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Dronfield - taking the past into the future

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 March 2017

The restored timbered gallery of Dronfield Hall Barn with part of Maureen Taylor's costume exhibition

The restored timbered gallery of Dronfield Hall Barn with part of Maureen Taylor's costume exhibition

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Derbyshire Life journeys to Dronfield in the north-east of the county, where impressive old buildings are an important part of 21st century town life

Speaking to me in the beautifully restored Dronfield Hall Barn, Alan Powell, the Chairman of the Dronfield Heritage Trust, said: ‘This magnificent building had been reduced to a derelict shell after 600 years of use. Dr Uli Fritz of Sindefingen, from our German twin town, had described it as “a sleeping princess that needed a handsome prince to administer the kiss of life”. Fortunately, that much needed kiss of life has been given by lots of handsome princes and lovely princesses. These are local people from all walks of life who have kept faith in a restoration project that has lasted for 13 years. Thanks to them, the past of the building has been acknowledged by taking it into the future.’

Despite its dereliction, the Hall Barn carried a Grade II* listing, largely because the four rare king-post timbers and the wooden beams in its upper floor indicated that it was once a high-status medieval hall that could have been Dronfield’s first manor house. Over the years, the building was absorbed into a hall farm owned by the Rotherham-Cecil Estate. Unfortunately, John Rotherham, a lead and millstone merchant, decided to extend the barn in the eighteenth century and clad its timber frame in sandstone, partially concealing the wonderful architectural secret within.

The building was given to the town in 2004 by Sainsbury’s Supermarkets when they built a store on part of the estate. As Alan Powell explained, ‘The gift was warmly welcomed because Dronfield is a town where lots of people have a deep interest in local history and show strong support for community projects. Local people realised that the barn had the potential to be a perfect community hub because it stands on a pathway linking the supermarket with the medieval heart of the town.’

This vision formed the basis of a successful bid for Heritage Lottery Funding made by Dronfield Heritage Trust, which harnessed the energy of many groups, including the Old Dronfield Society, a Friends Group, a Wildlife and Natural History Group and a Botanical Illustrations Group. The restoration project was led for 13 years by Mike Slinn, who was rewarded for his unflagging efforts by being presented with the Heritage Alliance’s national Heritage Hero Award for 2016.

Alan Powell, a former editor of the Sheffield Star and the current Mayor of Dronfield, has now succeeded Mike as chairman of the Dronfield Heritage Trust. Alan is delighted that the barn is already being used as a venue for weddings, reunions, corporate events, exhibitions and arts activities, and he is full of praise for the volunteers, numbering over 100, who support the project in so many ways, from acting as gardeners and stone-wallers to serving as guides and stewards.

The ground floor of the restored building has a popular coffee shop. A new extension contains a range of facilities and is fashioned in a style that complements the design of the original building. The surviving roof timbers and king posts of the fabulous first-floor medieval gallery have been supplemented by additional timbers of the same date from two derelict barns in France. Volunteers have built a stone wall in the grounds and planted a garden containing elements of garden design through the ages, whilst other volunteers have designed a large quilt illustrating Dronfield’s history.

At the time of my visit, Maureen Taylor was putting the finishing touches to a superb exhibition in the Hall Barn of costumes based on fashions from a time when the building was still in use as a high-status hall. Maureen has lived in Dronfield for 41 years and she loves creating reproductions of 15th and 16th century clothing and sharing her extensive knowledge of the Tudor way of life by giving a range of entertaining talks and presentations to various groups.

One of the results of the successful lottery bid has been the funding of a project to digitize Old Dronfield Society’s wonderful archive of more than 6,000 documents and pictures. Whilst Maureen was arranging her costume exhibition, Ann Brown and Jean Kendall of the Society, John Harvey, the chair of the Research Group, and Brian Simpson, the Old Barn’s building manager, were meeting to plan an upcoming exhibition that will illustrate the history of Old Dronfield’s main street.

This ancient street flows along a meandering course as it drops from the head of the Old Town to the valley of the River Drone at the foot of the settlement. Along the way, there are fascinating examples of fine buildings from various eras in Dronfield’s history. The Peel Monument at the head of the street stands on the site of the former market cross. Looking like a canopied well, it is a tribute to Sir Robert Peel and commemorates the repeal of the Corn Laws. Across the road is one of the grandest public library buildings you are likely to see. It was constructed in 1710 as a manor house for Ralph Burton, who apparently bought the title of Lord of the Manor.

A little further down the street, there stands the Hall, built for the Rotherhams, who succeeded the Burtons as Lords of the Manor. The building has a very prominent roof-top balustrade and combines mullioned and transomed windows with Renaissance features. The restored Hall Barn stands just below this building but is set back from the road.

An ancient inn on the other side of the main street is called Blue Stoops, supposedly a reference to a practice of painting door posts blue to indicate the presence of an inn to travellers. The adjacent Manor House Hotel, dating from the late 15th century, has a large moulded stone fireplace, which has been re-sited rather incongruously alongside the disused main doorway.

A little butcher’s shop that boasts it was first established in the reign of Queen Anne stands at the point where the main street takes a sudden turn to the right. 85-year-old Frank Fisher has worked here since 1942. He will tell you that he can recall meeting Picasso at a Peace Conference in Sheffield in 1948. Asked to describe the great artist, he says, ‘He was rather miserable and grumpy.’

Two particularly dignified buildings in the next section of the street are the Red House, built in 1567 for the assistant master of Henry Fanshawe’s grammar school, and the Old Vicarage, with a brick frontage featuring two double-height bays. The latter building is now a Parish Office for local churches. The Green Dragon, located just before the street takes another sudden change of direction, was originally a dwelling for the chantry priests and it shares a party wall with the appropriately-named Chantry Hotel, an imposing building comprising Victorian and Edwardian elements.

The two twists in the road have allowed it to chicane around the churchyard of St John the Baptist, a church that was founded in 1135. Aside from its magnificent Perpendicular west tower and spire, the church has a huge chancel that seems completely out of proportion with the nave. The chancel culminates in a suitably enormous east window that is unusual in having only vertical and horizontal tracery and no curves or diagonals. The apparent reason for this odd arrangement is that a partial roof collapse had damaged the tracery so badly that only verticals and horizontals could be salvaged.

After rounding the churchyard, the main street drops steeply to an old forge that was occupied by Butler and Sons until the firm closed in 1968. Its various industrial buildings have been superbly converted into a precinct of up-market shops set on various levels around a glass-topped atrium occupied by the popular Ferndale Coffee Shop. Rachel Fleming, the owner of LilyB, a boutique selling jewellery and ladies’ handbags, describes the shops in the precinct as ‘catering for life-style choice’. As with the restoration of Dronfield Hall Barn, the imaginative conversion of the Forge has acknowledged the past of an old building by taking it into the future.

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