A journey through a distinctive landscape - Creswell, Bolsover and Clowne
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:29 11 October 2018
A five-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme, launched in 2010, was designed to encourage the restoration and conservation of the distinctive landscape character of a large area of north-east Derbyshire.
Although the scheme was called ‘A Limestone Journey’, it was not aimed at a region characterised by the pure calcium carbonate-based limestone found in the Peak District, but at a swathe of land where the underlying rock is a chemical amalgam known as magnesian limestone.
Today, this unique part of the county, which was blighted for many years by the scars of coal-mining, has been reintegrated into England’s green and pleasant land, and regeneration has meant that its three principal towns have evolved into two great tourist destinations and a regional shopping hub.
In 1950, Creswell Colliery was the scene of the worst mining disaster in the post-nationalisation era, when 80 men perished in an underground fire. Since the closure of the pit, the town has become better known for Creswell Crags, where magnesian limestone crags and pinnacles are located in lush woodlands on the banks of a lake. Long cherished as a sublime local beauty spot, the Crags achieved national fame in 2003, when the only examples in Britain of ice-age cave art were discovered there.
Although these remarkable prehistoric images are quite difficult to interpret with the naked eye, interactive screens in the state-of-art visitor centre (www.creswell-crags.org.uk), which opened in 2009, enable fingers to be used to trace the outlines of a bison, a reindeer and an ibis on photographs of the cave art.
Among other fascinating exhibits in the visitor centre, which has a café overlooking the wooded valley, are a rib-bone engraved 12,500 years ago with a drawing of a horse and a woolly rhino bone etched with an image of a man. There is also a jaw bone from a ‘Creswell Hippo’, an animal that could hold its breath under water for 15 minutes and run above ground at 40 mph.
Cuddly-toy versions of ice-age animals on sale in the centre are just one of the imaginative methods used by the curators to educate and entertain young visitors. At the time of my visit, a party of youngsters had donned ‘miners’ helmets’ before setting out to explore the caves and look for evidence of prehistoric etchings, whilst another group, on a visit from Ling Bob Junior, Infant and Nursery School in Calderdale, was being taught how to make fire and build a primitive shelter.
Earlier this year, nine-year-old Ollie Brockman-Joyce, who was on a ‘Life in the Ice Age Tour’ with his parents, spotted in some loose soil in the Robin Hood Cave what turned out to be the tooth of a baby hyena. Ollie will be named as the official discoverer of the artefact and his find will become part of the collection at Creswell Crags. Stephanie Tristram, the Heritage Facilitator who led the tour, said, ‘Ollie had told me before we had even set off on the tour that he wants to be a palaeontologist when he grows up, so for him to stumble across the tooth is just incredible!’
Young visitors to nearby Bolsover Castle can play at being Cavaliers in a castle-like play area and, on some occasions, they can take part in events such as mock sword fights and a miniature siege of the castle or try their hand at games that time forgot.
Visitors of all ages can enjoy occasional displays of horsemanship and, as a result of a £1.3 million restoration project, they can recreate the experience of 17th-century guests at the fairy-tale castle by strolling on the greatly extended and superbly renovated battlemented walls that enclose the re-planted Fountain Garden.
The castle comprises a fantasy medieval keep commissioned in 1612 by Bess of Hardwick’s youngest son, Sir Charles Cavendish, a Riding School with a gargantuan entrance porch and ornate dormers, which was built by Sir Charles’ son, the horse-mad Sir William, and the ruins of a monumental terrace, now open to the skies. This great range of buildings commands the summit of a high ridge above the Vale of Scarsdale in the manner of a French hill-top château.
The present magical view of the castle obtained by visitors approaching the town of Bolsover was marred for many years by the presence of a large colliery and a Coalite factory. These eyesores have gone but the closure of the plants impacted very heavily on Bolsover. Thankfully, the town now has a number of new employment opportunities and is being re-invented as a place of residence for people attracted by the commuting possibilities of living in a location conveniently close to the M1.
Regeneration of the town has included the creation of a small precinct called Cavendish Walk, where the Courtyard Kitchen is a great place for refreshment, as is the Pillar of the Rock, a Wetherspoon’s pub just outside the castle grounds. The Market Place has been pedestrianised and coated in aggregate made to match the colour of the magnesian limestone of the surrounding buildings, and the renovation of the area has even included the erection of a modern market cross.
A much older market cross located in Clowne, at the intersection of High Street, Mill Street and Church Street, dates from the days when this north-east Derbyshire settlement was a rural farming village. A very different monument stands at the entrance to the community centre, known simply as ‘The Centre’. This takes the form of a semi-circular segment of a colliery winding wheel and is a reminder of a later phase in the town’s history, when some 400 men were engaged in the back-breaking work of producing up to 600 tons of coal a day from the 1,000ft-deep Southgate Colliery.
Although the glistening coat of paint on the winding wheel and the colourful flower-bed at its base indicate that the coal-black days of Clowne’s colliery are in the past, the strong sense of community that was a feature of mining towns is still in evidence at The Centre. The purpose-built facility, with its large function room, meeting room, kitchen and bar, is used for special events such as weddings, anniversaries and children’s parties, as well as for team building and planning days. Weekly activities include Zumba, cheerleading sessions and meetings of a Weight Watchers group.
Meetings of Weight Watchers always start with the weighing of each of the participants. Showing me a photograph of herself taken 16 years ago in which she is almost unrecognisable, leader Diane Longden said: ‘I use the picture to prove that I have been able to lose six stones since that picture was taken. As well as running this group, I have sessions in four nearby towns, and I am proud to report that the total weight-loss for people attending my meetings last year was 7,617.5 lbs.’
An important factor in maintaining weight-loss is making healthy eating choices when shopping at the Tesco and Aldi supermarkets, which, together with a Wilko store, are the most prominent stores in Clowne’s regenerated centre.
The neighbouring streets are the location for several specialist local shops. Maurice Ambler has been selling craft items to local people for more than 50 years. Stepping into his Clowne emporium is described by one Facebook user as ‘like stepping back in time’. A visit to Joy Blakemore’s ‘Words that Talk’ showroom is equally fascinating, because the walls are festooned with attractive wooden signs decorated with quotes and slogans. Customers can select from the great range on display or place orders for signs featuring words of their own choosing. The business enterprise shown by Joy is a sign of the new vitality that is apparent in all the former mining towns of north-east Derbyshire.