Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 15:00 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 12:00 28 July 2013
Ashley Franklin visits Bolsover - 'A surprising place - vibrant and forward-looking with a rich historical heritage'
Gazing east on the M1 between Junctions 29 and 30, Bolsover announces itself through the grandeur of its castle, sitting in state on the town's hilltop ridge. Because of that introductory sentence, I need to assuage a concerned local who said: 'I do hope your article won't just be about the Castle.' There's more to Bolsover than that, you know.' Indeed there is, as we'll discover.
I also have to be careful when focusing on the town's colliery legacy, especially as another local urged me 'not to show Bolsover as a down and out mining town, like so much of the media does.' South of Watford one might hold the stereotypical vision of a grim northern outpost, and all the outdated clichs haven't been helped by the 'Beast of Bolsover' epithet bestowed on longstanding local MP Dennis Skinner. Incidentally, when asked once on Radio Derby (by brave reporter Rod Malcolm) how he felt about the bestial tag, he replied with brilliant clarity: 'It's a matter of whether you sleep at night - and I do.'
Equally as proud of representing Bolsover - at County Council level - is Joan Dixon. 'We all know Bolsover has high levels of deprivation and is still struggling to come to terms with the divisiveness of the miners' strike,' comments Joan, 'but Bolsover is a vibrant forward-looking place with a rich historical heritage where the first buds of regeneration are beginning to show.'
The signs of that regeneration are evident from the moment you enter Bolsover from the M1 and gaze on the aptly-named Gateway, a gleaming and appealing steel sculpture by Liz Lemon of a fractured winding wheel. The accompanying words are apt, too: 'The past we inherit ... the future we create.' The Gateway is significantly flanked by a growing industrial estate and the new 48-acre Peter Fidler Nature Reserve which has sprung up on one of the old colliery tips. Here, there is another appropriate sculpture, entitled Breaking the Mould which takes the form of 'a giant seed which has emerged from the old, broken industrial mould' in a clear representation of new life and growth emerging from Bolsover's industrial decline.
It's entirely fitting that Peter Fidler has his name honoured through a new place of discovery for walkers: born into a Bolsover farming family in 1769, Fidler went on to work as chief surveyor and mapmaker for the Hudson Bay Company. Known as 'The Forgotten Geographer', Fidler walked nearly 50,000 miles compiling and creating maps that came to have an immense impact upon the future exploration and settlement of the West. I also discovered that Bolsover has produced five county cricketers, including Stanley Worthington - still the only Derbyshire-born player to score a century for England and a part of the Derbyshire team that won the county championship in 1936 - and his nephew Eric Marsh, who also played for Derbyshire and coached at Repton for 33 years.
The only Derby County side to win the FA Cup - in 1946 - included 'Bozerite' Jim Bullions. Although not born in Bolsover, the post-war British and European heavyweight champion boxer Bruce Woodcock became the publican at the Angel Inn, and staged boxing contests at the local gym, including a tournament involving Tongan fighters, attended by the Queen of Tonga herself. Another surprise discovery is that Percy Topliss, the infamous 'Monocled Mutineer', was born in these parts and was actually a miner at the Blackwell Colliery.
'Bolsover is a surprising place,' says local historian Bernard Haigh. One might be surprised at the fact that Bolsover even has a Civic Society before discovering that the town is designated as a conservation area in recognition of its special and architectural interest and that there are 21 listed buildings within the town centre. Indeed, the Civic Society was formed in 1979 to prevent the demolition of a group of Market Place buildings dating from the early 17th century. They were restored.
On the Town Trail (another Civic Society initiative), I encountered several attractive houses, notably St Mary's House, a villa with 'Gothick' pointed windows that must be one of the prettiest homes in all Derbyshire. Bernard, the Civic Society secretary, recalled an exchange visit with Southwell Civic Society where one of the members admitted to thinking: 'Why the hell would I want to see a dirty old pit town?' He then confessed to being 'staggered and impressed', saying that Bolsover was 'like some undiscovered jewel in the Cotswolds'. Bernard also has a fond copy of an Observer article on Bolsover. 'The reporter expected the usual utilitarian red brick colliery town,' reveals Bernard, 'but he too was amazed, describing Bolsover as "a gem of landscape and composition".'
One is bowled over by Bolsover as soon as the elegant castle looms into view. Never mind the Cotswolds comparison, Roy Christian wrote that approaching the castle from Chesterfield, 'there is one dramatic moment when you leave a rather dreary industrial landscape and suddenly find yourself climbing up into what appears to be some lovely hill town in Tuscany.' At that same point, I stood for some time in awed admiration and wonderment at one of the most glorious sights in this island and dearly hoped I could be there on one of those special dawns witnessed by local food specialist John Jaquest when 'the frost kisses the trees and the castle floats on the mist, like a scene from a gothic movie.' As John further says, 'If trippers in Scotland came across a castle like this, they would instantly want to stop and stay. We don't realise what we've got on our doorstep.'
