History, community and a reservoir - the villages of Castleton and Hopton

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 October 2016

Wood Bank House

Wood Bank House

Ashley Franklin Photography

History, community, manor houses and a reservoir... Ashley Franklin visits the pastoral villages of Carsington and Hopton

Carsington and Hopton are united as a parish and share the same church, as well as a history of lead mining and manorial governance by the Gell family. They are also united as a community, with a thriving group that organises events and activities throughout the year. They are on the same road, too. Take one of the village signs away and you would think it the same place: a quiet, leafy backwater of charming, individual houses.

Forty years ago, Carsington and Hopton were firmly united... in protest. In 1973, Carsington was chosen as the site for a new reservoir, prompting the formation of the Henmore Valley Preservation Society. In 1984, when Carsington and Hopton were last written about in Derbyshire Life, Roy Christian remarked that ‘the bigger guns of the Severn-Trent Water Board had prevailed’ but that the Preservation Society had ‘fought a brilliant rearguard action.’

Interestingly, Carsington was not the preferred site for the new reservoir in engineering terms but was chosen due to ‘reduced human impact’. Only two farms had to be demolished and 11 people displaced. Also, Peter Oldfield – one of the farmers engaged in negotiations with Severn-Trent Water – concedes that the Henmore Valley had always been a ‘boggy area’ and that the resultant reservoir, which finally opened in 1992, has been an ‘asset’.

Indeed, when one views Carsington Water today, it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to it. However, Sylvia Maddocks, who came to live in Carsington in 1977 and now works at Carsington Sports & Leisure, puts it into perspective: ‘You have to understand that initially the locals were seeing lovely green fields – a whole valley, in fact – being destroyed, and when building work started, all we could see then was a construction site; and there was the added stress of heavy vehicles pounding our roads.’

Carsington WaterCarsington Water

As well as the loss of pasture land, it must have been painful to see thousands of trees uprooted. However, as a resident told Roy Christian in that 1984 article, Severn-Trent ‘has made every effort to make up for the upheaval it is causing.’ Indeed, more trees were planted than had been removed, and Carsington and Hopton notably gained from the provision of a bypass which took the Ashbourne–Wirksworth road out of the narrow village streets and returned the parish to a quietude that probably only elderly residents could remember.

Carsington Water has also brought employment to the area and, as resident Simon Wildash points out, the reservoir hasn’t resulted in a rash of holiday lets and B&Bs. Carsington itself is still ‘very much a lived-in village.’ Simon’s family moved here 12 years ago and they are one of several families who did so partly due to its proximity to Carsington Water. Simon runs a thriving online business – My Olive – which provides home heating oil users with a meter that monitors and manages their heating oil requirements.

Simon’s family has also been part of a welcome influx of younger residents to the parish which has bolstered the local primary school. As he confirms, Carsington is a great place to bring up a family, but as well as citing the school and the ‘village environment’, he points to Carsington Water. ‘It’s wonderful that in spite of Derbyshire being landlocked, our children have learnt to sail, windsurf and take part in other water sports.’ Lest we forget, one of Severn-Trent’s other reservoirs in Derbyshire – Ogston – is where Ellen MacArthur learnt to sail.

One unexpected by-product of the reservoir construction was the expediting of archaeological digs before potentially significant sites were drowned forever. A Bronze Age barrow was unearthed, though more exciting still was the location of a Romano-British settlement which included evidence of a house with window glass and underfloor heating, the nearest thing to a Roman villa uncovered in Derbyshire.

The Walled Rose Garden, Hopton HallThe Walled Rose Garden, Hopton Hall

These discoveries have led to the claim that Carsington was the lost town of Lutudarum, the headquarters of the Roman lead industry in Derbyshire, though it remains to be proved. What is more certain is that long before sandals strode over this land, the woolly rhino roamed. The remains of this Prehistoric creature were discovered in a cave near Hopton.

A further, fascinating Roman find at the end of the 18th century was a funerary urn bearing an abbreviated inscription which has been translated as meaning ‘Gellius, Prefect of the Third Cohort of the Sixth Legion Victorius in Britain.’ It surely can’t be a coincidence that the lords of the manor of Hopton since the 15th century were the Gell family.

