Church of the Holy Cross, Ilam

The Church at Ilam sits picturesquely nestled between Ilam Hall on the Ilam Country Park estate and the valley of Dovedale within the Peak District. The church is in Staffordshire (the River dove next to it is the border with Derbyshire)

Viewing the church from the gardens at the Hall it looked like a scene straight from a postcard with Thorpe cloud in the background.

My great great grandfather originally from Wells in Somerset but living in Leek was married in this church in 1888, aged 18 although we are unsure why this church was chosen – maybe it held some significance or simply it was the nicest setting they had seen – It certainly is one of mine. 

View of the church behind Ilam hall and Garden

The church dates to Saxon times but was refurbished and partly rebuilt in the 17th and 19th Centuries. Parts of the original Saxon church remain such as the bricked-up doorway still clearly visible. The tower dates to around the 13th Century. 

Within the churchyard there are two ancient Saxon cross shafts from the 10th century. These were probably used as preaching crosses and are well over 1,000 years old. The carving remains clear and it is fascinating to think of the tales they could tell of over a millennia worth of history at this ancient location where time still seems to move wonderfully slowly. 

The original Saxon font can be seen inside, which apparently depicts scenes from the life of St Bertram. The Lamb of God and several human figures are carved around its sides, one pair with linked hands, while mythical beasts with talons and long necks are in the act of devouring human heads. 

Saxon preaching cross in the churchyard

Saint Bertram

Ilam has been a place of pilgrimage since the time of St Bertram and still is today.

Bertram was King of the ancient borough of Mercia in the 8th Century and became one of the most interesting of Staffordshire’s holy figures. He was also known by the names Bertelin, Bertellin and Barthelm and ruled all the land from Staffordshire to Bristol. 

He travelled to Ireland because he knew that St Patrick had found religious guidance there. Bertram ended up falling in love with an Irish princess, who he brought back to Mercia while she was pregnant. While travelling through the Moorlands, the princess went into labour.

Saint Bertram

Their child was born in the shelter of Thor’s cave in Wetton, but a tragedy occurred while Bertram was hunting for food.  His wife and child were killed by wolves, and the King became so overcome with grief, he renounced his royal heritage to live a more religious life.  Bertram approached the court of Mercia but did not reveal that he was their King.  He asked for some land on which to build a hermitage – a spiritual place that isolates people from the rest of the world, so they can be closer to God. This land was granted near Stafford. 

It is said that Bertram, having dedicated his life to Christ, was sought out by the devil who tempted him to turn stones into bread.  Bertram was known in Staffordshire and Cheshire as a wise and holy man.  Many people went to him for spiritual advice, at his retreat in Stafford, but he was always a hermit at heart. He found a cave in Ilam, in the Staffordshire Moorlands, and lived there until his death.

1,000 year old Norman font which is said to feature images of Saint Bertram’s life

In the tomb itself it felt like a really special place and there were hundreds of messages left by people praying for loved ones. Centuries old markings and graffiti adorn the tomb which looks ancient. I said a few prayers of my own.

There are other tombs within the south chapel. Interestingly, there are effigies are of Robert and Elizabeth Meverell of Throwley Hall a few miles away (please see separate post about Throwley). Above the couple is the standing effigy of their daughter Elizabeth Cromwell… Elizabeth’s husband was Baron Thomas Cromwell, grandson of the infamous Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s henchman and subject of “Wolf Hall”.

Throughout my visit I was imagining what the church would have looked like on my Great great grandads wedding day, I wondered who was there, what they looked like, I wondered on the sounds and the outfits and what he would think of me standing here today imagining all this. 

I plan to return here soon for another ‘pilgrimage.’

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