John also spoke of the sunsets making the castle windows 'glisten like jewels'. On a similar note, newcomer Rita Reed enthuses about the 'lovely light in Bolsover when sunny'. Bernard Haigh suggests this could be down to the reflective warmth of the honey-coloured magnesian limestone used on many of the buildings.
For a town that Roy Christian described as 'independent to the point of insularity' - unsurprising for a tightly-knit mining community - it's refreshing to see a southerner like Rita Reed choosing to come and live in Bolsover. 'It ticked all the right boxes for me,' states Rita, one strong factor being the openness and strong sense of community, in spite of the town's economic difficulties. 'I also liked the closeness to the Peak District, although there are lots of lovely walks hereabouts.' Indeed, Arthur Soar, a fellow member of Bolsover Ramblers, revealed that there are over 350 miles of Public Rights of Way in Bolsover District.
'When you look out over the Vale of Scarsdale, you can't fail to warm to this place,' says Town Clerk David Kee. Here is yet another aspect of this 'surprising place'. The Town Trail that takes you down a small ginnel off Cotton Street is called Surprise View. From here, you can take in the towers of Hardwick Hall, the Palladian frontage of the ruined Sutton Scarsdale Hall, and New Bolsover model village, the only visible vestige of the town's mining heritage. There's not a slag heap in sight: all have been greened and planted. As Bernard Haigh affirms in the Town Trail: 'Surely this must rank as one of the most dramatic valley landscapes in the country.' It was here that Roy Christian was further reminded of Tuscany - 'like looking out from a terrace in Assisi across a green valley towards Perugia'.
You can take in this same panorama from the walls of Bolsover Castle, where the town's history inevitably begins. William Peveril, son of William the Conqueror, built the first fortification on the site. The castle changed hands several times and went from rack and ruin to eventual restoration when Charles Cavendish acquired it at the turn of the 17th century for the purpose of his 'Little Castle' project, continued by his son William who probably inherited his love of architecture from his grandmother, Bess of Hardwick. In spite of its embattled appearance, this was a fantasy creation, a castle designed not for defence but elegant living, a place of culture, chivalry and pure pleasure. Although William already had a residence - nearby Welbeck Abbey - a guest wrote that his host had 'Welbecke for use and Bolser for sighte'.William was a passionate horseman and the castle's superb Riding House was one of the earliest to be built in England. It also saw the first stirrings of an equine pursuit we now know as dressage. William wrote two books on horsemanship and had the honour of teaching a young Charles II to ride. It would appear that William Cavendish's pleasure palace was largely designed to curry favour with the court as the vast Terrace Range was purportedly built with a view to entertaining Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, even commissioning Ben Jonson to write an entertainment for the royal couple called Love's Welcome at Bolsover.
After centuries of despoilment, neglect and ruin, all are welcome to enjoy the castle following restoration at the turn of the millennium by English Heritage which the historic house study group Attingham Trust described as 'sumptuous and intelligent'. For instance, the attention to detail in the delightful Little Castle extends to the mixing of paint from analysis of scrapings from the walls so that the colours you see are pretty much what William Cavendish would have chosen. Also, the statue of Hercules above the entrance was reconstructed from mere fragments and, inside, the murals depicting Hercules' labours have been scrupulously renewed.
A visit to Bolsover Castle includes a comprehensive audio tour and audio-visuals, and educational visits can be arranged, along with weddings, corporate events and special public events including, this summer, a week of traditional games and two days of combat displays. According to John Coulson, Head of Visitor Operations at English Heritage, visitor numbers - currently 65,000 a year - are holding up at a time when other attractions are experiencing a decline, and he confirms that, given funds, there will be constant improvements leading up to 2012 which will be the 400th anniversary of the building of the castle we see today.
