by the specially adapted Lancaster bombers of the 617 Squadron, now more commonly known as the Dambusters. Something has undoubtedly become lodged in the collective unconscious and folk memory of that part of the Peak District. Urban myths of plane crashes and ghost aircraft about.
Dr. David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University has recorded the tale of how on 24thMarch 1997, police in the Dark Peak area received calls from various members of the public, including a special constable and two gamekeepers, claiming to have witnessed an aircraft crashing into the moors above Howden Reservoir. Taking the calls seriously, the police alerted the local Mountain Rescue Team, but despite a widespread search, no evidence of any crash could be found.
And what of my own experience? The sound of explosion heard by Alison and myself above the wind at the Wain Stones on that icy cold day. Of course, it could have simply been thunder (but it didn’t sound like thunder) or some other meteorological phenomenon. Or perhaps we heard the sound, somehow transmitted across the decades, of that fateful accident in 1948 when thirteen young airmen lost their lives.
On Higher Shelf Stones, the sense of pathos is tangible. Here and there people have placed small wooden crosses and silk poppies, which stand out white and red against the silver-grey of the weathered wreckage and the monochrome pallet of the exposed peat hags, a reminder of the young men who’s sense of duty led them to a cold, windswept moorland in an unfamiliar country.