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The Eternal Mystery of Lud's Church

The Roaches area in the south Peak District is a fascinating and beautiful part of Mercia, with so many things of interest, folklore and even the paranormal going on there I'll be posting about it in several pieces. Lurking at it's far end though, completely hidden in woodland, is a place that deserves the term “hidden gem” more than anywhere I have ever been in my life.

Lud's Church, or Ludchurch as some call it, is a strange chasm lying at the far end of Back Forest. Nobody knows when this natural grotto was first formed but there are tales and legends of people doing things down there as far back as the Bronze Age. The fissure is walled in by high cliffs covered in lush green moss, ferns and hanging grasses, giving it a tropical appearance, and wherever you look there seems to be a face peering at you from the rock – pareidoliacs will have a field day here! Lud's Church actually has it's own microclimate caused by it's depth and the moisture there, in fact there is an account from the 1600s of snowdrifts laying in a dark corner of the chasm in July – a local man filled sacks of it and sold it as a novelty at the market.

It's name comes from it's use as a natural place of worship, or “green chapel” by the Lollards, a movement of reformist Christians during the 1400s. The Lollards were very much considered heretics and hunted down wherever rumour grew of their presence. The congregation that met secretly at Lud's Church was reputedly led by a priest named Walter de Lud-Auk and they say he looked after his orphaned granddaughter Alice, a beautiful young woman with “an unearthly voice” who would sing a verse of each hymn solo and entrance the assembled Lollards. According to Sir William de Lacey's version from 1683 the green chapel was guarded by the chief forester of the area who was sympathetic to their cause. Soldiers of Henry V raided the service one day while Alice sang her piece, after the forester was investigated and followed, and this giant of a man fought the troops off, hacking them one by one in the narrow passage entrance. In the melee a crossbow bolt – or possible an arquebus ball – hit Alice and killed her.

Her scream and fall stopped everyone in their tracks, and things calmed. The knight and his men allowed the Lollards to carry poor Alice out of the grotto and bury her under an oak tree nearby, before they arrested them all. The forester escaped and legend claims he fled to France and waited for Henry to invade, where he then joined the English forces and fought at Agincourt. He must have abandoned his religious views, as this seems a strange way to honour the memory of Alice by supporting the king who was indirectly responsible for her death. Alice was said to haunt Lud's Church, clad in white and singing loudly in her “unearthly voice”. This ghost story was so loved by Lord Brocklehurst, the most well known owner of the land Lud's Church used to lay in, that he had a white painted wooden statue of Alice placed high up in an alcove and paid one of his men to spend each weekend down in the chasm regaling visitors with her tragic tale. A couple of old photographs do show the white lady up there, but after time the effigy fell and was seen by some rotting in the mud of the gulley floor.

Brocklehurst had some strange ideas about Lud's Church, wanting to turn it into a kind of Victorian theme park for the gentlefolk that he allowed to walk around the Roaches, ending up actually attempting to destroy the entrance at one end with dynamite! The rockfall may have blocked it for a while but today it's probably the most used way in. Another reason he blew up this part of Lud's Church was because a cave was there, some say lived in by old Walter de Lud-Auk, but also according to local lore a temple for marauding Danes and before that even druids were said to have practised their rites down there. According to “Legends of the Moorlands and Forest of Staffordshire”, an old tome published by the Bodleian Museum over a hundred years ago, “until a few years ago, the subterranean cavern which issues from Lud's Church, was inhabited by a strange and distinct race of beings”. Was Brocklehurst trying to destroy them and their home, like something out of an HP Lovecraft story? Three men did try to explore the narrow tunnel before it's engineered collapse, , saying that it opened out into a huge cavern with definite man made steps down to it. They left a newspaper and some coins before crawling back out and as far as anybody can tell – the items are still down there.

Lud's Church is also noted for a strong link to Arthurian myth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story of Camelot written down in the 1300s, and the grotto is agreed by many experts to be the location used by the author of the epic. The “Green Chapel”, as the Green knight called it, was where Sir Gawain was summoned to receive his expected lethal blow as his part of the deadly game the enchanted giant was playing. Here it is entered through a portal in an ancient burial mound, making Lud's Church seem even more magical. It is suspected that a monk at the now vanished Dieulacres Abbey nearby wrote this epic and used the atmospheric geography on his doorstep to place the action, or was there some deeper reason for being drawn to Lud's Church? It certainly would have been known as something completely different back then, before the Lollards.

I last visited on a late summer day after heavy rainfall, and the lush greenery and heavy dripping gave the chasm the atmosphere of an Amazonian ruined temple, mouldering moss covered blocks amid towering cliffs. It is like clambering down the steps into another world. I hope you can visit it too, and I'd advise going as early in the day as possible to avoid the busy admire this natural church for all, a green chapel and true hidden gem of Britain.

Lud's Church, towards the now main entry point

The cliffs of Lud's Church look like a lost Mayan temple

One of the narrow gullies of Lud's Church

Rough steps down to the green chapel

The 'lost" end of Lud's Church, look at that face in the cliff

The alcove where the "White Lady" carving used to stand

The entrance to the cave - still accessible to a very skinny person - if they dare

An old picture showing the "White Lady" still in situ

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