Castle Donington, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 14:47 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Turk's Head and St Edward's spire

Turk's Head and St Edward's spire

Ashley Franklin visits the village that millions flock towards each year but few actually visit.

Castle Donington is unique in the East Midlands: it must be the most well-known village in the region yet is hardly ever visited. Millions a year flock towards Castle Donington but stop just short of it, their destination either being the nearby East Midlands Airport or Donington Park race circuit. As well as the track meetings, the latter has the added attraction of the Donington Collection and Sunday Market, reckoned to be the biggest and best in the Midlands. Yet more Donington-bound vehicles head for the vast industrial park which skirts the village. It's also surrounded by three major roads: the M1, A42 and now the A50. 'We claim to be the biggest traffic island in the European Community,' smiles long-time resident Bruce Townsend.

This might make it sound like a soulless, beleaguered place but it's pleasing to report that for all the commotion around it, Castle Donington remains an archetypal village with many charming features. Although it has doubled in size over the last 50 years (population is about 7,000), most local respondents to a recent Parish Council plan still refer to Donington as a large village rather than a small town. Its location has inevitably attracted many dormitory dwellers but there are sufficient residents - most likely the ones who take the trouble to fill in Parish Council questionnaires! - to maintain Castle Donington as a lively, social village, which is, according to residents Phil and Irene Button, 'friendly without being intrusive'. Furthermore, it has a well-supported shopping street, a regular farmers' market and plenty of local businesses which include two lavish hotels and a newly thriving business centre. There are plenty of interest groups, three active churches, a well-supported Volunteer Bureau, a hearty number of pubs and both an annual medieval May Day Market and Wakes Week. There is even a village museum.

The Market and Wakes are a throwback to a Royal Charter of 1278, though the village name itself already tells of a settlement steeped in history. The name Donington has existed for over 1,500 years since it was first recorded by Saxon tribes as Dunitone, meaning 'the settlement, or estate, belonging to Duna', although Duna may be derived from the old English word Duningas, meaning 'hill dwellers'. Viking occupation is also evident from one of the village's main street names, Bondgate, meaning 'the Boundary Street'. The Viking hordes, along with other boat-borne visitors, would more than likely have found this settlement (as they did with nearby Repton and Willington) easily accessible from the wide River Trent that flows nearby. In fact, a remarkable legacy of those days can still be heard today through newcomers being commonly addressed as East Winders, a reference to the early invaders being blown down the river by the east wind.

Domesday refers to Donington having a mill and a priest, both established beside the river where today you will find the Priest House Hotel. This is not situated strictly in Donington but in the adjacent hamlet of King's Mills, so-called because the three mills once sited there were Crown Property, with one of the mills printing banknotes of the realm. Domesday also mentions a wood of 960 acres, part of a massive stretch of woodland that attracted hunting parties, including those of King John. For a short time in the early 13th century the King assumed control of the castle here, built following the Norman Conquest. In 1216, the end of King John's reign saw the castle demolished and although a second bigger castle was erected, it languished long unoccupied until, at the turn of the 16th century the stone was sold, some of which was used to enlarge Donington Hall. The only noticeable vestige of Donington's castle is the name Castle Hill where some of the stone survives in a few properties.

As resident Darran Snow's excellent new heritage trail leaflet reveals, several properties in Castle Donington hark back to the village's growth and development. The aforementioned Donington Hall dates back to 1795, built by the Hastings family, Earls of Huntingdon, after they inherited the village estate. The same family bought the first hall back in 1595. The Hastings' return led to troubled years of ill-luck and fiscal irresponsibility: the first Marquess overspent on the hall and park; the second and third Marquesses died young and the fourth squandered almost the entire family fortune in six years. During World War I the hall suffered the ill-fortune of being the only prisoner of war camp from which a German prisoner, Gunther Pluschow, escaped and returned to his homeland. This was in spite of high barbed wire and electrified fences. The escape story reads like a cinematic thriller: reaching London, Pluschow evaded recapture several times by the skin of his teeth, eventually stowing away on a ship bound for Holland.

In World War II, Donington Park became the biggest army vehicle depot in England while at nearby Burnaston Airfield a company called Air Schools Ltd had just been set up, specialising in RAF pilot training. This was the beginning of British Midland Airways which, in 1982, moved its headquarters to Donington Hall. The conversion was a massive 1 million undertaking, the Hall having rotted to a near-derelict shell which flooded every time it rained. Now under the trading name bmi, the company notably includes bmibaby, the UK's fastest-growing low-cost airline. The group operates 1,800 flights per week to a global network of destinations.

East Midlands Airport began in a small way, too: RAF Castle Donington became operational in 1943 as a relief airfield for RAF Wymeswold, closing in 1946, and it was British Midland Airways' presence in the area that saw a commercial airport take flight in 1965. EMA is now a massive operation, last year spending over 15 million redeveloping the facilities for its five million passengers a year who connect to more than 100 destinations. It also employs over 6,900 people, accounting for one of every 52 people of working age in the North West Leicestershire district.

