Lud’s Church: Pagan ritual sites, dark woods and deep chasms

Female rapper and Manchester music icon OneDa joins us on an adventure into a dramatic gorge hiding in woodland, somewhere between Buxton, Leek and Macclesfield.

By Manchester's Finest | Last updated 1 December 2022

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Walk: Lud’s Church
Time: 2h 23m
Distance: 6.38km
Elevation: 394m

There’s magic, mystery and mythology all over this next instalment of Weekend Walks. This time, we’re heading south to Staffordshire, where a dark-dark wood is home to some spectacularly atmospheric landmarks plucked straight from a fantasy novel.

Suffice to say, we need a comrade brave enough to explore Lud’s Church, just outside the whistle stop of Wincle, betwixt Buxton and Leek. So who better to join than OneDa, bonafide femme rap hero and the mastermind behind HERchester, a platform supporting emerging women, non-binary, and transgender emcees via workshops and training sessions? Probably no-one, hence us sending an invite to the rapidly rising star, who was up for exploring some of the most evocative landscapes in striking distance of Manchester.

Hanna Outdoors and OneDa

First thing first: getting to the starting point. Wincle isn’t blessed with public transport options, the nearest train station with direct services from Piccadilly is Macclesfield, and that’s 12 miles away. As such we recommend driving, with journeys from central Manchester clocking in at around one hour. Arriving into the village, home to just a few hundred people, park up at the Wincle Beer Company, which we’ll come to later.

From there, follow the country lane south over the River Dane, and our first waypoint is the appropriately titled Dane River Woods, which sit on a path east of the road itself — just look for the thick tree cover. A beautiful holt, when we visited the spot was brimming with summer life, and there’s a real sense of folklore about the place. The sort of surroundings that have found a way into many a tale over the centuries, although thankfully you don’t need breadcrumbs anymore. 

Pressing on through the trees, just as you start to feel things are heading deeper into wilderness our route brings us out into the fields of Hangingstone Farm — perhaps Staffordshire’s most picturesque smallholding. Passing by buildings and outhouses, the path leads to a narrow track, which we take for a minute or two before a path due north reveals itself, along with sight of the next significant stage in this journey. 

Hanging Stone, from which the farm takes its name, stands at the top of a heather-laden hill and, as you’d expect, offers incredible views over uninterrupted countryside. It can’t help but make you swoon, although our team preferred to recreate that ceremony from ‘The Lion King’, when Rafiki presents young Simba to the animal kingdom. Which is fitting, as this was the backyard of Sir Philip Brocklehurst. An aristocrat born and based in Swythamley Hall, just round the corner. He was involved in Ernest Shackleton’s mission to reach Antarcticas South Pole, and also attempted to establish a zoo for exotic animals close by. A plan scuppered when the critters escaped into this countryside.

Digressions aside, once you’re ready to continue we leave roads behind for the next stretch, and follow a trail across semi-moorland, until a fork marks the next waypoint.

Take the route east, which eventually turns south to run parallel with Back Forest and Forest Wood. After around one mile you’ll hit another junction. Here, you’ll want to head north east, back into thick forest, before soon doubling back on yourself for the approach to the main reason we’re here. 

As our guide Hanna puts it, Lud’s Church “feels like Middle Earth” transported to North West England, and could well have been used as an Indiana Jones set. This eerie, giant chasm stretches for 100 metres and is 18 metres deep, thick moss and shrubs growing over the gritstone face making things feel very ‘Tomb Raider’. Descending into the bottom of the gorge, it’s easy to understand why this became a 14th Century site of secret worship, away from prying eyes and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church, and has also hosted pagan rituals. Steeped in moodiness, there’s also a story about this giant scar being forged by the devil himself, who scratched it out using hellish claws. 

Spend some time exploring the crooks and crannies. Some parts narrow to the point where you can only just squeeze between the two sides of the rock face, low light levels accentuating the strange ambience. It’s at this point you’re likely to feel the most adventurous, although there’s still more to come. Namely Castle Cliff Rocks, which can be found by continuing on the path north as you emerge from Lud’s Church. Sitting on a small hill in the midst of the woods, this naturally-formed monument offers a great opportunity to regain your bearings at the summit. 

Alternatively, take a lead from OneDa’s book and use the space for meditation. The incredible vista really accentuates the connection between people and planet. An exceptional spot to practice any form of spirituality, make the most of the peace and quiet here as we’re approaching the end of our hike. Although not before another of this area’s unique assets, which you reach by following those paths back to Wincle, retracing the route by Hangingstone Farm, and through Dane River Woods. 

Our walk finishes where it began, and with well-earned refreshments. The Wincle Beer Company is easily one of the most picturesque breweries in the UK, and has a fine selection of ales and other pints all created on site. Stop off for a brew, with options including Sir Phillip and Wibbly Wallaby, both paying homage to that man Brocklehurst, and his failed zoo, reminding us how many stories this part of the country has to tell. 

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