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The village of Darley Abbey, Derby

PUBLISHED: 16:23 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 20:11 23 October 2015

The Abbey

The Abbey

Ashley Franklin discovers the picturesque charm and community spirit of this historic village close to Derby city centre.

Cottages built for millworkers Cottages built for millworkers

Darley Abbey makes me think of Dale Abbey, not just for the obvious similarity of name or even the two villages' sparse, lingering monastic traces - notably the arch in Dale Abbey's case, the Abbey pub in Darley's. What actually strikes me more is that Darley Abbey can likewise be described as a village 'in beautiful isolation ... as if it's been sequestered away.' What makes this feature of Dale Abbey remarkable is that it's less than three miles from estate housing with industry on most sides. What makes Darley Abbey even more remarkable is that it's virtually hemmed in by urbanism: to the south the city of Derby is but a bus hop away; just as close to the east lies the straggling industrial estate of Alfreton Road; while to the north and west sits the suburban sprawl of Allestree.

'Living in Darley Abbey is like residing in the country but being in the city,' remarks Robbie McGregor, who lives in a quaint nook of Poplar Row with a bedroom window view of both the River Derwent and the cricket green. 'It's the best of both worlds having all the facilities of the city combined with the life of a village,' continues Robbie. 'We can walk through Darley Park into town in 20 minutes yet here it feels as though we're miles from any town.'

Most residents refer to Darley Abbey as an urban village though one wouldn't quibble at the epithet 'rural' when one sees the quaint cottages and the surrounding greenery. One of the cottage residents remarks how extraordinary it feels 'to live so close to the city yet we can be lulled to sleep by the sound of the river and awoken by the dawn chorus.' It's no wonder Arthur Mee in his The King's England: Derbyshire called Darley Abbey 'too good to be true'.

As resident Alan Bradwell points out, because Darley Abbey is hedged in by a green belt of the River and many outlying parks - from Darley to Little Chester and out towards Markeaton and Kedleston - 'it feels like a contained village.' As villager John Gabb adds, Darley Abbey's 'distinct identity' is helped by its centre being situated at the bottom of a hill, set apart from the main Duffield and Alfreton Roads. 'What's more,' continues John, 'the fact that Darley Abbey was purposely created by the Evans family to serve the mill enhances the feel of a closely-knit village community.'

Actually, the imposing presence of the mill might lend Darley Abbey the more apt title of industrial village, given that over two dozen businesses occupy the site, with several others tucked away inside the palatial building that was once St Matthews School. Although Darley Abbey has had to move with the times and modern housing has sprung up and spread, the old part is a well-preserved village of the early Industrial Revolution. As the Darley Abbey Society brochure proudly proclaims: 'Darley Abbey is unique. It is the only true mill village in the Derwent Valley where the original mill buildings and workers' cottages are extant.'

Walking round on a hazy day, with the Derwent murmuring nearby, I caught a sense of Roy Christian's feeling about the place when he last wrote about Darley Abbey for this magazine: 'It could have been the sea down there, and the tightly packed squares of colour-washed or long, brick cottages could have been the homes of fishing families in one of those exquisite harbour villages north of Whitby.' Aptly, he went on to describe the old building prior to its conversion to the Abbey Inn as being 'shored up by wooden beams like the hulk of a ship in dry dock.' The Abbey Inn is the only surviving building from the 12th century Abbey founded here in Darley ('the wood frequented by deer') by Augustinian Canons. Excitingly, it's only in recent years that the mystery surrounding the exact location of the Abbey, following its dissolution in the 16th century, could well have been uncovered thanks to diligent work by Alan Bradwell and the Darley Abbey Historical Group. Thorough investigation of old estate maps has led Alan to believe its most likely the Abbey Church was in the Abbey Yard/Village Hall area. Ironically, when a new building was being developed - the Barn Outdoor Centre on the outskirts of Darley Park adjacent to the village - an archeological watching brief revealed Abbey stonework in the Barn foundations, confirming the Historical Group's conclusions.

