Returning home to Ilam

The walk we undertook in June – all 250 miles of it – was circular: while not describing a perfect circle, we ended up in Settle where we had started three weeks previously. In August we joined my brother and his family in Dovedale for a much shorter walk that nevertheless completed a large circle; we were bringing the remains of my mother back to the place where she had been born nearly ninety years before. Dovedale is a particularly beautiful area on the edge of the White Peak, named after the white limestone that breaks through the lovely hills and valleys in this part of Derbyshire. The river Dove forms the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and meets the Manifold in Ilam, the village where my mother was born in the schoolhouse. A favourite spot on the river is the stepping stones – I remember the excitement of crossing the river by them when a child;

My mother's grandson crossing the stepping stones
My mother’s grandson crossing the stepping stones

they occupy that liminal, in-betweeny space that can be fun and liberating. You cross over from one bank to the other, from one county to the other. The water runs clear and sparkling through a deep valley between hills that look almost like a child’s picture of a hill: Thorpe Cloud is peaked from one direction, but walk round and it has a flat top.

Thorpe Cloud
Thorpe Cloud






The hills are not very high, but they are steep-sided and offer beautiful views of the wooded valley. Wikipedia notes that ‘The Dovedale gorge is considered so scenic that it attracts a million visitors a year’.



The village of Ilam, with its houses built to look attractive on the drive to Ilam Hall, is green and pretty. The school house is a black and white building at the bottom of the steep sided Bunster hill.

The school house is nestling in the centre of this picture
The school house is nestling in the centre of this picture

My mother’s father was the schoolmaster, and her mother (unusually for the time, she continued to teach after her marriage) taught the younger children in the two-roomed school, which all the children from the surrounding farms attended until they were fourteen years old. There was no electricity, and my mother remembered being scared of the shadows thrown on the stairs as she took her candle up to bed. Life must have been hard, especially in the winter when the village could be cut off, and she contracted polio after falling into the icy water of a spring called Little Barlam. But it was a magical place that she always loved, and continued to visit, taking my brother and me there as children. I think her heart remained there so it seemed that taking a few of her ashes back was the right thing to do.

We scattered them from Little Bunster, a stony outcrop on the side of Big Bunster, from where we could look down on the school house. When she was in her final days, my mother said something about being on the banks of the river Jordan; it can be difficult to find the right words to speak about death and she was clearly worried about the approaching time when she would make that final crossing, from one world to another, from time to eternity, and pass beyond all that we know to the unknowable. I told her I was sure that the river Jordan looked very much like the river Dove, which she found comforting. I like to think of her as an eternal child able to walk, climb the hills and hop across the stepping stones in that magical valley. I am not imagining her as frolicking for ever in a pastoral paradise, but maybe at the moment when when one finally loses consciousness – loses oneself, one’s self – one is fully oneself, knows oneself. Christian belief talks of finally knowing and being known. Surely, when one knows oneself one is fully realised, and in our limited way we need some image to project onto that knowledge. The image of my mother as fully realised and completely happy has to be of her as a child in Ilam. And in that moment that had no duration, being outside time, maybe she was again a child, climbing little Bunster and playing by the river Dove.


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