A Peak at Derbyshire

by wandering freditor / Mar 11, 2009 /

A PEAK AT DERBYSHIRE

A monsoon came to London as we left and it took us half an hour to find St Pancras station in the fog-like rain, with windows misted and rising damp through the floor of the taxi. I loudly cursed London taxis, British Rail, British planners and those workers who had started construction without nary a thought for the traveller, burdened by heavy suitcases, who had to make a 200 metre dash for cover in a downpour that would have concerned Noah himself. Soaked through, I "did a Federer" and changed my shirt on the station concourse, oblivious to the stares of desperate housewives and sundry fellow-travellers. It was only later that I thought that their stares had probably not been for my sagging torso, but probably for the large wet patches on my trousers! With some relief we boarded the train and fought with bags and roll-ons to find a place in a carriage that had the pervasive smell of a washing basket full of smelly socks. For a moment, I hankered for the carriages of old where you could open the windows – to hell with the soot and the smell of smoke – but in truth it was a joy just to sit , wet panted and all, and wait for departure. We were lucky. It was to be the last train to Derby that day. Apres moi, les deluge, for “un-seasonal flooding" closed the line. Apres moi they travelled by bus and the journey took all night.  

Now Derby is hardly a “must see” city, even on a good day. The rain and low sky had a way of shrinking the houses and the gloom was even more pronounced. I came to Derby with low expectations – of a sort of ‘second row’ city after the big bruising forwards of Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield, to say nothing of the flankers in Leeds and Nottingham. But to my surprise, I found Derby rather surprising, and fleet of foot, with a shimmy here and a side-step there, as I saw wonderful churches, big solid buildings and the graceful arch of a long unused railway bridge. True, like one fallen for fashion, some of those old buildings were now differently tarted. An imposing former Post Office was a nightclub, now a self-proclaimed venue for “wild things”. The former offices of the Gas and Coal Company, beauty in brick, was now faded and sooty, and a wonderful iron and glass covered market now had stalls selling cheap souvenirs made in China amid cheese and meat shops selling wares from Wensleydale, chops from Cheshire and Black Pudding from all over the Midlands. And outside, there was sundry greenery and public flower gardens which gave the city a real lift. There was even a new shopping complex, built by an Australian outfit, right in the heart of the city. I was caught out by Derby and moreover it is changing, and for the better.

Derby has broad streets and a wide central square with interesting laneways and thoroughfares with intriguing names like Irongate, Wardwick, Friargate and Bold Lane. Its shops are also more fleet-tenderish than flagship, but they cater for all sorts. There appears to be nothing that you cannot find in Derby. The streets are full of Beckham look-alikes, both Posh and David, many carrying the tattoos and piercing as the body-amour of today’s youth, There are hoodies and those in trackies and tackies, and young things, hardly out of the nursery themselves, pushing strollers with donut sucking bubs. It is a bit like supermarket trolleys, see one and suddenly there are more, all congregating together. So it is in Derby. Then there are grizzled men in overalls and gnarled old ladies with hair in rollers under scarves. Somehow you notice them more in Derby. In the main, you would not come to Derby to be excited by the fashion. The city conveys the impression that life here is hard, a working-man’s lot. And when the work there is not, why there are plenty of unemployment places and op-shops, nightclubs and pubs to spend idle hours. It is a city that works rather than plays, although on the outskirts, tucked away behind high hedges and fences, there is plenty of evidence of players too. When a gate is not shut and there is the opportunity for an inward glance, there are large houses with Tudor windows, silken lawns and flower gardens, trees and two car garages. And one sees a surprising number of Aston Martins on the streets, even given that they are built there. The Derbyshire County Cricket Ground, with its white picket fenced oval, shady trees and lovely playing field, is all that is genteel – except for its brush with modernity in the shape of an ugly and dominating electronic scoreboard. Here the local Derbyshire team arrive at the ground wearing neat suits, obviously not Players in the old usage of that word, just Gentlemen. Watching the cricket amid a handful of spectators is suddenly a real joy again, with the occasional call of “Well done lads” harking back to an earlier time before beery bellows or bugle-calls from the outfield became part of the cricketing norm.