The foundations of the present village were laid in the late 18th century when Thomas Evans built his first cotton mill and virtually took over the village, erecting workers' cottages. Prior to the Evans, Darley Abbey was a hamlet of just 16 houses. By 1831, the population had grown to 1,170 and it was reckoned that all of those of working age were employed in the cotton and paper mills. Evans' control of the village could be described as a mild autocracy, with benefaction to ensure workers were hardworking, disciplined and healthy. For the cottages, the workers paid between 3d and 1s 6d weekly. However, in addition to their wages, they received subsidised coal and meat, a free milking cow per household, a free pigsty - though families had to provide their own pig - and allotments to grow fruit and vegetables. Medical services were free, though funding came partly out of fines paid for bad timekeeping, poor work, drunkenness, swearing, and allowing one's children to miss Sunday School. There was clearly a problem with errant youths, too, as a surviving plaque in the village warns that 'stone throwing will be severely dealt with'. There were also fines for workers, especially young women, who returned to the village after 10pm, though by all accounts most of the girls grew wise to the fact that the long skirts worn at the time could be thrown over their heads to make detection difficult.

As with the Strutts and Belper, benefaction extended to providing for spiritual and educational needs. Walter Evans built the parish church of St Matthew in 1819, embossing his family's boar's head crest on the spouts and guttering. He did not lack generosity: village churchgoers were not obliged to make contributions and there were no funeral charges, with a Welsh slate gravestone also supplied with an inscription. One such stone records that Horatio Nelson is buried here - a child named in honour of Britain's naval hero as the date of this Horatio's death is 1827, tragically after only six weeks.

In 1826, Walter Evans added St Matthew School to the Sunday and day schools already provided. The 200 Evans cottages that remain today are a tribute to the quality of their construction and maintenance. Reportedly, the job of painting was akin to the Forth Bridge: when work finished at one end it started again at the other. Walter Evans also provided the village with a sewage system (ahead of most towns in Derbyshire) and gave many gifts to Derby, notably the cost of a ward at the DRI.

St Matthew's archivist Jackie James showed me the fine work involved in her compilation of the Evans history including a family tree showing inter-marriage with the Strutts. Most fascinatingly, Jackie produced a transcript from the Strutt letters telling of a brief but clearly affectionate friendship struck up in 1796 between Elizabeth Evans, the widowed daughter of Jedediah Strutt, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Prior to Coleridge composing his major works, he was invited by Mrs Evans to become tutor to her sons. Newly married, Coleridge and his wife Sara stayed at Darley for several weeks. He remembered the visit as a 'sunny spot in our life'. Although the tutorship was not taken up (the sons were sent away to school), Mr and Mrs Coleridge were invited to return to Darley for a holiday. Given that Coleridge married only because of social constraints and eventually left and divorced his wife after many unhappy years, one wonders if his meeting with Elizabeth Evans filled him with regret at what might have been. One wonders if Mrs Evans' gift of the immense sum of £95 on his departure signifies some special feeling for the poet, or was she simply a very generous woman? Coleridge's affection for Elizabeth is clear in his statement that she was 'without exception the greatest woman I have been fortunate enough to meet with in my brief pilgrimage through life.' Although an internet search uncovered notes from a Coleridge Conference two years ago suggesting the relationship between the poet and Mrs Evans was probably 'rooted in their shared Unitarian faith', one can speculate that Coleridge's life might have been different had he met Elizabeth Evans before his grievous marriage.

The patronage of the Evans family continued to the 1930s when following the death of the last member of the family, Ada, in 1929 the estate was broken up and sold. Her final gesture was to leave her park to Derby for public recreation. In his book The Derbyshire Country House, Maxwell Craven decries the demolition by Derby City Council of the 'essentially sound' Darley Hall in 1962, describing it as 'an act of municipal vandalism'. One room was left - 'now the most architectonic ice cream parlour in the region,' remarks Maxwell. More than an ice cream parlour, the Café in the Park has been run for the last ten years by Ken and Jill Gee and serves up a wide selection of freshly prepared hot and cold food including, some say, the best bacon buttie in Derbyshire. The hanging wisteria is an attractive feature of the café terrace in the summer. An even more gladsome sight close by in the Park is a splendid acer tree. Fortuitously, when I came to take a photograph, I found my friend Sue lazing under it with her book and dog. She regularly walks from her Chaddesden home just to sit by her 'favourite tree'.

Darley Park is certainly a favourite spot for dog walkers, and its wide open spaces also make it a mecca for tots, joggers and kite fliers. Val Crew, who grew up in the village from the late 1940s remembers the Park's array of geraniums and greenhouses with banana tree, as well as a ferry that rowed across to Darley Fields for a penny.

