The famous early 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes a place known as the Green Chapel, in the following words…
“a mound as it might be near the marge of a green, a worn barrow on a brae [slope] by the brink of a water, beside falls in a flood that was flowing down; the burn [fast stream] bubbled therein, as if boiling it were. He urged on his horse then, and came up to the mound, there lightly alit, and lashed to a tree his reins, with a rough branch rightly secured them. Then he went to the barrow and about it he walked, debating in his mind what might the thing be. It had a hole at the end and at either side, and with grass in green patches was grown all over, and was all hollow within: nought but an old cavern, or a cleft in an old crag; he could not it name aright. … Then he heard from the high hill, in a hard rock-wall beyond the stream on a steep, a sudden startling noise. How it clattered in the cliff, as if to cleave it asunder”.
The Green Chapel has been commonly assumed to be the atmospheric and accessible and large Lud’s Church, located about a mile from the Ship Inn at Wincle. Yet the nearby Old Hannah’s Cave (above, from Wardle’s article) was certainly known for the remarkable noises described in the poem, noise that were apparently the result of blowhole and possible gaseous action due to the river dropping underground for most of the year and the river-bed drying up. These “explosions which take place in the limestone” were amply and reliably documented by Sir Thomas Wardle in the North Staffordshire Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions of 1899, with eyewitness accounts from both locals and geologists. As such it seems rather curious the no-one has made the very obvious connection to Gawain before now.
Further, the National Speleological Society Bulletin of January 1982 reported of the cave entrance that…
“The adjacent wall of the Redhurst Gorge contains several smaller solutional openings”
… which might seem to match Gawain‘s description of the Green Chapel that it “had a hole at the end [entrance] and at either side”. It seems quite logical that someone using this cave as a redoubt would make a barrow-like mound in front that would encompass both the real entrance and “smaller solutional openings”, so as to confuse approaching strangers about the real entrance. The explosions would also serve to enhance privacy by keeping away strangers.
The Green Chapel is, in Gawain deemed the home of a green giant, described by his local guide as…
“the worst wight in the world in that waste dwelleth; for he is stout and stern, and to strike he delights, and he mightier than any man upon middle-earth is, and his body is bigger than the four best men”
His size means that there is a further curious alignment of local fact with Gawain. Late Victorian antiquarian diggings in the cave, as recorded in the same 1899 article by Sir Thomas Wardle, found that…
“All the adult bones [in Old Hannah’s Cave] are large, and some especially so, considerably larger than those of an average man of the present day, the vertebrae and hip-bones being those of an individual above the average height.”
That was the professional opinion from a “Mr. Newton, of the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street, London, the best authority on recent and extinct bones”, to whom the cave’s excavated bones were sent by Sir Wardle. Wardle also recounts the local story about the old firewood collectors (the valley was wooded before the sheep came) who knew the inhabitant of the cave by the name of “Hob! Hob! the King of the Woods”.
In his article Wardle nowhere mentions Gawain in the context of the cave. He was interested in the cave’s geology, the archaeology of its floor surfaces, and gives some bits of local folklore relating to the noises. Which means that he was not trying to massage the facts in order to ‘claim’ Gawain for North Staffordshire.
Thus there are a number of clear points that suggest Old Hannah’s Cave as the model for the Green Chapel: 1) the general topographic description fits very well, other than the steepness of the terrain for a horse to reach it if coming up from below; 2) the explosive and unusual noises heard there, which bounce and leap around the gorge as Gawain describes; 3) the finding of ‘giant’ human bones in the cave; and 4) the general agreement among scholars that the wider topographical journey as described in Gawain can only be somewhere in this fairly small area. So far as I can tell from online sources, I’m the first to suggest Old Hannah’s Cave as the spot.
Part of a 1910-20 picture of the road to Wetton Mill, showing the cave site in the distance. Compare with Wardle’s photo of the site, above. Today the old view from the road appears to be totally masked by trees, though it may be different in winter.
A 1934 caving survey (Yates, Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club Journal, Vol. 6, No. 21) made an enthusiastic survey of the valley and found the whole of this “curious limestone hummock [meaning, the rock in which Old Hannah’s Cave or Hole sits] literally riddled with holes, but as they are quite small affairs there is no necessity for lighting. It is highly amusing exploring this petrified sponge as one is apt to emerge at most unexpected places.” Today the site appears to be part of a large tract of National Trust estate land.