At first it was just a book on a shelf, sitting there as forgotten as any of its companions. I'd picked it up on a visit to my uncle and aunt's house in Derbyshire in the middle of 2018. We often talk about what we've been reading, the stuff we've enjoyed – or at least loathed in an interesting way. But if I'm honest, what struck me first about The War of the Roaches was its cover.
Set against a sky of vivid red, the same shade as cartoon blood, is a craggy landscape in black silhouette. At the highest point stands a house, its windows illuminated, while down the hill looms the figure of a man in a front-brimmed hat, staring up at the building with an axe casually resting on his shoulder. Below that, in a separate boxed-out photograph, is the same man, just as striking as his representation in the gothic artwork.
The photo was taken not long after the book's initial release in 1991. Squatting in ripped jeans, with a wooden staff in one hand and an eyepatch across the right side of his face, is the book's author, Doug Moller – self-proclaimed King and Lord of the Roaches. Buried deep in the heart of the Peak District, the Roaches is one of the most dramatic rocky ridges in the UK, a towering 500-metre-plus escarpment offering breathtaking views to hikers, a stern test to rock climbers and god knows what to free-runners.
Within a few pages, I knew I had been snared by a story of unique strangeness. The more I read, the clearer it became. Moller wasn't anything like your average Great British eccentric.
Doug Moller's association with the Roaches began in the summer of 1978, when the former soldier and his ex-beauty queen wife, Anne, decided they'd had enough of modern life, dreaming instead of a prelapsarian return to nature, far from the noise and pollution of the Liverpool streets of Doug's youth. Their timing was fortuitous. For as long as anyone could remember, the Roaches had been private land, owned by the local Brocklehurst family, gentry who had made their money in the nearby Macclesfield silk factories.
Then, in 1977, the decision was taken to break up and sell off the vast and geographically unforgiving estate, as the family bloodline died out. Like so many sudden transitions to democracy, it was a fatally confused process. Many different interests bought their chunks at knock-down prices, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual guru to The Beatles, as well as scores of more prosaic figures, mainly local sheep farmers. But it was Doug and Anne Moller, already in their fifties, who purchased the austere and half-dilapidated Rock Hall – their new home on the estate – for £6,000 at a public auction. The pair were notable figures in the area before they bought their "manor house", local characters in the surrounding Staffordshire towns.
All available accounts of their relationship speak of a devoted couple, bound together by their shared idiosyncrasies. From the earliest days, Doug had a powerful talent for self mythology, which Anne seemed content enough to let flourish. It's said that his early life was spent in a children's home – the start, perhaps, of his deep-seated problems with authority – while she was raised in the roughest poverty.
After a troubled spell in the armed forces, including a stint in North Africa, Rock Hall seemed like the answer to the problems Doug had experienced trying to fit into the currents of mainstream life, as well as a novel treatment for Anne's "nerves".
For those first few months, things ran relatively smoothly, despite the primitive conditions of their new home. Built into the rock of the lower Roaches and without running water, electricity or anything approaching 20th century comforts, life could be hard in their Gothic home – even if it was all part of the bargain they had signed up for.
But the modern world soon found its way to Rock Hall, despite the precautions taken by its new Lord and Lady. In the early 1980s, the Peak District National Park took over from the sheep farmers and finally won the public access they'd spent years fighting for, opening up the Roaches' spectacular peaks to walkers, climbers and tourists from around the world. For the Mollers, it spelt fresh disaster: the start of a bitter war of attrition that was to last over a decade.
In their bid to retain their cherished isolation at Rock Hall there were, as Doug wrote to then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in protest, to be no half measures: "Who the devil do they think I am? Do you think I am going to get down on my hands and knees and thank them for a council house? Not flaming likely luv, so they can take a running jump over a cliff, we will fight them to the death. They owe us at least £7,000,000 and that's letting them off easy."
The authorities might have been the ultimate villain, but it was the climbers who proved the day-to-day scourge. Very occasionally, they and the Mollers could live together in a kind of uneasy harmony, with Doug offering advice on the best routes for climbers new to the area. But many accounts also exist of terrified visitors being chased from the land in terror by an axe-wielding Lord of the Roaches.
These visitors were not always entirely blameless, abstract nuisances. Their noise and litter could be incessant, and it's said that some of the most obnoxious would urinate in the Mollers' limited water supply. Still, the couple found ways to prevail, rejecting every official overture to sell up and leave, vowing to "blow the place sky high" rather than submit. As the years rolled on, little changed. After all, as Doug wrote in another of his voluminous letters, "Have they had to drink stagnant water or watch as their wives have watched [their water] messed about with, or gone without a cup of tea for a whole day? No. Well they can go to Hades, those pancake faces."
Like most disputes, the David and Goliath battle between the Mollers and the loathed "bureaucrats" eventually ended in compromise – and without explosions – in 1990. After 12 dramatic years of struggle, Anne's perennially sketchy health had taken a decisive downturn, as age started to catch up with the couple. It's said that things got so desperate in that old house on the Roaches that even the staircase was smashed for firewood.
Finally, in 1990, an acceptable alternative home was found a few miles away by the council – sufficiently remote, and with the added boon of sanitation. They lived there quietly until Anne's passing in November of 2003, caused by complications from burns she'd received while tending a fire. Her funeral was well attended, by both locals and a few of the once-despised climbers. Doug is still alive and supposedly lives in a small local authority flat, though no one seems to quite know his real age, or his exact whereabouts.