Like its castle, Bolsover has experienced periods of both development and decay. William Peveril built a town as well as a fortification, making Bolsover one of only two planned towns in Derbyshire (the other being Castleton, also a Peveril creation). The linear grid street pattern can still be seen in the heart of the town. Although Bolsover was granted a market charter in 1226 (one of the earliest in Derbyshire), the town evidently declined over the centuries as the market was discontinued towards the end of the 18th century. There was some agriculture and artisan crafts such as buckle making and clay pipe manufacturing, though all were on the wane. Towards the end of the 19th century, Bolsover was described not as a town but 'an extensive village'. As Bernard Haigh writes: 'Like any self-respecting beauty, Bolsover slept for well over 100 years until 1889 when the Bolsover Colliery Company sank its shafts on the side of the River Doe Lea.' The company owner Emerson Bainbridge was to usher in a remarkable revival. The population grew tenfold to 10,000 and 200 houses were built in the creation of a model colliery village called New Bolsover. Nestled in the shadow of the castle, it's an impressive sight, especially the massive, recently-restored village green. The large three-storey houses with their backs to the Castle were known as 'Piano Row' through an observation that if you could afford the higher rent for one of these, you could also afford a piano for the front parlour.
Like the mill owners Strutt and Evans at Belper and Darley Abbey respectively, Bainbridge ran a benevolent autocracy with reasonable wages and fine amenities including a school, store, sports fields, chapel, orphanage and allotments, though families were expected to attend church or chapel (90 per cent did), grow vegetables and flowers, and stay sober: licensed premises applications in this area were always denied and the Company-owned Institute limited each worker to 'three glasses' a night. 'The aim, of course,' states Bernard, 'was to encourage a healthy, hard working, God fearing and productive lifestyle.'
However, this controlling, if cosy, existence had an uncaring side. As revealed by miner Peter Jones in Bernard's compilation of Bolsover Voices, 'women would receive a letter offering profound regrets on the death of their husband at the pit and enclosed in the same envelope would be a notice to quit the Company's house. That was the Bolsover Colliery Company. They were wicked to work for.'
Alf Bentley recalls mining as 'tough, terrible and dangerous, when at times the pit roof was almost on your head. Even now, when I think of all that rock that was above me, it makes my belly ache. But human life in them days was cheap.' As evidence, Alf recalled the hardship of 12-hour night shifts seven days a week.
Although following a century of dormancy and demise there came a century of labour and life, the Thatcher Government's pit closures in 1993 were eventually to put the colliery to sleep, and Bolsover had to wake up to essential economic and societal changes while also coping with the divisiveness of the Miners' Strike of 1984-1985. 'Bolsover was ripped in two,' recalls Joan Dixon, 'and 20 years on the wounds are still sore for many townsfolk. As for the pain of the pit closures, Joan says the scars are still felt in unemployment, poor health and low educational attainment.'
The pit closures weren't all bad, according to Sonia Ward, who worked at the pit along with her husband and now runs the only bed and breakfast house in the town: 'Bolsover people are resilient and many bounced back after the closures. Some folks were either well qualified or resourceful, so got other jobs. Some upped sticks and moved abroad, some retrained for completely different careers. Suffice to say: they got on with it. However, people who worked at the pit miss the camaraderie and I know my husband would go back to the pit tomorrow if he could.'
In spite of Sonia's positive recollections, District Council Leader Eion Watts largely remembers a community that was 'devastated' by the pit closures and which took a long time to recover. Drained of work and faced with long-term deprivation, a fresh plug had to be inserted, and regenerative waters poured in. Eion and his Chief Executive Wes Lumley spoke of the vital help that came via the Coalfield Task Force and about the importance of 'partnerships', 'resources', and 'sustainability' and the need 'to change the culture and philosophy of the population'. It was clear that Bolsover had to embrace a host of new industries. 'Whatever we did, diversity was key,' affirmed Eion. 'We had learned a harsh lesson in this area: don't just have one employer.' Eion cited nearby Barlborough Links Business Park which now has over 100 companies, large and small. Wes spoke proudly of local employment levels that were currently just under the national average. He also quoted figures from 2000 that showed Bolsover as the 20th most deprived of the UK's 454 local authority areas. They're now down to 55th.
'We steadied the ship,' said Eion. 'We've given many people hope, belief and a job and we're now an up-and-coming area, not just another former mining town.'
Joan Dixon agrees, 'Yes, I feel we're turning the corner. Just look at the new Junction 29A (opened only last month) which will surely bring more jobs and prosperity.' As Wes Lumley pointed out, Bolsover had previously been a difficult place to get to as it was between the two M1 junctions of 29 and 30. Eion spoke of Bolsover now having the potential to be 'the Bakewell of the North East', and how the town could become part of a tourist trail taking in adjacent attractions like Creswell Crags and Hardwick Hall. John Coulson told me that English Heritage is about to launch a leaflet promoting the four Cavendish houses entitled Four Houses - One Dynasty with a website linking all four sites. 'In the long term,' points out John, 'I think the key is to maximise Bolsover Castle as a gateway to the area and the first point of call from Junction 29A to the splendours of both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, including Nottingham Castle which was built by the same William Cavendish.' Joan Dixon further points to Bolsover being circled by attractive villages and hamlets such as Elmton, Scarcliffe, Palterton and Whaley.
