A walk back through time - the intriguing past of the Amber Valley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 August 2020
Helen Moat explores murder, mystery and intrigue in the east of Derbyshire.
It’s a place of gentle beauty, where clusters of inky green woodlands lie in dips and darken buttery meadows. Within this undulating landscape you’ll find villages of weathered stone spread out across uplands and tucked into the folds of high-hedged lanes. It’s hard to imagine this tranquil corner of Derbyshire was once a hotbed of political intrigue and revolutionary fervour.
Return to the past to follow in the footsteps of saintly Florence Nightingale and would-be assassin Anthony Babington to the idyllic hamlet of Dethick. Turn the corner of a South Wingfield lane to see the ghostly ruins of Wingfield Manor, where a plot to rescue Mary Queen of Scots was foiled. Follow the Pentrich Revolution Trail, a story of ardent labourers, who rose up against their rulers with pikes, scythes and guns in England’s last attempted revolution.
Death Oak - a walk to the home of assassination plotter Anthony Babington
Almost opposite the playground at Lea village, a signpost points to a weedy path that disappears into dank woodland. Steps drop steeply to a burbling brook then climb to Swinepark Wood. Here, tall sycamores and Scots pine vie for the skyline in an underwood of holly and rhododendrons. Over a stile, a wide grassy path heads through meadows to Dethick. The path dips then rises, and suddenly St John the Baptist Church comes into view.
As I walk towards the medieval church with its little lantern tower, I imagine Florence Nightingale, who spent the summer months at Lea Hurst, walking this very same path to church, her long skirts swishing through clover.
In Covid-free times, the key of the church can be picked up from the dairy at Manor Farm. Built by Sir Charles Dethick, the first lord of the manor in 1279 as a private place of worship, the church and manor eventually fell into the hands of the Babington family. They raised the roof of the St John the Baptist church around 1530, adding clerestory windows and the charming lantern tower. The manor house is gone, replaced by three farms, but a 16th Century barn remains with the Babington Coat of Arms, while Manor Farm contains the original fireplace and oak beams of the fine country house.
In this blissful place of handsome farm dwellings and gardens of climbing roses, it’s hard to believe Babington plotted to murder Elizabeth I while scheming to free Mary Queen of Scots. The squire might have anticipated his gruesome end for the name of this bucolic hamlet means Death Oak. His part in the plot uncovered, Babington was carted off to London to be hanged, drawn and quartered, his body parts displayed in the streets as a warning.
Despite Dethick’s gory story, I am reluctant to leave this sedate corner of Amber Valley, so I cross Mill Lane and follow the rise of fields along drystone walls lined with foxgloves. Did Babington also walk these meadows, his head filled with schemes of rescuing Mary Stuart? In all likelihood.
As I wander on, I tune back into the present and the acrobatic song of the skylark. All around me are far-reaching views to Riber Castle, Crich Stand and Tansley. Where the grassy pathway meets a track, I turn right and dive into woodland, veering right again onto a green lane enclosed by banks of fern. The pathway returns me to Mill Lane and Dethick, where I retrace my steps to Lea. The Babington Plot has captured my imagination. I want to know more.
The plot thickens - a ramble around Wingfield Manor
Anthony Babington’s name crops up again in Amber Valley - this time at the palatial Wingfield Manor, one of the many luxurious prisons that held an unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. Poor Mary was chivvied from pillar to post. She was held under house arrest in the finest of Derbyshire establishments, including Chatsworth House, at the behest of Elizabeth I, who saw her cousin as a threat to the throne.
While Wingfield Manor was one the grandest houses in 16th-Century England, Mary Queen of Scots must have yearned for her freedom. When Babington wrote to Mary, laying out his plans for her rescue, the temptation to fall in with his scheme was great - dangerous as it was.
