A Limestone Desk in Happy Valley

The limestone desk William Congreve used in 1690 to write The Old Batchelor

“The banks of the Dove lead to the majestic grounds of Ilam Hall, with its ancient limestone desk and the resurgence of the Manifold and Hamps through the river bed boil holes. This tranquil setting inspired England’s greatest lexicographer.”

Okeover to Thorpe Cloud via Ilam : Circular Walk - Map and Directions : Google Earth Tour for this Walk

The writers on the A Limestone Desk in Happy Valley route:

William Congreve - James Boswell - Samuel Johnson - John Edwards

With abbreviated extracts from The Literary Way, written by Terry Goble and published by The Creative Peak


Ilam Hall, and the model village that lays outside of its gates, is the focus for this walk on The Literary Way. It gives us the opportunity to bring to you a restoration playwright, whose plays were very popular before the bawdy nature of them fell out of favour with the critics and the public. His family took the side of the King in the English Civil War. They eventually went to Ireland, where our playwright received his early education. He became life long friends with Johnathan Swift, the writer of Gullivers’ Travels, and the friendship particularly came to the fore when they both moved to London. In addition, we return to Samuel Johnson, for not only for his views of Ilam, especially the river that passes through the ground, but also as he used this setting as the basis for one of his novels. We entitled the previous chapter Great Poor Writers and we said that Samuel was no exception. His story, inspired by Ilam, was due to a shortage of money, and was written before he became well-known in the haunts of London.

Our route has taken us from Okeover to Ilam, along the Dove Valley, on the Staffordshire side of river. When we reached the large Coldwall Bridge, with the village of Thorpe on the hill overlooking it, we entered The Peak District National Park, which was one of the first National Parks created in England, and remains one of the busiest. In this region, holidaymakers mix with day-trippers from major towns such as Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham. Ilam Hall is located in the south of the Peak District and is tucked into the valley of the River Manifold, which has steep limestone slopes and a famous disappearing river. The path along the valley takes us past the confluence of the Rivers Dove and Manifold and across the fields to the bridge, behind which we can see the roofs and chimneys of the hall. The village of Ilam, with its ‘chalet’ style houses and school, seems uncharacteristic of the area, where we tend to expect square limestone buildings, rather than high gables and tiled fronts. These buildings were part of the overall design of the model village that is now Ilam. The development was linked to the Gothic redesign of the main Hall that took place in about the 1830s.

We enter the grounds of Ilam Hall, which is now in the custodianship of the National Trust. As we approach the Hall, we can see that it is not a large building. There is a reason for this. Currently, it does not match its once magnificent opulence, but it still is a truly wonderful setting with many aspects to grip our interest. Ilam Hall has had three main stages to its development. Let us explain how things have changed. The hall you see in front of you is the remnants of a much larger one, which was built in the 1820s by Jesse Watts-Russell. The early 1800s saw a revival of Gothic architecture, and this is the style that Jesse wanted. At the beginning of that decade he bought the old Tudor hall and knocked it down to build a replacement. The Watts-Russell hall then passed from his family and, in the 1930s, it was bought with the intention of demolition. This was partly completed before Sir Robert McDougall, the flour magnate, bought it and passed it to the nation. Sir Robert was a major benefactor to the nation in this area and he donated, not only Ilam Hall, but also parts of Dovedale and other Peak District areas to the country. The part of the main hall that survives is a Youth Hostel, the designation of which was part of the bequest from Sir Robert.

If we a pass through the arch towards the old stable block, we can turn down and through the gardens from which the view is excellent. Across the fields, we can see the flat-topped hill Thorpe Cloud, which dominates over the entrance to Dovedale. In the foreground is a small quaint church set in the grounds of the old hall and having the wonderful backdrop of the limestone hills.

William Congreve

Let us now look back in time to the first Ilam Hall. This was a Tudor house built in about 1520 and was owned by the Port family from the 1600s. Just along the riverside path is a set of steps that lead us up into the woods. At the top of them is something of a surprise. There is a limestone desk. It is set in a rock grotto in the heavy shadow of the trees. The desk has an angled top and a limestone stool. Any one sitting at the desk would have a view down through the woods and over the river. One person who is believed to have sat there, during a period when he was convalescing, was William Congreve. It is supposed that he wrote his first play, a comedy, called The Old Bachelor whilst gazing over the valley. The play was first performed in 1693 and was a success. It would give him the first step in making him a famous Restoration playwright.

