Foolow and Bretton, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 20:56 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
The Barrel at Bretton is Derbyshire's highest inn. It stands on a gritstone ridge that provides magnificent views over a limestone plain, where every variation in weather conditions triggers a chameleon-like change in the look of the land.
The Barrel at Bretton is Derbyshire's highest inn. It stands on a gritstone ridge that provides magnificent views over a limestone plain, where every variation in weather conditions triggers a chameleon-like change in the look of the land. When sunlight floods the plain, the dull-green fields become pastel-green and the walls lose their greyness to become brilliant white. In times of snow, the walls undergo another magical transformation. Seen from the ridge, they take on the appearance of thick black threads that weave a complex pattern on a vast white canvas.
However, it is not only the ever-changing view that brings lovers of the Peak District to this vantage point in all seasons, but also the guarantee of a warm welcome at the Barrel Inn, which has an open log fire that is always kept burning during opening hours, whatever the weather. This famous hostelry has been a haven for travellers since 1753, when it was created from an old farmhouse and placed under the stewardship of George Bowman, who served as the landlord until 1770.
The present incumbents, Phil and Diane Cone, were away at the time of my visit, but Jan Willis and Helen Drake were on hand to dispense fine food and cask-conditioned ales to appreciative customers. Helen, who has worked at the Barrel for four years, is looking forward once again to Christmas Eve, when the pub's regulars will move away from the warmth of the fire and gather around the piano to sing carols.
A high-level road runs along the ridge and then drops some 300 feet before it meets the limestone, where there is a sudden change in flora. Species that are indigenous to northern England put on a final show and less hardy southern plants make their first appearance. A great swathe of this boundary land was once in the ownership of the Silence Lead Mining Company. It has now been compulsorily purchased by the Peak National Park Authority, which has given generous support to the people of Foolow and Hucklow, who are working together in order to convert this ecologically-important area into the Silence Heritage Site.
After passing the heritage land, the road runs a short distance along the plain to the hamlet of Foolow, which is set around a village green and a duck pond. On the green, there is an ancient cross that is rather misleadingly inscribed with the date 1868, the year in which it was moved to its present location. Close by, there is a bull-ring, used in former times to tether a bull while it was baited by local dogs in a barbaric 'sport' that was finally made illegal in 1835. Beyond the pond, there is a well, enclosed on three sides by a stone wall.
The pond and the green are overlooked on one side by a 17th-century hall and an 18th-century manor house, both partially hidden behind perimeter walls, and on the other side by St Hugh's Mission Church, a little place of worship with a tiny open belfry and a neat porch. Immediately behind the church, there is a Wesleyan chapel with a Tuscan doorway flanked by gothic windows. The fine array of buildings on this side of the green is completed by a few quaint cottages and by the Bull's Head, a long, low inn with whitewashed walls. Blessed with all these picturesque ingredients, Foolow could easily serve as one of those idyllic English villages featured in Midsomer Murders - without the murders, of course!
During my visit, the tranquillity of the little hamlet was disturbed in the nicest possible way by the arrival of a party of ramblers who declared that they were members of Chesterfield's University of the Third Age, an organisation with 600 members and 56 groups, including five separate rambling groups. Having walked from Monsal Head, the ramblers perched on Foolow's village cross in order to soak in the beauty of the scene while they ate their sandwiches. After clearing up their packages, they left to make their return journey without leaving any trace of their presence.
Back in December 1956, the peace and quiet of Foolow was broken in a much less welcome fashion when a Shackleton reconnaissance aircraft crashed and burst into flames in a field just 300 yards from the nearest cottage. Four airmen were killed in the accident but, according to local eyewitnesses, the village was saved from damage by the courage and skill of the pilot, Jack Wales, who steered his stricken plane away from the houses. A framed newspaper description of this tragic incident hangs in the porch of Burdekin Hall, a building that was acquired and renovated for use as a village hall by an enthusiastic group of local volunteers.
In August each year, the hall serves as a venue for the preparation of the well dressings, a traditional Derbyshire custom that was introduced to Foolow in 1983 by Derek Lee, who has designed the pictures ever since. Foolow's dressings have two unique characteristics: the outlines of the images are drawn directly onto the clay with a skewer, rather than being pinned out from a drawing on tracing paper, and the same clay, which is made malleable by the addition of salt, is used over and over again. Explaining this idiosyncratic approach, Derek said, 'I'd absolutely no knowledge of traditional well dressing techniques when we first started, so I did it my way simply because I didn't know how else to do it.'
The method may be unconventional but, thanks to Derek's art training and to meticulous dressing of the clay by the ladies of the village, the results are superb and include an award-winning image created in 2001. This year's main dressing depicted the Silence Heritage Site and the local children supplemented the conservation theme by producing a well picture captioned by the message 'Save the Rain Forest'.
