Wallabies roaming an English moor: what could sound more far-fetched? Perhaps the story of a knight decapitating a combatant who picks up his severed head and asks for a rematch, or of a mysterious mermaid calling passers-by to her watery grave?
Many legends emanate from moorlands – those windswept places where, reputedly, strange folk dwell and even stranger things happen. The Roaches, a high ridge marked by rocky outcrops in the south-western corner of England’s Peak District National Park, is exactly that kind of mythical-seeming place.
Derived from the French word for rocks (‘les roches’), The Roaches also is a magnificent way to stretch your legs. The approximately eight-mile roundtrip hike starts at the hill of Hen Cloud and runs over the moors and through the lush Dane Valley before its grand finale – the notorious gorge known as Lud’s Church. But there are plenty of detours, some accidental, that can double the mileage.
My own recent trek began with two strokes of good fortune: brilliant sunshine and a parking place on the already car-lined lane at the foot of Hen Cloud. There, atop the hillock, was a prominent outcrop that reminded me of a Tolkien-esque high castle, dark and foreboding.
The gritstone escarpments of The Roaches were formed by the slipping, sliding and grinding to a halt of layers of mud and rock over many thousands of years. Then wind and rain whittled the rock into jagged shadowy sculptures. Human activity here dates to at least the Bronze Age. In 2015, workers restoring a footpath uncovered fragments of an urn containing cremated human remains, later determined to be about 3,500 years old. The burial marks The Roaches as an ancient sacred place.
Now, giant boulders neatly and invitingly form the first steps up the hill. The steep climb kept my nose to the ground, but when I lifted my eyes at the top, the western view over the Cheshire Plains to the west was magnificent. On a clear day, even the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, 100 or so miles south-west, are hazily visible. From here, Britain spread out like a vast, wondrous kingdom.
That first big climb notwithstanding, the terrain wasn’t difficult. Even so, the hike can be harder than it first appears. A couple I met by a ford at Gradbach, both experienced hikers, had driven up from Warwickshire intending to do the whole walk to Lud’s Church. They stopped about 15 minutes shy of it, unable to take another step.
As I headed over rolling hills toward Gradbach, nature’s tender side was evident; yolky yellow gorse blossoms illuminated the moors. Further on in the Dane Valley, bluebells bloomed along grassy cow paths like cobalt stars in an emerald sky.
Particularly to the romantically inclined, The Roaches is a place of myth, mystery and magic. The wallabies aren’t a tall tale: until 1975, Sir Philip Lee Brocklehurst, a silk mill scion who was part of Edward Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition, owned a private estate here and lived at Swythamley Hall (pronounced Swith-hamley). He charged a shilling to visit Lud’s Church and half a crown to climb The Roaches (an expensive amount for the time). His brother Henry Courtney Brocklehurst, a big game hunter and collector of dead and live animals, built a private zoo on the estate. Yaks, llamas, wallabies, and apes all called Staffordshire home, but some wallabies escaped their captor and bred. Though rare, wallaby sightings are still recorded.
There is less evidence for the Blue Mermaid, the mysterious figure said to tempt people to their deaths. She’s likely to stem from the imaginings of a local who claimed a girl called Jenny Greenteeth – who had drowned years earlier in Doxey Pool atop The Roaches – tried to pull her in. As I stood by the pool on a separate hike last winter, the cloudy sky becoming a worrying blue-black, some mighty force indeed pulled me nearer to the water. But it wasn’t Ms Greenteeth; it was a frighteningly bitter wind blowing seemingly from everywhere.
Then there was that knight, Sir Gawain. A valued member of King Arthur’s Round Table, Sir Gawain faced his greatest test fighting the mysterious Green Knight. The story goes that, after Sir Gawain defeated the mysterious Green Knight with a decapitating blow, the Green Knight picked up his own severed head and spoke – demanding Gawain honour the agreement to a second fight one year hence in the Green Church. The epic re-match was described in Middle English by an unknown poet, and through both the descriptions given and the author’s dialect, scholars have determined that the (fictional) battle took place in Lud’s Church.
Formed by a hefty landslip, some call Lud’s a gorge. That seems a bit of an overstatement; it’s more of a gulley. The entrance on a hillside above the Dane River is slight and unheralded, and a broken stone on the ground is its only marker.
My descent over untidy rocks into Lud’s was gentle, but slippery after spring rains. A boardwalk made the boggy bottom navigable. Ferns and mosses clad any surface receiving sunlight. Two cut tree limbs leaned against the rocks, each stuck with hundreds of coins, a nod to pagan wishing trees and the belief that trees – and rocks – hold powers. Some say that Druids worshipped in Lud’s.
That hasn’t been confirmed. What we do know is that the Lollards almost certainly did worship here; in fact, they likely named it. In the 1300s, the Lollards, a Christian sect which was critical of the Catholic Church’s greed, were dubbed heretics and often burned at the stake. Lollard preacher Walter de Lud-Auk chose this remote, hidden chasm as a secret worshipping place. During one sermon, however, soldiers with orders to seek out the heretics found them. One aimed his guns at the preacher and fired. He missed, accidentally killing the preacher’s daughter instead. She was buried nearby.
Deep into the chasm with neither entrance nor exit visible, the walls grew taller and Lud’s Church became a world unto itself. Even the birdsong in the surrounding woodland sounded distant. It dawned on me that I was alone. Without the chatter of other hikers, Lud’s is… indeed, as still as a church. It is also a place that continues to capture the imagination as much as it challenges the body.
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