Hamlets in the Hills: Sparrowpit, Bagshaw and Blackbrook
PUBLISHED: 11:06 14 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:21 20 February 2013
Mike Smith tours the Dark Peak
The Wanted Inn stands almost 1,300 ft above sea-level, at a point where the A623 takes a right-angle bend to begin its descent from the limestone plateau of the White Peak. A minor road avoids the sharp drop and climbs towards the hills of the Dark Peak through Sparrowpit, a one-street hamlet with almost all its houses set dramatically on one side of the steep road. The hamlets of Bagshaw and Blackbrook are located a short distance beyond this highly visible settlement, but they are so well tucked into the hills that they are completely hidden from the view of motorists travelling on the main roads of the area.
The Wanted Inn
Built in 1618, the Wanted Inn started life as a farmhouse but became an inn in 1700, when it was known as the Three Tuns. In 1839, the hostelry was renamed the Devonshire Arms and remained part of the Chatsworth Estate until it was put up for auction in 1950 to help raise money for death duties. There were no takers at the time and the building remained empty until it was bought by Jack and Angela Buswell, who decided that their previously unwanted building should be re-christened the Wanted Inn. Their son, Neville Buswell, gained fame as the actor who played Ray Langton in Coronation Street.
The present tenants of the Wanted Inn are Steve and Sheila Phillips. Their daughter Claire, who helps out from time to time, proudly told me that Steve ended up as a finalist in Simon Rimmers Cooks Challenge, even though he is a self-taught chef and was up against contestants from Michelin-starred restaurants. All the food at the Wanted Inn is home-cooked; the range of drinks includes real ales; the rooms are cosy and, as befits a pub in this great walking area, dogs and muddy boots are welcome.
The linear hamlet of Sparrowpit stands on the watershed of England, with water released from the front of its cottages ending up in the Irish Sea and water released from the rear of the buildings draining into the North Sea. Its name may be a corruption of Spar Row Pit, a reference to the lead mines that were once worked in the vicinity and possibly attracted former tin miners to move here from Cornwall.
Although long-time resident Hilary Batterbee has been unable to establish Cornish roots among her ancestors, she has traced her family back to the Vernons of Haddon Hall. When I visited her cottage, she showed me a thick internal wall that must have started life as an external wall evidence that the miners had been able to afford extensions to their dwellings at a time when the lead-mining industry was flourishing. Hilary also owns Daisy Bank Cottage, which she runs as a holiday let with a rear garden from where it is possible to look across to Mam Tor and listen to the sound of skylarks and curlews.
Hilary has been a magistrate for 26 years and has followed in her fathers footsteps by serving as a parish councillor for many years. It was her father who chanced upon the will of George Beresford of Prestbury, a mysterious benefactor who, for reasons unknown, left a considerable sum for the construction of a village hall and playground in Sparrowpit. The hall is now a venue for supper evenings, barbecues, discos and wreath-making workshops, all of which raise large sums for local charities. It is also the home of the thriving Sparrowpit Womens Institute, famed for its annual produce show.
Another significant building in the hamlet is the Methodist church, built in 1881 as a successor to the original chapel which was established in 1738, making Sparrowpit one of the oldest Methodist communities in England. Hilary told me about the annual Christmas Service, which begins at 6am, as was the custom in the lead-mining days to allow for early work shifts. The service is preceded by a procession through the hamlet of villagers singing Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.
A left fork at the head of Sparrowpit climbs to an even higher summit before dropping steeply to Blackbrook. A right turn along the way leads to the secluded hamlet of Bagshaw, aptly described in a Peak District National Park conservation assessment as sitting within the landscape, following the fall of land along its length, with individual buildings set either side of a sinuous road.
Bagshaw has no pubs or shops, no road markings, no pavements, no street furniture, except for a solitary street lamp, and some of its families have farmed in the Dark Peak hills for many generations. The hamlet can be dated back to 1251, when it was a settlement in the Royal Forest of the Peak and was recorded as Baggesswaes, meaning Badgers Wood.
Like Sparrowpit, the hamlet has a long tradition of Methodism. Its little chapel, converted from a cottage in 1886, has housed many christenings, but no funerals and just one wedding. After closing in 2004, the chapel remained empty for three years until it was purchased, along with the adjoining caretakers cottage, by John Fotherby, who has spent the last five years painstakingly renovating the two properties.
