In the twelfth century what we now call the East Midlands was covered by dense forest, an extension of Sherwood Forest where the outlaw Robin Hood, if the story is true, robbed the rich and gave to the poor. In 1130 AD a Derby baker called Cornelius had a dream in which he was allegedly told to go to a place called Depedale (the old name for the area south of Kirk Hallam near Ilkeston) and worship God. At that time the district was surrounded by thick forest, but Cornelius found an outcropping crag of soft sandstone that seemed an ideal place for his hermitage. This he built by making a simple cave six yards long by three deep.
With a niche to hold a crucifix, a couple of windows and a doorway, together with an outer structure supported by timbers set into the outer wall, he was able to make a snug abode for himself; drinking water came from a nearby spring. Cornelius’s plan to live a life of peaceful prayer and contemplation was soon shattered. Pilgrims came from far and wide to hear him preach and take comfort from what he offered. They also took home phials of water from his spring. It was during this time that Ralph Fitz Geremund, Lord of the Manor of Ockbrook, while out hunting in Depedale came across the hermit. Moved by the hermit’s poverty and pious life, he provided funds for the creation of an abbey.
What is now known as Dale Abbey began its life in 1162 AD when Augustinian monks from Calke Abbey moved on to a site close to the hermit’s cave. They were joined a few years later by Premonstratensian canons together with another group from Welbeck Abbey, but before they could build the abbey they had to clear most of the forest and drain the land surrounding Depedale. For the first 37 years the land they created was poor and it needed a lot of work before it was suitable for growing crops.
What they did find was coal and ironstone which in later centuries were used in a local iron industry that expanded during the Industrial Revolution; even the massive foundries of the Stanton iron works made use of these underground riches. However it was wool that Dale Abbey’s fortunes were based on, for it eventually owned 24,000 acres of surrounding properties given over to sheep runs on outlying granges and tenant farms. In medieval times wool was in constant demand, clothing not only the living, but the dead whose shrouds by Royal Decree were made from wool. In its day Dale Abbey was quite a substantial building and even though only the east window and the foundations of one or two walls are left, they do give a clear impression of what it was like in its heyday.
The graceful soaring arch of the 40 foot high chancel window would have been filled with coloured glass that glowed in the morning sun. Excavations of the site show that the church had transepts a hundred feet long, with a central crossing supporting a square tower; monks were able to meditate in the tranquility of an 85 foot square cloister There is no written record of the names of monks who lived at Dale Abbey apart from John Bede who was the abbot at the time of the dissolution and who died soon afterwards in 1540.
Legend has it that Alan-a-Dale, one of Robin Hood’s henchmen was married at the abbey and from his name it sounds as though he came from the area. One of the tasks monks set themselves was that of caring for lepers and the sick and infirm. To this end they built an oratory about half way between the abbey buildings and the hermitage. This building later became the still functioning parish church. A rarity in Britain and certainly one of the smallest, the church is built into part of a farmhouse that at one time was even run as a pub called the Blue Bell. Clergymen would dress in the bar and enter the church through a now blocked doorway and it was not unknown for members of the congregation to nip back into the pub during boring sermons.
What stands today is the result of the last structural alterations that took place in 1480; the pulpit added in 1634 is another rarity. Everything came to an end in 1538 when Henry VIII quarrelled with Rome over his attempt to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. Denied his wish, in a fit of pique he issued an edict that closed/ dissolved the monasteries. Dale Abbey’s fate was no different to the rest of the country and the monks were thrown out to fend for themselves in the local countryside. All its tangible wealth was taken into the King’s treasury; the abbey’s stones were used for local building, but many of the special fittings such as window glass found their way into nearby churches and mansions.
The only recognisable remains apart from the east window, are carved stones in local cottage walls, and the solid masonry of the abbey’s kitchen chimney incorporated within the outer wall of the cottage next to the abbey ruins. King Henry VIII gave the abbey and its lands to Sir Francis Pole of Radbourne near Derby, but Sir Francis did not develop his windfall, preferring to strip the abbey of its furnishings and fittings. The ornate font cover is now in Radbourne church, the font itself found its way back to All Saints’ Dale Abbey Church in 1884. Some of the stained glass is in Morley Parish Church’s windows and a window frame adorns Chaddesden Church. The Hermitage The hermit’s cave can be reached from a signposted path within the ancient woodland of beech, ash, oak and lime, one of the few remaining traces of a dense forest that covered the region.
The cave dating from 1130 AD has two window holes, a doorway and holes high up in the outer walls that took the roof timbers of a lean-to shelter, A nearby spring associated with the hermit was once said to have curative powers. NB: please follow the newly made path around Church Farm which is strictly private. All Saints’ Church The church is a rare example of a church and house under one roof but is well worth visiting if only to view the extraordinary mix of architectural styles dating from around 1150.
Dale Abbey The abbey is on private land, but permission to explore the site can usually be obtained from Abbey Cottage next to it. Apart from the great east window, the foundations of some of its walls can be seen and many of the artefacts found during archaeological digs are on display in a hut built over the foundations of one of the side chapels. Local legend speaks of knights in armour and unfound treasure, but so far nothing like that has been found. The east window can also be seen from the public footpath about half way along the road between the abbey and All Saints’ Church. Nearest place for refreshments The Carpenters’ Arms at the top of Dale Abbey village provides cooked food and a good selection of real ales. This month’s walk covers all the sites described above. Starting from Pioneer Meadows car park, it can also be reached by public transport from Ilkeston.