PUBLISHED: 14:41 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Fascinating facts and great community spirit in a deep sided dale east of Matlock.
After carrying out research in preparation for my visit to Bonsall, I was keen to find answers to a number of intriguing questions: Why does a village that has never been granted a market charter possess the tallest market cross in Derbyshire? Who is T'Owd Man of Bonsall and why does he reside in Wirksworth? How has this isolated village managed to form strong links with both London and Belarus? Why does a little devil lurk at the foot of a column in the church? How can a village of fewer than one thousand people sustain almost 20 local groups and organisations?
Bonsall's distinctive appearance is one aspect of the village that is not open to question. All the buildings are arranged along a series of gullies and ledges; most are stone-built, but a few are in brick. The market cross stands where several lanes converge and consists of a slender shaft on a huge base of thirteen concentric steps. Close by, there is a fine 17th-century inn with irregular gables and an array of mullioned windows. The settlement is overlooked by St James's Church, which has battlements in profusion and a tall spire ringed by two decorative stone bands.
I had arranged to meet churchwarden Margaret Fellows at the church in the hope that I might find answers to some of my queries. As soon as we entered the building, I was struck by the seven-step difference in height between the chancel and the nave. Margaret believes that the split-level arrangement dates from the 14th century, when the nave floor was lowered. Perhaps this alteration also accounts for the nave's uncommonly high column bases, which could well have started life as sturdy underground foundation stones.
It is less easy to explain the presence of a strange carved figure on one of the column bases in the north aisle. Margaret thinks of him as a cross between a frog and a unicorn, but he is generally known as the Little Devil or the Bonsall Imp. Why is he here? Could he be a rather elaborate stonemason's mark? But why is he carved in a place that might have been underground at one time? Was he created to commemorate the lowering of the floor? No one seems to know.
However, Margaret did have ready explanations for the presence of a bull-baiting stone and some free-standing medieval slabs in the south aisle. The stone was placed there by a former rector, who was so incensed by the cruelty of bull-baiting that he had the bull ring removed from the market place in 1815, twenty years before the 'sport' was officially abolished; and the medieval slabs were rescued from the garden of churchwarden John Broxup Coates, where they had been placed for 'safe-keeping' during the restoration of the church in 1863.
The carving known as T'Owd Man of Bonsall was also snatched from the clutches of Mr Coates and taken to Wirksworth Church, where it still remains. I am surprised that the people of Bonsall have not followed the example of Melina Mercouri, who lobbied for the return of the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon from the British Museum - perhaps the villagers realise that they would be met by a similar stubborn refusal!
Thanks to the efforts of Margaret and her fellow churchwarden, Norma Marshall, St James's Church is in much safer hands these days. Margaret and her husband Maurice have even paid for new external lighting at the building as a thank-you to the people of Bonsall for their support when their grandchild died in 1999.
While Margaret and I toured the church, Maurice was running the Bonsall Art Club in an annexe of the Old Rectory. After spending his working life in the motor industry, Maurice took up painting in his retirement. He and Phil Spencer, a musician and former teacher, formed the art group four years ago. On the morning of my visit, they were joined by Ken Edgar, a retired architect, Sue Webb, who worked in the NHS before her retirement, and Jean Robinson, who has lived in various parts of the world where her husband has had postings as a customs and excise official.
Ken, Sue, Jean and several other regular members first joined the group after seeing an advertisement in Mutterings, a village newspaper that is delivered, free of charge, to every resident. Peter Fellows (no relation to Maurice and Margaret Fellows), who is a leading member of the editorial board, told me that the editors have no problem in filling a dozen pages each month with contributions from the people of Bonsall.
This is testimony to the vibrancy of village life. Long-standing local groups include the Carnival and Well Dressing Committee, which recently celebrated 80 years of packed well-dressing week activities that always culminate in a spectacular firework display. Younger groups have often formed as a result of enthusiastic responses to tentative promptings in Mutterings. As well as the Art Group, they include the Allotment Society, the Film Society and the History Group.
Peter is secretary of the History Group, and he and Mike Lynch told me about the work of its members, whose initial project was the compilation of an illustrated village map, complete with an interpretation of the industrial, architectural and natural history of Bonsall. Thirty people contributed to the production of the map, which is available as a leaflet or as a framed image.
The members have also carried out research on specialist aspects of Bonsall's heritage, not least its metamorphosis during the Industrial Revolution from a farming and lead-mining village to a community where the womenfolk worked n Richard Arkwright's factory at Cromford, while the menfolk worked at home on knitting frames rented from hosiers in Matlock and Belper. Their findings have been put together as a comprehensive History of Bonsall, which has been distributed free to every household in the parish. The group is now working on an oral history of the village.
