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Chelmorton, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 14:42 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Chelmorton from below Nether Low

Chelmorton from below Nether Low

Surrounded by ancient stripfields and overlooked by prehistoric barrows - a 'last outpost of time past.'

To gain some idea of Chelmorton's remarkable geometry, imagine the skeleton of a great whale, made up of a succession of parallel ribs running away at right angles from a very long spine. Think of the ribs as the stone walls that now enclose the narrow field strips which lie within the boundaries of what were once two huge medieval open fields. Visualise the spine as the long, straggling village street, which runs from the old Buxton-Bakewell road to the foot of Chelmorton Low, a bold, rounded hill that is topped by two prehistoric barrows and rises to 1,442 feet, some 200 feet above the limestone plateau on which the linear village stands.

The use of a marine analogy to describe this landscape is particularly apt because, improbable though it may seem, the limestone rocks of the White Peak plateau are actually the fossilised remnants of creatures and plants that lived in a warm, shallow sea which covered the area in the Carboniferous period, some 350 million years ago. Carboniferous limestone now forms the fabric of Chelmorton, from its cottages to its barns and stone walls. Even the village telephone box is stone-built.

At the foot of the village street, there is a superbly proportioned Georgian building known as Townend Farmhouse, which has four splendid Venetian windows and a neat pedimented doorway. The adjacent agricultural buildings, with their gritstone quoins and a porthole window, are also very grand. However, this elegant assembly of eighteenth-century buildings is something of a false introduction to Chelmorton, because almost all the other cottages and farms that flank the village street are simple structures with no pretensions whatsoever.

Two buildings do manage to make their presence felt, largely because they are bigger than their neighbours, but also because they have quite imposing symmetrical faades. These are the former Primitive Methodist Church, now converted into a private house called Primitive Hall, and the Memorial Institute. The institute, which was erected in 1922 and began life as a men's club, had become unhealthily damp and semi-derelict by the turn of the millennium and was on the point of being sold. However, it was saved at the eleventh hour by a vociferous protest group, which then evolved into a management committee that has overseen the renovation of the building over the last six years.

Harry Mayo, who lives in a cottage across the road from the institute, is an active member of the committee. He has lived in Chelmorton since 1967, when he decided to set up home in the village with his new bride. On the face of it, his decision to retreat to a country idyll at the very moment when he was faced with the responsibilities that come with married life seemed foolhardy, not least because commuting difficulties forced him to give up his steady job in a Manchester advertising agency. However, the move turned out to be every bit as life-enhancing as he had hoped.

Harry established his own very successful publicity and print firm in Sheffield and he and his wife Ann have been more than happy to bring up their two sons in the agreeable rural surroundings of their adopted village, where Harry has served as chairman of the parish council and Ann has been a long-serving co-organiser, with Carol Allcock, of the Over Sixties' Club.

The couple have seen lots of changes in the village over the years: many of the farms are no longer worked on a full-time basis; most of the barns have been converted into dwellings; kerbing of the footpaths has added an incongruous urban touch; and the village shops, the school, the Primitive Methodist Church and the post office have all closed. When the institute was also threatened with closure, Harry and many other villagers felt that they should make a last stand to save at least this building for the people of Chelmorton.

Thanks to various grants, the building's damp problem has been solved, new windows have been fitted and a new kitchen has been installed to enable Ann and other volunteers to put on refreshments for visiting coach parties. Regular talks, meetings and dances ensure that the hall is once again a focus of village life.

Chelmorton's other focal points stand at the very end of the village street, where it finally peters out on the lower slopes of Chelmorton Low. The village pub, originally called the Blacksmith's Arms but re-christened the Church Inn in 1884, stands to the left of the road and the parish church of St John the Baptist stands in a large, sloping churchyard to the right of the road. Its gritstone spire, which seems to be thrown into permanent silhouette against the brooding bulk of Chelmorton Low, is topped by a weather vane in the shape of a locust - St John the Baptist survived in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey.

Since 1995, the churchyard, which is a haven for insects, birds, mammals and wild flowers, has been carefully protected by a group of volunteers under the Living Churchyard Scheme. One area is mown regularly; another section, which is treated as a hay meadow, is mown after the wild flowers have seeded and a third area is preserved as grassland and cut in the autumn.