Derek is also chairman of the Parish Meeting. Although his group is only required to gather in a formal way once per year, he consults villagers on a very regular basis by making use of an email address book containing 40 local names. In any case, informal discussions between villagers take place on a daily basis in the Bull's Head, which is a hub of local life. Until the arrival of Les Bond as publican seven years ago, the pub had lost some of its traditional character because it had been rechristened The Lazy Landlord and had been coated in a garish colour - deep green, followed by pink! Les has removed these insults to tradition by applying a coat of whitewash to the exterior and by remaining faithful to the original name of the pub.
Before he became a landlord, Les spent 40 years as a lorry driver for Tarmac, but exchanged a life on the move for his present role when he grew tired of travelling on the very motorways that he had helped to build. Thanks to good beer, including Peak Ales from the Chatsworth Estate, and delicious dishes created from locally-sourced produce by Les' wife Marilyn, the Bull's Head is popular with both locals and visitors. For Les, life in a busy pub is a far cry from the days when he spent long hours at the wheel with only his CB radio for company.
On the day of my visit, Derek Lee and his wife Sylvia were enjoying a lunchtime meal in the pub with Mike Seear and James Tseung, who moved to Foolow from Ashford-in-the-Water seven years ago. Recalling how they were made to feel thoroughly 'at home' when they arrived, they told me that 'the whole village is an extended family'. Like lots of other villagers, they get involved in local activities and help out in the many community efforts.
Sylvia told me of the volunteers who look after six of Foolow's most famous residents - the Aylesbury ducks who live on the village pond. A rota of villagers ensures that there is always someone to get them up every morning from their home in 'Duckingham Palace' and give them breakfast; another volunteer puts them to bed at night. In a fair exchange, sales of the ducks' eggs are used to buy their feed.
Another example of a highly active voluntary group is the Friends of St Hugh's, whose members are by no means confined to churchgoers. Thanks to their manual efforts and several generous gifts, the little church, which was once the village smithy, has a repaired roof, a renovated organ, a restored porch, new glazed doors, which were funded by a bequest from the Goodwin family, a painted inscription by Derek Lee over the chancel arch, a brand new bell dedicated to the late Lord Morris, who lived at the Old Hall, individually embroidered kneelers, new curtains and a fine crystal font bowl, engraved by David Pilkington and donated by Wilson Hoyland of the Manor House in memory of his wife Tess.
When Sylvia Lee took me on a tour of the building, she showed me some splendid embellishments from the last century, including the rector's carved chair and a carved plinth behind the altar, both made by Miss Bagshawe, sometime organist and a pupil of the famous Hunstone carvers of Tideswell, and reredos and altar panels by James Sands, who was Principal of Sheffield College of Art and lived at the first house in the village, which once served as the Spread Eagle pub.
Lindsay Boxhall and Jenny Vickers are the present churchwardens of this wonderful little treasure house. Jenny lives with her husband Rodger at Brosterfield Hall, a dignified former mine-owner's residence which stands just outside the village and has been beautifully restored by the couple. The house has elements from many periods, including a 17th-century dining room. One wing has been stripped of render to reveal stunning stonework from 1777, a date that is carved above an internal doorway that was once an external entrance, but now links the Georgian section of the hall to an extension of 1882.
Rodger, a chartered surveyor, continues to commute to his office in Sheffield on some days, but feels very much part of the Foolow community, where his favourite village customs include regular Monday night gatherings in the Barrel Inn of the group that renovated Burdekin Hall, as well as the much older tradition of Christmas Day Carolling, when singers, led by Brian Armitt, set off from the Wesleyan Reform Chapel to begin a tour of the village, pausing at each cottage to sing a carol from a repertoire that includes several compositions of local origin. Jenny, who is one of the village well-dressers, was a secondary school teacher in Sheffield before she stopped work to raise the couple's two sons; she now runs training and agility classes for dogs. As one would expect, Jenny and Rodger's two dogs, Skye and Pepper, posed obediently when I took their photograph.
Nine years before they acquired the hall as their permanent home in 1994, Jenny and Rodger bought Fern Cottage in the centre of the village as their week-end retreat. They now let it as self-catering accommodation, along with Brosterfield Cottage, which stands in the grounds of the hall. Other accommodation in Foolow includes Brosterfield Farm Caravan Park, Sycamore Cottage and Naomi Carmichael's Croft View Cottage, which has been awarded four stars by the English Tourism Council.
With its enviable location close to some of the Peak District's best known attractions, Foolow makes a fine touring centre. It also provides access to one of the region's best-kept secrets. Next to a dip in the road from Foolow to Eyam there is a deep, tree-lined hollow backed by a limestone cliff over which there flows a waterfall. In summer, the water descends in a shimmering cascade between lush green foliage. In the depths of winter, when sunlight never penetrates the little valley, the waterfall freezes over to become a spectacular ice-sheet set against the walls of a dark cliff face. In fact, the seasonal changes in this secret place are just as impressive as those we encountered in the vast open panorama at the start of this voyage of discovery through Bretton and Eyam.