Few spots in the Peak District can be more wreathed in myth and legend.
In fact, so legendary is Lud’s Church, it is hard to find anyone who has actually been there. But, if you are visiting the famous Roaches escarpment and enjoy a mission of discovery and adventure, then make the extra effort to find this atmospheric slice of Staffordshire.
Slice in Staffordshire would be more correct, for, as the OS map says, this is a proper “chasm” and you don’t come across too many of them. (Older OS maps may still read “Lud’s Church, Cave”, but this is just one of a dozen misconceptions about the place, proving how few people have discovered it).
Why should it be so much ignored by the great mass of the visiting public? Well, while not quite in the middle of nowhere, “off the beaten track” is a fair description; the nearest road is a mile away as the crow flies, so there are no big car parks or ice cream vans to be seen, which you will definitely think of as a blessing, as you tramp up through the beautiful, mature woodlands from Gradbach Youth Hostel.
Gradbach can be approached through the village of Flash, (the highest village in England), which is itself just off the A53 between Buxton and Leek. You will need to park up at a small car park, (marked on most maps) about a quarter of a mile from the said Youth Hostel and then walk down the lane, close to the river Dane, here in its first flush of youth. Continue on a footpath, right next to the river, past some lush meadows and you arrive at a footbridge on the edge of the forest, where the Dane meets with Black Brook. This place looks straight out of a film set for Robin Hood.
There are a few options here, footpath-wise, but, as luck would have it, you need the steepest-looking one, up the slope under the beech trees. After a while, the way is not so steep, as the path hugs the contours of the hill; a hundred yards or so further, and the shorter path up to Lud’s Church doubles back to the left. Such a little path; it is hard to believe it leads to anything significant.
And suddenly you are walking right into it. “Church” is the right description, atmospherically, but the denomination feels more toward the pagan end of things. The dimensions of the place, too, are on the scale of a large, roofless, village church - in length and height, but definitely not in width. Only a few metres wide, the chasm twists through the millstone grit, adding to a sense of mystery or even threat, as you are never sure what might be lurking around the next bend. Mostly, the path is fairly easy, but with a few slippery, natural steps as things become more tortuous at the far end. And then there is the colour. The underlying grey-brown rock is almost entirely covered with algae, mosses and ferns in varying shades of vivid green, all dripping with moisture in this perfect, damp micro-climate.
The green colour has led to one of the chasm’s mythical associations, as the site, or inspiration for “The Greene Chapel”, in the anonymous fourteenth century poem “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”. Written by a highly talented author from somewhere in the North West Midlands, (we can tell this from his use of local dialect words) the long narrative poem tells of Sir Gawain’s quest to find the monstrous knight at his remote home in the forest, with only the words “Greene Chapel” as a clue. It is a wonderful story, retold in many different translations over the years and the final showdown at The Chapel is as suspenseful and eerie as anything from Hollywood. This place feels like the perfect location. The only problem is that, when Sir Gawain eventually arrives there, it is not at all what he expected, from the name. The poem very clearly describes a grassy, green burial mound, (or barrow) sitting in a flat, green meadow next to a babbling brook. There is a hollow inside the mound which he somewhat disappointedly describes as, “Nobbut an old cave” (note the dialect!) So the description is totally at odds with Lud’s Church; but never mind. Local people love the association and if it does not have any real connection with Arthurian legend, that has never stopped other natural wonders, such as Alderly Edge getting in on the act.
Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie are all supposed to have hidden in Lud’s Church, (they do get about, don’t they?) What is true, is that the place was used by 15th Century non-comformists, the Lollards, as a place of worship and that the name of “Lud” may derive from Walter de Ludbank, who was taken captive here at one of their meetings.
There are many wonderful walks to be explored from this point through Gradbach and Forest Woods. You can combine a visit to Lud’s Church with a longer hike over the Roaches, or a more sheltered walk up the valley from Dane Bridge, so if you have been bewitched by the place, there are many excuses to return, perhaps bringing an unsuspecting friend, to enjoy their expressions of surprise and enchantment.
There are plenty of excellent local pubs for refreshment also, such as the New Inn at Flash (inevitably, “The Highest Village Pub in England”), or at Flash Bar, there is The Travellers’ Rest. The Winking Man is a little further on down the A53, towards Leek and very near The Roaches. If you are starting from the Dane Bridge direction, then food and ales at The Ship Inn, technically just inside the parish of Wincle, are not to be missed.