So what exactly is that moody looking rock formation in our cover picture? I'm glad you asked!
Straddling the borders of the Peak District and the Staffordshire Moorlands, a gritstone ridge runs for several miles known as The Roaches. At it's southern end, and the starting point for many a hiker, is the brooding escarpment known as Hen Cloud. I first approached it very early one sunday morning before anyone else had arrived at The Roaches, and with the dramatic sky as a backdrop and ravens circling I have to say it did look like a primitive castle stronghold. No orcs showed themselves however, and I managed the ascent of it's face without incident.
From Hen Cloud the walk begins, through dramatic rock formations, wooded slopes and heather covered heath, before reaching the curious Rockhall Cottage. It's official name is now the Don Whillans Hut, bought and named after a legendary climber by the British Mountaineering Council, but for we non climbers there is legend aplenty here. Once a part of the Brocklehurst baronial estate, Rockhall Cottage was originally a cave only, and various landslides of boulders had formed a large covered entranceway to it where an old lady known as Bess Bowyer lived in the early 1800s. With the ice cold spring at the back of the cave for her sole use, the crone lived here with her beautiful daughter. It was said that there was a tight and winding tunnel that led from the back of the cave to the ridge top beyond, and old Bess would point the way for smugglers, poachers and deserters to crawl through and make their escape from pursuing authorities. The first Baronet Brocklehurst finishes the story in his own memoir...
“A young handsome girl, her reputed daughter, lived with her, but about whose history much mystery and doubt existed. The girl had a fine voice and could be heard on summer nights among the rocks singing sadly to herself songs that sounded foreign to English ears. One winter morning the hag was seen in great distress. Strange men had seized and carried off her child. The daughter never returned and at last the supposed mother was herself discovered dead in her lonely home.”
Back on top of the Roaches, a little further along from Rockhall Cottage lies the mysterious Doxey's Pool. One legend claims poor Bess Bowyer's daughter was drowned in this large natural pond and her ghost haunts there. Others say the female spirit there is a “Jenny Greenteeth” - a malevolent water spirit known for luring men and boys into deep water to drown. Still others told of a tunnel connecting this stretch of water to the nearby Blakemere or Mermaid's Pool and it's beautiful marine resident flitting between the two stretches of water. The word “Doxey” used to mean a travelling fortune teller, whore, female con artist etc so it is interesting to wonder what the truth of it is. One thing is for certain – no matter how prolonged the drought, Doxey's Pool never dries out, ever.
Walking past more bizarrely shaped rocks and ridges with amazing views out across Staffordshire we eventually come to the end of The Roaches – but there's plenty more worth walking further for. A couple of miles further north lies Lud's Church, an incredible “hidden” chasm torn deep into the rock of the moorlands and surrounded by forest. This chasm actually has it's own warmer microclimate within it's confines, with vines and mosses covering much of it's towering walls. Indeed, it is considered by many scholars to be the “Green Chapel” location described in the climax of medieval Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was here that Sir Gawain, after many adventures, met with his unearthly nemesis to fight then receive by return the death dealing blow he had first dealt to the mysterious giant. With a new big budget movie of the story out this year it'll be interesting to see how their Green Chapel looks.
Lud's Church may have earned it's name because a chapter of the religious sect the Lollards were believed to have met there and conducted services, with a shelf on one of the cliffs providing a natural pulpit. One legend claims the green church was raided by soldiers one night and the daughter of their priest was killed, with her daughter being buried at the entrance to the chasm – apparently still there. Perhaps in memory of her, the aforementioned Baronet Lord Brocklehurst had a ships figurehead placed in an alcove high on a cliff in Lud's Church. It stood for some decades before falling and gradually, and unceremoniously, rotting into the mud of the chasm floor. He claimed it was the from the ship that bore the name of his estate Swythamley, I can say that it was not, as a quick check reveals the ship bore a male figurehead. Buried young women aside, there is a hidden cave at the southern entrance to the church which Brocklehurst tried to destroy with dynamite, therefore also blocking annoying commoners from venturing into his natural wonder. One brave lad ventured down some for some hours into it's depths some two hundred years ago, on his return he described hearing rushing water and clearly seeing “the remains of druids” along with possible man made steps. It is possible that the Lollards and even earlier groups such as pagan Britons actually met inside this lost cave. In “Legends of the Moorland and Forest of Staffordshire” a Miss Dakeyne claimed that “a strange and distinct race of beings inhabited this cave”. The entrance of the cave is still just about visible, unnoticed by most, and I wonder if an expert pot holer or spelunker could be persuaded to take a look?
A route starting at Hen Cloud, ending up at Lud's Church then heading back in a figure of eight is about 8 miles long and – with an end to the quarantine hopefully in sight – I hope some of you will take the walk themselves soon and see why it's my favourite of all.
Rockhall Cottage - that's what I call a "rock face"
Steps down into Lud's Church
Windworn rock formations along The Roaches
The figurehead placed in Lud's Church by Baronet Brocklehurst - now long gone