10 reasons to visit Ashbourne, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 12:47 24 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 20 February 2013

10 reasons to visit Ashbourne, Derbyshire

10 reasons to visit Ashbourne, Derbyshire

Although nationally best known for its historic Shrovetide game, Mike Smith finds Ashbourne has plenty of all-year-round attractions

Situated on the border between upland and lowland England, Ashbourne manages to combine the best of both the worlds on its doorstep. Brick-built Georgian town houses sit side-by-side with stone buildings, especially along Church Street and St John Street, the towns main artery. On the slope below this thoroughfare, there are several attractive alleyways and courtyards, and on the rising land above it, there is a triangular market place. The juxtaposition of quaintness with elegance and the amalgamation of southern softness and northern sturdiness make Ashbourne a unique attraction, but there are at least ten other good reasons for visiting the town.

The streets, alleyways and squares of this fine country town not only contain chain stores, and supermarkets, but also lots of excellent independent shops, including some particularly fine ladies boutiques, jewellers, florists, craft shops, art galleries and speciality food shops, interspersed with lots of opportunities for refreshment at bistros, cafes and old-world pubs and former coaching inns. There is also a shuttle service to the out-of-town Waterside Retail Park and Fairways Garden Centre at nearby Clifton has its own caf and everything for the garden enthusiast. Whats more, Ashbourne is a pioneering Fairtrade town.

Church Street has a succession of quality antique shops, with furniture, ornaments, sculptures and paintings spilling out onto the pavement in front of several premises. On the first Sunday in September, Church Street is closed to traffic in order to accommodate the annual Antiques in the Street event, when antiques are displayed on more than 40 stalls. Music, Victorian costume parades, vintage cars and a Punch and Judy show add to the wonderful cacophony.

The approach road to Ashbourne from the Peak District leads directly to a triangular market place, where a stall market is held on Thursdays and Saturdays. As Tony Grace, the director of the Ashbourne Partnership says, It would be hard to find a better entrance to a town, not only because the weekly stall markets are so vibrant, but also because they create a strong sense of place, with present-day stall holders selling their goods on the same plot of land where street trading began in 1257.

Ashbourne is famed throughout the land for its Royal Shrovetide Football Game, when a two-day football match takes place between the Upards and the Downards, those born on the north and south side respectively of Henmore Brook. With the town used as the pitch and with no limit on numbers, no apparent rules and with goals three miles apart this rough-and-tumble is great fun for participants prepared to risk broken bones and a drenching in the towns culvert, as well as for spectators who come to watch the antics.

In addition to the Shrovetide free-for-all, Ashbourne has a wealth of annual events to attract visitors. The Ashbourne Agricultural Show will be held on August 20th this year; the Ashbourne Festival, which embraces music, literature and drama, will take place between June 17th and July 3rd; late-night Christmas shopping will commence on December 11th, and the towns most surprising annual event will be staged on July 17th, when Ashbourne plays host to the biggest Highland Gathering outside Scotland.

George Eliot called St Oswalds Church the finest mere parish church in the kingdom. Its slender 212ft spire is particularly impressive, but the interior is unusual, because the absence of a north aisle makes it look rather lopsided and the transepts are so large that they almost look like the main axis of the churc. However, the north transept contains a remarkable collection of monuments and tombs, including Thomas Banks beautiful marble sculpture of a sleeping child, which depicts Penelope Boothby, who died one month before her sixth birthday and is touchingly described as being in form and intellect most exquisite.

Anyone with a keen interest in English architecture would find Ashbourne a very rewarding place to visit. Across the road from the parish church, there is a multi-gabled grammar school, which dates from 1585 and stands next to the stone-built Grey House, a superb Georgian dwelling with a portico and pediment topped by a spalato, which is an unusual tripartite, semi-circular window. These features are repeated precisely, but in brick, on the Mansion House opposite, where Dr Johnson was a frequent guest of Dr John Taylor. Over 200 listed buildings in the town include lots of fine almshouses and Georgian town houses.

Visitors can trace Ashbournes history, as well as its architectural legacy, either by inspecting a series of illustrated information panels, which have been designed to bring history to the street, or by booking a guided walk at the information centre, which is situated in the Market Place, close to the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie declared his father, James, to be King of England, Wales and Scotland on December 3rd 1745. The prince had stayed overnight at Ashbourne Hall during his advance through England.

Ashbourne is known as the Gateway to the Peak. It is certainly a fine base from which to explore the glorious scenery of the Derbyshire Dales, especially Dovedale and the Manifold Valley, which Byron compared with the best that Switzerland has to offer. Close to Ashbourne, there is a plethora of exquisite villages, including Ilam, with its Austrian-style cottages, Tissington, where the first well dressings of the year are held on Ascension Day, and Mapleton, which has a classical church known as Little St Pauls.

Ashbourne is also the gateway to lowland England. Osmaston, just three miles south, is a world away in appearance from the stone-built villages to the north of the town. It comprises red-brick houses, some thatched and many with decorative bargeboards, placed haphazardly around a pond and village green. Brailsford, a little further south, is a village where artists and artisans have their studios and workshops, and seventeenth-century Sudbury Hall, with its Museum of Childhood, is a mere nine miles south of Ashbourne.

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