Market day is a big deal in Leek, the unpretentious town a shade under 20 minutes from the Roaches by car. Like so many of England's mid-sized towns, market day serves as a crucial part of the calendar, the epicentre of local social life, where friends meet to exchange gossip and make sense of their weeks. Leek is a solid place, full of elegantly maintained reminders of its industrial past, long since converted into real estate. Dotted along the high street are several cheerful looking pubs and cafes, resolutely local businesses in a town you feel wouldn't take all that kindly to the intrusion of the ubiquitous chain behemoths. Leek's Costa almost comes as a shock, stood sheepishly among the traders' stalls and time-worn shop fronts. It's there that it felt right to start the search for Doug Moller, after reports of a few nearby sightings came my way.
A short sentry stint at the bus stop where Doug had supposedly been spotted didn't garner any immediate results. If not the man himself, I at least expected to find some recognition for a local figure who had made such waves in his one-man war against the forces of officialdom. It only took Sally, stood behind the counter at Picture Book, the town's general bookshop, a few seconds to twig who I was looking for.
"Oh yes," she Said, barely suppressing a smile. "People come in fairly regularly looking for his book and [we] just don't have it. It's possible to get it, but not at the moment, not here at least." After a few minutes of chat, she returned with a book by a local historian who might have something to say on the matter, as an expert in the folk history of the local area. Tearing through its contents, I couldn't find any reference to Doug Moller, so made my apologies before returning to the quiet mess of the market.
For Bill Cawley, a local radio presenter and Labour councillor for Leek West, it's not as simple as portraying the onetime Lord of the Roaches as a plucky outsider, sticking it to the forces of faceless bureaucracy.
"To be fair to Peak Park, there was a point when he was causing damage to the local woodlands when searching for firewood and that sort of thing. In terms of who did what to who, it was never clear-cut," said Bill, when I chatted to him on the phone. "He used to be on good terms with a friend of mine's father, and would stop for a chat every time we were out walking on the Roaches. This would be at the height of the feud [with the authorities] over the environmental damage he was causing. He often pushed the boundaries when he lived up there and never brooked contradiction. It's perfectly clear he had a severe problem with authority."
During my late adolescence, I went through a slightly obsessive phase of delving into the mythology of Britain's hyper-specific local legends. It must have been around 2008, that magical year we first had a computer at home. While others launched themselves headfirst into their initial wave of social media profiles, I scoured innumerable local blogs detailing a cast of the oddest and most obdurate characters from places that meant nothing to me, then. There was Bradford Jesus Man and the legendary figure of Fritz from my own childhood, a self-professed former boxer and occasionally volatile night-time apparition who patrolled the streets of Catford in south-east London. Each one seemed to say something about the different ways we try to make sense of our surroundings; splashes of colour in the everyday dullness of the British quotidian.
Where does Doug Moller, Lord of the Roaches, fit into this gallery of oddballs and misfits? As with everything else in his story, there is a complex unease in trying to shoehorn him into the role of local treasure, or one-man libertarian army. To many of those I spoke with in Leek, he is simply a figure of fun. The recollections of others are less kind. "You'll probably smell him before you see him," said the man in charge of the carpet stall.
For others, the name "Doug Moller" means nothing at all. "No idea, love, sorry," was a common refrain as the morning started to bleed into a dismal early March afternoon. There were at least a few sympathetic voices; in a local charity shop, I got speaking to Tony, who remembered something of Moller's fight against the authorities. "He's usually here of a market day," he explained, with a trace of bemusement. "Best off trying the WHSmith, if you’re looking for him."
"Wasn’t he a homeless man that died a few years ago?" asked Georgina in the cafe, as the rain started to settle in for the afternoon. It felt like an omen, a sign that the search was heading nowhere. There was something sad about my outsider’s assumption that people would remember and revere a still-living local legend. On the second day, I decided to give up the search for the man himself, as it became clear that Dougie, now in his very late eighties, probably wouldn’t be up to giving an account of the grand struggles of his past.
After lunch on that second day I finally arrived at the foot of Rock Hall, just as the rain was starting to pick up again, falling around me in increasingly fat, freezing blobs. On the winding approach to the house I came across a group of schoolchildren clad in matching hi-vis jackets, being led across the rocks for a climbing class on the lesser peaks surrounding the house.
"Right up until the early-90s, there was a man called Dougie who lived here," their adult guide explained in a cheerful singsong voice, "without any running water, electricity or anything like that, right up until he was too old and they moved him out. He used to watch over the Roaches and take care of the place and the people who came climbing here."
From my vantage point, it was clear that the kids were already bored by the local history lesson, as their feet scrambled over the moss and out of sight.
It doesn't take long for the beauty of the Roaches to give way to an impressive bleakness. There is nothing there to commemorate the Mollers, or their battle against what they considered the oppressive forces of modern life. From the front door of Rock Hall – now a comfortable hut available to rent for visiting climbers – you can see for miles, in almost every direction, over an oppressively vast horizon.
If only for a few seconds, I think I understood just how glorious it must have once felt to proclaim yourself the Lord of the Roaches.