Ilam church lies in a park
Ilam has been a place of pilgrimage since the days of St Bertram, a Saxon saint and hermit who lived here, and today there are more 'pilgrims' (in the form of tourists) than ever. The saint was a Saxon prince of Mercia who travelled to Ireland to marry an Irish princess. On their way back to Mercia she had a child and they rested in the forest here while Bertram went off to seek food. When he returned he discovered that wolves had killed both his wife and child and, broken-hearted, he lived as a hermit around here for the rest of his life.
The saint's tomb lies in the church, a trim little building sitting apart from the rest of the village. The church was originally within the village - but the village was moved by Jesse Watts Russell to improve the view from the hall he built here in the 1820s. Some small parts of Saxon architecture may still be traced on the south wall where there is a walled-up old Saxon doorway, and there are the stumps of two Saxon crosses in the churchyard. Inside the church there is a magnificent Saxon font, which is worth a visit for itself.
Pike Watts tomb
Much of the church is Norman and Early English, (the tower is 13th century, for example), but there have been some notable later additions. The first is St Bertram's Chapel, built in 1618 by the Meverell family of Throwley Hall to house the saint's tomb, which is still a place of pilgrimage. Also in the chapel is the Meverell family's own tomb, a fine early 17th century edifice which is almost hidden by the organ. A more recent addition is the Chantry Chapel, added by Jesse Watts Russell in a Victorian Gothic style which jars slightly with the rest of the church. The chapel is a mausoleum to Jesse Watt Russell's father-in-law, David Pike Watts, and takes its name from the sculptor of the fine marble statue which depicts David Pike Watts on his deathbed.
The first Ilam Hall was built by the Port family in the 16th century but this was demolished by Jesse Watts Russell to make way for his much grander hall of the 1820s. On his death it passed into the Hanbury family, but after the First World War it was too large and expensive to run and by the 1920s it was being used as a hotel and restaurant. This venture failed and most of the hall was demolished before Sir Robert McDougall bought the estate and donated it to the National Trust in 1934. Since then, the main remaining part of the hall has been used as a Youth Hostel and the grounds have been open to the public.
If you want to walk around then start from the tea-room and cross the Italian Gardens heading east towards St Bertram's well, which is just south of the church. This is said to have provided fresh water here since Saxon times. Just further on, St Bertram's bridge is the old bridge across the Manifold, and was the main crossing until the new bridge was built downstream in 1828.
The Saxon font
Don't cross the river, but turn upstream. On your right is the site of the bandstand, where bands would play to entertain the hall guests. Upstream of the bridge there are two weirs and just above the second are the 'Boil Holes', where the water from the Manifold river resurges, having flowed (in summer) underground for several miles. If you follow the river further upstream, you will find in summer that it contains nothing but a few stagnant pools.
Follow the river upstream a little way. On your right, in the woods, lies a grotto where the playwright William Congreave is said to have written his first play, 'The Old Bachelor' in 1689. The path emerges from the trees and follows their edge, moving away from the river bank. This is 'Paradise Walk', created as a place where the hall guests could take their exercise. The path takes you past 'The Battlestone', a Saxon cross unearthed during the building of the new Ilam village and which is thought to commemorate a battle with the Danes.
At the end of Paradise Walk you reach the river again and can either follow it upstream and return to the hall across the park, or cross the footbridge and take the sometimes steep and slippery path through Hinkley Wood, which is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) on account of its numerous Lime trees. This path returns you to St Bertram's bridge, giving some good views of the Hall en route.