Living a Story: A Day in the Peak District

Jane Eyre is a moody story, but it’s one of my favorites by Charlotte Brontë. Young Jane traverses through numerous hardships and makes her way across the moors of life. After surviving a frightful reform school, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield manor and settles into a turbulent life with the brooding Mr. Rochester. Eventually Jane escapes and seeks solace with a family in a manor called Moor House and finds her peace in the kindness of strangers. Of course, she later returns to the now blind and increasingly more brooding Mr. Rochester. But that is neither here nor there. The moral of the story is that Charlotte Brontë did not fabricate her story in a made-up land. In fact, Ms. Brontë drew from her own experiences traveling in the Peak District of England.

And I found this out by accident.

Last week I visited the small town of Hathersage in order to hike up into the Peak District National Park. Travel companion sherpa, Jochanan, also joined in the trek. We started off walking through the town and passed this fantastically old hotel called the George Hotel. I snapped a few pictures and thought nothing more of it.

As we made our way through the small winding streets and ancient stone cottages, I felt like I was stepping back into the past. Besides the occasional Jaguar in a driveway, I could have been convinced it was 300 years ago. Finally we arrived at the edge of town and the beginning of what I’m convinced to be the most sheep pastures collectively on Earth (besides Wales of course—holy sheep everywhere).

Now, there’s something everyone must know about English public footpaths. By public I mean they’re in other people’s yards. And by path I mean mudslide trail. And by foot I mean watch your step because sheep have no shame in adding their own digestive masterpieces to help guide the way. Anyway, as an avid hiker of the Appalachians, I was not perturbed by the challenge and thus we carried on toward the peaks.

About halfway up the trail, out of nowhere, a large manor house called ‘North Lees’ appears on the hillside. The footpath leads right on by so you can look in the window and wave at the lady folding laundry. From there, the peaks are just a steep climb through a rocky wooded area. And all of a sudden, there they are! A ridge of stone and endless moors going for miles in each direction.

We climbed all the way to the top and immediately were surprised by the climate change. The wind whips when it has nowhere else to go except straight across sheer stone. Looking out, I soaked in the solitude. Practically alone in this natural masterpiece. Every view from up there is breathtaking. After wining and dining amidst the upper boulders, the friendly English rain began to pelt us. Climbing down I turned around to see the cliff’s edge just one more time. And what did I see? A rainbow. Seriously. A rainbow. Seriously. At which point I just stood paralyzed gazing at the ‘greater spirit’s’ little gift to us.

We hiked back down the cliffs in a hurry in order to catch an earlier train. Halfway through our nervous sprint, Jochanan and I made eye contact and simultaneously thought, ‘What are we running for?’ We stopped and looked around. There was so much more to explore.

We forgot about train times.  We dismissed time. We just explored. We set our eyes on the old church of the town and started hiking up through the cow pasture to get there. I love churches. Old graves +Old church = Old history. We had a feeling: There’s just something here that we’re missing.

We walked into the rustic church and started reading about its history. St. Michael’s Parish Church dedicated to St. Michael, one of the Archangels or chief of angels. According to my trusty pamphlet, it is believed that a Celtic missionary monk first brought Christianity to Hathersage in the 7th century and he built a small cell on the site of the present church. If you do the math, that’s 1400 years ago. The present church dates back to 1381 CE with remains from the 1125 CE foundations. If you’re confused, let’s just say: it’s really old.

As I continued reading my pamphlet, a fun fact section caught my eye: “The Hathersage Parish Church is perhaps most famous for Little John’s grave found opposite the porch, beneath the two yew trees. For many years, a great bow, arrows, some chain armour, and a green cap hung in the church. The grave is 3.5 m long.” What a discovery. We then realized there was even more history to be found so we started examining more gravestones. Suddenly I came upon a stone with the name ‘Eyre’. I thought it was just a coincidence so I kept looking. Another Eyre. And another. I turn my pamphlet over and I see another fun fact. In 1845, Charlotte Brontë visited the Vicarage. Begin panic excitement for mind-blowing discovery.

The Eyre family has lived in Hathersage since at least the beginning of the church in the 1200s. Therefore, Ms. Brontë named her heroine ‘Jane Eyre’. But there’s more. According to my pamphlet (apparently made for children), the village in Jane Eyre is called ‘Morton’ and ‘Morton’ was also the name of the Landlord of the George hotel in 1845 when Charlotte arrived there by stage coach. Even more exciting, the two halls closest to the church were used in the novel. North Lees hall which we had stumbled upon earlier in the day was called ‘Thornfield’ and Moorseats manor was called ‘Moor House’ in the story.  All of this information comes from Kathleen Tetley and her trusty pamphlet!

I wondered where I could find Moorseats, so I asked the elderly gentlemen who had given us a tour of the church if he could point us in the direction. He points up the road and shows me the roof peaking through the trees. It’s right there. He offers us a lift, but I essentially thank him and break out into a run.

Another public footpath and running up to a house of unbelievable grandeur. Who lives in these houses now? I was mystified as I gazed at the ancient manor with its small windows and seemingly timeless stone façade with smoke billowing out of the original chimney when Jochanan broke my stare to point to the field in front of the house. We observed a circular patch with a giant ‘H’ in the middle. Right. Helicopter. Residents of these houses now have unimaginable wealth. They’re entrusted with the history of the area, but they’re not afraid to install a few modern modifications.

As we finally hiked back through town to catch the latest train, I reflected on such an interactive experience. I found an amazing historical story through discovery. I didn’t do my research before I left. I just went. And I learned. I didn’t research the story, I lived it.

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