There was a time when many of Castle Donington's residents were employed in the power station which, when it was built in 1956, was one of the largest coal-fired power stations in Europe. It closed in 1994.

Castle Donington's industrial heritage can be traced back to the numerous home-based framework knitting shops which, by the mid 19th century, had seen the village's population treble. Bruce Townsend recalls his girlfriend's mother still making socks on a Griswold machine in her living room as recently as 1949. The opening of Donington Mill in 1870 for the manufacture of lace, hosiery and silk, coincident with the coming of the railway to the village, was a belated attempt to arrest the decline in demand for Donington lace. It brought a decline in demand for new houses, too, as many redundant frameworkers left to work in the town factories. This explains why there are so few mid and late Victorian buildings in Castle Donington, the central part of the village being predominantly Georgian, Regency or earlier in character.

It's little wonder that Donington was chosen as Leicestershire's very first Conservation Area, due largely to 'the amount of noteworthy buildings'. The timber-framed Key House and Crown House, which was the home of John Sutton, a 19th century plasterer whose decorative work adorns Elvaston Castle and Donington Hall, are particularly 'noteworthy'. The Church of St Edward is one of only five ancient churches known to have been so dedicated. It has a handsomely arched entrance on the main shopping street, sitting in appropriately striking splendour in the very heart of the village surrounded by an expanse of green lawn and beguiling, unspoilt houses.

The Methodist Church is similarly imposing. It's said that Castle Donington's links with Methodism go back almost as long as Methodism itself with founder John Wesley frequently visiting the village.

Just round the corner is Donington's very own award-winning museum, opened in 1970, which attracts around 1,500 visitors a year. This year's exhibition 'Pleasures, Pastimes and Potions' reflects on leisure through the ages with the 'potions' element revealing old-fashioned remedies. There will also be a special focus on Wakes Week, which was revitalised last year and attracted over a thousand visitors to an impressive 64 grounds - 35 stalls and 29 rides - over its three days. A dying medieval May Day Market was also revived.

Donington Mill has also been given a new life. Like its Hall, the village mill was in a derelict state before being reborn as the Mill House Business Centre, a stylish and well-equipped suite of offices currently home to 15 different businesses including wedding and party planners, career advisors and suppliers of communication systems and airline parts. More are to come with its imminent expansion.

Other businesses have taken root in the village, aware of the accessibility, convenience and attraction of this rural location. World of Tiles seems to provide just that, with tiles of all kinds for kitchens, bathrooms and even swimming pools. Opposite their showroom is Pianoforte Marwood which manufactures and restores pianos, piano actions and keyboards - one of the few companies in Europe to offer this service. Handily, the partners David Martin and Mick Woodley moved into premises previously occupied by a similar business to theirs and which was, romantically, first occupied a century ago by organ builders. In fact, the company's most recent claim to fame has been the manufacture and supply of a two-manual organ keyboard for a chapel owned by the Duke of Westminster.

As one would expect, their kind of business attracts clients from far and wide though, interestingly, that is also the case with seemingly more localised services. 'We have lots of clients beyond our locality,' points out Kathy Dakin who, for over 20 years, has run the cleverly-named Hairport salon on the busy Borough Street shopping area with her team of 'skilful and experienced hairstylists'. Hairport has the added attraction of Escape, a health, beauty and massage service run by Chrissie Westbrook.

Kathy and Chrissie speak of the advantages of their central location being enhanced by a large road network, and add that being easy to find and get to is as helpful and convenient for staff as it is for clients, a point noted by Angela Vickers who for 21 years has run the florist Buddies, also on Borough Street. 'I've got work friends living round here who have all the stress of travelling to Birmingham every day,' she points out. Interestingly, Angela feels that in these economically uncertain times, the town and village retailers could prosper rather than wither: 'With people turning to purchasing essentials on a daily basis rather than buying in bulk or on a whim, I believe the small shopkeeper will triumph - and we offer something else that keeps us ahead of the field: personal service. I've heard some of our dormitory dwellers say, 'I've lived here a while and didn't know these village shops existed', but if we can just add a greengrocer or butcher, then the profile of Borough Street will be raised.'

I've promising news for Angela: Andy Smith, the owner of the local Nag's Head, is hoping to open a produce store and caf on Borough Street, selling fresh food along with take-away meals of the kind that have become popular at his pub. Food at the Nag's Head is highly varied with specialties including venison, trio of duck and Thai curry plus an intriguing hors d'oeuvre called Angry King Prawns. 'Our food is fresh, local, cooked to order, highly appetising and reasonably priced,' affirms Andy, and he has the Les Routiers and Egon Ronay entries to show for it. I found the service warm and friendly, and my sausage and onion panini succulent, washed down with a palatable pint of a guest ale.

