Ashford-in-the-Water - one of the Peak District's prettiest villages
PUBLISHED: 10:30 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:30 26 April 2016
Mike Smith / Gary Wallis
As spring arrives and the Peak is back in leaf, Derbyshire Life journeys to Ashford in the Water - a place full of charm for residents and visitors alike
Ashford in the Water is rightly regarded as one of the prettiest villages in the Peak District. Situated on the northern bank of the River Wye, the settlement is best approached on foot over a low, triple-arched packhorse bridge which is said to be the most photographed bridge in England. Willow trees overhang the river and, at appropriate times of the year, rainbow trout can be seen leaping in the crystal clear waters. Immediately beyond the bridge, there is a delightful set-piece composed of three elements: the parish pump, covered by an octagonal canopy; a former tithe barn, now sensitively converted into a dwelling; and a modest parish church, with a small battlemented tower.
The attractive buildings of mellow stone that make up the rest of the village are best appreciated by following a circuit that begins on Fennel Street, which runs northwards from the parish pump until it reaches a grass-covered traffic island with a wooden seat covered by a gabled canopy. A short road to the right of the island gives access to a large recreation area, bordered by a path that provides a fine overall view of the village, arranged like a stage set in front of a backcloth of low surrounding hills. The path emerges at Hill Cross, where the circuit can be continued by following Greaves Lane, before turning right into Church Street and walking slowly back to the Parish Pump.
The various dwellings encountered on this round trip range in size from the modest to the grand and vary in style from the simple to the sophisticated, yet they manage to combine to make a wonderfully harmonious whole. This is particularly apparent on Church Street, where an attractive terrace of houses with neat Georgian façades stands opposite a large dwelling called Great Batch, whose mullions and gables recall an earlier vernacular tradition. Even a nearby modern bungalow fails to add a discordant note to the composition.
This picture-postcard village has a long tradition of welcoming visitors by offering them good food and drink and by providing them with comfortable accommodation in restful surroundings. Tourists are also entertained during their stay by interesting tales of past life and times. One such story concerns the purpose of the unusual walled enclosure attached to that much photographed bridge over the River Wye. In former times, lambs were placed in the pen to entice ewes to swim across the river to reach them, allowing the waters to wash the fleece of the ewes in preparation for shearing.
The ‘Sheepwash Bridge’ terminates at the entrance to the Riverside House Hotel, a former Georgian country residence set in a beautiful riverside estate. Recounting the history of the building, hotel manager Christina Lamb said: ‘The house was built in various phases from 1620 until 1990. Edith Smith bought the Riverside in 1931 and lived here with her sister Jessie Barber and her brother-in-law Dr Percival Ellison Barber, whose blind son, Michael, became the 13th Lord Aylmer, after inheriting the title from his second cousin. The hotel was acquired in 1997 by the present owner, Penelope Thornton, who is a member of the family that founded the Thorntons chocolate company.’
As well as welcoming guests seeking peace and relaxation, the hotel provides facilities for business meetings and is a romantic venue for weddings. There are four dining rooms, embellished with rich fabrics and furnished with antiques, and many of the 14 bedrooms have exposed beams and four-poster beds. Christina Lamb, who has worked at the hotel for the last 16 years, says, ‘I am very lucky to live and work in a village where time seems to stand still.’
Another villager, Jean Blackwell, has been running Cottage Crafts on Fennel Street for over three decades. The crafts on sale in her little shop include wicker baskets, tea-cosies, pots, pictures and some delightful ornaments in the form of miniature limestone walls.
One form of limestone found locally is Black Marble, so called because it turns black when polished. The deposits were first exploited by Henry Watson in 1748, but the stone was especially popular in Victorian times when it was often used on mosaics and for inlaid patterns on chimney pieces and table-tops. A fine example of a Black Ashford Marble table-top can be found in Holy Trinity Church.
The church has two other striking features. Garlands hanging from the roof of the north aisle are known as ‘Virgins’ Crants’, because they were once carried at the funerals of unmarried females, and a carving above the doorway is said to depict a hunting scene from the Royal Forest of the Peak. The hunting forest was a huge swathe of land reserved for Norman kings and noblemen.
In the days of the Royal Forest, the village was known as Aisseford, which explains the name of the Aisseford Tea Room on Church Street. The café is managed by the brother and sister team of Elizabeth and Dan McGoverne, with the help of their mother, Ros. This is the place to enjoy lunches or light refreshments, including homemade cakes and freshly-made scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. The tastefully decorated tea rooms extend through a small conservatory into an outside seating area. The McGovernes have a gift shop on the upper floor and run a holiday let at nearby Nanny Peggy’s Cottage, which is as cute as its name suggests.
Another source of good food and drink is the 17th-century Bulls Head. The pub is managed by George and Katie Maynard, who are members of the fourth generation of the family to run this former coaching inn. George says: ‘We always have three cask ales on offer and our steak and ale pie is a special favourite with people who regularly eat here. There is an open fire in the winter months and we provide boules in the sheltered beer garden in the summer months.’
Ashford’s other pub is the Ashford Arms, formerly the Devonshire Arms – the Dukes of Devonshire have been lords of the manor of Ashford for four centuries, although many of the houses they owned in the village were sold in the 1950s to pay for death duties. This popular inn and eating place has eight en-suite bedrooms and serves meals in the bar and in the large conservatory. The chef is Robert Muxlow, whose food has received rave reviews on the Trip Advisor website. The manager is Andy Fraser-Smith, who says: ‘Back in 2005, when I decided I wanted a change from my job in financial management, I searched the country for the perfect country pub and I found it here.’
Ashford in the Water
The Sheepwash Bridge, said to be the most photographed bridge in England
A table-top inlaid with Ashford Black Marble
A 'Virgin's Crant' in the church
The Aisseford Tea Room
Elizabeth and Dan McGoverne of the Aisseford Tea Room
The Bulls Head
Andy Fraser-Smith of the Ashford Arms
Roberts in Ashford
The former stocking mill on Hill Cross
Riverside Cottage from the Parish Pump
The former Tithe Barn and Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Church
Cottage on Fennel Street
Seat and Green at the head of Fennel Street
Brushfield House on Church Street
The Riverside House Hotel
Christina Lamb, Manager of the Riverside House Hotel
It is rare these days for a country village to have two pubs and even rarer to have a local provisions shop that continues to thrive in an age when so much shopping is done in supermarkets. Known affectionately as the ‘Corner Shop’, Roberts in Ashford sells fruit and vegetables, cooked meats, deli products, chutneys, preserves, coffees and ice creams, as well as made-to-order sandwiches. Run for very many years by Kath and Ken Ibbotson, it was acquired in April 2015 by Cheryl and Nick Roberts, who are right to call it ‘one of the most delightful and individual food shops in the whole region’.
The Ashford of old had several other shops and supported a cottage industry for the manufacture of stockings, with the well-lit top floors of some houses being used as workrooms. All these premises have been converted into attractive dwellings, adding to the long list of very desirable properties in this picture-postcard village.