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10 top reasons to visit Chesterfield

PUBLISHED: 16:10 26 October 2015 | UPDATED: 09:22 30 October 2015

Photographs: Ashley Franklin

Photographs: Ashley Franklin

Archant

From historic buildings with fascinating pasts to modern attractions and brilliant local businesses, Derbyshire Life finds 10 reasons – at least – to visit Chesterfield

The Crooked Spire of All SaintsThe Crooked Spire of All Saints

I bet a crooked sixpence there has never been a Derbyshire Life article about Chesterfield that hasn’t mentioned its famous spire. However, don’t think for a moment it’s the only or even main reason to visit Chesterfield.

Granted, the Visitor information centre sits in the shadow of the crooked spire, the town football club’s nickname is the Spireites, and the motto on Chesterfield’s coat of arms is the punningly clever Aspire. However, a closer look at that coat of arms will reveal other reasons to visit this area. Above the shield is a wall, showing that Chesterfield is a borough with a charter granted by Elizabeth I in 1594. There is an even more ancient charter – granted by King John more than four centuries earlier – which introduced the market, still going strong over 800 years on.

The Elizabethan charter is kept at Chesterfield Museum... another reason to visit. The shield on the coat of arms is a pomegranate tree, adopted by the town as a symbol of loyalty to the crown. This alludes to a further attraction: the Pomegranate Theatre, the oldest civic theatre in the country.

The cock and magpie (pynot in local speech) either side of the shield is a reference to the local pub the Cock and Pynot where, in the late 17th century, three noblemen plotted what became known as The Glorious Revolution. That hostelry, now Revolution House, is also the museum that tells that story.

If you need yet one more reason to visit, the bottom of the coat of arms depicts a patch of rocks and heather, referring to the nearby Peak District. ‘Chesterfield is as much a gateway to the Peak as Ashbourne if you’re coming to it in a different direction,’ a local hotelier told me. There are several more reasons to come here. In fact, Trip Advisor lists 34, and the audio trail from the Visitor Information Centre takes in 30 points of interest in the town centre alone. This made me think (to borrow a famous film line): ‘We’re going to need a bigger article.’

Chesterfield Market (photo taken from the roof of Marks & Spencer, with thanks to the store)Chesterfield Market (photo taken from the roof of Marks & Spencer, with thanks to the store)

1 - ‘TO MARKET, TO MARKET...’

Before you start planning your visit, let me advise you to avoid Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, otherwise you’ll miss out on arguably Chesterfield’s main attraction: its age-old market in the beating heart of the town which continues to prosper under the watchful gaze of the handsome Victorian Market Hall.

Actually, you’re all right if you choose the last Sunday of the month as there is now an Artisan Market, a recent, admirable innovation in a continuing bid to see traditional shopping prosper rather than perish as it has done in other so-called market towns.

Here the stalls have been renewed and canopies refreshed, with pop-up marquees introduced, too. The town also invested £4m to regenerate the Market Hall itself, a previously dark, dingy space, now bright and airy, with the British Market Authorities awarding it Best Indoor Market in 2013. It’s also providing the only Santa’s Grotto in the town this Christmas.

Both inside and out, there is bartering and bantering in a warm, friendly atmosphere where personal service is paramount and a bargain can still be bought. ‘We’re part of the social fabric of peoples’ lives,’ says one seasoned stallholder. Another good reason why this market should endure.

If you need a further reason, look no further than two stalls. Firstly, R P Davidson Cheese Factor of Distinction in the Market Hall, which won the Chesterfield Food & Drink Retailer of the Year award; secondly, Nick Ibbotson’s family stall which has been trading for 70 years. ‘Our fruit and veg out-compete the supermarkets on quality, freshness and price,’ he told me. That distinction seems to have been recognised as Nick won not only the Market Trader of the Year but also the coveted Retailer of the Year award.

KnifesmithgateKnifesmithgate

2 - TOP BUSINESSES AND TRADITIONAL PUBS

As the Chesterfield Mini Guide informs us: ‘There’s more to the Chesterfield than the Market.’ Indeed, Nick’s award is even more prestigious when you discover the rich quality and variety of shops in and around the town, a healthy mix of national chain names and independents. The latter include the family-run butchers Meadowfresh which won Best New Store; Chocolate by Design, another family business specialising in handmade chocs; Peter’s Shoes, high quality shoe makers and repairers; and jewellery boutique Adorn, which won the Jewellery & Accessories Retailer of the Year. You’ll find Adorn in the narrow, characterful medieval streets known as The Shambles, which contains the town’s oldest pub, The Royal Oak, where the Knights Templar quaffed.

