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Travel and retreats: A hike into the past

28 January 2022

Pat Ashworth walks a section of the Peak Pilgrimage, while Diana Bentley is inspired by Eyam at the route’s end

Pat Ashworth 

The popular beauty spot of Dovedale, on a January Sunday

The popular beauty spot of Dovedale, on a January Sunday

WALKERS and family groups enjoying Dovedale on a January Sunday probably have no idea they are on a pilgrim route. This is one of the Peak District honeypots, a mossy, craggy valley famous for the stepping-stones that straddle the fast-flowing River Dove.

We’ve done a muddy field-walk over here from ancient Ilam, the start of the 39-mile Peak Pilgrimage route that finished in the village of Eyam, where villagers sacrificed their own lives to keep the Great Plague contained, in 1665-66. The route was devised in 2015 by the Ven. Bob Jackson, who worships at Eyam, and who produced the lively pocket guide that accompanies the trail.

This isn’t one of the heads-down, battle-the-elements sort of pilgrim route. There are, the guide emphasises, no scrambles, exposed ridges, or exhausting ascents, and much of the walking is in river valleys. But there’s plenty here to give a sense of achievement, not least the rise of flagged steps in Dovedale that take the footpath steeply above the river, and then return it to the valley floor.

Boardwalks hug the cragside in narrow sections close to the water. It’s a Wind in the Willows sort of river, with clear water over the limestone bed, and I love the fact that Izaak Walton and the local squire, Charles Cotton, wrote The Compleat Angler here.

We’re heading for Milldale via the packhorse Viator’s Bridge, named from a passage in their book. There are a dozen churches along the whole route — staging-posts where you can get your guidebook stamped, and collect a sticker and Bible verse to insert (although there may be some Covid-related closures). The full set, presented when you arrive at Eyam, will earn you a special memento of the journey.

The Methodist chapel at Milldale is tiny, primitive but fully functioning. The prayer of blessing in here is apt: “As the hills cradle the valley floor, so may you be sheltered in God’s love for you. As the river moves ever onwards, so may you go forward in your journey of faith. As the moorland flowers flourish brightly, so may you show God’s joy to those around you. May the God of all grace, light, and life, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you always. Amen.”

We are doing just a section of the walk today, my daughter and I: a taster for the future. The whole route can be done in three days, staying overnight at Hartington and Over Haddon, or in four, staying at Hartington, Monyash, and Bakewell. Five could include a stay in Baslow, and a day at Chatsworth, with a glorious alternative route along the gritstone Edges; and a leisurely six will give you a stay at Alstonefield.

That’s where we’re heading now. St Peter’s, in Alstonefield, is large and commanding in its setting. We lift the heavy latch and creep inside. It’s dark, but someone has laid all the brightly embroidered hassocks in angled rows on the top of each pew, like an art collection. It’s stunning. There are Kilner jars on a table, filled with snack bars for passing walkers to buy, in aid of upkeep: “Please close the glass jar to prevent the inquisitive church mouse.”

We continue on, heading for Hartington on field paths and farm tracks, and reuniting with the river from Gypsy Bank Bridge. We’re glad of walking poles as we descend, even though steps have been cut into the grassy slope — and there’s an option to avoid this bank if it’s particularly wet and slippery. We are in Wolfscote Dale now, with rocky outcrops and caves where wolves are rumoured to have dwelt. More meadow, woodland, and fields, and we are in Hartington. The whole stretch is just over nine miles.

It is the season of pilgrimage in Lichfield diocese, and the Peak Pilgrimage route is one of five available there: the latest being the new route from Lindisfarne to Lichfield, being walked in a staged relay that ends on St Chad’s Day, on 2 March. The others are the 92-mile Two Saints Way, between Chester and Lichfield; the 70-mile St Winefride Pilgrim Trail, from Shrewsbury Abbey to Holywell, in Flintshire; and the 20-mile Abbesses Way, from Welbeck Priory to Shrewsbury Abbey.


Travel details

FOR information on the Peak Pilgrimage, and to buy the guide, visit peakpilgrimage.org.uk. A gentle walk of the route takes five days; if you want to stay for a full week, add an overnight stay at Ilam, and one in Eyam at the end of the route. Accommodation options at the start include Dovedale House, Lichfield diocese retreat house (dovedalehouse.org), and Ilam Hall YHA (YHA.org.uk); private rooms at YHA Eyam start from £29. There are B&B options, pubs, hotels, youth hostels, and camping and caravan sites along the way at Alstonefield, Hartington, Hurdlow/Sparklow, Monyash, Over Haddon, Bakewell, Baslow, and Calver/Curbar.


Eyam in focus

IT SITS high up among the folds of green hills in the Derbyshire Dales, in the Peak District National Park, the very picture of a peaceful English village. Flanking the narrow, winding streets of Eyam are stone cottages with flower-strewn gardens.

As you stroll around, it would be easy to think that nothing of any consequence could have happened in so serene a place. For that reason, the first stop might be the parish church of St Lawrence’s (of Saxon and Norman origin, and whose churchyard has an eighth- or ninth-century Saxon preaching cross). Inside, an exhibition tells the story of the remarkable self-sacrifice made by the villagers of Eyam, which gained it enduring renown.

As bubonic plague ravaged London in the summer of 1665, a flea-infested bolt of cloth was sent from the city to Alexander Hadfield, a tailor in Eyam. The tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, opened the bolt, and was the first in the village to die of the plague.

By the spring of 1666, many villagers were contemplating fleeing their homes. But encouraged by the rector, the Revd William Mompesson, and his predecessor, the Revd Thomas Stanley, the villagers agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent the disease spreading beyond the village to surrounding communities.

Mompesson is portrayed in one of the church’s windows, and his handsome chair still stands here. In the graveyard lies the tomb of his wife, Catherine, who had helped care for the sick and dying, the only plague victim allowed to be buried there.

istockOne of the Plague Cottages in Eyam, once belonging to Mary Hadfield

A walk across the street from St Lawrence’s are the Plague Cottages, bear plaques commemorating the losses suffered there. One tells us that Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children within eight days. Mary Hadfield lost her tailor husband, two children, and the first plague victim, Viccars, in her home.

The village’s plague history is also told in the Eyam Museum, tucked off its main road. During the village’s isolation, the Earl of Devonshire, nearby at Chatsworth, and other neighbours provided food and supplies, left at certain boundaries outside the village. Short walks will take you to two that remain: the Boundary Stone, which lies in a field, and, at the other end of the village, the stone-clad Mompesson’s Well.

Families were forbidden to bury their dead in the communal cemetery; instead, on a grassy slope in a paddock, lie the Riley Graves, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her family. Further afield is Cucklet Delf, a quiet hillside where Mompesson held socially distanced open-air church services, another measure to contain the disease.

By the time the plague abated, 260 lives had been lost, an estimated one third of the villagers. Those who survived seem to have had a resistance to the disease, and some of their descendants still live in Eyam.

Other aspects of the village remain wonderfully preserved from those times. The stately 17th-century Eyam Hall (open to visitors when not restricted by Covid), built six years after the plague and home to 11 generations of the Wright family, dominates the centre of the village. In Eyam Courtyard, its former farm buildings, you can now pause for tea and cake or Italian street food, and browse its boutique craft shops.

Eyam later became a centre of mining, cloth, and shoe manufacture. But its response to the plague has never been forgotten. At the end of each August, a village carnival is held, and the church has a plague commemoration service, at which the Rector leads a procession from the church to Cucklet Delf.

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