I’d never heard of this landmark until recently when I saw a Facebook post from a friend who’d visited. The name of it had me enticed straight away – an old monument set in beautiful countryside that was clothed in a sinister myth – just the sort of thing I’m drawn to! A few clicks later and I found out it was within just a few miles of me on Leckhampton Hill in Cheltenham, how had I never heard of this place before?
I mercifully picked a glorious day to go exploring. Knowing that some of the paths on the incline were directly overlooking a steep drop, my friend advised me to leave my toddler at home, so I more than happily set out on my own. I had a few vague instructions on which way to walk and determinedly filled in the gaps using my own sense of intrepid curiosity.
What I met about half way to the monument was bewildering.
I wasn’t far from the summit when the woodland I’d been walking through opened out into a clearing, and straight ahead of me were a handful of stone ruins. I had unknowingly walked onto a site previously occupied by 4 industrial sized kilns, an impressive construction built in the early 20th century, designed to excavate limestone from the hillside rock. And the path I had just walked up was originally a tram line used to transport the product downhill. Black and white images on the information board showed the quarry’s former grandeur, while all that could be made out from the ruins in front of me were some stone steps and a platform on which the kilns had once stood.
Images from www.leckhamptonhill.org.uk
After my first history lesson of the day, I rounded the corner and continued my search of the Devil’s Chimney. I spent a good 5 to 10 minute walk wondering if I was even going in the right direction, before I looked up to my left to see the proud pillar of stone perched high above me. What a work of art it is, simultaneously natural and man-made. Perhaps it’s simply the name and story already imprinted on my mind that makes me relate to this inanimate rock, but the pillar certainly has character. For all intents and purposes it is gazing over the spectacular views all around it.
The views at the end of my climb to the top were a reward in themselves. I found my way back to the chimney and this time descended to the viewing point that enables walkers to get a close-up view (it is not permitted to go right up to the pillar for fear of damage or erosion to the rock – probably not recommended from a health and safety point of view either, its a long way to fall!). There are several theories as to how the formation came to be, one explanation is that this hard section of rock was once surrounded by softer rock, and while the softer rock eroded over time, the hard rock remained standing. Another theory is that the workers of the quarry created the pillar of rocks as a practical joke. In fact it’s possible that a combination of these 2 factors is true.
So here’s how the old legend goes – years and years ago the devil would sit on top of Leckhampton Hill and throw stones at the locals as they made their way to church. The people threw stones back in retaliation and in this way they eventually forced the devil to retreat underground. Here he remained trapped and the people were able to go about their daily lives once more, free from havoc. The smokes of hell are now said to emanate from the chimney, underneath which the devil resides to this day.
It’s funny how drawn we are to stories. This old hill has such a rich history and yet what draws people to the site more than anything is not the ancient hill fort or burial ground that would have had huge significance for our predecessors (found just beyond the chimney), nor the lasting evidence of the industrial-scale excavations that were carried out here in more recent history. Instead people come to see the singular, rather peculiar looking rock formation that is shrouded in an old wive’s tale about the devil’s inhabitance below. As a graduate of English Literature I can totally sympathise with this. Stories are what give us meaning and they shape the way we see the world. It’s a testament to how beautiful and unique the fixture is, that it has had all this attention.
Whatever your reason for adventuring up here, there is so much to see and to learn. Looking out over the hills across the town below, I am reminded that many people (like myself until now) have no idea that these treasures are here. History is forgotten so easily and many are many are oblivious to their own heritage. This stuff is free to do and open to the public, and I for one will enjoy embracing it!