Higham - Derbyshire's Hidden Gem
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 January 2020
Mike Smith takes the old Roman Road from Derby to Chesterfield to explore Higham, set on the narrow sandstone ridge above the Amber Valley
As Roy Christian observed in his book about Derbyshire, the village of Higham is ignored by most writers of guide books. Roy, of course, was an exception. Whilst recognising that the settlement had evidently been a failure as a market town, he wrote: 'As a village it seems to me to be a great success.'
Although a splendid market cross still stands on a six-stepped plinth by the roadside of the arrow-straight village street, known as Main Road, the weekly market, established by charter in 1243, has not traded since 1785. The school and the Methodist chapel, founded by John Smedley, the wealthy industrialist, have ceased to fulfil their original function, having been converted into desirable residential properties, as have the many former farmhouses that flank Main Road. Given these mutations, was Roy Christian justified in describing Higham as a great success as a village?
When I visited the place for the first time a few weeks ago, I was immediately struck by the strong visual impact made by Main Road. Because all its buildings are beautifully restored and fashioned in attractive honey-coloured stone, they contribute to a wonderfully unified village-scape. Although the overall architectural form of each building is fairly restrained, the details, including mullioned windows, string courses and neat gables, are very fine indeed. To my mind, Higham represents the kind of understated beauty that characterises the English village at its very best.
When I paid a visit to Santo's Higham Farm Hotel and Restaurant on Main Road, I was drawn to the edge of the car park by a sign that reads: 'Higham panoramic terrace for all to enjoy the natural beauty of Derbyshire's Amber Valley'. The scene that unfolded before my eyes was a great vista of patchwork fields in soothing shades of green, punctuated in the far distance by a glimpse of Ogston Hall and the blue waters of Ogston Reservoir: a view that epitomises rural England at its very best.
Santo with Rosa Noon of Santo's Higham Farm Hotel and Restaurant
The Elevator Tower
A well dating from 1471
A cruck beam dating from 1490
The courtyard with a retracting roof
Alice Peet, assistant manager at the Greyhound
Dining Room with ancient inscribed beams at the Greyhound
Houses on Main Road, with Gables Farm in the foreground
Part of Santo's Higham Farm Hotel on Main Road viewed from Strettea Lane, a street formerly occupied by stocking weavers
View of the Amber Valley from Higham
View of the Amber Valley from Higham
View of the Amber Valley from Higham
Looking across the Amber Valley to Ogston Hall and Ogston Reservoir
Whilst waiting to speak to Santo, I wandered around the luxurious reception rooms of the hotel, where I was surprised to find a superbly-restored well, which had been sunk to a great depth in 1471, and a magnificent cruck-beam, dating from 1490, which soars upwards like a Gothic arch in the nave of a church. I was equally impressed by a modern addition in the form of a large courtyard covered in spectacular fashion by a state-of-the-art retracting roof.
Santo was very welcoming and happy to talk to me about his life. He said, 'I was born in the Sicilian city of Palermo but moved as a teenager to Turin, where I attended a catering college. At the age of sixteen, I spent a season at Porto Cervo in Sardinia, where I learned as much as I could about cocktails and became very passionate about becoming a barman.'
Following his compulsory military service, Santo moved to England to become Chef de Sommelier at the Barr Hotel in Birmingham. After marrying Judy, an English girl, he returned to Italy with his wife to work at the Ristorante San Giorgio, where he met many A-list celebrities, including Mohammed Ali and Julio Iglesias. Whilst working there, he was asked by the Martini company to take part in an international bar-cocktail competition, which he won. Subsequently, he was selected to represent Italy in a professional barman competition, where he finished in the world's top ten.
Santo worked at several other hotels in Italy, including the Grand Hotel Principi di Piemonte, where he met yet more A-listers, such as Madonna, David Bowie, and Patsy Kensit. When he moved back to England with his family, he was appointed bar manager at the Gateway Hotel in Nottingham, where he became something of a celebrity in his own right when he was featured on television as an expert maker of cocktails.
In 1995, Santo and Judy went into partnership with Alan and Ann Potts, who had acquired the Higham Farm Hotel and Restaurant. Manager Roma Noon, who has worked at the hotel for many years, told me: 'Before this life-saving purchase, the hotel had suffered from a number of bankruptcies and had fallen into a bad state of repair. It is now a wonderful venue and a great asset for Higham, a village which I have always thought of as a hidden gem.'
The hotel has been superbly renovated, tastefully modernised and beautifully furnished. It has 31 guest bedrooms, including two glass-roofed suites where you can 'sleep under the stars'. Many rooms have four-poster beds, twin showers, spa baths and individually-styled rooms with Italian, Chinese or Indian themes. Ninety guests can be accommodated at weddings, with double that number at the evening function. As well as hosting up to 50 weddings each year, the hotel is also a favoured location for conferences and weekend breaks.
Santo spoke very fondly of Alan and Ann Potts, who both died in 2017. Telling me that the couple had always treated him and his wife as 'family', he pointed out a new sports bar he has dedicated to the memory of Alan, and showed me a striking new elevator tower, designed initially for Ann's use and now dedicated to her memory.
Unfortunately, the Crown Hotel, located a few yards further along the village street, has suffered a very different fate. Currently, it is closed and is being offered for sale. Thankfully, the nearby Greyhound remains a thriving pub and restaurant. Part of the Marston's chain, it occupies a prominent position close to the point where Main Road merges with the busy A61 trunk road.
The Greyhound is very popular with families, not only because it serves great-value food, including rotisserie chicken, tender steaks and stacked burgers, plus a good range of cask ales, craft beers, ciders and wines, but also because it has a large beer garden and a well-equipped children's play area. All in all, this is the sort of eating and drinking place that has adapted very well to the needs of today's customers. However, as assistant manager Alice Peet pointed out, the Greyhound retains some highly attractive period features, such as an original fireplace, wood panels and several ancient beams inscribed with various sayings.
The part of Higham that stands alongside the A61 contains a well-stocked food and wine shop and general store, but the conversion of the Methodist chapel and the school into residential properties means that the village has neither a place of worship nor a school. However, both of these facilities can be found in neighbouring Shirland, a former pit village, where there is a golf course that has been constructed on land once disfigured by slag heaps.
Given that Higham has to leave educational, religious and sporting facilities to Shirland, is Roy Christian's claim that the village is 'a great success' justified? In terms of the quality of its vernacular architecture, the glorious views it offers of the Amber Valley and the excellence of the Greyhound Inn and Santo's Higham Farm Hotel and Restaurant, Higham is very definitely a great success.