Adding to the Hardwick Experience - Ault Hucknall and the area around Hardwick Hall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 September 2018

Rose Cottage, Ault Hucknall

Rose Cottage, Ault Hucknall

mike smith

Inspired by a visit to Hardwick Hall, Mike Smith lingers in the area to find other treasures to explore

The Parish Church, Ault HucknallThe Parish Church, Ault Hucknall

In July 2017 readers were given a taste of the magical experience of visiting Hardwick Hall. However, there are more ingredients in the ‘Hardwick Experience’ than the hall itself, because a number of buildings in the surrounding parkland provide equally appetising visits. They include an ancient church crammed with interesting features, one of the most authentic old inns in England, a working 18th century watermill and the romantic ruins of a building that was the prototype for the hall.


The first building in Ault Hucknall is a charming flower-decked cottage with triple-light mullioned windows and a stone roof pierced by twin-light mullioned dormers. Although the settlement that follows is said to be ‘the smallest village in England’, it has a surprisingly grand and endlessly fascinating parish church. As Nikolaus Pevsner observed, ‘The Church of St John the Baptist is typical of Derbyshire churches in being embattled and low, but not at all typical in that it possesses a crossing tower, as only the most ambitious churches of the county do.’

Aside from its surprising scale, the exterior is distinguished by two strange features on the west wall. One is a tiny window with an arch that looks like a coiled rope; the other is a tympanum comprising a lintel and a semi-circular pediment. Because the doorway that once stood beneath the tympanum was blocked up long ago, the two-part composition has taken on the appearance of a wall carving.

The identity of the figures depicted on the tympanum has been the subject of much debate. It is reasonably clear that the carvings on the lintel show a man who is using a shield and a raised sword in an attempt to ward off a terrifying winged monster. However, according to experts from English Heritage, the brave fighting man is not a depiction, as one might have thought, of St George in combat with a dragon but is actually a representation of Christ. The carvings on the semi-circular pediment are even less clear. You might want to hazard a guess that the composition comprises a centaur holding a long-handled cross as he confronts a beast which has a smaller animal in attendance, but erosion from westerly winds that have battered the wall over the centuries could well have grossly distorted the depictions that were really intended by the 12th century sculptor.

Some of the interior details of the church are almost as intriguing as those on the exterior. The Norman arch at the head of the nave does not open onto a light and airy chancel, as would be the case in almost every other Derbyshire church. The view through this particular chancel arch is blocked by a stone wall, pierced by a narrow opening that gives only the merest glimpse of the altar.

Verger Edwin Franklin was my guide to three other features in this fascinating church. Pointing to a line of five carved muses at the head of the south aisle, Edwin said: ‘The figures stand on the alabaster tomb of Anne Keighley, the wife of William Cavendish, the first Earl of Devonshire. As you can see, heads on three of the muses are missing. Although no one knows the whereabouts of the detached heads, I’d like to think that they might turn up some day in a hidden corner of the church.’

Stainsby Flour MillStainsby Flour Mill

Pointing to a large slab on the floor below the Countess’ tomb, Edwin said: ‘The slab, inscribed in Latin, is dedicated to Thomas Hobbes, who died in 1679 at the age of 91. As well as being a celebrated philosopher, he lived for 60 years at Hardwick as a friend and a tutor to the Cavendish family. The two 
large tablets on the wall above the Hobbes Memorial are dedicated to members of the Derrey family, who served as innkeepers at the Hardwick Inn between 1665 and 1795.’


The present innkeepers at the Hardwick Inn are Peter and Pauline Batty, who are third generation members of a family that has provided the Hardwick’s innkeepers since 1928. Because the couple are ably supported by their daughter Sarah and son-in-law Stuart, the family seems destined to rival the Derreys as long-serving innkeepers. The inn has been described by Derry Brabbs, in his book English Country Pubs, as having ‘many rooms which still feel like those of a private country house, decorated with elegant wallpaper and lit by daylight filtering through mullioned lattice windows’.

Delighted to be told of that description, Peter says, ‘We intend to keep the wonderful country house feel by dismissing any thought of removing the dividing walls to open up the interior as a single large room, as has happened in so many pubs.’ However, Peter rejects Derry Brabbs’ suggestion that the building might have actually started life as a private residence. He says, ‘It has always been an inn since it was first commissioned by Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century.’

The inn has a collection of 225 varieties of malt whisky, dispenses a range of local ales, has a popular carvery and serves excellent classic English pub food that attracts customers from far and wide, as does the welcoming and friendly manner of Peter and his bar staff. The wonderful atmosphere of the inn’s interior is matched by its location. On any fine and sunny day, many families can be seen dining and drinking at the tables on the forecourt, where they can enjoy the wonderful setting of the building on the edge of the Hardwick Estate. Not surprisingly, Peter Batty is still full of enthusiasm for a job that has enabled his family to be custodians of this historic country inn for so many years.


The first sighting of Stainsby Flour Mill from the fields to the west of Ault Hucknall brings to mind the views of the mills in Dedham Vale that were such a favourite subject for the artist John Constable.

In the 1840s, the 6th Duke of Devonshire decided to re-build and re-equip the mill, which had provided flour over many centuries to the Hardwick Estate and to local villages. The new equipment he installed included a 17 ft-diameter water wheel that remained in operation for over a century. In 1950, the mill was passed to the government in lieu of death duties and then given to the National Trust, which carried out a partial restoration in 1976 before fully restoring the mill in 1992.

Volunteers explain the entire process from growing wheat in the fields to putting flour into bags, which are available for purchase. Visitors can even have a go at grinding their own flour.


Hardwick Old Hall, located just 200 metres from the new hall, was extended and developed by Bess of Hardwick before the legacy left by her fourth husband, George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, made her so wealthy that she was able to build a new hall on an adjacent plot of land.

The old hall included many innovative designs that became prototypes for features incorporated in the new hall. The ruins of the old building are closed to the public throughout the present season to allow essential conservation work to take place, but visitors can still enjoy an external view of the gaunt ruins, which are a marvellously romantic evocation of the Elizabethan Age. u

Access to Ault Hucknall Church can be obtained by ringing the verger Edwin Franklin on 01246 851401. The Hardwick Inn (01246 850245) opens Mon to Sat 11.30am to 11pm (food served until 9.30pm) and on Sun from noon to 10.30pm (food served until 9pm). Stainsby Flour Mill (National Trust) opens from 10am to 5pm (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays). The ruins of Hardwick Old Hall are closed at the present time to allow conservation work to take place.

The Hardwick Experience - a guided tour of the county’s Elizabethan masterpiece

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