I turn the corner of the lane on the edge of South Wingfield, leading to Wingfield Hall, and the unexpected sight of the manor ruins spread out across the hillside with its 72-foot High Tower, pointed gables and battlement towers hits me with all its gothic splendour. This was a stupendous mansion, a statement of power and wealth for Ralph Cromwell, the third Lord Cromwell and Lord Treasurer of England. It was seventeen years in the making and still incomplete when Ralph Cromwell died.
I cross a stile and head along a country track before climbing to the curtain walls of Wingfield Manor. Rooks fly through paneless mullioned windows and circle the two courtyards and Great Hall. By the time Mary arrived at Wingfield Manor, George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, was its owner - and the queen’s keeper.
In a story of Baldrick-esque cunning, pre-dating the Babington plot, the Countess of Northumberland, on the pretence of attending a servant’s wife as a nurse, planned to take on the disguise of Mary Stuart following the kidnap. The rescue, unsurprisingly, failed.
It’s thought this is the place where a young, impressionable Anthony Babington first encountered Mary Stuart when he was employed as a page to the household.
I tumble down through fields to Colburn Farm, then head along Park Lane to duck into a green lane leading back to South Wingfield. Was this narrow leafy track used by servants to approach the manor? Was I treading the same cobblestones as those who tended the doomed Mary? On 8th February 1587, Mary Stuart was beheaded, just six months after Babington was executed for his alleged part in a plot to murder Elizabeth I. The young Catholic squire, who’d championed Mary Stuart’s accession to the throne, had instead ensured her early death.
The Pentrich Uprising - on the trail of England’s last revolution
Fast forward to the 1800s. Mary Stuart and Babington are long dead. The industrial revolution was gathering pace. In the summer of 1816 snow fell. That autumn the crops failed. Starvation loomed for the masses as the Regency lived it up. A winter of discontent followed. In the spring of 1817, reformers - labourers, miners, framework knitters, farmers and iron workers - secretly met in Pentrich to plan an uprising. Unbeknown to them, they had an agent provocateur in their midst.
While encouraging the uprising, the newcomer to the group was reporting their illicit activities. I download the Revolution Trail and set out to find out more.
A plaque at Pentrich’s Dog Inn tells me it was called the Spaniel Dog during the Uprising. On Amber Lane, I find the second plaque on a gatepost, the site of a barn used to plan the revolt.
At Butterley Reservoir, I stop for lunch. It’s a tranquil spot of coots and swans that’s far removed from the revolutionary fervour I’m following. On Butterley Hill, a third plaque informs me the rebels, who’d demanded arms at the gatehouse of the iron works, were turned away.
I retrace my steps along Butterley Lane, then follow the silted canal to the busy A610. The trail map follows the road at this point, but ignoring it, I cross the road with care to continue alongside the more pleasant Cromford Canal and meadows.
Emerging at the Excavator pub restaurant further along the A610 I turn right, then left onto Chesterfield Road. There are three plaques on this road. The first informs me a servant was shot dead at Widow Hepworth farm. At Pentrich Lane End, I discover the rebels regrouped here to join a planned protest march to Nottingham. A third, on a mill gable, tells me Booth’s Hovel was the hiding place of their leader, Thomas Bacon.
Opposite the mill, a public footpath rises through fields to St Matthew’s Church at Pentrich. It has an atmospheric graveyard. Some large tombstones record deaths from the early 1800s, too grand to belong to the rebel labourers. Instead, I learn from a plaque at the bottom of the steps that the curate had provided sanctuary for the revolutionaries in the church.
There are three more plaques dotted around the village. One, at the site of James Shipman’s home, a traitor who’d given evidence against the rebels at trial. One at the site of Thomas Bacon’s home, destroyed after the uprising. The last one is placed at the site of the White Horse Inn, where the revolution was plotted.
The uprising quashed, four of the rebels, Bacon, Brandreth, Ludlam and Weightman, were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death for their leading roles in the uprising. Weightman and Bacon managed to escape execution, but Ludlam, Brandreth and a third man, Turner, were executed at Derby Gaol. Brandreth’s head was raised up for the crowds to behold. There was no cheering. The restless public was on the side of the rebels.