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Bonsall - a picturesque village surrounded by beauty

PUBLISHED: 16:16 21 August 2018 | UPDATED: 09:05 22 August 2018

The hills around Bonsall

The hills around Bonsall

Ashley Franklin Photography

Tranquil trails, gorgeous gardens and hen racing are just a few of the reasons to visit this intriguing and characterful village

St James' ChurchSt James' Church

Visiting Bonsall is a delight, even before you get there, as it involves a drive up the wooded ravine of the Via Gellia. It’s thought that the Romans mined lead hereabouts and fittingly, a B&B named Pig of Lead stands at the entrance to Bonsall, a mile from Cromford.

The gateway itself is called Clatterway. It is thought to have been named after the clatter of lead miners’ clogs, although another version believes it derives from the clatter of spinning wheels. The cottage industry of frame knitting grew in the village as lead mining declined and in the mid-19th century it was one of the largest centres of the industry with over 140 frames.

Bonsall has a significant place in this country’s industrial history: Richard Arkwright used Bonsall Brook to power his mills and forge the factory system that still impacts on our lives today.

Parish Councillor Phil Addis in the garden of his Bonsall cottageParish Councillor Phil Addis in the garden of his Bonsall cottage

Many of Bonsall’s inhabitants worked in Cromford’s mills and the brook also led to a corn mill, joinery mill, a mill where Blue John stone was shaped and polished, and a colour works.

With such a rich history, it’s not surprising that many villagers are 
involved in a thriving Bonsall History Project which has just published a second edition of the book Bonsall History, a set of six booklets on Bonsall’s past, six Bonsall Trails leaflets and a full colour pictorial map crammed with illustrations and historical and nature notes.

A saying I heard when visiting Aston on Trent could equally apply to Bonsall: ‘If two people meet in the street, they form a conversation; if three meet, they form a society.’ As parish councillor Phil Addis points out: ‘Bonsall is small enough for a lot of residents to know each other but big enough so that you continue to make new acquaintances,’ adding that the village has become a ‘pleasing mixture of old local families and newcomers.’

Bonsall is clearly a very active village. As Parish Council Chair Mark Harris told me: ‘If there’s one thing that really distinguishes Bonsall, it’s the people. They are so warm and friendly, with a real sense of community. So much goes on here.’ So much, in fact, that when Bonsall won the Central England title in the 2009/10 Calor Village of the Year competition, the judges commented that Bonsall wasn’t so much active as ‘hyperactive’.

As well as traditional events like a Carnival, Open Gardens and Well Dressings, Bonsall hosts the World Hen Racing Championships; and, alongside conventional groups such as the Art Club, Allotments Society and Bonsall Bell-Ringers, there is a group of fun-loving, fund-raising eccentrics called The Red Barrows, an Earthbound version of the Red Arrows display team who can be seen at rural events carrying out death-defying feats of bravery ‘flying’ in tight formation and performing stunts. These daredevils profess to be ‘just like The Red Arrows, but slower and lower.’

More seriously, there is a Bonsall branch of the national charity Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, founded by resident Chris Broome in 2002 when his work in Belarus took him home on an airline packed with Belarusian children coming to the UK. Since then, over 150 children have benefited from four-week stays. ‘There are no hills or mountains where they live,’ Chris points out, ‘so Bonsall is perfect for them. We also give them their first sight of the seaside. They return home much improved in both body and mind. We hear reports of them working harder at school. It’s clearly a life-changing experience for them, and the children – some of them now grown-up and married – and hosts stay in touch.’

Bonsall was once described by the Daily Mail as ‘the healthiest village in England’ because of the long life-spans of its inhabitants, kept fit by climbing its streets. From the Pig of Lead to the upper reaches of the village, it’s a climb of 450 feet.

First port of call as I climb the Clatterway is the Fountain Monument, which is overlooked by Fountain Tea Rooms. At the height of the village’s lead mining prosperity this was one of nine pubs in Bonsall – apparently, ale was believed to protect miners from lead poisoning and was considered safer to drink than water which often came from polluted and unsanitary springs.

