Is Ludchurch Sir Gawain’s Green Chapel?
One day in May 1135 some white monks from Comberemere Abbey founded a new Cistercian monastery near a ford on the Dee at Poulton a few miles upstream from Chester. In itself this is no great event, however there is accumulating evidence to strengthen the view that in due course the founding of Poulton Abbey led to the writing of the greatest medieval poem outside the work of Chaucer: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Although we have no clue to the identity of the poet, he seems to have a familiarity of the landscape which is descibed in the poem and with the scenes depicted. In one place in the poem, while Sir Gawain searches for the Green Chapel, we are actually given a piece of genuine itinerary. Sir Gawain is journeying through North Wales, leaving Anglesey on his left hand, and then crosses the Dee by some ford into “the wilderness of Wirral.”
The remaining action of the poem takes place in or near the castle of Bercilak de Hautdesert (who later turns out to be the Green Knight) and, although no more place names are mentioned, the poet was obviously at home in the wild, hilly countryside he describes. The nearest scenery fitting these descriptions within the area covered by the poets dialect is the Staffordshire Peak country, and here is our first important link with Poulton, for as the Welsh proved unruly neighbours, the whole Abbey while retaining its Cheshire possessions was moved in May 1214 to a wild corner of the Staffordshire moorland, by the river Churnet on the outskirts of Leek, to become the abbey of St. Mary and St. Benedict of Dieulacres.
The organizer of this move was Ranulph Earl of Chester, whose father according to tradition had died near the same spot, at his favourite hunting lodge of Swythamley, which formed part of the new abbey’s endowment.
The remains of Dieulacres Abbey are all that can be seen today on Abbey farm on the outskirts of Leek.
Here the monks established one of their granges, half farm, half miniature monastery, cultivating forest and marsh until the grange became the “Parke-laund” of the sixteenth century, and it is still a private seat.
There was never a castle at Swythamley such as Sir Gawain so opportunely discovered, but not only is Gawain’s approach to the castle very like the journey from the present Abbey farm to Swythamley park, but there is also a distinct likeness between the terrain at Swythamley with its central eminence, once called Knights Low, and the situation of the poetic castle, enthroned on a lawe. That such a castle never existed need not suprise us, for the several up to date features so expertly enumerated by the poet were only just beginning to make their separate appearance in English domestic and ecclesiastical architecture. It was a brilliant vision superimposed upon a genuine English hill.
Many architectural features from Dieulacres abbey have been incorporated into the farm buildings of Abbey farm on Abbey Green road close to the town of Leek.
It is here that Sir Gawain relaxes and is subjected to the temptation of his alluring hostess while her husband is away hunting, for three successive days, deer, boar and fox. Here again the terrain is at times so vividly described that identification becomes possible, particularly on the second day, that of the boar hunt.
Starting from Swythamley, within echoing distance of the Roaches (the poet’s rocheres), the hunters crossed the latter, then headed northwards past Flash (the poet’s flosche) towards the steep valleys of the Wildboarclough country beyond the river Dane. Many of the features the poet mentions in unusual topographical words still bear the same or closely similar words today.
Sir Gawain was able to relax at Bercilak’s castle bacause upon his arrival he had been assured that the Green Chapel which he sought was “not two miles hence.” Again the poet was speaking from personal knowledge, and it is almost uncanny to read his description and the directions given to Gawain by his guide and then to walk the two miles that seperate Swythamley Park from what is surely one of the most fantastic natural chapels in existence, namely Ludchurch.
From the top of a “high hill” Gawain’s guide points to a steep valley:-
Ride down this path along that rocky bank,
Till you reach the bottom of this forbidding valley,
Then look up a little among the trees on your left hand,
And there, along the valley, you will see the Green Chapel.
Anyone can make the same journey today, first climbing up towards Roach end from Swythamley, then turning sharply northwards and down again, steeply, some 500ft in under a mile, into the valley of the Black Brook and thus to its junction with the Dane at the Forest Bottom. Sir Gawain saw no building there, only rocky crags and strange piles of stone all knokled and knorned; and indeed all you can see today, up on the left bank, are the twisted shapes of Castle Cliff Rocks.
Castle Cliff Rocks overlooking the river Dane.
But the poet knew that there was something else there, “either an old cave or a crevice of an old crag – he could not say for certain,” a tremendous rock fissure entered through a cave like hole in the hillside. Already in the seventeenth century a Dr Plot, historian of Staffordshire, knew it was Lud’s Church or Ludchurch, truly a weird church, about 100ft long, with vertical walls up to over 50 ft in height and nowhere more than 10 ft in width, and with a hole in each end leading downwards into the earth and hitherto only partly explored. Tradition records it as the hiding place of the Lollards and the surrounding region is rich with legends of headless riders and a tall man dressed in Lincoln Green.
One other detail the poet adds, and again its source is at the same spot: after Sir Gawain had climbed to the top of the Green Chapel he hears from “that high hill” a strange tumult emanating from the other side of the brook, a fierce grinding noise “grievous to hear.” There is no forge now at the Forest Bottom, but on old maps it is still marked, and the little wooden bridge over the Black Brook still bears the revealing name of the original stone arch, Castor’s Bridge, and traces of iron slag lie not far below the soil.
Slag from the forge which existed many years ago can still be found littering the path at Castor’s Bridge, below Ludchurch on the edge of the Back Forest.
Photographs by Gary Tacagni.