There used to be plenty of quaffing on the renowned Brampton Mile, 13 pubs lining a one-mile stretch along Chatsworth Road. Today, many of those pubs have gone and the road has developed as a popular quality retail and leisure destination. Here you’ll find two more Chesterfield Retail Award winners: Libby’s, Home & Gifts Retailer of the Year; and Pelican Cycles, which won both Leisure Retailer and Independent Retailer of the Year. Also here are Food & Drink Retailer finalists Northern Tea Merchants which has won four Awards of Excellence from The UK Tea Council’s Tea Guild. This ‘emporium of taste’ also specialises in coffee.

3 - TREADING MILLS AND STRAIGHTENING CUCUMBERS

Daniel White of Peters ShoesDaniel White of Peters Shoes

If you want to discover the town’s bygone age of shopping, there is an exhibition on until October in Chesterfield Museum where you can further explore the social and industrial history of the town from its beginnings as a Roman fort through to its coal mining and manufacturing industries. Admirably, the museum devotes a lot of attention to children, offering a trail around the museum ‘to make discoveries of your own,’ along with lots of special events.

There is much to discover about Chesterfield’s most famous resident, railway pioneer George Stephenson – fittingly, the museum was formerly the Stephenson Memorial Hall. On display are two glass tubes which show that Stephenson was vexed about something crooked: not the town’s spire but his garden cucumbers. The tube he designed did the trick though was never manufactured wider.

As for more modern manufacturing, an exhibition from 10th October, Made in Chesterfield, will show a diverse and quirky range of products made in the town. It will feature Clayton’s tannery who make the leather for test match cricket balls; Franke Sisson’s who manufacture, amongst other things, stainless steel toilets; and Rompa, a world leader in sensory equipment like fibre optics and bubble tubes.

You can’t get away from the crooked spire in the museum: the entrance is dominated by a 20ft diameter wheel called a windlass which was used in the construction of All Saints and explains how such buildings were made before cranes. The device was rotated by men pushing on internal treading boards akin to hamsters working a treadmill.

4 - WORKING THE AUDIENCE

Museum visitor Jenny Smith next to the WindlassMuseum visitor Jenny Smith next to the Windlass

Next door to the museum, the Pomegranate Theatre has had a fresh lease of life with not only a refurbishment of its 546 seats, the addition of 43 stall seats and a redecoration of front of house but also the installation of state-of-the-art digital cinema equipment, enabling them to expand their cinema programme. Other improvements are in hand, though with its Victorian proscenium arch, red velvet curtains and plush pop-up seating, the Pomegranate resolutely retains an old-fashioned theatre ambience – a slice of London’s West End in Derbyshire’s North East. As a recent Trip Advisor review commented: ‘It takes you back to a bygone era, of tradition, good service and family values.’

Future productions in what is always a varied programme include La Traviata (Verdi Opera), The Yeomen of the Guard (Chesterfield G&S), Swan Lake (Russian State Ballet) and David Suchet in The Importance of Being Earnest.

There is also a traditional feel to Chesterfield’s multi-purpose venue The Winding Wheel, a Grade II listed building which was once The Picture House. This, too, has had various improvements, mainly technical and backstage. The auditorium stages music, theatre, comedy, children’s shows and community events with forthcoming attractions including Blood Brothers, Abba Mania, Dr Hook, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and a talk on the Sitwells with Renishaw Hall’s archivist Christine Beevers.

5 - TAKE A PEAK OR WALK A TOW PATH

Remarkably, Renishaw Hall is one of five stately homes within a ten-mile radius of Chesterfield, the other four being Chatsworth, Haddon, Hardwick and Sutton Scarsdale Hall. Bolsover Castle, too, is less than six miles away.

Pomegranate TheatrePomegranate Theatre

If you can resist the lure of those honey pots, why not discover something new, like the Chesterfield Canal? You can walk every yard of its 46 miles – including a 2,880ft tunnel – and it’s a popular tow path amongst walkers because, as the Canal’s website promises, it takes you ‘through tranquil countryside where scarcely a house can be seen.’ You can also see some of the earliest staircase locks ever built – a canal commentator said ‘the flights at Turnerwood and Thorpe rival anything the inland waterway network has to offer’ – or take in ‘some of the best canal fishing in the country.’ There are also weekend boat trips until the end of October.

6 - ROUND THE HOUSE

There is another preserved piece of transport heritage in nearby Staveley: Barrow Hill, the last surviving railway roundhouse in the UK with an operational turntable, and a unique example of 19th century railway architecture. Built in 1870, it was threatened with demolition in 1991 but was saved by a group of dedicated volunteers who have transformed it into a premier railway centre.

Open every weekend, it has a changing display of steam and diesel locomotives and other rolling stock, a collection of artefacts and memorabilia, and an operational signal box and short running line. On the last weekend in September, there will be a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the phasing out of steam locos at Barrow Hill, with the first ever visit by the Princess Coronation Class Duchess of Sutherland.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse Railway CentreBarrow Hill Roundhouse Railway Centre

7 - REVOLUTION HOUSE

Revolution House is nothing to do with turntables: this is revolution as in overthrow, and in 1668 it was in a tiny thatched cottage in Old Whittington – then an alehouse – that three local noblemen, the Earl of Devonshire, Earl of Danby and John D’Arcy, met to discuss a daring plot. Unlike the Pentrich Rising, this one succeeded, leading to the ousting of King James II in favour of William and Mary of Orange.

