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In Search of Gawain's Green Chapel

Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English Arthurian romance. It draws on Welsh, Irish and English stories, as well as the French chivalric tradition. Containing a beheading game and an exchange of winnings, a Green Man of folklore and allusions to Christ, it is both rich in material for scholars and attractive to teenagers as a story.

Written in stanzas of alliterative verse, and particularly well-translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, it tells the story of how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious ‘Green Knight’ who challenges any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Stepping in for his uncle the King, whom he deems too valuable to risk, Gawain accepts and beheads the Knight with his blow. But the intruder stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time for the return blow. Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle.

No one knows exactly who wrote the story, transcribed in a North West Midland dialect of Middle English, so its author is known as the ‘Gawain Poet’.

It was a fascinating enough tale when I taught it to a group of 14-year-olds a few years ago, and it gripped me to the degree that I set off one day to see if I could find the fabled ‘Green Chapel’ which Gawain seeks in his quest to find the Green Knight.

There are supposedly three possible sites for the Green Chapel in the Peak District in Staffordshire:

• ’Wetton Mill Cave’, about a mile north of ‘Thor’s Cave’

• ’Thor’s Cave’ itself, six miles east of Leek

• ’Lud’s Church’, an open cavern on the Staffordshire Roaches, north of Leek

I selected the last one, Lud’s Church, as the object of my own quest. It was hard enough to get close either by car or walking. And I had to keep the actual text in mind as I went along. In the long poem, Gawain descends into a valley, coming across a scene of natural wilderness with high banks above and cascading stream below with a stark group of ‘ruze knocked knarrez with knorned stonez’ (line 2166).

Then he spurs Gringolet and follows the path;

pushes in by a hollow beside a thicket;

rides through the rough slope right to the dale;

and then he looked about him,

and wild it seemed to him.

He saw no sign of dwelling anywhere around,

but on both sides high steep banks,

and rough hunched crags with projecting stones;

the shadows of the cliffs seemed to him terrible.

Then he paused and held back his horse,

and oft changed his cheer while seeking the chapel.

He saw none such on any side,

and strange it seemed to him.

But soon, a little distance off

on a grassy spot he descried a mound as it were,

a smooth hill by the bank of the stream

near a ford of the flood that ran there.

The burn babbled there as if it were boiling.

The knight urges his steed,

and comes to the hill;

lights nimbly down,

and ties the rein and his rich bridle

to a tree by a rough branch;

then he turns to the hill and walks about it,

debating with himself what it might be.

It had a hole at the end and on either side,

and was overgrown with grass in clumps everywhere,

and was all hollow within —

nothing but an old cave or a crevice of an old crag.

He could not understand it at all.

‘Alas, Lord,’ quoth the gentle knight,

‘can this be the green chapel?

Here about midnight the devil might tell his matins.’

‘Now,’ quoth Gawain, ‘it certainly is mysterious here;

this oratory is ugly, overgrown with herbs.

Well it beseems the wight clad in green

here to do his devotions in the devil’s wise.

Now I feel in my five wits

it is the fiend that has made this bargain with me,

to destroy me here.

This is a chapel of mischance;

may ill fortune betide it!

It is the cursedest kirk that ever I came in!’

With high helm on his head,

his lance in his hand,

he strides up to the rock of the rude dwelling.

Then he heard from that high hill,

in a rough cave,

on a bank beyond the brook,

a marvellously savage noise.

Lo, the cliff clattered as though it would split,

as if one were grinding a scythe on a grindstone.

It whirred and screeched like water at a mill;

it rushed and rang that it was ruth to hear.

‘By God,’ quoth Gawain then,

‘that gear, I fancy,

is being prepared to give me a good reception.

Yet though I must lose my life,

fear shall never make me change colour.’

Bertilak’s castle, where Gawain has the bulk of his adventures as Lady Bertilak tries to seduce him, is two miles from the Green Chapel (line 1078); Swythamley Grange is only two miles from Lud’s Church sitting on an elevation overlooking the Leek valley south towards Dieulacres Abbey and east towards the escarpment known as The Roaches. The area is surrounded by a forest, known in the Middle Ages as the High Forest, where hunting used to occur.

To approach Lud’s Church, I climbed up to The Roaches and along their bleak summit, leaving behind the already lonely road where I had parked the car. It must have taken two hours at least to reach the middle of the escarpment. All was quiet. The stony ground was uneven and tricky in parts, and there were no birds or even much sunlight.