Older pubs like the Turk's Head and Moira Arms would have benefited from the days when Castle Donington was a noted stage coaching stop. Both inns are still pulling pints, if not watering horses, at the heart of the old village. So too is the Donington Manor Hotel, which was built in 1794 to provide sustenance, sleeping quarters and stabling for weary travellers. Since 2001, Donington Manor has been a three-star Finesse hotel offering 'contemporary styling in truly classic surroundings'. For manager Tamsin Jackson, the hotel is marked out by its 'individuality'.

'The building is full of nice surprises,' declares Tamsin. 'Every bedroom is unique, every conference room has a different feel and the public areas range from traditional to very contemporary. I also believe that our staff have genuine passion and pride in this place.' Since arriving last year, Tamsin says she's been trying to make the hotel 'a bit less stuffy and more approachable'. Passion and pride extends to the cuisine, she feels, with chef Jeff providing exquisite homemade dishes. He also keeps his own allotment in the village. 'Jeff is often known to nip up there before lunch or dinner and snip, pick or pull up some item of food that will then appear on the menu,' says Tamsin approvingly.

'That's what I call passion!' The other major hotel in the village, The Priest House, has a most tranquil and romantic riverside setting. 'We're in a quiet, idyllic spot away from any hustle and bustle,' declares manager Martin Page. 'Our hotel sells itself, really.' Many is the time when all 42 rooms are taken for a wedding occasion. Guests must surely admire the tasteful way the Norman tower (the only survivor of a devastating fire which destroyed the adjacent mills in 1927), blends with the contemporary hotel extension. The hotel has a four-star rating and the restaurant has earned two rosettes, although Martin is anxious that 'the dining experience is viewed not as something exclusive or ostentatious but for the whole family.' He adds, 'We pride ourselves on our friendly welcome, good food and relaxed environment - and we employ local people.' Another keen Priest House promotion is its conference facilities, which benefit from having a major airport nearby. Bookings for hotels and guest houses also fill up with every Donington Park race meeting, especially the British Motorcycle Grand Prix which last year attracted 140,000 visitors. Visitors continually come to the Donington Grand Prix Collection, the world's largest assemblage of Formula 1 and Grand Prix vehicles - over 130. It's a little known fact that a Castle Donington-born man - Brian Henton - competed over several Formula 1 World Championship years in the 1980s.

The coming of the Formula 1 British Grand Prix in 2010 will, according to Donington Park PRO Dave Fern, 'bring major financial benefits to the area'. It's exciting, for sure, but add all of Donington Park's race meetings and annual rock festival together with East Midlands Airport activity, including its continual night-time freight flights, and one can appreciate that for all its rustic virtues, Castle Donington isn't exactly a place of permanent quietude.

'The race track is actually noisier than the airport,' state Phil and Irene Button who live on Park Lane, 'and if there is low cloud or the wind is in a certain direction, the noise level is worse.'

Race meetings can also clog traffic flow through the village. The Parish Council Plan questionnaire revealed that 40 per cent of the villagers suffer delays when events are staged at Donington Park. Darran Snow recalls one race event offering free tickets which attracted so many visitors that after being stuck in traffic for two hours, Darran turned his car round, parked in Shardlow and walked the two miles home.

As an outsider, it would be unfair to adjudicate on the claims and counter-claims of EMA/Donington Park and the Parish Council although it's pleasing to note that they do meet regularly and hammer out issues. Dave Fern speaks of Donington Park being 'keen to be good neighbours at all times' and Neil Robinson, environment manager at EMA points out that 'we respond to the comments we receive in a practical and constructive way' and that the airport is continually addressing noise reduction. Compensation packages are offered to villagers in the form of sound insulation grants, and both airport and race track support a wide range of events and activities in the village. The airport also has a 50,000 Community Fund, which includes grant awards to local projects that have direct benefit to the community in which they take place. On top of this, aircraft that are excessively noisy are fined and the money is put straight into the fund to give back to the affected communities.

One figurative compensation package available to every Castle Donington resident is, according to long-time Parish Councillor Tony Saffell, 'a wonderful community spirit'. This was in evidence last year with the opening of the new Spital Park Pavilion with a Music in the Park event where over a thousand picnicking locals were entertained by various bands - pop, rock, brass and steel. For another Parish Councillor, Darran Snow, the vibrant village spirit was exemplified on the day his family moved in: 'Our next door neighbours brought round a bottle of champagne to celebrate our arrival - and we didn't even know their names! Also, a couple of days later another neighbour came to weld a repair to my railings, and refused to take any money.'

Darran was so taken by the warmth and friendliness of the community that he became involved with the Parish Council. He and his fellow councillors deal with continuing concerns for the village. Along with the perennial issues with EMA and Donington Park, there is the threatened development of 300 more houses ('The developers haven't considered the environmental impact to the village,' says Darran) along with the call for a sports centre, a swimming pool and a relief road for heavy traffic. In spite of their problems, long-term resident Margaret Saffell, who has lived in Castle Donington for 82 years, says the village is 'still a friendly, sociable and welcoming place, even if you are an East Winder.'

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