In many ways, Derby is a bit like Christine Keeler, the looker who unseated John Profumo and ultimately the whole McMillan Government back in the early 1960’s. The interest is largely in her past, and the excitement that she once brought throughout Britain. Then Derby was on everyone’s lips, the home of Rolls Royce, Balflour Beattie, the Great Midland Railway, steel, lead, iron, coal and working clay for tiles and porcelain; a place of weirs and water-races, of world-renown and industrial might. Then the muddy, rushing River Derwent was as vital to power as oil is today. It was a little way up the river from Derby, at Cromford, that Richard Arkwright changed the way we work today by building a mill, powered by water-wheels, which brought people out of their cottages and into the factory system. And so started the Industrial Revolution. A number of those mills still stand, from Matlock to Derby and beyond, their smokestacks like “thumbs up” in the prettiest of valleys. Now the mills house museums to how it was then, or are filled with pigeon-hole shops selling postcards, Bobbies hats and little figurines of ladies in bonnets with billowing skirts. In Derby the old Silk Mill, its water-wheel long gone, has a wonderful jumble of Rolls Royce jet engines, an old railway signal box, brick and pottery making kilns, chimney sweep brushes, factory implements and other oddments to wile away many rain-soaked winter’s afternoons. Nearby stand two old pubs which, over the centuries, no doubt offered many a night of solace to mill workers on the way home from toil.

History also records that it was at Derby that Bonny Prince Charlie, in 1745, with the way to London open to him, turned back to Scotland. The massed Government forces rumoured to be in his path were never there and if he had pressed on, who knows how different Britain might have turned out under the House of Stuart. While the Jacobite rebellion lingered on a little longer until the slaughter at Culloden, near Inverness in Scotland, the Bonnie Prince’s quest was effectively over. Doctor Johnson, of the English dictionary fame, also spent a good deal of time in Derby and Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet-engine, without whom we might all be travelling more slowly, did his early development work there. The jet age started in Derby. It was also the politicians of Derby who started the call to end child labour in Britain, a call that spread well beyond Britain’s shores. But it is as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, a centre of canals, railways and mills, when Britain led the world, that is Derby’s greatest accolade, and that in itself makes it a place well worth visiting.

While Derby may well be the knickers of Derbyshire, it is the surrounding countryside, leading up through the dales to the rugged Peak district, that are its brightest petticoats.  All in ruffle and fold beside the River Derwent, there are hill-top houses and castles, cavernous reaches, both man-made and natural deep below the limestone surface of the land, dark forests and rivulets, meadow and moor. There are beautiful old Victorian spa towns like Harrogate and Matlock Bath, quaintly set towns like Chesterfield, of twisted spire and wartime cigarette fame, Ashbourne and Bakewell. There are great clefts in the landscape as at Dove Dale and everywhere, tiny villages with a pub right beside the village green on which ancient men play the ancient sport of cricket in their ancient cream flannels, which their peers sit in deckchairs and applaud a good shot with a mellow titter of hand-clappping.   

Derbyshire is the site of Britain’s grandest, grand residence, the incomparable Chatsworth House, with its superb location, mellow stonework and cascading fountain. We tumbled down the rolling road in to the Chatsworth estate with all the abandon of children rolling down a hill, just exuding sheer joy at our circumstance. On we came through vast fields speckled with lambs and cattle, and tourists by a stream. Like a distant light, Chatsworth House beckons and the closer we got, the more details we saw, the House and the bridges, the shooting tower, the spire of the estate’s church, the gatehouses and the village of Edsenor, built long ago for the staff by the Dukes of Devonshire. Then there are the gardens, most capably set out by Lancelot Brown himself, ponds, and woods of oak and yew, and great flower beds full of flocks and stocks and hollyhocks. The house and the setting are quintessentially the England of class and privilege, of pride and prejudice. Thank God that they were created them ‘then’, because no-one could afford to build them now. I sat on the grass and gazed, as an artist might, slowly and deliberately, etching details indelibly on the canvas of my mind. This was a place that I wanted to revisit again at leisure, to recall its infinite beauty when, as Wordsworth so aptly put it, I was in “vacant or pensive mood”, at home in my desert domain, on a plane, or just lolling beside the sea. Here man had enhanced the beauty of the landscape with his sculpting and building, and it was a place to be enjoyed. We dutifully drove to the Chatsworth farm stall, with its abundance of ‘local organic produce’, and had the obligatory Devonshire Cream Tea, while watching a herd of fat cattle meander and flop into cud-chewing mode. In such lush surroundings, no-one was in a hurry.