While carrying out the renovation, John exposed two original fireplaces, a chimney stack and two windows. As well as re-roofing the building, inserting a stone floor and creating a mezzanine to support a new glass-fronted bedroom, he has used oak to create furnishings, banisters and replacement lintels and beams. John has a severe hearing impairment and the outstanding quality of his workmanship is testimony to the skills he learned as a pupil at Needwood School for hearing-impaired children.
A longer renovation project is still on-going at Bagshaw Hall, which stands at the foot of the village and closes it off as a cul-de-sac. This fine house was the home of the Bagshaws (who took their surname from the village) before they moved in 1600 to nearby Ford Hall, where Rev. William Bagshaw, the famous Apostle of the Peak, later held secret nonconformist services. Jocelyn and Martin Street and their son, Will, now live at Bagshaw Hall.
Jocelyn told me: The hall was purchased at auction by Martin in 1988, a few weeks before we met. We married 14 weeks later and moved into the building which was in a sorry state and had only one habitable room. After gradually renovating the hall over the last two decades, weve finally restored all the mullions and our next project is to fit some 17th-century doors that weve managed to find.
Jocelyn, a trained lawyer, is now a parish councillor for the area and helps run the 44-acre farm that surrounds the hall. Her husband is chairman of Street Crane, which was founded in 1946 by his ex-fighter pilot father and produces electrically-operated overhead travelling cranes, hoists and various components, 70% of which are exported. A recent commission carried out by the firm, based at Chapel-en-le-Frith, was constructing the moving parts of the retractable roof on Wimbledons centre court.
Blackbrook has been a cul-de-sac hamlet since 1987, when the construction of the Chapel-en-le-Frith by-pass closed off its one and only street at the junction with the old A6. Approached along a thickly wooded lane running alongside the Black Brook, the hamlet comprises just seven households. Owned by Michael de Buxton during the reign of Edward I, the Blackbrook estate passed through several families before much of it was sold off in lots by the Partington family in the 1930s. Bryan and Cherry McGee live at Blackbrook House, a substantial 17th-century property, which was acquired by Thomas Partington in 1841 and later re-fronted in Derbyshire Georgian style.
Bryan, a retired structural engineer, is particularly proud of the huge copper beech tree which stands in the grounds of his house. He says: With its gnarled and twisted crown sprouting immense cascading branches, it is probably the finest specimen in the region. He is equally fond of his 1937 Rolls-Royce 25/30 saloon, which he first acquired in 1966 and shipped over to America, where he had been given a three-year posting by his employers. Rather recklessly, he put the car through its paces in the Rockies, the wilder regions of Yellowstone and even on frozen lakes. Although he sold the vehicle before returning to Britain, he tracked its subsequent history and was able to buy it back 40 years later and ship it to Britain. Bryan now treats the car with the tender, loving care it deserves.
Sheila Ranson is an expert at treating plants with tender, loving care. She runs Longdendale Garden Nursery, a business that has been in Blackbrook since 1980, but was first established in Mottram-in-Longdendale by her father in 1953. Sheila told me: We know how the High Peak weather can wreak havoc in our gardens. We also know what grows well in the region and what doesnt. If plants can cope with the extremes here, they make the grade and we sell them. A visit to this hidden gem of a nursery is a must for anyone who wants their garden to last or their allotment to flourish and the wreaths that Sheila creates are always in demand in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The longest-standing residents of Blackbrook are John and Myra Hearnshaw, who acquired Blackbrook Farm in 1953. In his younger days, John worked as a press photographer and once had to take on an assignment that required him to accompany steeplejacks to the weather vane at the top of Chesterfields crooked spire. However, with a father who was a tenant farmer to the Chatsworth Estate, farming was in Johns blood. He and Myra still farm in Blackbrook, albeit on a reduced scale, and attribute the good health they enjoy in their eighties to the exercise they undertook during 25 years of running a milk round. Perhaps the bracing High Peak weather has also played its part!
For information about Longdendale Nursery, see www.longdendalenursery-blackbrook.co.uk (tel: 01298 813940)