There are some cherished memories of the village in a book lovingly assembled for the millennium by local resident Erica Perry entitled Up Darley Down Darley. Intriguingly, it reveals that if you were born and bred in the village, you were known as a 'Darley Crow'. Val Crew's further memories include roaming the area known as Nutwood - 'full of bluebells, osier beds and ponds with frogspawn.' Today, villagers and visitors can enjoy the newly-designated Darley and Nutwood Nature Reserve, which I visited with its Chairman Keith Dodd. I was astonished to find so close to the hustle and bustle of the city this 25 acre-reserve that stretches down to the Derwent and sweeps across most of Darley Abbey's length. An area of mature woodland, wetland, grassland, scrub and stream, it contains over 260 species of plant including the rare bee-orchid and over 50 bird species including woodpecker, snipe and on one occasion an osprey. Now, Nutwood and its adjacent old landfill site can officially be conserved and developed as a haven of nature where more species of flora, fauna and feather can be encouraged. Much clearing, cutting, restoring and replanting is planned over the next few years, with a sand martin nest site and an otter holt amongst the many exciting plans.

In stark contrast to these secluded Elysian Fields is another surprise in Darley Abbey: the hidden hive of industry buzzing away in the mill. Happily, when it closed in 1969, it wasn't left to deteriorate and decay, thanks to two businessmen who between them acquired the five mills and adjacent land: Bert Elliott of Ellison Metal Products and Sam Attwood of Patterns (Derby) Ltd, one of this region's leading engineering patternmakers, which is marking its 60th anniversary at the mill next year. Bert Elliott's son John, who has worked at Ellisons for 38 years, recalls the substantial refurbishing work that went on, including the removal of solid concrete blocks so massive they had to be blown up. Between them, the two owners have a wide variety of tenants including motor engineers and mechanics, a classic car restorer (Andy Griffiths, the only MG specialist in Derbyshire), a judo and jujitsu school, two recording studios (Abbey Lane and Too Hot Music), The Curtain Academy (where local villager Estelle Johnson trains curtain makers) and even a pole dancing studio ('for health, fitness, fun and personal development') run by national award-winning performer Genevieve Moody.

Although John Elliott reports that Ellisons outgrew the mill and doesn't see the future of the mill as industrial, other businesses are very satisfied. Patterns' managing director Anthony Attwood confirms that both location and working environment are excellent for his firm and, as a local man, he is rightly proud to see the historic mill fully occupied, with often a waiting list for available space. The genial Michael Radford whose upholstery business is renowned for its quality hardwood frames and wide choice of fabrics (over 10,000), has been at the mill for 15 years. Michael is clearly proud of his traditional trade - 'where quality will always show forth,' he affirms. As for the premises, Michael says that visitors welcome the special atmosphere of the mill. 'It makes me glad I'm not in a soulless factory unit,' he states.

In some contrast to Michael's unit, where I saw neither computer nor mobile, wires, wavebands and Wi-Fi dominate the top floor space occupied by Too Hot Music, run by Nick Morley and Martin Iveson, a music production company with its own independent record label, Mantis Recordings. Nick admits that some of the mill's business tenants find their clients and visitors 'a bit bohemian and weird' but all of them, especially those from overseas, love the village setting. 'The weir, the pub, the cottages and the cricket field... it really doesn't get more English, does it?' states Nick.

'The mill for me is much more than just a place of work: it's a community.' So says artist Mark Hughes who, in creating large scale artworks based on iconic figures from film, music and history, finds his 2,000 sq ft space ideal: 'It affords me the luxury of having a designated office to run the business from, a large working studio for my painting and, most exciting for me, immense space to display all my work. The mill's large windows and high ceilings also provide a fantastic backdrop for my work.' Mark has just opened the doors to the public, and believes the potential for the mill as a creative centre is very exciting.

'I've worked in commercial premises in London, Birmingham and Derby, from Victorian to state-of-the-art,' points out photographer Nigel Tissington, 'but I've never encountered a work area that has such character, energy and magic as this mill.' Nigel speaks enthusiastically of a flexible working environment and exploits the photogenic quality of the mill, like the vast space, original sash windows, quarry-tiled floor and uneven plaster walls.

In the environs of the mill but in his own cottage is Andrew Barlow who runs a company called The Little Wine Club which uses the slogan 'Life's too short to drink bad wine' and promotes 'a friendly approach to serious wines'. Andy stocks over 350 hand-picked wines and hosts tastings, either in clients' homes or, more to his liking, in his own home, where the romantic mill atmosphere is very beneficial to business.