Another creation of wonder, which is as distant from the splendour of Chatsworth House as the yeoman from His Lordship, is the sheer physical constructions of what are the ‘intestines’ of so much of Great Britain, the simple dry-stone fence. They run for many, many thousands of miles through the landscape, over hills and dales, up mountains and down into deep valleys. And everyone just takes them for granted for they have been part of the scenery for hundreds of year. I recalled, shuddering even now, my efforts in building a small brick wall, with rectangular, easily fitting bricks and good mortar, and yet, one year a storm it blew down. What skills and back-breaking perseverance then to build such dry-stone walls, gathering and stacking stone so that it would last a lifetime, and beyond. Yet seldom is there any recognition to the unsung labours of the fence builders. Or what of the work of the stone-masons in the building of those huge factories, or the viaducts that now stand bare and unused, a symbol of a bygone era? The beautifully dressed stone that carried each mason’s small marking to claim his payment for work done, work that now stands overgrown with brambles and weeds or blacked by the elements. Overgrown too are the quarries that once supplied the stone for building, and the ballast for roads and railway lines. Like a pitted face, now brandishing a stubble of foliage, the earth hides its scars.

We returned to Derby with the setting sun at our backs and the whole countryside wore a mantle of yellow gold. The Derwent had a burnished look, like a trail of treacle, and the rooves, windows and the wheat fields looked as though Rumpelstiltskin himself had been hard at work. The famous Derbyshire light had struck us dumb, just as it had J.M.W. Turner (the English painter of the light) and Wordsworth before us, and we sat outside The Red Lion in a thimble of a village, and watched it fade. A recent lifestyle survey labelled Derbyshire, pound for pound, feature for feature, the best county in all of England. On this evening, coming back from Chatsworth, and in that light, we did not demur.

The next day, that same beautiful countryside was defiled by rain – and lots of it. Sheep and cattle stood bedraggled, roads flooded, flowers were hung-over, and the traffic inched along the A515 like a long, multi-colour slug. Roads designed for coach and horses strained under the movement of huge lorries and farm tractors, to say nothing of those despicable caravans that appear like locusts when the holiday season is upon us. Frazzled, we reached Buxton and sought a soothing coffee and I huddled under a leaking umbrella trying to put coins in a parking metre only to discover that before I could do anything, I had to enter my car’s licence number! When you hire a car, you seldom memorise the number! As the car was some distance away and given the huge pools now prevalent in the car park, I thought I might have to resort to Australian crawl just to get back to my car. Instead, I simply said “Bugger Buxton” and we hopped in our car and left. Surely this is security or bureaucracy gone mad. Somewhere there sits a bureaucrat who prides himself on having prevented the transfer of unspent parking vouchers to the newly arriving by invoking such a scheme. Or may be there is another saying “Oh we know where you have been because from 10.37 till 11.37 you were in Buxton”. All I can say is “What prats”!

We moved on and left what looked, between the swish of the wipers, to be a very attractive town and poured ourselves into nearby Castleton where the wise had gone underground. This area of the Peak District is honeycombed with caves and clearly our tourist chums would not need umbrellas and Wellies down there! A castle ruin brooded over a pretty little town but the ever-so-green surrounding peaks indicated to us that the rain here probably never stopped. No wonder the caves were such a wonderful attraction simply because they were dry! Sadly we turned around and headed for the Manchester ring road, our plans to travel to Glossop via the desolate Snake Pass stymied because the road was closed for repairs. I had wanted to see the reservoir where the Dam Busters had practiced, and the lonely inn at the top of the pass, but it was not to be. We were bid a teary farewell by the Peaks, and we headed for the Dales.


Winfred Peppinck/wanderingfreditor is the Tales of the Travelling Editor for Wandering Educators.

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