Pelago Director Stuart Gillis on a day out in Ballidon, de-coding stories from the landscape and buildings of this corner of Derbyshire.
A good place to go on a bank holiday, or any other time when the quarry isn’t running. The Peak District has the status of being a National Park, but life’s a compromise, and in this case landscape protection goes hand-in-hand with the extraction of millions of tonnes of rock every year.
On Good Friday, we came over the hill from Parwich to see the empty chapel in the field at Ballidon. Except for the steepest slopes, all the fields are thick-set corrugated with the plough lines of the middle-ages. People call this ridge-and-furrow. For a thousand years, villagers grew their wheat for bread and their vegetables. Then the land was reclaimed by a more powerful landowner. Now it’s grass. The last evening when a plough share cut a straight line through earth is fossilised by the pasture, and protected by sheep.
Each field is sized for a day’s work by one man, teamed with the single-steel cutting-edge of a wooden plough, and harnessed to the ‘horse power’ of eight cows. They’re called oxen. That just means cows kept for work. This rounded hill is divied-up like a family gateau. The fields extend from Parwich for as far as you could easily travel with your ploughing team. When a son came of age and married, a more distant field might come into use. Where the distance got too far to walk, that’s where you’ll still find the outlier fields to the next village. The pattern spreads along the valley or over the hill – Tissington, Parwich, Ballidon, Brassington, Carsington. This is landscape colonised by people, parcelled by hedgerow or limestone wall, scaled from the units of family, village and field – from the length of your forearm to an acre of land.
Down in the open valley bottom, it’s dairy cattle for company. The chapel in the field is a landmark, and the clue to a mystery. The porch-way has padlocked chicken-wire that blocks the route to the church door, but the empty window glass gives the glimpse inside: pigeon poo, church pew; knitted cushions for your knees; Ten Commandments in gothic gold on black-paint wooden panel. There’s the spectacular innards of a church organ – like it’s been played, and smashed, and abandoned by Pete Townsend. The roof’s been repaired in the last few years – the laminate notice from the Friends of Friendless Churches probably claims responsibility for recent repairs. But no one’s used the building for twenty years or more. Detail in the stone is the uniform precision cutting of Victorians. Yet no sign of a congregation, then as now. What’s it for? A church gets built because people want it. Who wanted this?
Returning to the tarmac road, we see the earthworks in the next-door-neighbour-field. Letting our eyes form pattern from the turf, we see the many grassy platforms where wooden houses once stood. More mounds of moulded grass shape a buried roadway and side streets that sweep through the long-gone village. The chapel mystery is being revealed. It’s likely the first, and for a long time the only, stone building for this village. The stone equipped the church to hold out longer – to survive until the white knight of a Victorian gothic fantasy rode in to save it from the unruly hand of nature. St George slayed his dragon. But nature has a long game. It bided its time and is coming back to reclaim.
Norman or Saxon in origin, the village may have been abandoned in plague, or when the crops failed one too many years in succession. This then is Ballidon, a deserted medieval village. There are a thousand and more such places in England alone.
There are other buildings beyond here. Walking up the empty modern street, with ghost road for company behind the wall, the earthworks brush up against a pair of semis, council houses built between the great wars of the last century. Across the way, nestled into hillside, there’s a large farm complex – quiet today, but often not, and big enough to be the centre for managing this land. The grass that is all around is grazed by herds of cows – kept for milk or meat on lower slopes, and sheep – for wool and meat, higher up. This farming is the principal driver of land use in modern upland England. It’s been this way for the last few hundred years. It defines the look of the land.
Something like the idea of this place squats in the imagination, perhaps forming into a quintessential vision of England, that underpin a latent, shared popular culture. Isn’t this the land worth fighting for, land fit for heroes, land that belongs to us – that we’d protect and have law-makers enshrine as a National Park – granting ourselves access in perpetuity?
It looks like it will be here for ever. But it won’t. Meat and milk are global commodities. Wool is worthless. There is no overwhelming economic imperative. Livestock farming on land for pasture survives through a blend of habit, innovation, hard work and subsidy. The abandoned church, the deserted village, and the frozen precision-incision of the long-gone plough are Momento Mori. Everything has its time, everything will pass.
There are no vehicles on the road we walk, no cyclists, walkers or locals about. For five days a week this road thunders with the 40-tonne traffic of trucks, quarry dust mixed with diesel fumes and rain, into grey paste that splatters the walls, the verges, the handful of buildings – all ungentrified hereabouts. The next strata of history is being preserved beneath the greywash. The grass, the docks, the nettles and dandelions grow through it. The next house along is abandoned. Too close to the quarry. Too dangerous to be lived in.
Stuart Gillis, April 2017