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Exploring Derbyshire’s pilgrimage route from Ilam to Eyam

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 February 2016 | UPDATED: 20:25 06 November 2017

Church of St Lawrence, Eyam

Church of St Lawrence, Eyam

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From Ilam to Alstonefield, Hartington, Monyash, Bakewell, Baslow and Eyam, the stages of the Derbyshire’s new pilgrimage trail - set up to mark the 350th anniversary of the plague in Eyam - take in the glories of Chatsworth and the beauty of Lathkill Dale

Over HaddonOver Haddon

WHEN the Ven. Bob Jackson retired from being an archdeacon in the Church of England six years ago, there wasn’t much doubt about where he and his wife, Christine, would settle. Keen walkers both, they’d lived in lots of places during his years as a vicar, including Llanberis at the foot of Snowdon. But in seeking ‘walking country and natural beauty… and still somewhere central for travelling about’, the Peak District was the obvious choice. They settled on Eyam – ‘a lovely village with a proper village community,’ Bob says with pleasure – and in doing so, returned to the territory he enjoyed when growing up south of Sheffield.

The idea of a classic pilgrimage route through the loveliest parts of the Peak gradually evolved, brought into sharper focus by the commemoration last year of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the plague in Eyam. 100,000 visitors a year flock to Eyam, whose church is thought to be the most visited village church in the country. So ‘in odd moments, half a day here and there,’ he explored the possibilities of a footpath route that anyone could tackle, a route that was anything but an endurance test.

‘This isn’t about scaling difficult mountains. There’s nowhere that is more pleasing to the eye than the Peak, more full of natural beauty, that’s lush and green with wild flowers… it’s the quietly beating green heart of England,’ he reflects. ‘It’s a landscape that’s been lived in and shaped by humanity for hundreds of years. And it’s accessible, manageable. There are teashops everywhere. You can just take your time. For the purpose of a pilgrimage, you need to be able to relax – you don’t want to be forever getting out a compass and worrying that the mist is coming down.’

So he tried to find links and stories and histories that would help pilgrims have a spiritual experience on the route, and which would also be fun. For that’s the purpose of a pilgrimage too, he emphasises. ‘It was the first holiday before people started having holidays. They might go on a pilgrimage, so it was meant to feel good, exploring new places, talking on the way, looking forward to the destination; like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.’ A route of around 40 miles seemed the best option, something that could be comfortably done in anything from three to seven days.

Lathkill Dale waterfallLathkill Dale waterfall

Ilam was the obvious starting-point, not just for its proximity to Dovedale but because the village has been a pilgrimage destination for over 1,000 years, associated with Saint Bertelin (Bertram) and attracting many pilgrims over the centuries to the healing waters of the well. The saint’s shrine-tomb is inside Holy Cross Church. From Ilam to Alstonefield, Hartington, Monyash, Bakewell, Baslow and Eyam, the stages of the route take in the glories of Chatsworth and the beauty of Lathkill Dale: the first one a favourite, the second a personal ‘find’ for Bob. ‘I didn’t know Lathkill Dale before I started,’ he confesses. ‘The first time I had a poke down there, I thought, “This is marvellous; we’ve just got to come here.”’

He is enraptured by what he calls the ‘deep, secret, hidden world carved by water and inhabited by heron, kingfisher and dipper’ that is Wolfscote Dale; amused by the history of Hartington Station; uplifted by the wonderful gritstone edges of Curbar and Froggatt, an alternative to the riverside route. At a dozen churches on the route, pilgrims are encouraged to call in and collect a sticker to mark in their guidebook the completion of a stage, together with an appropriate Bible verse for that locality. ‘I start with the twenty-third Psalm, “He leadeth me beside still waters… he restoreth my soul”,’ he says. ‘That says it all, really – the route will take people along river valleys, with green pastures on either side, in a place that will restore the soul.’

