The little Church of the Holy Cross at Ilam is one of those places that seems to have something to offer every visitor, no matter in what period or area their interest lies. There are stained glass windows that capture the light in jewel colours, humble memorials, vast and ornate tombs, a Mercian saint and a Saxon font…and traces of a history spanning a thousand years or more.
Although the village was not mentioned in the Domesday Book, the ‘Great Survey’ completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror, it is certain that a place of worship was already established here at that time. The first historical mention of which we have record is in the will of a lord named Wulfric dating from 1004, when King Aethelred confirmed the gifting of Ilam to Burton Abbey.
Since that time, and for who knows how long before, the little church has been at the heart of its community and a centre for pilgrims making the journey to the shrine of St Bertram. That community comprised the wealthy and those who worked for them, in their homes and on the land. Over the centuries, they have cared for their church and the long evolution of the building is evident in every corner.
Beyond George Gilbert Scott’s chancel arch and painted rood screen and next to his tiled and gilded reredos, a medieval piscina still exists in the sanctuary, where the holy water was allowed to drain into the fabric of the building after use. Thirteenth and fourteenth century windows hold Victorian glass telling an age-old story.
The octagonal north-eastern chapel is dedicated to David Pike Watts who died in 1816. He was a wealthy brewer and vintner from London and the father-in-law of Jesse Watts-Russell who had bought and rebuilt Ilam Hall some years earlier. The walls are simply adorned with paintings, but the centrepiece shows the dying man bidding farewell to his daughter and her children. Carved of pure white marble by Sir Francis Chantrey, one of the finest sculptors of his day, it is a magnificent memorial.
Across the aisle is the entrance to S Bertram’s chapel, where the saint’s tomb still waits for the faithful. Above the arch is a pair of floral crowns… they are Virgin’s Garlands, made by the friends and family of the deceased is she were a child or spinster. These simple tributes were a common feature in the area until around two hundred years ago and would, after the funeral, be hung above the accustomed pew of the departed. There are no names or dates on these garlands, so it is impossible to say for whom they were made or when.
Their simplicity stands in stark contrast to the ostentation of other tombs. Within St Bertram’s chapel are the tombs of the Meverell family who were responsible in part for creating the chapel during the seventeenth century.
Robert Meverell, who died in 1626, lies beside his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Fleming, who died just six months after her husband. Their garments are rich and detailed, still bearing their original coloured paint, though faded now and worn. Above them is a memorial to their daughter who married Thomas, Lord Cromwell, and her children, all kneeling in prayer.
The legacy of the landowners is apparent in the richness of the fittings and the artworks that grace the walls and windows. A huge painting, almost hidden in the shadows of the ceiling, depicts St Helena’s return with the True Cross. Smaller paintings dot the walls… from the font to the pictures, this is a place where the art of visual storytelling has not been forgotten.
Of the windows, my favourite was the ‘alpha et omega’ window, made by Ward and Hughes in 1884. It shows the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life through his mother’s presence… first, as a young woman at Jesus’ recognition by Simeon during the presentation in the Temple, then his ending as St John tenderly leads and ageing, but still beautiful, Mary away from the Cross. In many ways it captures the essence of this and all of our ancient churches. From their beginnings into their greater age, they still hold beauty and an inner light.
That light owes little to religion and even less to dogma… but everything to those who hold faith in their hearts and allow it to bloom, taking its beauty and its seeds beyond the walls of church or temple and out into the world, seeing their everyday lives and landscape as a sacred space where divinity can be honoured and its purpose served. Where the green hills rise over field and home, and the clouds bring the sky close enough to touch, it is not difficult to feel the presence of a life greater than our own.
We left the little church and wandered through the quiet lanes that skirt the river and wind between the hills, looking for the old holy wells. Even with the early tourists and ever-present walkers, there is an underlying peace to the area and a simplicity that seems at odds with the grand Hall and its architecture.
It had only been a few weeks since I had wandered off my usual road on my way north and had found the little church at Blore where St Bertram had first come to my notice. That day had felt as if I was being given a glimpse of the next chapter in our adventures and had sown the seeds for our visit to Ilam. It had also convinced us that we needed to visit another place on our list, one full of legends, not only connected to the saint, but to the old Norse gods and to Bram Stoker….and it wasn’t far away. We just had to find it…