Let’s leave Congreve’s desk with one quotation, which is from one of his later plays. However it has now become a familiar part of the English language, albeit in a modified form.
Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned

The Mourning Bride – William Congreve

Samuel Johnson

On the riverside just below William’s desk there are railings that guard a curve in the river. By carefully studying the surface of the water, it can be seen to be ‘boiling’ up in two places. This is where water from the Rivers Manifold and Hamps resurface after quite substantial journeys underground. Upstream from this point, the river will often be a trickle, and it disappears in a dry summer. Downstream from the ‘boil holes’ there is always a good flow of water. The main waters of the River Manifold disappear into the limestone river bed, at Wetton, about six kilometres up stream and reappear in these ‘boil holes’. James Boswell included a description of the boils holes in Samuel Johnson's biography because the great man was very sceptical of such stories.

The bend in the path leads us to the full aspect of the curved valley. The far side of the river is wooded and rises steeply to tower over the open flat grassed area on our side of the water. We are at the edge of this flat area. On our right is a walkway, with a low balustrade, over which we can see the full sweep of the valley. This part of the grounds of Ilam Hall is called Paradise Walk. It is claimed that this valley inspired Samuel Johnson in the writing of Rasselas. He wrote it quickly in 1759 to raise money for his mother who was seriously ill. It is a story about an Abyssinian Prince who lived in Happy Valley.

There are many interesting links between authors on The Literary Way. In this case, Rasselas is being read by a character in another famous book. The character is Helen Burns, but you need to wait until later on The Literary Way, before we reveal the name of the book and the author.

At the end of Paradise walk we take the river path that leads us to a small bridge over the Manifold. We don’t take the bridge, but turn right up the small grassy bank and find ourselves looking over the estate land behind Ilam Hall. This part of the estate is a Country Park. The familiar estate layout is evident. That is, open grass with trees randomly dotted in landscape. By looking closely at the ground we see it is not even. There are parallel ridges in the direction we are walking. These grass ridges are about a foot high. The distance between successive ridges is about ten feet. We are looking at a ridge and furrow field system that probably originated in the Middle Ages. The land was allocated in the wide strips, often one to each local family that were then ploughed down their length. It was the type of plough that created the ridges and furrows. As we would expect it was an arable system of farming. The shape of this ploughed land was preserved when it was grassed over. It is feature of the countryside that we shall come across many times as we walk across the landscape. It has been preserved for so long because farming moved away from arable to animal farming and therefore the thin soils have never been ploughed with modern equipment.

John Edwards

Let us take our leave of Ilam and its hall with the words from a lengthy poem called The Tour of the Dove. It was written by John Edwards in 1821, and was dedicated to the owner of Ilam Hall.This is the section of the poem that describes Ilam Hall. It was written as the new Gothic Hall was being built. The lines refer to William Congreve’s grotto, as well as the flowering gathering of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who would have passed through the grounds of Ilam on his walks between Ellastone and Dovedale.

Ilam, thy ancient Hall is swept away!
A fairer soon shall lift its domes and towers;
While still thy fountain-deeps ebullient play,
And newborn rivers grace thy laurel bowers
And fossil grots. Strike on, and bring the hours,
Thou clock embosomed deep in ivy bloom!
Time holds the garland yet of Rousseau’s flowers;
Still broods antiquity o’er Bertram’s tomb,
And Congreve’s hermit cell, shrouded in sylvan gloom.

The Tour of the Dove - John Edward

Let us rest awhile at Ilam Bridge

Our primarily focus in this chapter has been the writings of Samuel Johnson and William Congreve, our Restoration playwright. Perhaps a fitting way to end this part of The Literary Way is by referring to the description of William by Samuel.
"In his retirement he may be supposed to have applied himself to books, for he discovers more literature than the poets have commonly attained. But his studies were in his later days obstructed by cataracts in his eyes, which at last terminated in blindness. This melancholy state was aggravated by the gout, for which he sought relief by a journey to Bath: but, being overturned in his chariot, complained from that time of a pain in his side, and died at his house in Surrey Street in the Strand, January 29, 1728. Having lain in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument is erected to his memory by Henrietta Duchess of Marlborough, to whom, for reasons either not known or not mentioned, he bequeathed a legacy of about ten thousand pounds, the accumulation of attentive parsimony, which, though to her superfluous and useless, might have given great assistance to the ancient family from which he descended, at that time, by the imprudence of his relation, reduced to difficulties and distress. "
The Lives of Poets – Samuel Johnson