Just around the corner, there are over 200 select wines on offer at Darleys where business has grown by 50 per cent since the end of 2003 when Jonathan and Kathryn Hobson took over the restaurant renowned for its to-die-for window tables overlooking the sweep of the weir, not to mention the terrace for fair-weather aperitifs and coffee. Aptly, this part of the mill used to be the canteen. 'We fell in love with this place the moment we saw it,' says Kathryn. 'The view, the history, the character and location.' The rural location has proved a draw for Derby businesses who don't want to drive too far out into the country to wine and dine clients, and there's also the allure of a restaurant that Kathryn describes as 'classy and comfortable'. Kathryn describes the cuisine as 'modern British, well presented, tasty and simple and with as much local produce as possible.' Dining one evening, I found my Gressingham Duck tastefully served and beautifully cooked, and my wife was impressed to find that English veal was on the menu at all, never mind her delight with the actual dish.

At the Abbey Inn I enjoyed the simpler pleasures of a succulent sausage and onion cob washed down with a pint. My fond memories of a pint or two here following Radio Derby cricket matches versus the pub team, were spoilt when architect Mike Wood, who created this pub in 1979, reminded me of the many times he bowled me out. Mike told me that Darley Abbey had long been a dry village owing to the fact that until the 1930s it was owned by a non-drinking Methodist. 'Many villagers were naturally against change,' Mike points out, 'but there was this extraordinary ruin in the middle of the village - one of only six ancient monuments in Derby - and we wanted to allow people inside and enable them to enjoy the character and experience of a Medieval Hall House. My wife Vivien and I thought a pub would repay this risky investment - and it did. The villagers flocked in.' This led Mike to create another popular attraction: an annual Raft Race which at its height had 300 competitors and packed the village with spectators. He also started the cricket club which still thrives, although it's having to rebuild the £100,000 pavilion destroyed by fire in May 2007.

The Abbey Inn is now run by the very amiable Chris and Simon Meyers. The beer prices are friendly too: £1.43 a pint. This isn't the only draw for regulars Paul Gill and Pete Conway, who concur on the Abbey's quiet, relaxing atmosphere - no music, thankfully - and tradition, both in its look and the presence of pub games like darts, dominoes, crib and backgammon. There are also some monastic ghosts, Pete claims. When working behind the bar, he was spooked by a glass flying off the shelf, and a spectral presence on a photograph taken in the pub attracted several paranormal groups. Pete then lightened the moment by telling me of the time Simon served profiteroles with cream instead of Yorkshire puddings with someone's roast beef order. 'That was the poltergeist at work, too,' Simon claims.

Darley Abbey is a village with heart and soul, exemplified by the enthusiasm of the village's Community Association chairman Anthony Attwood to encourage links between the various organisations in Darley which helped to make last summer's inaugural Darley Abbey Day a pronounced success and, as a result, a future biennial fixture. 'The Day was a manifestation of community life at its best,' affirms John Gabb of the Community Association. 'Perhaps such events provide the necessary stimulus to draw people out of their shells and encourage them to participate more in community activities.' However, as John explains there is some concern that, 'The recent growth in the "buy to let" market has brought new arrivals who keep to themselves, rarely venture out on foot and generally have little interest in community affairs. This may progressively cause Darley Abbey to feel less like a village and more a dormitory suburb with an increasingly transient population.'

Ironically, Darley's pleasing traditional village lay-out does have its problems when it comes to parking. As Alan Bradwell observes: 'Lack of parking space and narrow lanes at the cottage rows lead to too many cars parked on footpaths, blocking what is essentially a walk-about village.' This brings to mind the reminiscences in Up Darley Down Darley of the late William Thurman who tells of the first car driven through the village, owned by Dr Copestake. Because it was chain driven and couldn't climb a hill, the doctor would rush to get all his village patient visits done by noon when the children came out of school so he could pay them a few pennies to push his car to the top of Mile Ash Lane. Nowadays, there are more cars than ever going up that hill, 'rat-running' being another problem.

There is a Darley Abbey Society which for the last 20 years has diligently scrutinised every planning application affecting the village in its bid to 'preserve the character of the village' and 'promote civic pride'. There's evident pride, too, in the fact that the village hall houses multifarious groups involved in everything from painting to wine tasting, gardening to dog training, and is also home to the acclaimed Marlowe Players. Roy Hartle chairs a very busy and enthusiastic Darley Abbey Historical Group and has produced three excellent information boards, an accompanying walks leaflet and a video, From Monks to Mills. The Gardening Club, chaired by Rosemary Sjolin, is also a thriving body and it's encouraging to know that both aforementioned groups only came about in the last five years.

