Sunday, 30 June 2013

Heading to the Forest: The English Gretna Green

The path of true love for many might have been the quickest route to the Scottish border, angry relatives in tow, but for the lovelorn couples of the Peak there was a more local, slightly less onerous, alternative.

A legal anomaly meant that the Church of St Charles, King and Martyr in the village of Peak Forest could issue its own marriage licences, free of the rules of the Established Church – and parental consent.

Peak Forest came into being in the early 1500s, when an enclosed park for the King’s deer was created between Tideswell and Chapel-en-le-Frith. A house, known as ‘The Chamber of the Forest’, was built for the park steward, and became the administrative nub of the newly forming village. St Charles, King and Martyr was built in 1657 by Christiana, Countess of Devonshire, and, as it stood on land belonging to the Royal Forest, lay outside the jurisdiction of the Church. Its vicar – officially, and rather wonderfully, called the Principal Officer and Judge in Spiritualities in the Peculiar Court of Peak Forest – could perform marriages at any time, for people who did not necessarily reside in the parish, without having to read the banns first. 

One of the Peak District’s most intriguing tales concerns a couple who, in 1758, were eloping to Peak Forest. Clara and Allan had made it as far as Castleton, when they stopped at a local inn. Later, as they rode through lonely Winnat’s Pass, they were robbed and murdered by a group of men who had also been in the pub and noticed  the money-bag they were carrying. The lovers’ bodies were never found but divine justice was theirs: of their five assailants one broke his neck (also in the Winnat’s Pass), a second was crushed by falling stones, the third committed suicide and the fourth died mad; the fifth died young, making a death-bed confession to the crime.

Clara’s red leather saddle was recovered and can still be seen in the shop at Speedwell Cavern. It is said the ghosts of the couple haunt Winnat’s Pass to this day.

For another 50 or so years after Clara and Allan made their ill-fated bid to marry, couples headed to Peak Forest for a ‘foreign marriage’ to be performed. But in 1804 an Act of Parliament brought St Charles, King and Martyr into line with the rest of the Church of England.  The register notes: ‘Here endeth the list of persons who came from different parishes in England and were married at Peak Forest. This was a great privelege for the Minister, but being productive of bad consequences, was put an end to by an Act of Parliament.’

And so ended one of the most romantic traditions of the Peak. The original St Charles, King and Martyr was demolished in 1876 when the 7th Duke of Devonshire decided to replace it with the present building, which stands about 20 yards from the old site. Stone from the first church was, however, used in the construction of new reading rooms in the village, so at least something of its spirit remains.
St Charles, King and Martyr; photo by Poliphilo
                                           Winnat's Pass, early 20th century

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

‘For the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man’

Today marks the birthday of George Leigh Mallory, a talented mountaineer who became a national hero, and whose fate on the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1924 is debated passionately to this day.

Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, on 18 June 1886. His father, Herbert Leigh Mallory, was rector of St Wilfrid’s church, a position first held by a Mallory (Thomas, son of Sir William Mallory of Studley) as far back as 1619. 

George didn’t follow his father into the church, however. At 13 he won a mathematics scholarship to Winchester College, where he became interested in rock climbing and mountaineering. (Although it is said he scaled the tower at St Wilfrid’s aged seven, so perhaps it was always part of his make-up!)  After getting a degree at Cambridge, he became a teacher at Charterhouse, marrying Ruth Turner just six days before the start of the First World War. George served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the war, and then returned to Cambridge. In 1921 (now with three children) he resigned his post to join the first British Mount Everest Expedition.

By this time Mallory’s reputation as an exceptional mountaineer was uncontested; many considered him the best climber in the world. ‘His movement in climbing was entirely his own’, said Geoffrey Winthrop Young. ‘It contradicted all theory. He would set his foot high against any angle of smooth surface, fold his shoulder to his knee, and flow upward and upright again on an impetuous curve."  Fellow climber Harry Tyndale agreed: ‘In watching George at work one was conscious not so much of physical strength as of suppleness and balance; so rhythmical and harmonious was his progress in any steep place ... that his movements appeared almost serpentine in their smoothness.’

The attempt on Everest was unsuccessful, however, as was the Second Expedition, which was further marred by the deaths of seven porters in an avalanche, for which Mallory felt partly responsible and for which he was harshly criticised. Following the disaster he travelled to the US to lecture on his experiences, and in New York was asked why he wanted to climb Everest: ‘Because it’s there’, he famously replied.

And then came the Third Expedition. By now George was 37 and he knew it would probably be his last chance to become the first person to climb Everest. On 8 June 1924 Mallory and Birkenhead-born Andrew Irvine, who was 22, left their camp at 26,700 feet to make a summit attempt. They were sighted briefly by support climber Noel Odell at 12.50 pm, when he saw them scaling what he believed to be the Second Step on the Northeast Ridge (he later decided it was actually the First Step; some have since suggested it was the even higher, then unknown, Third Step), about 800 feet from the summit.

This was the last time they were ever seen alive – Mallory and Irvine never returned. Whether they reached the summit before they died has been a matter of contention ever since.

News of the loss of Mallory and Irvine was greeted with shock in Britain. A memorial service at St Paul’s cathedral on 17 October was attended by King George V and other members of the royal family, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and the entire Cabinet.

Memorials were erected around the country. They include stained glass windows in the South Cloister at Chester cathedral and at Winchester College. Unsurprisingly, there is also a window dedicated to him at St Wilfrid’s. Mallory Court at Magdalene College, Cambridge is named after him, and in 1925 US climber Norman Clyde named Mount Mallory  and Mount Irvine in California in the men’s honour.

As has been well documented, Mallory’s body was discovered on the North Face of Everest in May 1999. Two pieces of circumstantial evidence – the fact that he no longer had the photograph of his wife that he had planned to leave on the summit; and that he was carrying his snow goggles, implying the men were descending after sunset – have led some to believe that they did reach the summit. Others believe the Second Step was just too difficult to climb at that time.

After an Anglican service, Mallory’s body was covered by a cairn of stones and left on the mountain.


George Leigh Mallory; Mallory memorial window; detail of window; St Wilfrid's, Mobberley