Tucked away on a bend of the Manifold river, Ilam Hall village was built in the 1820s on the instructions of Jesse Watts-Russell. The original Victorian houses of the village echo the fairy-tale image of the hall, built at a time when skilled labour was cheap.
It was also a time when tenants could be moved at the whim of their landlords if, as in this case, he wanted more space or privacy.
The Ilam Hall we see today, with its Tudor-style chimneys and mock Gothic architecture, is only part of the original building; the central tower and most of the formal rooms were demolished in the 1930s. The rest of the building was due to suffer the same fate when it was bought by Sir Robert McDougall, a Manchester businessman. He had the remaining parts of the hall made habitable and presented it, together with the grounds, to the National Trust, instructing that the hall be used as a youth hostel.
Hall and village replaced dwellings of a much earlier vintage, whose history can be traced back to Saxon times. St Bertram, an early Christian missionary, hid himself in a cell near where the river bubbles to the surface below the hall. By his pious example, he persuaded the locals to abandon their pagan beliefs. It is possible he preached at the foot of the rough cross which now stands by his church. Carving on the cross is Viking, dating from around AD900-1000. The church was ‘improved’ by Watts-Russell and its original 17th – century lines are broken by an octagonal mausoleum.
The shaft of another stone cross, known as the Battle Cross, was found in the foundations of a cottage during the rebuilding of the village. It now stands to one side of the riverside walk and is thought to commemorate a battle in AD1050 between local Saxons and invading Danes.
The walk starts by following a riverside terrace where the 17th -century dramatist Congreve wrote part of his comedy ‘The Old Bachelor’, then climbs above Hinkley Wood on the opposite bank of the river. Crossing pasture, the walk then joins the abandoned turnpike road from Cheadle (Staffs) to South Yorkshire via Thorpe. The barely discernable line of the old road is followed to Coldwall Bridge where a left turn follows the river back to Ilam.
The Walk :
From the car park walk down steps towards the river and turn right along a terraced woodland and riverside path, passing St Bertram’s Well along the way.
St Bertram lived in the little cave below which the river bubbles out from a rocky overhang. The water, part of the River Manifold, has travelled about 5 miles (8km) underground from Darfur Bridge near Wetton to emerge at this point. The trees being mostly beech are magnificent in their autumn colours.
Battle Cross is a little further on along the path.
Ignore the footbridge on the far side of a field as you pass, but turn left and cross the next and which starts almost next to the path you have followed.
Go over the small field as far as a stile. Climb this and bear left, steeply uphill on a faint path close to the side of Hinkley Wood until the path joins a grassy track.
Turn left along this and follow a boundary wall on your right.
Pausing for breath, look back for the view of Ilam Hall seen through its sheltering trees. Beyond it rise Bunster Hill and Thorpe Cloud at the southern entrance to Dovedale.
Cross the dip of a dry valley and aim for a broad track which curves uphill around wooded Hazelton Clump.
Climb over an awkward stile and turn left along the metalled by-road. Follow it across Blore cross roads to Coldwall Farm.
Turn left away from the road; go through the farmyard and into a field. Walk downhill, tracing the curving route of the abandoned turnpike road.
The 16th-century farmhouse, which is set back from the road, was formerly Blore Hall.
Walk down to the bridge, but do not cross and turn left keeping to the west (Blore side), of the river. At first follow a fence above the hawthorn-covered slopes until a gap gives access to the river bank.
Follow the river upstream from Coldwall Bridge.
Sturdy buttresses show how this long-abandoned bridge over the River Dove has outlasted its need.
On reaching the road into Ilam village, climb the short flight of steps beside the bridge and turn right, past the memorial cross and into the village.
Ilam village. The elaborate cross is a memorial to Mrs Watts-Russell, a constant reminder to the villagers of this not over-popular lady. Admire the attractive cottage gardens of the ‘ginger-bread’ styled cottages of Ilam Village.
Turn left into the drive leading to Ilam Hall, then left again past Dovedale House and along a path to the church where a right turn reaches the hall.
There is a National Trust shop and café in the grounds.
4½ miles (7.2km). 393 feet (120 metres) of easy woodland ascent, with fieldpaths throughout.
Refreshments at Ilam Hall.
Nearest pubs at Thorpe and Alstonefield.
Parking in the grounds of Ilam
Hall near the youth hostel.