Bernard Haigh also spoke of a long-held wish of the Civic Society to open a permanent 'miner's house' museum. The Society has already initiated and funded several projects which have improved the town, including the retention of the former pit wheels at Bolsover Colliery - 'as symbolic of Bolsover as the Cavendish mansion up on the hill,' asserts Bernard. There are improvements all round the town. As Town Clerk David Kee points out, the Town Council - itself housed in the attractive old Methodist Chapel - is currently leading on the redevelopment of the old Market Square for both residential and commercial use. There's also been 3 million of investment in two of Bolsover's three community halls and million allocated to nine parks, working in partnership with Friends of Bolsover Parks whose members are especially proud of introducing a new play area at Hornscroft Park. The Town Council is also responsible for a staggering 900 allotment gardens - a clear colliery legacy - and is a major funder of Bolsover in Bloom. 'For a town that has faced hardship and still has pockets of severe deprivation, I am amazed there is such a strong sense of public service,' observes Joan Dixon. 'It's striking the number of people who volunteer to give time to run football clubs, boxing clubs, St John's Ambulance, old people's groups, Bolsover in Bloom and so on. It must be the strong sense of identity in the town and that people feel responsible for one another. In other places, that sense of belonging has gone.'
Bernard Haigh can attest to that. A resident since 1973, Bernard proved himself a true 'Bozerite' when, after moving to Belper to be nearer his work place in Derby, he and his wife Jeanette and young family returned to Bolsover after only 15 months because they 'realised how much we belonged and how much we cared about the town and its people.'
Joan also believes that in spite of its 12,000 population, Bolsover doesn't have the anonymity of a larger town and that there is a better quality of life than in similar urban areas. 'Life is simpler, less rushed,' she maintains. 'You can park your car easily and buy from genuine shopkeepers who offer a high quality of service.'
I caught not only quality service but also great bonhomie walking in to Scarcliffe Nurseries which is now run as a flower and grocery store by sisters Elaine Coupe and Sylvia Lee. 'From us, you get personal service and plenty of cheek,' smiled Elaine, leading one customer to declare that 'you get a better class of insult here'. I also met Kevin Maidens, the genial landlord of the Blue Bell, a Community Pub of the Year winner in 2006 and 2007, when it also won CAMRA's Real Ale Pub of the Year in Chesterfield and District. I certainly approve of the pub's website notice: 'We do not play loud music. Here you can rediscover the art of conversation.' I also smiled at its location, bang opposite a Kingdom Hall where Kevin told me a wayside pulpit once pronounced: 'Drink is Thine Enemy', a warning chillingly reinforced by the sight of a funeral directors next door. As it is, any Christian soul would warm to the fact that in Kevin's eight years at the Bell, the pub has raised over 22,000 for local causes. A regular fund-raiser is an annual panto Kevin writes, including one entitled Jack and the Bean Sprout - 'I couldn't afford a beanstalk,' Kevin ruefully declares.
As a former Chairman of Bolsover's Business Forum, Kevin is aware that Bolsover 'needs more innovation - a few book and antique shops perhaps to pick up trade from the castle.' Trade could be better, say the townsfolk, and there are concerns over the imminent closure of the Co-op. However, to reinforce Bolsover's credentials as a Tuscan hill town, there's now a smart Italian restaurant called Bella Blu and a new wedding store called Bridal Belles.
That's not all that's new. I saw a recently-opened health centre and a tastefully refurbished, well-stocked and well-used library. There's also a new children's centre, a new nursery block at the Infants and a new Junior School. What's more Bolsover School will have a new building by 2010, much to the excitement of its new Headteacher Gordon Inglis. Gordon himself attended school in Scunthorpe where he was the only one in his class whose father wasn't employed in the steelworks, so he can appreciate the wider opportunities awaiting his Bolsover School pupils as opposed to previous generations who merely awaited the 'job for life' at the colliery. To reflect this change in outlook, Gordon has initiated links with schools abroad - 'it's good to have a more global view when they go into employment,' he affirms - and the employment of local ex-miner John Whittaker to forge links between schools and business. With dramatic improvements also in exam performances, it's little wonder Bolsover was recently listed in the top 100 of most consistently improving schools in the UK. What's more, there will be an exciting community dimension to the new school - an 'extended school' as Gordon defines, with learning opportunities for young and old. One innovation will be the introduction of allotments to enable pupils to engage with the seniors of the town. There are other initiatives planned as part of Gordon's belief that 'Bolsover's community has so much to offer'.