The church of St Matthew's is very active, too, with well-attended services and, as the vicar Chris Dyer points out, 'a fantastic choir'. The church itself is a distinguished presence sitting in state on the hill as if watching over its flock and with a splendid well-kept churchyard. 'It's a very "cherished" building,' says Chris, 'aware of its history but wanting to be a "living" church available for the whole community.' Chris also speaks of a great relationship with the adjacent Walter Evans School, which fills the church three times a year and hosts a family service in school six times a year.

Opened in 1976, Walter Evans School has around 350 pupils aged three to eleven and bears the clever motto TEAM - Together Everyone Achieves More. One vital achievement, according to Headteacher Hannah Simmons, is 'the close relationship with pupils and parents as well as the whole community.' Hannah loves the 'village school feel' of the place and finds 'the historical background and the presence of Darley Park are fabulous teaching resources, and they also provide pupils with a real sense of place as they grow up.' On my visit, I sensed a positive buzz, and was delighted to hear the young reception class I photographed confidently conversing in French as part of the school's France Week. When I asked them to say 'cheese' for the camera, they yelled 'fromage'!

The independent school in Darley Abbey, the Old Vicarage, which has just celebrated its 75th anniversary, is a most impressive place, evidently energised by the arrival last September of Headmaster Matthew Adshead and his wife Jenny, the Secretary/ Bursar, who describes their new posting as 'a dream come true', a significant statement for a family who uprooted from the palatial acres of Windsor. 'We instantly loved the rural feel of the school,' says Jenny, 'along with the pastoral care from the staff and its warm family environment.' Indeed, in the Headmaster's Message in the school prospectus, Matthew states that he views 'every child in our care as an extension of our family'. The final year pupils I met - David, Natasha and Nathan - all talked of the school as 'one big family' with the older children looking after the younger ones. What's more, Matthew is developing further a curriculum based around 'individual targets' where pupils are assessed weekly with the aim of 'unlocking, enriching and enhancing' their ability and intelligence. He's also expanded the curriculum to take in information technology and a wide range of sports, utilising the nearby Derby Rugby Club, for example, and there are clubs for everything from golf and Scalextric to chess and cheerleading.

Matthew and Jenny have found Darley Abbey 'very welcoming'. Indeed, John Gabb feels that the village remains a 'comparatively peaceful place where people still have the time and inclination to stop and talk.' Another villager, Leigh Pearson, who recently returned from a long spell in Asia, feels Darley Abbey 'seems to be safely tucked away in its own charming reality.' Leigh has just started a home-run business in Darley - Optimum Energy Solutions - which aims to help property owners reduce their energy bills and aid the environment. He would love to stay in Darley and has his eye on the old stable yard behind the Park café. 'My dream is to renovate and convert that courtyard into Derby's eco-centre,' says Leigh. 'It's a perfect location. People would come for miles!'

His dream will surely be of interest to both the Darley Abbey Society and FoDOS - Friends of Darley Open Spaces - who work to 'improve and integrate' the village's adjacent parkland, including the aforementioned Nutwood Nature Reserve. In the two years since its formation, FoDOS has attracted a remarkable 240 members.

Darley Abbey certainly seems to be in safe caring hands, especially with residents like John Gabb around who states that 'it is vital to retain the quality of life which Darley Abbey provides.' Will that quality prevail with Darley Abbey being, as resident David Pearson observes, 'Derby city's entrance to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site?' As another resident David Ling points out: 'This new Site status has brought not only national but international recognition of the importance of our village in the formation of the modern world.'

David sees tourism as a pressing issue with its consequent impact on village amenities. 'Improvements will need to be made,' he points out, 'to transport, parking, visitors' centres and accommodation.' Alan Bradwell has pinpointed 'a better footpath through the mill or a new pedestrian bridge round it to link up with Little Chester and the further excavation of all the Roman, monastic and industrial remains to expose more of the heritage of this remarkable village.'

Whatever happens, Darley Abbey has qualities which many villages would envy, as David Ling eloquently points out: 'There's the old world charm of the historic village centre; the picturesque river running through its heart with its thundering weir; its magnificent parks, playing fields and nature reserve; its proximity to the City whilst being insulated from it by the Park; good transport links to the whole country; and great community spirit. What else do you need?'

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