PUBLISHED: 14:43 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013
A bustling community on the north-west edge of the Peak District
Charlesworth clings to the side of one of the most westerly hills in the Peak District. The most dramatic approach to the village is from above. Take a left turn at the summit of the Hayfield to Glossop road and then follow a track that was used in the Middle Ages by the monks of Basingwerk Abbey, who owned a great swathe of land in the area. This ancient highway, which is still known as the Monks' Road, runs for two miles across a desolate moor until it arrives at Coombes Edge, where the land drops away suddenly to reveal a vast panorama.
Seen from Coombes Edge, Charlesworth looks like a toy town, with little houses and shops, two pubs and a church arranged as if by a child's hand. The long descent from the High Peak continues well beyond the village to the deep valley of the River Etherow, which is crossed by a railway viaduct that takes on a Lego-like appearance when viewed from the summit of the moor. Beyond the gorge, the whole of the Manchester conurbation is spread out like a town-planner's model. In the far distance, there are hints of further towns and villages. In fact, the locals claim that it is possible to see as far as Liverpool on a clear day.
The Monks' Road descends into the village from Coombes Edge by a gradient that is almost as steep as the incline of a funicular railway. It is advisable to avoid looking at the panorama while driving down the hill, not only because the road narrows as it falls, but also because it is flanked on the left by a very solid, very high stone wall, which would inflict considerable damage on any vehicle that collided with it.
This mighty barricade is the retaining wall for the churchyard of Charlesworth Congregational Chapel, known by all the villagers as 'Top Chapel'. On the Saturday of my visit, the path through the churchyard had been made treacherous by freezing snow, but Bernard White, one of the chapel's loyal members, was heroically chipping away at the ice to create a safe passage for the Sunday worshippers. As Bernard said, 'Getting to the chapel from the village in summer means a wonderful walk with great views; making the journey in winter is worthy of a blessing.'
Although there is a slight concession to decoration in the form of two Venetian windows in the gable end, Top Chapel's overall starkness, great size and lofty isolation give it an austere presence. In the early 19th century, services in the chapel were equally austere. John Adamson, the pastor of the time, even published a pamphlet that describes 'a few candid reasons why instruments of music should not be used in the worship of God'.
However, Sue King, who is one of the deacons, was keen to tell me that the outward appearance of the chapel creates a completely misleading impression. She said, 'This is a place where everyone is made welcome. In fact, the congregation is growing so much that we're hoping to build an extension to our car park on the other side of the road.' Although the building has a vast interior, with a balcony stretching around all four walls and an enormous organ towering above a raised pulpit, pastor Stephen Hartle deliberately chooses to preach from a lower level, in order to be in close touch with his congregation.
As Sue explained, there has been a house of prayer on this spot for over one thousand years. According to a local legend, the first chapel on the site was erected by an Irish monk in gratitude for his survival when he was caught in a violent storm as he crossed the moors. During the Reformation, the building passed from the Catholic Church into the hands of the Church of England, but it became a nonconformist stronghold at the time of the Commonwealth and has remained so ever since. When it was rebuilt in 1797, the chapel was the only place of worship in the village and the parish church in all but name.
On talking to the Revd Alan Price, I discovered that the history of Charlesworth's present parish church of St John the Evangelist is equally unusual. When we met in the vicarage at the heart of the village, Alan showed me a book written in 1874 by the Revd Goodwin Purcell. Called Stone by Stone, it relates how Revd Purcell arrived in Charlesworth in 1846 to find that there was no Anglican place of worship. Determined to remedy this situation, he set off on an Ian Botham-style walk to Land's End and succeeded in raising 1,500 along the way. After extracting further donations from local benefactors, he had sufficient funds to erect not only a church, but also a vicarage and a school.
Unusual circumstances occurred again in 2005 with the appointment of Alan Price as priest in charge. During a long career as a Church Army officer involved in an international children's ministry, Alan had never been ordained. Fortunately, his wife Carol, also a former Church Army officer, had become ordained in 2004. Alan jokes, 'Until I was ordained last summer, Carol was the one who did the work, while I was the one who got paid.'
The church itself is somewhat unusual, because it has a disproportionately large tower attached to one side of a rather stubby nave. Pevsner adopted a puzzling phrase to sum up its architecture, describing it as 'still in the pre-archaeological lancet style'. Alan has ambitions to re-order the interior of the building, in order to create a community space that would be available to all the people in the village. His inclusive approach extends to the governance of the adjacent Voluntary Controlled Primary School, where he is happy for the three places allotted for Foundation Governors to be shared by his own church, Charlesworth Congregational Chapel and the Methodist Church in the adjacent village of Chisworth.