The hills around BonsallThe hills around Bonsall

It was a ‘leap of faith’ for Anne Young when she opened the Fountain Tea Rooms in 2012 and she has done a remarkable job in transforming a family home into a convivial café with two handsome en suite bed and breakfast rooms above, and an exceptionally well-stocked village store and deli with a two bedroom holiday apartment. The Fountain offers an extensive breakfast and lunch menu – with homemade cakes and scones. Anne has also become a part of Bonsall’s great reputation for fund-raising, co-ordinating efforts to site the village’s first defibrillator on the Fountain’s walls.

Driving on into Bonsall, there are diverse, characterful stone cottages and I catch a sense of the place described by Arthur Mee in The King’s England as ‘tucked away in this deep cleft of the hillside’, especially climbing Church Street to Bonsall Primary School. The school has been instrumental in Bonsall’s rise as a place to reside and bring up children. As resident Mark Harris recounts: ‘When we came to live here, we loved our house overlooking the countryside but were concerned for our three young children as the school had been put into Special Measures. However, Lesley Murhall – who had just been appointed Headteacher – assured us she would “turn the school around.” She has, too; it’s a fantastic educational experience for children.’

I arrived to witness the 11th annual exchange with Argyle Primary School in King’s Cross. Mrs Murhall deliberately chose the nearest school to St Pancras Station, thus making her rural pupils mindful of children growing up in an urban environment. ‘It has led to an increased sense of pride and awareness amongst our children,’ says Lesley, to which Argyle School’s Headteacher Jemima Wade nods vigorously in agreement.

The school is adjacent to 13th century St James’ Church, set off by a battlemented tower and needlepoint spire. It was extensively restored in the 1860s and reputedly has the highest chancel in England. At the base of a column is a mysterious carving of the Little Devil or Bonsall Imp. There was once a carving here of a lead miner with his pick and kibble (basket), known as T’Owd Man. Discovered during the church’s restoration, the churchwarden, Mr Coates, placed it in his garden but it was taken from him and returned to sacred territory: St Mary’s Church in Wirksworth.

Richard Spencer, Steven Massey and Keith Wilmot of Auto EngineeringRichard Spencer, Steven Massey and Keith Wilmot of Auto Engineering

T’Owd Man is clearly still coveted by Bonsall folk: the name of the village’s admirable newsletter Mutterings derives from folk tales of a spirit inhabiting lead mines and that the strange noises coming from the old Ball Eye mine at the end of Church Street were of T’Owd Man muttering. In 2002 residents even commissioned a replica carving of T’Owd Man which is set into the wall of the bandstand overlooking the historic Cross.

Bonsall’s Cross is the grandest I have ever seen, the tallest in Derbyshire, consisting of a slender shaft on a wide base of 13 concentric steps.

Take away the vehicles, signs and aerials in the heart of the village and you could comfortably shoot a drama based at the time the King’s Head opened in 1677. I was warmly welcomed by landlord and landlady Charlie and Kath Cable and their huge dog Barney. ‘Locals call him the Beast of Bonsall, but he’s actually a big baby’ assures Charlie. True to its late 17th century origins, the pub has low-beamed ceilings and flagstone floors. Bonsall’s many activity groups helpfully prop up the pub through their meetings here and there’s a steady flow of walkers and cyclists who enjoy beer ‘second to none’ along with ‘good, honest pub food.’ The influx of regular visitors has encouraged Charlie and Kath to offer en suite accommodation in the autumn. Autumn is also the time when the King’s Head holds its annual Harvest Auction which usually raises around £2,500 – ‘and all the money stays in the village,’ states Kath.

Bonsall’s other pub – the 200-year-old Barley Mow – is at the top of a road that snakes up from the Fountain, and is a freehouse owned by Mick Boam and his effervescent wife Colette. Described as ‘a quirky, fairly bohemian pub’, Colette spoke of their well-kept range of ales, ‘proper pub food with hearty portions’, 
and array of special events including open mic nights, French speaking club and regular Saturday live music nights. She also sings her praises of Bonsall as ‘a wonderfully active village where families support one another.’