On my visit, one very enthusiastic guide, Amanda, brought the story alive in the very setting where this ‘Glorious Revolution’ began, with the help of a front room displaying contemporary 17th century furniture and a video presentation. Upstairs there are changing historical exhibitions.

8 - A DEVILISH TWIST

‘Whichever way you turn your eye

Revolution House Guide Amanda BrassingtonRevolution House Guide Amanda Brassington

It always seems to be awry’

Opening couplet of a 1889 poem

Although All Saints Church is, remarkably, one of 72 members of the Association of Twisted Spires of Europe, it has a greater lean and twist than any other, inclining 9ft 6ins, enough to so alarm the manufacturer of a camera bought by a Japanese tourist that when he showed them his snaps of the spire, they asked him to return the faulty camera so they could replace it.

I have to look twice at my own photos, still disbelieving that incredible 45 degree twist. Just as incredibly, the spire appears to defy gravity: it’s balanced on top of the tower, not attached, with 32 tons of lead cladding holding it in place. That weight partly explains the spiral twist. The other explanation is that unskilled craftsman (there was a shortage of proficient workmen owing to the Black Death) used unseasoned green timbers. If you fancy a climb up the 152 steps on a narrow spiral stairway, you can see for yourself the tangle of timbers in the spire.

As ever, the myths surrounding the twist are more romantic. Two of them relate to the Devil: one tells of a local blacksmith making a poor job of shoeing Satan’s hooves, bringing him to lash out in agony while flying over the spire; the other claims he was resting on the apex of the spire and sneezed so violently due to rising incense from a Midnight Mass that he wrapped his tail around the tower to stop him falling.

Growth, the sculpture on Hornsbridge RoundaboutGrowth, the sculpture on Hornsbridge Roundabout

My favourite, with apologies to the maidens of the town, is that the spire itself twisted – in shock – at the sight of a virgin getting married in the church; and that it will only straighten should this ever occur again.

9 - GATEWAY TO GROWTH

Although the 228ft high church is usually the first landmark to catch the eye on entering Chesterfield, you might beforehand glimpse the recent growth of a landmark on the town’s main roundabout: a superb sculpture entitled Growth, designed by local artist Melanie Jackson, and part of a welcome Gateway Enhancement Scheme of improvements to the entry points of the town centre alongside public art, as a way of ‘raising the profile of Chesterfield as a place to invest, visit and live.’

Growth has been cleverly designed: a cog reflects the town’s industrial heritage, with the opening flower representing its future development, the flower itself influenced by the pomegranate tree on the coat of arms. The reference to the spire is subtle and canny: the eight petals relate to its eight twisting facets and, at the same time, represent eight community areas that make up Chesterfield.

Other public art from this scheme includes replica railway tickets embedded in the pavement near Chesterfield’s first railway station; and a railing on the site of Chesterfield FC’s old Saltergate ground, again created by Melanie Jackson, brilliantly depicting cheering fans.

Mary Hinchcliffe with her dog Alfie in Poolsbrook Country ParkMary Hinchcliffe with her dog Alfie in Poolsbrook Country Park

Before moving on from the area around All Saints, I glimpsed a further new sculpture: a large wooden bee, beautifully sculpted by Wirksworth artist Andrew Frost out of the stump of a large tree blown down in strong winds. The artwork marks the start of a campaign called Pollinating the Peak, encouraging communities to create bee habitats.

10 - REST & PLAY

Bird habitats are in evidence at the 180-acre Poolsbrook Country Park, a derelict colliery transformed into a tranquil green haven with a large, placid lake. It’s been designed to encourage wildlife diversity and has especially drawn keen ornithologists.

If you fancy a stroll in the park, Chesterfield has five with Green Flag Status. Most notable is Queen’s Park, which has a Victorian bandstand and miniature train and, of course, a famous cricket ground. Once graced by WG himself and Don Bradman, and declared to be ‘the loveliest ground in the country’ by John Arlott and, later, Sachin Tendulkar, it’s heartening that Derbyshire CC continues to host a week of first class cricket here each summer.

Come next season, Queen’s Park will have unveiled its new £11.25m sports centre, complete with eight-lane swimming pool, eight-court sports hall and 80 station gym.

Naturally, one must mention Chesterfield FC who unveiled their new premises five years ago, the 10,300 seater Proact stadium, and are enjoying a second season in the top half of Division One. Come on, you Spireites…

As I say, there’s no getting away from that spire. By the way, did you know it’s not technically crooked? I would explain but after listing all those reasons to visit Chesterfield, I’m out of space. Go there yourself and find out!

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