'One of the great strengths of Bolsover is its community,' confirms Bernard Haigh. 'Jeanette and I had lived in Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham before coming here and we have never met such friendly, kind and welcoming people whose values are no-nonsense and genuine, based on a mining heritage which provides, by necessity, a close, communal way of life which comes through the experiences of that most dangerous of industries.'
These comments won't surprise other Bolsover incomers who are now happy incumbents. Canon Trevor Hicks of Bolsover's 13th century parish church of St Mary and St Laurence arrived in 2000 and professed that he and his wife Barbara 'have never settled so quickly and so happily in any place as here.' He also believes he has the care of 'one of Derbyshire's finest churches'. It certainly has an appropriately awe-inspiring interior including monuments commemorating the Cavendish family (which survived the ravages of two devastating fires - in 1897 and 1960), a medieval reredos of The Nativity (rescued from use as a door-stop), Saxon corbels over the choir stalls and a huge organ with 1,936 pipes. There's something special in the churchyard too: a gravestone of clock and watch maker Thomas Hinde whose punning eulogy tells us he: Departed this Life, Wound up in the hope of being taken in hand by his Maker and being thoroughly cleaned, Repaired, and set a-going in the world to come on the 15th of August, 1836.
The Rev. Gillian Robertson, who came to Bolsover Methodist Church four years ago, concurs with Trevor on the town's 'genuine, welcoming, close-knit community' and speaks of a lively church with a keen young leadership team - 'with bright ideas to keep our worship and preaching lively and relevant'. Gillian has been especially struck by the closeness of families. 'There's a strong bond of love and duty,' she observes, 'which means that so many elderly folk are supported daily in their homes by the family, with the help of carers.' Many would be envious of Gillian's own home, directly opposite and facing the castle, dominating her view from the bay window.
As I leave the castle behind me, my final call is a reminder of another annual event in Bolsover: the Derbyshire Food and Drink Festival where one of the beacons of taste is Bolsover food specialist John Jaquest, who has been running a delicatessen since 1992 and has photos of Loyd Grossman and Raymond Blanc enjoying his products. Customers from far and wide used to flock to his 'gourmet Aladdin's cave' though John and his wife Pauline have now opened Redwood Smokehouse on Bolsover's Business Park to focus on servicing other delis and top restaurants and hotels, and to extend their acclaimed smoking and curing of meat and fish, where only natural ingredients are used - 'The taste that our forebears knew,' declares John.
The Business Park is yet another indication of Bolsover's slow but sure development and just before I left it, John revealed that one of his customers spoke of seeing a kingfisher on the Doe Lea, a river that once ran in the dark shadow of Bolsover's main colliery. 'That shows you how clean that river has become,' says John. 'It's symbolic of the regeneration of this place.'
Mark Beevers, volunteer reserve manager at the Carr Vale Nature Reserve and a keen ornithologist can only agree about the town's rebirth considering Carr Vale's wetland is ranked among the top five birdwatching sites in Derbyshire. Mark recorded 74 species in just one morning. In all, 203 bird species have been recorded including osprey and peregrine falcon amongst the 13 birds of prey. It's fitting that there are also 18 species of dragonfly as Bolsover has its very own species, albeit extinct: the fossilised remains of a giant dragonfly with an enormous 22 inch wing span were unearthed 300 ft down Bolsover colliery in 1978. 300 million years old, it's one of the oldest known flying creatures. Taken to the Natural History Museum, it was given the name Erasipteron bolsoveri.
While dragonflies flutter freely on a former colliery tip, Bernard Haigh has concerns about a place that is still flexing its own wings as it tries to fly into a fresh future. 'This town still needs a more vital economic base than it currently has,' comments Bernard. 'Since the demise of our staple industries of coal, smokeless fuels and chemicals, we have very limited job opportunities, particularly for youngsters. Junction 29A (already dubbed Skinner's Junction) will provide a closer link to the motorway but we must be vigilant to ensure the valley between here and the M1 doesn't become one vast warehousing site with low paid jobs. We must ensure we don't merely become a dormitory commuter settlement. A balance in attracting newcomers and affordable housing for local people is essential. This "gem" that visitors always comment on is invaluable and we mustn't let it be destroyed. Bolsover is too precious a jewel.'
With thanks to Bernard Haigh who has two books still in print: Around Bolsover in Old Photographs (12.99) and Bolsover Voices (9.99). Bolsover Town Trail and New Bolsover Village Trail are available from Bolsover Civic Society on 01246 822793.