The Central Methodist Church in nearby Glossop was the venue for a recent exhibition by Anne Ivison, who has set herself the task of illustrating the Bible story through a series of medieval-style paintings, which will collectively form a 'Beano Bible'. Anne is creating the pictures as a thanksgiving for her own life and as a gift for her daughter Rachel and her family in Cambridge. She never intended to show the paintings publicly, but was persuaded to do so by a musician friend who saw them propped up against the wall of her studio.
I also had the privilege of visiting Anne's studio, which occupies the upper floor of a former barn in the grounds of her cottage in the centre of Charlesworth. Both rooms in her garret are crammed with wonderful paintings, all of which are products of her graphic memory and vivid imagination, for Anne never uses models or photographic references for her work. One particularly eye-catching painting depicts a bus packed with passengers. Although the picture is clearly based on her memory for accurate detail, it has been distorted by her imagination into a three-decker vehicle unlike any to be seen in the real world.
Plenty of real vehicles pass along Charlesworth's main street, because it runs along a ledge half way down the slopes of Coombes Edge and serves as the main road from Glossop to Marple. At the point where the steep road from the summit meets this street, there is a war memorial in the form of a tall truncated prism. It is set on a road island and is overlooked by the village's two pubs.
Both these hostelries are in the throes of change. One part of the Grey Mare has already become a tandoori restaurant and landlady Jan Herrick is now in the process of handing over the pub part of the business to new incumbents. Less than three weeks after becoming the new landlord of the George and Dragon last October, Chris Babcock had completely re-vamped the interior and installed contemporary furniture to create a new quiet area, a sports bar and two dining areas with a total of 30 covers.
Although Charlesworth's traditional pubs are necessarily responding to modern tastes by doubling as popular eating places, the village shops are continuing to provide the same sort of service that has kept them in business over many years. Richard and Debbie Vincent have been selling fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh fish at Peaches and Green since 1984. Just one year after taking over the business, their friendly and efficient service earned them an award in the Girobank Village Shop Competition. Manisha Ashvin Patel ran the village newsagents with her husband for a dozen years, and the villagers are delighted that she has chosen to carry on with the business, even though her husband passed away recently.
Charlesworth still has its village post office, which was staffed on the day of my visit by semi-retired postmaster John Boylin, a stand-in for the regular postmaster, who was taking a well deserved holiday. A short distance from the shops, there is a long-established garage, which has been owned for the last eight years by Steven Hill, who began as an apprentice 23 years ago. Steven road-races motor bikes in his spare time and he and his mechanics are happy to repair and service motor bikes as well as cars.
An even older business is to be found several hundred yards from the village centre, almost on the border with Chisworth. This is the general store run by Eric and Joyce Dyson and their son Andrew. Eric has just celebrated half a century in the shop, which was founded by his father in 1946. Locals joke that he must have been born in the store and Eric tops the joke by saying he was weighed on the shop scales after his birth. Even in this age of one-stop supermarket shopping, the villagers are more than willing to make the effort of walking some distance along the main road in order to purchase their goods from Eric, whom they regard as one of Charlesworth's great characters. As Eric says, 'We must be doing something right or we wouldn't still be here.'
Although Charlesworth has managed to retain its traditional village shops, it has undergone radical changes over the last half century. Eric and Joyce can remember a time when local industries included manufacturers of ropes and nets, a dye works and a rubber factory. All these firms have gone now and the village has evolved into a much sought-after place of residence. Given its location on the edge of the Peak District, it is not surprising to find that Charlesworth also attracts a fair number of tourists, some of whom are accommodated at Woodlands, a popular B&B that doubles as a tea room, while others use the nearby Woodseats Holiday Home Park as a base. There is even a riding school in the village.
As Charlesworth has expanded as a commuter base, it has spread its tentacles north-eastwards along the road to Glossop, where the Particular Baptist Chapel occupies a building that is almost a carbon copy of Top Chapel. The village's expansion is even more marked along Long Lane, where modern housing lines the road as it makes a long descent to the wooded gorge of the River Etherow. A Roman Catholic church stands close to the river, which is crossed by a picturesque 17th-century bridge. Since 1842, this fine structure has been diminished by a huge viaduct built to carry the railway across the valley. What looked like a Lego construction when viewed from Coombes Edge is now revealed as a masterpiece of Victorian civil engineering. With a height greater than that of the celebrated brick viaduct at Stockport, the bridge is a spectacular man-made finale to a journey that began in equally dramatic fashion at a natural vantage point on the edge of the Peak District.