To be fair, the weekend was over…officially at least… but we had scrounged an extra day to go exploring so, for us, the current of discovery continued. The day dawned fair but overcast, with that strange quality of light that intensifies colours to impossibilities. There were a couple of places we wanted to visit, so, ignoring the sighs of the overworked car, we headed for the hills and the Staffordshire village of Ilam on the River Manifold.
It would appear that ‘our’ territory is gradually expanding. Although we get to explore new places through the Silent Eye’s weekends in the landscape, our little corner of the Yorkshire/Derbyshire border is only a few miles square. Over the past few months we seem to have been gently pulled beyond the well-known sites into new places. With the way that we work, we do not simply go to new places, we feel we have to wait for the ‘invitation’. This comes as apparently random coincidences and correspondences…chains of tiny events that you do not realise are building into something unignorable until they are staring you in the face. Finally, the nudges reach critical mass and off we go.
I had accidentally visited the village a couple of weeks earlier but had initially discovered it some time ago, driving an unecessarily long way round on my way south one morning. I had left long before dawn and so had time to spare to follow the road into unknown territory. The tiny village, nestled beneath the hills, looks like something you might see in Switzerland and that, we later discovered, had been the idea. Much of what is now visible was the vision of Jesse Watts-Russell, a wealthy industrialist who bought Ilam Hall in 1820 and set about transforming the village.
The huge ‘cross’ that dominates the village is a memorial to Jesse’s wife, Mary. Resembling the stonework of Lichfield cathedral, it seems far too ornate for such a small place. Severely damaged by a storm in 1960 and worn by time and weather, the cross has recently been restored, revealing winged dragons, carved beasts and the Ilam Imp peering out from behind the foliage.
Quite apart from the beautiful setting, we had come to visit the old church that lies within the grounds of the Hall. The Hall itself is now a Youth Hostel, but it has a long history. It was originally built by John Port in 1546 and both Dr Samuel Johnson and William Congreave stayed there adding a literary element to its lineage. When Jesse Watts-Russell’s son, John, moved to New Zealand in 1850, he built a homestead there and called it after his home. The estate grew over the years and it eventually became the Ilam area of Christchurch.
The church, though, has been there far longer than the Hall and its religious history dates back to Saxon times and the pilgrims who came to venerate St Bertram. A holy well associated with the saint is nearby and an ancient bridge over the river is named for him. A chapel was built in the seventeenth century for the saint’s tomb by Richard Meverell, Robert Port and Nicholas Hurt, who were the squires of Throwley, Ilam and Castern. Their initials are still carved over the outer door to St Bertram’s Chapel.
The current church is mainly Norman and Early English. The tower is seven hundred years old, but there are traces of an earlier Saxon building still within its fabric, taking its history back well over a thousand years. A sealed Saxon doorway and the Saxon font remain… and within the churchyard are two carved Saxon Crosses.
The smaller of the two seems to have been the top of a taller cross. The weathered carvings show the interlaced knotwork that we now refer to as ‘Celtic’ and other designs difficult to make out. The smaller cross plainly sports the trefoil knot known as the triquetra, which, in Christian terms may refer to the Trinity, but which still suggests links with the Celtic roots of the early Church in Britain.
The taller of the two crosses appears to have been broken and reassembled at some point in its past. The designs, though worn, ar intriguing and you cannot help wondering at their meaning. Another cross that we did not see lies a little way away, and is called the Battlestone, as it commemorates a battle with the invading Danes. All three have seen a thousand years of pilgrims come to this place… and we were about to pay our own respects to the saint whose bones are still housed within the church. We had no idea of what else we would find…