When I asked Peter and Mike if they could answer some of the questions that had resulted from my own sketchy research, they came up with fascinating theories. Their explanation for the presence of the large market cross is that it actually served as a sort of labour exchange, where labourers, or possibly French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars, gathered before they were allocated to local farms. They believe that T'Owd Man of Bonsall is not only a medieval carving of a miner, but also a representation of the guiding spirit of mines and caves. In fact, the full title of the village newspaper is T'Owd Man's Mutterings, a reference to mutterings that are said to have been heard coming from an old mine on Church Street.
Peter's partner, Wendy Bullar, joined us at this point to talk about the Energy Group, which has carried out an audit of Bonsall's community buildings with a view to making recommendations on ways of saving energy. As well as drawing up plans to offer this service to every household, the group holds a 'library' of energy-saving bulbs for people to trial. Their motto is: 'Think globally and act locally'.
Awareness of issues beyond the locality is evident in other village activities. For example, Chris Broome coordinates Bonsall's Chernobyl Group, which is linked to the national charity Chernobyl Children's Lifeline and provides recuperative breaks for children who live in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Chris founded the Bonsall link in 2002 after returning from a study tour of Belarus with a delegation of water engineers and water scientists from the East Midlands and noting that the return flight was packed with Belarusian children coming to the UK.
The group raises money locally to bring young people to Bonsall for month-long holidays, when they stay with volunteer host families for two or four-week spells and enjoy a programme of activities that includes visits to local attractions, as well as a seaside trip that provides a first glimpse of the sea for many of the children. They even experience a ride on the barge owned by the Bonsall Boat Club, which rejoices under the acronym BBC.
Children from Argyle Primary School in north London also pay an annual visit to Bonsall, where they are hosted by pupils at the village primary school. Highlights of their stay include a picnic in the school grounds and an inter-school football match. Their visit is reciprocated when Year 6 pupils from Bonsall pay a visit to London, and the two schools even exchange curriculum material prepared by the children.
This annual exchange was instituted by headteacher Lesley Murhall, who is keen to make her pupils aware of children who live in communities and environments that are very different to their own. At the same time, she is determined to take full advantage of the local environment, not only by matching events in the school year to the farming year, but also by staging lots of classes and activities in the school grounds in the belief that 'children often learn better when they are outside and active'.
The pupils are also given every opportunity to develop their self-confidence and organisational skills. As well as designing their own play area, nature trail and dinosaur world, they have put on a programme of entertainment for senior citizens and sung at a local hotel to raise money for their chosen charities. They even come in during the school holidays to prepare a well dressing. There is no doubt that Bonsall's many clubs and groups will be in safe hands when these children grow up.
During my visit to this lively school, which is blessed with a highly committed staff, I met teaching assistant Jayne Allsop, who has lived in the locality all her life and is married to a farmer who can trace his Bonsall roots back many generations. In fact, one third of the names on a Duchy of Lancaster registry of Bonsall dating from 1415 are to be found on the village's current electoral roll. Of course, there are now many incomers too, but there is clearly a happy integration of new and old residents.
As in all villages, public houses provide a focal point for the community. There are two popular pubs in Bonsall and their publicans make significant contributions to village life. Alan Webster, landlord of the Barley Mow, leads guided walks around the locality and Brian and Winnie Smith, landlords of the King's Head, organise an annual harvest auction to raise money for charity.
The chair of Bonsall's parish council, Sharon Rowlands, confirms that 'community spirit is amazing'. Apart from citing the huge number of local groups, she particularly singles out the efforts that go into the all-week carnival festivities and the terrific response of villagers to the Village in Bloom effort which earned Bonsall a silver medal. Sharon is a prize-winner herself as a breeder of rare Lincoln Longwool sheep. She spins and weaves from home, knows all her sheep by name and even takes them into local schools for educational days.
Not to be left behind in the achievement stakes, Sharon's husband Hayden is a power-lifter who has won 15 British, four European and four world championships as a super-heavyweight. Given his physique, it is not surprising to find that he works as a builder. He built the Rowlands' first house in Bonsall with his own hands and has extended their present dwelling from a one-up, one-down cottage.
Sharon and her fellow councillors have been fighting hard to prevent the removal of the red telephone box that is a prominent streetscape feature in the area known as Slaley. The villagers have now adopted the box, which will be maintained by volunteers.
An effort is also underway to save 115 field barns, which are very significant landscape features in the parish. This ambitious project is being coordinated by Liz Stoppard. Mike Susko and George Caldicott, who have already renovated 21 barns and restored them to agricultural use. When I expressed my amazement at discovering yet another Bonsall community effort, Liz said, 'Everyone agrees that Bonsall is a very active village; some even describe it as hyperactive!'