The Fountain Monument with the Fountain Tea RoomsThe Fountain Monument with the Fountain Tea Rooms

The Barley Mow is open to all, says Colette, including – as their website declares – dogs, goats, chickens and donkeys. Chickens will be in abundance come the first Saturday in August when the pub stages its annual World Hen Racing Championship, attracting competitors nationwide. The record time over the 60 foot track is 4.8 seconds. ‘Hens are never forced to run, though,’ Colette points out, ‘in fact, some just peck the ground or go to sleep.’ Not surprisingly, the name chosen for Barley Mow’s new micro-brewery is ‘Chickenfoot’.

The many holiday lets in Bonsall keep the pubs going, though a local resident strikes a note of concern, telling me that holiday homes are springing up in what would have been affordable cottages for young couples. However, Liz Stoppard, a resident of over 25 years, can see the attractions of the place for holiday lets: ‘Bonsall is a picturesque village surrounded by beauty – and such freedom, too, with over 90 footpaths.’

Any walk around the hills reveals an abundance of wildlife – some of it rare – with Bonsall Moor home to eight different species of wild orchid alone. There are also numerous stone barns, with Liz and residents George Caldicott and Mike Susko spearheading the Field Barn Project to restore and reuse these derelict buildings. So far, they’ve rescued 27 out of over 100.

Professional photographer Ian Daisley loves being based in such a photogenic place. ‘It’s a great base for my landscape images,’ he says, ‘as such a wide variety of environments are within easy reach.’ Ian’s studio/office is at the nearby Via Gellia Mill. ‘Small businesses love it here,’ he says, ‘as it’s good value, easy to find and has ample parking.’ The ample studio space also allows him to pursue his passion for photographing motorcycles under the name ProBikeART, and to host exhibitions of his landscapes under the title of High Stone Gallery.

I gasped in awe at the landscape up in the hills where Linda Wells and her son Robert run Hollies Farm Plant Centre. They stock both traditional and unusual plants, specialising in herbaceous perennials. As Linda points out: ‘If something grows up here at 900 ft above sea level, it’ll grow anywhere!’ You can also see the plants in a natural setting in the free admission display garden.

Over 20 Bonsall households welcome visitors to the annual Open Gardens event, which is run by Ollie Gerrish, who has a beautiful Italianate garden in the extensive grounds of her home, 17th century Herbert Lodge. As she showed me round, it was hard to believe that when she moved here in 1993 the garden was ‘no more than rough lawn and weeds.’ She and her husband Nick initially camped out in the garden as the interior was in an uninhabitable state. ‘People thought we were crazy to take this property on,’ admits Ollie. ‘It was a dank, stinking building where you could look up through all three floors because of the holes in the ceiling. However, we saw wonderful potential and we’ve realised it.’

At the lower end of Bonsall – on Clatterway – is Cascades, another old property where the house was renovated and the gardens transformed. Alan Clements came here in 1996 and after rewiring, re-plumbing and re-roofing the Georgian family home, set about the garden – ‘more like a wilderness,’ says Alan – choked with hogweed, brambles, stinging nettles and fallen trees. A digger cleared the weeds while 30 lorry loads of silt were removed from the stream, canal and ponds.

Cascades Gardens, open from March to September, extend for four acres along a dell under a high cliff. It’s a bountiful, becalming garden full of colour and variety with distinctive water features. For Alan, it’s been ‘a passionate 20-year journey turning a jungle into a paradise.’ Cascades also offers luxury B&B accommodation.

A more expansive article would tell a poignant story of how a family tragedy led Alan to seek solace in meditation, engender a friendship with the Dalai Lama and specifically create this ‘haven of quiet and spiritual peace’ where ‘a tranquil feeling envelops you’.

The same could be said of Bonsall overall. For Liz Stoppard, it’s a ‘quiet, peaceful place’ but she loves it even more for being ‘quirky, creative and fun.’ This is exemplified by a lovely story of the time the Barley Mow car park had been flooding for two years due to a blockage in the brook. ‘We decided we had to act. We created an island of stones in the middle of the “lake” and, dressed up as a mermaid, I draped myself over the island. We sent the photo to the council stating that “blinkin’ mermaids are coming out of the drains now!” The council immediately sent out a task force to fix the problem.’

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