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Chelmorton and Flagg - villages on the White Peak plateau

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2016 | UPDATED: 20:27 06 November 2017

Looking from the head of the village street

Looking from the head of the village street

mike smith

Derbyshire Life visits the unique Peak District villages of Chelmorton and Flagg

Chelmorton is a linear settlement located on the White Peak plateau half-way between Buxton and Bakewell. A stately Palladian building known as Townend Farmhouse marks the southern entrance to the village street, which runs northwards until it comes up against a formidable barrier in the form of Chelmorton Low, a broad, round-topped hill that rises to a height of 200 feet above the village.

Constructed entirely from the limestone on which it stands, the village is in complete harmony with its upland setting – even the telephone box is stone-built. Much of that upland is covered by a lattice of limestone walls enclosing fields that are square or rectangular in shape, but the pattern undergoes a striking and unexpected change in the immediate vicinity of Chelmorton. Here, the walls define 13 parallel field strips running at right angles from both sides of the village street.

This unusual geometry is not the only idiosyncrasy to be found in Chelmorton. During my visit to the village, I would learn about a publican who spent years on an impossible quest, spot a locust hovering in the sky and hear tales about ‘Chelmorton Docks’. Needless to say, locusts and docks are not features normally associated with a Peakland village located over 1,000 feet above sea level.

I began my visit at Townend Farmhouse, which has been in the ownership of members of the Marsden Family for three centuries. The current incumbents are Charles Marsden and his wife Lucilla. Pointing to large oil paintings of his ancestors, Charles told me: ‘The house was built by Isaiah Buxton in 1634, but came into the hands of the Marsdens in 1715, when Ellinor Buxton married Richard Marsden. Later in the eighteenth century, the south-facing façade of the house was remodelled by the insertion of four large Venetian windows and a central pedimented doorway.’

The strip fields of ChelmortonThe strip fields of Chelmorton

Charles showed me an account, written in 1900 by John Cowling Marsden, identifying the adjacent barn as an important rallying point for early Methodists, including John Wesley, who said of John Marsden: ‘If there is a Methodist in England, it is John Marsden of London’. At the time, John had become a prominent figure in the London Cotton Exchange.

Charles and Lucilla have both played prominent parts in the life of their village. Charles is a long-serving parish councillor and Lucilla was involved in a campaign to delay the closure of the village school. Like many other villagers, the couple are proud to display a copy of a map drawn by calligrapher Margaret Morgan showing details of Chelmorton’s famous field strips, which are said to be a ‘fossilised’ legacy of an intensively-cultivated medieval open field that occupied all the land behind the village street. Apparently, it became the practice in Chelmorton for each farmer who had worked a plot in the open field to enclose his strip to avoid his neighbours exercising their common rights.

A further copy of Margaret’s map is on display in The Homestead, the home of Ann and Harry Mayo, another south-facing house located further along the village street. Like Charles, Harry is a long-serving parish councillor, a role that includes responsibility for the upkeep of Chelmorton’s various assets. These comprise: a double water-trough, the last remaining example of seven that once stood alongside the main street; a ‘pound’ where stray sheep were rounded up; the listed stone-built telephone box; the green on which the box stands; infant and junior play equipment, located on land leased from the church; and a beck known as Illy Willy Water.

Harry said: ‘Illy Willy Water is a stream that was once the village’s water supply. It emanates from a spring on Chelmorton Low and follows a meandering course until it disappears into a swallet or sinkhole at Town End. Prior to the stream being culverted, it ran under a series of bridges along the main street before flooding into a water-gathering area known locally as ‘Chelmorton Docks’, where, according to the late Chelmorton poet Harry Swindells, ‘the boys would all loiter and the girls would all preen’.’

Townend Farmhouse with Chelmorton Low as a backclothTownend Farmhouse with Chelmorton Low as a backcloth

Ann Mayo is responsible for bookings at the War Memorial Institute, which dates from 1922. Once a men’s social club and the canteen for the local school, the institute is now a meeting place for the Parish Council and a venue for the monthly Chelly Film Club and for quizzes, parties and coffee mornings. It is also the starting and finishing point for an annual cycle race. The building is available for hire and catering is provided for walking groups and coach parties visiting the village.

Another popular venue for visitors and locals alike is the Church Inn, which stands at the foot of Chelmorton Low and commands a fine view over the village. The pub has been run very successfully for the last sixteen years by Justin Satur and his wife Julie. The inn is open every day and has delicious home-cooked food, real ales, including two local beers, and four guest bedrooms.

In common with other people I visited in the village, Julie and Justin are a source of fascinating historic information. Justin showed me an account of the life of Alexander Ollerenshaw, a former publican who doubled as a blacksmith and was also an inventor who spent many years trying in vain to perfect a perpetual motion machine. His daughter and granddaughter are said to haunt the pub.

As its name would suggest, the inn stands opposite the church, which is the highest church with a spire in England. The building is dedicated to St John the Baptist, who is said to have survived on a diet of locusts and honey. In recognition of this story, the church’s weather vane takes the form of a golden locust. A large embroidered panel in the south transept illustrates the history of the village, as well as the local flora and bird life. One section depicts those striking walled strip fields.

The Church of St John the BaptistThe Church of St John the Baptist

The walls that enclose the famous strips are Grade II listed, and the maintenance of these and other walls in the area is crucial for the preservation of the special quality of the landscape. In 2009, when Mark and Caroline Hambleton bought Five Wells Farm, situated immediately beyond Chelmorton Low and close to the upland village of Flagg, they found that their field walls were in ruins. Mark enrolled on a stone-walling course and built up so much expertise that he now runs stone-walling courses in conjunction with David Bagshaw of Caxterway Farm.

Mark said: ‘Stone-walling is an art form rather than an exact science. The skill comes in choosing the right stones. A waller will know that he or she has mastered the technique when a stone is never put back on the ground once it has been selected. Our participants, who come from all walks of life, aim to complete up to six metres of wall to a height of four and a half feet on the day they are with us.

Mark and Caroline have also refashioned one of their barns into a superb holiday-let with a picture window that commands a magnificent view across the White Peak Plateau. It is a perfect location for people who want to experience the bracing upland air, cycle or ride their horses on the Pennine Bridleway or visit the nearby Five Wells Tomb, the oldest chambered tomb in the British Isles.

The nearby village of Flagg has a nursery school, a Methodist chapel, a village hall, a number of working farms, several dwellings occupying sensitively-converted old buildings, including a former Unitarian chapel, and a caravan site located adjacent to the Elizabethan Flagg Hall. In common with all the other buildings I visited on my walkabout, this eerily-impressive hall has a story to tell. It is said to contain a skull that cannot be moved from its position without bringing misfortune to the owners.

Flagg HallFlagg Hall

To book a room or refreshments in Chelmorton’s War Memorial Institute, contact Ann Mayo on 01298 85344. To book a room at the Church Inn, email innbookings999@gmail.com. To book accommodation or a stone-walling course (7th May, 11th June, 17th Sept, 8th Oct), at Five Wells Farm email mark.hambleton@btinternet.com. To book a place at Flagg Hall Campsite ring 01298 85003.

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