14 March 2023

A return to ‘Happy Valley’ and
a journey with Samuel Johnson

Ilam Hall in the Staffordshire Moorlands … Ilam became the inspiration for Samuel Johnson’s ‘Happy Valley’ (Photograph: YHA/Ilam Hall)

Patrick Comerford

Having watched the third and final series of Happy Valley on BBC, two of us have sat up into the late night throughout the last few days rewatching the first series from 2014, and the second series from 2016. Each series and each episode remain compelling and gripping viewing.

The name ‘Happy Valley’ is what local police in the Calder Valley call the area because of its drug problem, and we are now talking about taking a few days off in West Yorkshire in a few weeks’ time.

I regularly take a few days off in Lichfield, often with all the ingredients and benefits of a retreat, including time for prayer, for silences, for walks in the countryside, either along Cross in Hand Lane or in Comberford, and for visits to Lichfield Cathedral and the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, two places that have shaped my faith and my spirituality since my teens, over half a century ago.

In the past, I also tried to begin Lent with a retreat. One year, I spent Ash Wednesday on a retreat in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, when part of my retreat reading included Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas, about another ‘Happy Valley.’

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Samuel Johnson often visited Ilam Hall in rural Staffordshire, on the edge of the Peak District, and went fishing at Dovedale, and these visits probably had the same value as retreats. A part of the grounds in Ilam is known as Paradise Walk, and it is said this valley inspired Johnson when he was writing Rasselas.

This is the story of a fictional Abyssinian prince who lived in Happy Valley, and Johnson wrote the story hastily in 1759 to raise money for his mother who was seriously ill and to pay for her funeral in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield. His story is far removed from the storyline in the BBC series Happy Valley.

Johnson was back in Ilam again in July 1774, and with his biographer James Boswell in 1779, when they walked there from Ashbourne and were guests of the Port family.

Boswell would recall in biography of Johnson: ‘Ilam has grandeur tempered with softness: the walker congratulates his own arrival at the place, and is grieved to think he must ever leave it.’

I spent a delightful few days in Ilam over 50 years ago when I was in my late teens. I had hitch-hiked from Lichfield, where I was staying, to Ashbourne. From there, following in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson, it was another four or five-mile walk to Ilam, where I stayed at Ilam Hall, which has a stately tale to tell but was then (and still is) a youth hostel.

Ilam Park is a country park owned by the National Trust and stretching to 158 acres on both banks of the River Manifold in Dovedale.

The first Ilam Hall was built in 1546 by John Port and the Port family continued to own the estate for over 250 years.

Both William Congreve and Samuel Johnson stayed at Ilam Hall when it was owned by the Port family. Here Congreve wrote his first play, The Old Bachelor, first staged in 1693. In a later play, The Mourning Bride, he wrote the now-famous lines:

Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.

Ilam Cross in Ilam Village (Photograph: Rob Bendall/Wikipedia/CCL)

Before I returned to Lichfield from Ilam all those years ago, I was introduced for the first time to the writings of Izaak Walton (1594-1683). Like Samuel Johnson, he too fished in Dovedale, and he is remembered in the name of the Izaak Walton Hotel between Ilam and Dovedale.

Out of his experiences in Ilam and Dovedale, Izaak Walton first published The Compleat Angler in 1653, and he continued to add to it for a quarter of a century. There was a second edition in 1655, a third in 1661, a fourth in 1668 and a fifth in 1676. In this last edition the original 13 chapters had grown to 21, and a second part was added by his friend Charles Cotton.

In the following century, an annotated edition of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was published in 1760 by Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789). Hawkins was among Johnson’s closest friends and was an executor of Johnson’s will. His biography of Johnson, published with his 1787 edition of Johnson’s works, was superseded only by Boswell’s.

But I became more interested in Walton’s Lives, a collection of short biographies published as Lives of John Donne, Henry Wotton, Rich’d Hooker, George Herbert, &c.

As a young man living in London, Walton befriended John Donne, who was then the Vicar of Saint Dunstan in the West on Fleet Street, London. Walton also married into interesting Church circles: his first wife, Rachel Floud, was a great-great-niece of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, while his second wife, Anne Ken, was a half-sister of Thomas Ken, later bishop of Bath and Wells, and then a leading Nonjuror.

Walton had contributed an Elegy to the 1633 edition of Donne’s poems, and he completed and published his biography of Donne in 1640. His biography of Sir Henry Wotton was published in 1651, his life of Richard Hooker in 1662, that of George Herbert in 1670, and that of Bishop Richard Sanderson in 1678. At least three of these subjects – Donne, Wotton and Herbert – were anglers.

Izaak Walton visited Rome in 1674 with Thomas Ken, who was then teaching at Winchester and a canon of the cathedral.

In The Compleat Angler, Walton points out that fishing can teach us patience and discipline. Fishing takes practice, preparation, discipline; like discipleship, it has to be learned, and learning requires practice before there are any results. And sometimes, the best results can come from going against the current.

Writing about the value of a retreat, Johnson wrote in The Rambler (No 7) on 10 April 1750: ‘To facilitate this change of our affections it is necessary that we weaken the temptations of the world, by retiring at certain seasons from it; for its influence arising only from its presence is much lessened when it becomes the object of solitary meditation. A constant residence amidst noise and pleasure inevitably obliterates the impressions of piety, and a frequent abstraction of ourselves into a state where this life, like the next, operates only upon the reason, will reinstate religion in its just authority, even without those irradiations from above, the hope of which I have no intention to withdraw from the sincere and the diligent.’

Today, the principal landmarks in Ilam are Ilam Hall, Holy Cross Church, Ilam Cross, the Swiss chalet-style cottages built by the Watts-Russell family and Dovedale House.

Holy Cross Church has Saxon origins, but was restored and rebuilt in the 17th and 19th centuries.

Ilam Cross or the Mary Watts-Russell Memorial Cross is a Grade II* landmark commemorating the wife of Jesse Watts-Russell, who inherited and rebuilt Ilam Hall. This is an ornate, gothic-style, obelisk in the style of an Eleanor Cross. Standing on a three-step plinth, it has two tiers of statues surmounted by a spire with a cross at the top. In style, it has some resemblance to the decorated façade of Lichfield Cathedral. It was restored in 2011.

The former vicarage, Dovedale House, is now run as a residential and retreat centre managed by the Diocese of Lichfield. It is a large old house near the entrance of Ilam Hall. It opened as a residential centre in 1967.

Holy Cross Church seen from Ilam Hall (Photograph: YHA/Ilam Hall)

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