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  • Writer's pictureAmber Haslam

Secrets of the Peak District- Ilam

This following piece of writing will be an in-depth account of a seemingly ordinary walk I took through Ilam, Staffordshire (pronounced Eye-lam) close to my home, in the peak district, in late December. I must note that before the walk me and my dad, who accompanied, me were feeling quite low, not because anything had happened but more because nothing was happening. As something to do we decided to go on a walk; he consulted our well used ‘white peaks walk’ book by Mark Richards, that has guided many of our family walks, and chose to follow this particular walk around Ilam and its surrounding areas. The weather was not in any way favourable: there was a strong cold wind and persistent rain, however I feel this strongly influenced my view of the landscape and how I experienced it. In fact, I found this walk had me thinking greatly about how the landscape affects many, which is the reason I have come to share my thoughts.

The walk began through the grounds of Ilam hall, a neo gothic stately home now owned by the natural trust. Passing through the gardens, where I saw a magnificent monkey puzzle tree, we came to the bank of the river Manifold absolutely gushing and full of water it was hard to believe that during the summer months this exact riverbank is often dry. This is because the river is fed by a natural spring. I walked quite a while along the tranquil sycamore lined river side until I reached an Anglo-Saxon battle monument depicting a cross carved into a piece of local stone. At first the juxtaposition between a depiction of battle and the romantic scenery appeared harsh to me. However, after reading the plaque, although I am not an avid historian, I gained greater knowledge of the importance of the battle against the Danes for the village of Ilam and its stately hall which is still the main tourist attraction and economic generator of Ilam today. A little further down from the battle stone the path winded through the garden of river lodge. Interestingly, the book, written in 1988, warned of a 2 pence charge to pass through the garden, like a toll road for walkers, but clearly this is no longer in action.

In accordance with the book, we then veered away from the river towards Musden grange farm. Here in the farmyard and surrounding field was some rather delightful sheep grazing away at the land. This makes one think of the important role of sheep, that is often overlooked, in maintaining the landscape for people such as myself to enjoy by acting as a mower. They not only make the land more accessible for people by keeping the grass short; they also prevent the growth of invasive plant species such as bracken, which helps to preserve the iconic peak district landscape that attracts so many tourists to the area. But as we climbed further up the fells and away from the farmyard the sheep disappeared and who could blame them as at this point the merciless winds blew strong and the rain pierced against any exposed skin. There were even two mushrooms lying battered and wet on the grass, I am imagining in the milder autumn month this field acted as a perfect biome for many mushroom species but on that particular December day I felt amazed by the grass for still clinging onto life in these powerful winter conditions.

When I did reach the fell top, I was met by the ruins of upper Musden as the book had promised. I was instantly intrigued by this derelict farm building, rooted in this bleak, high landscape. All that surrounded it was a few trees that were left sloped by the wind. These trees reminded me of those described by Emily Bronte that surround wuthering heights, although the derelict mansion was nowhere near as grand as I imagine wuthering heights to be. Nevertheless, I still felt a sense of creative inspiration from the Staffordshire moorlands, possibly similar that Bronte felt upon the Yorkshire moorlands, which I guess is the reason for me writing this now.

As I previously mentioned, I was intrigued by this place so when I got home, I tried to search for information of its past. Much to my disappointment there is little reported about it, due to its remoteness. However I did find a document stating that in 2017 permission was passed for someone to begin a restoration project on the building but still 5 years on from then the building remains absolutely untouched and untouchable. This is hardly surprising considering that no roads surround it. I almost feel as if nature is trying to protect this place from change. In a beautiful way the remote bleakness detracts humans from inhabiting and modernising this sturdy place that is so different to the grand hall a few miles away in Ilam. So on that note I will leave upper Musden with this quote from the book we used: ‘it has been cast off and fallen prey to the ravages of the elements’.

We then began to drop down the other side of the fell. The wind and rain still entwined in a ferocious whirlwind but as we decreased in altitude conditions grew calmer. This side of the fell gifted us with a gorgeous view of the interlocking spurs of the manifold valley. With no sight of roads, people or buildings it felt as though if I were stood here in the 200 years ago, during the time Ilam hall was being built, the view would look exactly the same.