Picture © Bob McCraight

Well before getting anywhere near the Church, I came upon a pool straight out of fairy tales, wide and of unknown depths, reflecting a gloomy sky, magical enough to be a destination in its own right. This is Doxy Pool, about 1600ft above sea level. Apparently, it always seems to be full, yet does not have any catchment area -perhaps a small artesian spring found at the eastern side of the pool feeds it enough water to keep it topped up. Others believe that the pool is somehow connected to Blakemere another pond found on top of Morridge Moor about three miles away, but neither body of water seems to have any catchment area to speak of, so a theory has developed that both pools are connected are fed by an underground system. Doxy Pool is also supposedly inhabited by a spirit, possibly the Celtic goddess, Brigit.

Picture © Bob McCraight

Not directly encountering a spirit on this occasion, I plodded on, guided vaguely by an old map towards the end of The Roaches. By this time, the solitude. the silence and the starkness of the scenery had somewhat deterred me from my original goal. The surroundings felt magical, no doubt of that, but I was getting tired and it was getting dark.

As twilight deepened, I slowly made my way back to the room in which I was staying, putting off the quest until the next day.

Gawain had headed out into the wilderness, traveling through North Wales and the west coast of England in his search for the mysterious Green Chapel. He had encountered foes including wolves and dragons, bulls and bears, boars and giants, sleeping in his armour. As the winter grew colder, he had nearly frozen to death. My journey the following morning in October was not quite as arduous -wolves, dragons, bulls, bears, boars and giants being extinct or rare in this district at least. I headed down into Forest Wood, walking along a rushing brook to a signpost for Lud’s Church. The path seemed long and the destination invisible.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, Gawain prays to the Virgin Mary that he might find a place to attend Christmas Mass, repenting of his sins, crossing himself three times, and looking up. I have to admit that I wasn’t in such a prayerful mood when I sat down on a cold rock to rest, about to give up the journey altogether.

But then I looked up too.

Gawain, as if in answer to his prayer, sees a beautiful castle, surrounded by a green park and a moat, in the distance through the trees, looking as if it were cut out of paper.

The extraordinary thing was that I saw a castle too.

Through the wintery branches of a line of nearby trees appeared a silhouette of a mediaeval castle, with evenly spaced battlements, where I felt sure there had been no such shape before. Blinking, I realised that the shape wasn’t actually the outline of a castle, but a trick of the light. Some rocks beyond the trees had taken on the apparency of battlements. This is the Castle Cliff Rocks, which, viewed from a certain angle, look like a stone fortress. (Picture © Chris Sheldon) It struck me that the Gawain poet probably had exactly the same experience and included it in his poem. Reinvigorated, I went on.

Then I arrived at the entrance to Lud’s Church. This is a chasm between the rocks, the entrance to which could be easily missed. Immediately the mood changed. Between the rocks the air was cold and as I turned the corner at the bottom it felt as though I had entered a different world. The pathway lies along the base of a narrow abyss of wet, dripping stone, green with grasses and moss. I could well believe that Gawain had heard the grinding of a battle-axe as he made his way through this place.

The first mention of the name ‘Lud' occurs in the Bible in Genesis chapter 10, verse 22: ‘the eldest son of Noah was Shem and his fourth son was called Lud'. But Lud’s Church is believed to have been a sacred place to early pagans and Lud is actually a Celtic deity. The Lollards (followers of the reformer John Wycliffe, 1320-84) are believed to have used the area for worship in the early fifteenth century when they were being persecuted by the authorities and a man called Walter de Ludank (or Lud-Auk) was captured there. Whatever the history, there is a definite atmosphere in amongst the stones.

Antiquarian and former rock star, Julian Cope, tells that Lud’s Church is a natural temple that used to have a strange idol, a white figurehead known locally as ‘Lady Lud', or ‘Lewd Lud', in the rocks out of the reach of visitors. About 1862 the landowner, Philip Brocklehurst of Swythamley, placed a ship's figurehead in the form of a woman at the entrance of the ravine, apparently intended to commemorate the supposed martyrdom of the daughter of a Lollard preacher. It was still there in 1914, but had disappeared by the end of the 1930s.

I came out of the entrance of the gorge or open crevice at the other end, convinced that this was the Gawain poet’s Green Chapel and somewhat relieved to be out of the eerieness and into the open air once more.

And so I took my leave of the Green Chapel, for I was convinced by my adventure that I had found it. Was it really the place that the Gawain poet had selected to feature in his long poem? What was the truth of all the strange stories about Lud’s Church? Some things are better left as mysteries, like the Green Knight himself at the end of the poem. He is reconciled with Gawain and they say goodbye to each other, just as I said goodbye to the moss-grown cleft high in the hills of the Peak District:

They embraced and kissed, each entrusted other

to the Prince of Paradise,

and they parted right there in the cold.

Gawain on horse full fair rides boldly to the king’s court,

and the knight all in green whithersoever he would.

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