Whatever time of year you chose to visit this tiny village you will find you are not alone in your explorations. Even at first glance, it is not difficult to see why; nestling in the southern tip of the Peak District Ilam has a holiday atmosphere – inspired no doubt, by the Alpine-style cottages that line the main village street.
It wasn’t always thus, as these houses were rebuilt in the early 19th Century to suit the whim of Jesse Russell, the new owner of Ilam Hall and Estate. He not only changed their style, but also moved them further away from the main residence, so as not to spoil the view! The school building, dating from the 1850’s, is almost opposite the park entrance and is equally pleasing. A tribute to the ornate taste of the early Victorians, it looks like part of a film set – yet is still in use today as it was originally intended, with an average of 60 pupils attending this rural C of E school.
If you stroll down the lane, away from the hall, you will approach Ilam Cross. You could be fooled into thinking that this is an Eleanor Cross; with its elaborate stone decoration, it was deliberately built to mirror Edward the First’s monuments to his Queen, but actually commemorates Mary Russell, first wife of the aforementioned Jesse.
At this point, by the stone bridge, you have a choice; if you are adventurous and dressed for it, the road to the left takes you to the starting point for hikes up Bunster Hill and Thorpe Cloud, both of which loom enticingly over the village – or perhaps you want a less strenuous, but longer country stroll? In that case, this road also leads to Dovedale, three-quarters of a mile further on – the perfect location for family, or wildlife walks.
In fact, Ilam itself is very much an ideal destination for families. The gentle parkland surrounding what is left of the hall is full of hidden gems and historical relics. You can either double-back up the street to the main driveway, or follow the road to the right, over the bridge and up a little way until you reach an old road, leading back down towards the estate. This was once the original road into Ilam. If you do this, you will be on the south bank of the River Manifold where the path takes you on a delightful journey through the grounds. Staying this side will lead you steeply upwards through Hinckley Wood, planted in the 1800’s for “Autumn colour”, then down again to either continue at a lower level for a longer walk, or to cross a footbridge and return to the Hall and village-wards.
Elsewhere on this website, much has already been written about the history of the park and gardens, but as you wander, look out for these relics and natural phenomena.
First of all, after crossing the footbridge, you will come across the Battle Stone, dating from the 11th Century, then come the “boil holes” where the rivers Manifold and Hamps bubble out of the ground after ten kilometres beneath it; a little further along is St Bertram’s well and bridge and after exploring these, head back towards the hall to check out the lovely Italian Gardens and their amazing views. Hidden away round the back, where a little path leads down to the river, is a rocky grotto – a favourite haunt of William Congreve, the famed 17th Century wit and dramatist.
The hall is only half the size of what it used to be, but in miniature is still impressive. The original residence was rebuilt in 1820, then partly demolished in 1937. Since those days it has been a hotel, restaurant and is now a Youth Hostel – not a bad place to hole up for the night! If, on the other hand, you are just passing through, you can grab a cuppa from the tea-rooms above the gardens, or take a breather and browse the books in the estate shop.
To complete your circuit of Ilam, don’t miss popping into the historical Church of the Holy Cross just off the drive-way. A chapel mausoleum was added in 1831 and houses an impressive sculpture depicting Mary Russell at her father’s death bed, but the main draw in the older body of the church must surely be the Norman font with its chiselled images of the life of St Bertram, and the shrine of this local saint, dating from the 13th Century. This is still a place pilgrimage, as witnessed by prayers left on the stone tomb. Hanging from the arch, as you enter the side-chapel housing the shrine, are very rare examples of crantzes (or virgin garlands) dating from the 19th Century and carried over the coffin of an unmarried girl – (again see article elsewhere on this site).
Outside, weather-beaten stumps of two early Saxon crosses still stand in the churchyard – evidence that this has been a place of worship and pilgrimage since those ancient times. If you are a connoisseur of churches, then this place will occupy you for some time as it is steeped in history and legend, but if not, there is sufficient to impress even the casual wanderer.