I was shown around the church by one of the churchwardens, 82-year-old Howard Clark. As we walked down the nave, we studied its split personality - round arches on the south side, pointed arches on the north side; clerestory windows on the south side, plain walls on the north side. Howard showed me the rood screen, which has a low stone base with quatrefoil openings and a wooden upper tier carved with matching motifs.

We ascended a small flight of steps to the large fourteenth-century chancel, lit by a late nineteenth-century stained glass window. Attached to the south wall of the chancel, there is a twin sedilia (seats for the priests), decorated on one side by a carving of a man's head and on the other by a carving of a woman's head. Both have very glum expressions - or could this be the result of selective weathering of the carved stone?

Howard then took me into a large chapel in the south aisle in order to view the Chelmorton Tapestry, a series of framed panels depicting the history of the area from pre-historic times to the present day. This superb pictorial record, which was conceived by Joan Windross, was eight years in the making. A team of fourteen embroiderers was advised by Canon Leonard Childs and needlework teacher Margaret Boden. Some of the motifs were based on exhibits and artefacts loaned by members of the Buxton Field Club.

The church is under the joint stewardship of Revd John Goldsmith and Revd Canon Mary Goldsmith. Howard expressed pride in Mary's recent conferment as a Canon and in the parish church's claim to be the highest church with a spire in England. To end our visit, we looked up at the spire's locust weather vane, which was described by local writer Harry Swindell in his poem 'Chelmorton Spire': 'No matter which way he points, We know he must be right, But surely the true pilgrim's way, Points upward out of sight.'

Howard told me that he had been a friend of Harry Swindell, a Chelmorton farmer who had first been published as a poet when in his late eighties and died a few years ago at the age of 93. For the past eight years, Harry's grand-daughter, Julie, has run the Church Inn, together with her husband Justin Satur. The couple offer fine home-cooked food, good real ales and a very warm welcome to the locals and visitors who come to this cosy country pub. They also provide bed and breakfast accommodation in newly-built en suite rooms that stand alongside the superbly restored hostelry, which dates back to the seventeenth century.

Justin and Julie showed me some fascinating documents that they had discovered behind a cupboard when they first moved into the building. One records that the landlord in the early nineteenth century was Alexander Ollerenshaw, who doubled as a blacksmith and spent much of his spare time vainly attempting to devise a perpetual motion machine. Although Alexander firmly believed that he would go down in history as the first person to produce such a device, he is merely remembered as an obsessive eccentric. However, it is said that his daughter-in-law and his grand-daughter have left a permanent mark by haunting the pub.

Some of these framed documents decorate the wall of the pub, as do poems by Harry Swindell and a superb village map produced by calligrapher Margaret Morgan. As its centrepiece, the map has a depiction of those wonderful field strips, meticulously drawn and numbered according to information on the 1880 Ordnance Survey map. The perimeter of the map is decorated with fine illustrations of Chelmorton's other iconic features: Townend Farm, the church, a locust, a mountain pansy and, of course, the stone-built telephone box. I called to see Margaret Morgan in the cottage that she shares with her husband. The calligrapher told me that her fascination with lettering began at the age of eight when she was taught italic handwriting at school. She trained as a graphic designer and set up a partnership with her husband, but he now works as a photographer, specialising in travel photography, and she devotes her energies to calligraphy.

Margaret showed me a copy of a framed work of art that she had been asked to produce for the eleventh Duke of Devonshire's 80th birthday as a mark of gratitude for a lifetime of support for the county; the picture shows the coats-of-arms of all the boroughs in Derbyshire. She also showed me a copy of a picture that she presented to the Queen at Pride Park in 2002. It was commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant as a Golden Jubilee tribute. Worked on stretched vellum, it has the shape of a well dressing and illustrates Derbyshire's many claims to fame, from Rolls-Royce and limestone quarries to Blue John stone and England's first national park.

The inspiration for her village map, copies of which are to be found in many local buildings, came from a poem called 'The Village' by R.S. Thomas. Chelmorton may have lost its shop and Thomas' poem may have been inspired by a Welsh village, but as far as Margaret is concerned, its opening verse is an evocation of Chelmorton:


Scarcely a street, too few houses
To merit the title; just a way between
The one tavern and the one shop
That leads nowhere and fails at the top
Of the short hill, eaten away
By long erosion of the green tide
Of grass creeping perpetually nearer
This last outpost of time past.

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