He describes the churches on the route as ‘an interesting bunch’, ranging from the little chapel at Milldale – ‘the most unexpected and special church on the walk, a tiny sacred space virtually unchanged since it was built and still with no electricity or heating’ – to the great church at Hartington, where, as the only person in the building when he visited, he was much struck by the steady tick-tock of the clock beneath the tower. It led him to reflect in the guidebook, ‘Listen to the sonorous ticking of the great clock marking out the seconds of your life. If you live to 80, you will have 2,525 million of them, which sounds a lot, but they do seem to slip by rather rapidly.’

The guidebook – a handy format for popping in the pocket, and thoroughly tested on a trial of the walk undertaken with Christine as the photographer and what Bob cheerfully describes as ‘a bunch of old codgers like me’ – is informative, spiritual and light-hearted, full of observations as well as practical instructions and the appropriate OS map pages. Of the church of St Leonard’s, Monyash, he observes, ‘Constructed 1100 but the good people of Monyash had to wait until 2013 for a toilet. What fortitude!’ Of the great octagonal church at Stoney Middleton, dedicated to St Martin of Tours and built by Joan Eyre in 1415 as a thanksgiving for her husband’s safe return from Agincourt, he writes wryly, ‘We spifflicate the French then dedicate the church celebrating their defeat to their own patron saint! That’s chutzpah for you!’

On the way to Hartington stationOn the way to Hartington station

Elsewhere he reflects idly on the thrill of physics, on how much better the world would be if generosity ruled instead of greed, on how do you tell the difference between sheep and goat dung? ‘Have fun with this slightly eccentric but charming piece of ironmongery,’ he writes of the Cannon Kissing gates. ‘It’s never too early for an ice-cream,’ he suggests as a general philosophy. And his cheerful advice to those pondering whether to choose valley or edge when it comes to that section of the route is, ‘If you are feeling exceptionally vigorous or have spent a comfortable night among the fleshpots of Baslow and want the best of both worlds, take the route over the gritstone edges first.’

Eyam is the final destination. The guidebook includes William Mompesson’s famous and poignant letter to his patron, Sir George Savile, on the arrival and devastation of the plague. Here in the church, pilgrims who have completed the route will receive a special memento and can watch on the TV screen a welcome from the Rector of Eyam, the Revd Mike Gilbert – himself a long distance walker, fell-runner and potholer. He has run the whole Peak Pilgrimage between breakfast and tea – ‘I don’t recommend that!’ Bob says with a broad grin – and there’s much teasing of him for this in the guidebook. The two men are friends and colleagues.

‘When you get back to Eyam, the Bible verse is, of course, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”,’ Bob says. ‘The rock on which Eyam is built is the plague, which is a gospel story of people deciding to offer their own lives so that others might live.’ Feedback on the walk, which only came into existence in July of last year, has been overwhelmingly positive, from Christians to people of no faith at all, who simply found it a beautiful and uplifting walk. ‘I think people can take it at whatever level they want. That’s the beauty of it,’ Bob concludes.

He is hoping that when it becomes well established, it might also help the local economy in terms of places offering accommodation en route. There are youth hostels at Ilam, Hartington and Eyam: other suggestions for places to stay are given on the website. The book itself represents a triumph of self-sufficiency and co-operation in the church of Eyam: ‘We had all the skills here to produce and print the book to a professional standard, including an architect who sorted the maps and got all the permissions,’ Bob says in gratitude. ‘Everyone we have asked seems never to have put a foot wrong on the route and nobody has got lost. There are clear maps and detailed instructions and it’s honestly not that difficult.’

MilldaleMilldale

For Christine, who specialises in wildlife pictures but loves landscape photography too, taking the pictures was a joy. ‘I love the Peak,’ she says simply. ‘I love the drystone walls and the greenery and the scale of the countryside. It’s rugged but it’s gentler than Wales or Scotland. You don’t need to be a great mountain walker to access places like the edges, and they’re stunning. It’s just a beautiful place.’

To order a Peak Pilgrimage Guidebook use the website www.peakpilgrimage.co.uk. Phone Eyam Parish Church on 01433 630930 if you have any problems.

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