And it was at this point as we neared the bottom of the hill that possibly our internalized, but not necessarily natural, human urge to follow the supposedly ‘safe’ guided path became a downfall. The book had told us to cross a ‘horse barrier at the bottom of the unnamed valley’ however we saw a well-built stile with a clear footpath sign which seemed a much more obvious route to take than this ambiguous ‘unnamed’ route. Although we soon learnt that in taking this obvious route, we had indeed taken a long way round and ended up losing the track of our walk for a mile or two. This inconvenient situation, for me, instantly resonated with the famous quote to ‘walk the less travelled path’ which in this case would have been beneficial for us. Although this was not a drastic situation where we became lost on some dangerous highlands it still goes to show that often that famous saying is true in our lives. In hinds’ sight we should have taken that ‘less travelled path’.

As I have just stated we did end up veering off track but fortunately we found a sought of guiding light, going by the name of Hazelton clump. Hazelton clump is a rather small clump of maybe 20 tree that stand on top of a hill. At first glance it would appear meaningless and just ‘another clump of ordinary trees but it was this clump of trees, referenced in our book, that guided us back onto our route. This caught me deep in thought about how we, as people, can use the land and its features as a type of natural satnav, by allowing nature to take us places and prevent us from ending up lost on the open grasslands.

And clearly it was not just us that had used these trees as a beacon as they were mentioned in the book, written around 35 years ago. Furthermore, the fact that this small cluster of trees has been gifted the human name ‘Hazelton clump’ shows that many previous to us have found significance in its presence. This made me consider how much we rely on the natural landscape without even realising, and that’s why we need to show it more respect. Imagine one day Hazelton clump gets cut down, maybe for timber or to create room for building, this ancient beacon that nature has gifted us, to help us navigate the often wild land, it will be lost forever. This is something we need to consider when making changes to any natural landscape. How does it serve us? How do we show we are grateful for its service?

Now back on track, our final stretch of the walk took us along a road down to Blore pastures, a pleasant picnic and view stop on the roadside. Upon this length of road we were lucky to see a herd of delightful reindeer. Their brown fur seemed so well accompanied with the environment that at first glance, I believed some of the sat down deer to be shrub covered rocks. It was also close to here I was witness to the common sight of a group, or appropriately scientific named ‘murder’, of crows attacking a singular buzzard. I presume this is some sought of defence mechanism against predator attack, although all I could think was that if I were the buzzard this display would aggravate me into showing merciless rage to a crow, which I have seen a buzzard do before., although this one must have had greater patience.

Just down the road we came to Blore pastures, a car park next to the road which offers a stunning view and an inviting stop. From the pastures one can see a breathtakingly clear view of Dovedale which is arguably one of the peak districts most popular tourist spots. I’m sure if you’ve ever visited yourself, you will have been on the iconic steppingstones at the bottom of the gorgeous V- shaped valley. Maybe, on a hot day, paddled in the river Dove and enjoyed the scenery of Thorpe Cloud that sweeps the valley side.

This well-known sight really spoke to me about the way people, myself included, visit places. The thousands who visit Dovedale and many are entirely unappreciative of: the grazing sheep that upkeep the land, upper Musden that is undergoing a return to nature, the materialisation of famous sayings about nature by nature, the beacon of Hazelton clump, the way the deer romantically pair with nature and finally the conflict between the buzzard and the crows. And all these valuable happenings all take place just a few miles away from the Dovedale honeypot sight; I feel privileged to have witnessed and learnt from them.

My final note is that there are many lessons to be learnt from the land and many questions posed to us:

Could you fall prey to nature’s elements? Could taking the less travelled path help you? Is there a Hazelton clump near you? Is it about time you pay your respects to it? Can you channel the patience of the buzzard when those around you act unfavourably due to their vulnerability? Inspired by the beautiful scenery I asked myself all these questions as the walk came to an end.


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