Brown Sauce: Don't bet on tunnel leading to abbey site
O NE of the great Leek legends is the one that says there is a secret tunnel from Dieulacresse Abbey to the Old Church.
When I was a child, the story was widely believed and it was easy to conjure up mental images of cowled monks filing in silent procession through a sandstone corridor and up into the church.
No-one thought to question the practicalities of such a project for medieval people whose only tools were picks, shovels and barrows.
This lack of resources didn't stop them constructing what must have been a truly magnificent building above ground, the abbey. But it is highly unlikely that they could have applied their skills to digging a tunnel about a mile long under a river and then uphill through solid rock.
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Even if they could have built any sort of tunnel, it would probably have been beyond their knowledge to align it so that it came out at the right place. Then there are the questions of how they would have ventilated it and stopped the roof falling in.
But something in this legend persists, and for the most likely explanation we have to turn to New Age ideas and the revival of interest over the past 30 years in what are usually called ley lines.
Ley lines can be explained by all sorts of weird and wonderful theories, and you can believe anything you like about them. Some theories are more fanciful than others, but there is one certain and visible fact: for some reason which has been lost to us, ancient people sited important structures along straight lines. This is not mere coincidence, when the requirements to establish a ley line are five or more historic structures in alignment.
Many of these lines radiate from ancient monuments like Stonehenge. Churches, wells and standing stones are the most usual indications for a ley line.
Some people think they are lines where people with the right knowledge or mindset can tap into some sort of natural energy from the earth. There have been many believable incidents where people have received a powerful shock from touching a prehistoric standing stone.
Leek's secret tunnel legend is not unique; similar stories are found all over the country.
Ley line enthusiasts have traced a well-defined alignment starting at the Old Church and going through the site of Dieulacresse Abbey, over Clewlow Cross, to an ancient tumulus near Macclesfield.
These ancient lines of power are supposed to be have been known only to a select few initiates. It is at least worthy of consideration to think the monks of Dieulacresse could have had a non-pagan knowledge of ley lines and that our supposed tunnel is in fact the "secret" ley line above ground that has been rediscovered by students of this arcane subject in more recent times.
Something similar was described by the Rev William Beresford, Vicar of St Luke's, Leek, from 1882 to 1919, who was a keen antiquarian. He wrote about a "secret route" that went from the abbey across Blackshaw Moor towards Thorncliffe.
It was not a tunnel but it was secret in that the track was sunk below ground level, presumably allowing the monks to move about more or less hidden from the surrounding area.
The latest discovery of some sort of tunnel under the Old Church is certainly exciting, but don't bet on it winding downhill and under the Churnet to the site of the abbey.
It might have other exciting possibilities though. There has been a church on this site for more than 1,000 years and it is reasonable to suppose that because of the double sunset there could have been a pre-Christian religious site here as well, such as a stone circle.
The church was rebuilt after the Great Fire of Leek in 1297. It was presumably rebuilt on the foundations of the earlier building and it is also possible there could be an extensive crypt under the floor of the present building.
This could have been closed off during some of the alterations that have been made over the centuries. We are fortunate that so much of the medieval church remains, even though the Victorian restorers hacked it about with some vigour.
Fortunately, someone restrained them from replacing the magnificent carved nave roof with a barrel vault like the one over the chancel.
We know a great deal about our ancient parish church, but there is obviously much still to be discovered.
Who knows what might be found in the crypt?