It would appear that Philip Gell believed in his Roman ancestry – if true, the Gell family residency stretches back for 2,000 years, one of the longest in the land – because in 1790, when he constructed a road between his quarries at Hopton and Cromford Canal’s wharf, he gave it the Romanesque-sounding name of Via Gellia.

The Gells had long been made wealthy by lead and stone. It was Philip’s great grandfather Anthony who famously endowed the school at Wirksworth in 1576 and built Hopton Hall. An Elizabethan house, it was Philip who came to ‘Georgianise’ the building which stands there today, a grandiose construction with a dizzying array of gables and window styles.

Reception Class at Carsington and Hopton Primary SchoolReception Class at Carsington and Hopton Primary School

The present incumbents, Bill and Julie Thomas, have made significant improvements since moving here at the end of 2010. The snowdrop display, for which Hopton Hall is renowned, is ‘getting better and better’ according to Julie. However, when Spencer Tallis was brought in 20 years ago by owners William and Eddy Brogden to restore and regenerate the gardens and grounds, they were ‘a total wilderness’, according to Spencer, who is now Estate Manager.

Spencer’s first job was to clear an area of woodland for the holiday cottage guests’ use. As Spencer recounts: ‘The following season this revealed areas of snowdrops and, as we continued clearing over the next few years, more and more snowdrops showed. It was never the Brogdens’ intention to open the gardens to the public but as there was some interest locally, we made a few signs to put out on to the road. To our astonishment, we had nearly 2,000 visitors. Within the next five years, visitor numbers peaked at 17,000.’

Improvements to the grounds since Bill and Julie’s arrival nearly six years ago include the restoration of woodland walks, ornamental ponds, wildlife lakes, an arboretum, a laburnum tunnel and a birch avenue. ‘We are, though, fighting the dreaded box hedge blight,’ Julie points out, ‘and victory has yet to be announced.’

The owners have also attended to the working and domestic parts of Hopton Hall, a veritable ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ task considering, for example, that 45 chimneys had to be made sound and waterproof. They have also overseen the building of their fifth holiday cottage. Managed by Emma Tallis, Spencer’s wife, all the cottages are high quality lets with the added attraction of outdoor play areas and an indoor heated swimming pool. Further attractions, of course, include the 30-acre grounds and, for summer guests, the one-acre walled rose garden, the result of remarkable restorative work. ‘This area was so overgrown, I couldn’t even get in it at first,’ recalls Spencer. ‘Now it’s by far my favourite place, especially when I’m sitting at the top of the garden by the tea room, beer in hand, late in the evening, with the scent of 2,000 roses holding in the heavy air… beautiful.’

Improvements continue, with all profits from the open gardens going directly into the cost and development of the garden. Volunteer gardener Lynn Bevan is two years into a three-year project replanting the bays inside the curves of the Hall’s charming 18th century redbrick ‘Crinkle Crankle Wall’, and work is underway on the development of a neglected field. ‘We would love a big greenhouse to enable us to propagate our own plants,’ says Julie, ‘along with restoring huge amounts of dry stone walling and building up our hellebore collection. Whatever we do, we aim to keep the plates spinning.’

For a child who grew up in a terraced house in Leeds, becoming the lady of a country house hasn’t fazed Julie one bit: ‘The only differences between my old terraced house and Hopton Hall are the amount of cleaning required – to keep up to my mother’s standards – and the size of the bills. After that, it is just a family home.’

Oliver Cromwell once stayed at Hopton Hall and HRH Princess Anne popped in for tea but, for Julie, it is there for everyone to enjoy: ‘Hopton Hall has been the physical centre of this community for hundreds of years. We are trying our best to honour its place in Derbyshire’s history. Family, friends and visitors bring life, love and joy into its fabric. By opening up the gardens we can share what we have here. Our aim is to give another 100 years of life to the Hall.’

Julie and Bill are also active in the community of Carsington and Hopton, as are Tim and Joanne Basford, whom I met when they were helping out at the village fête. They, too, live in a resplendent, if much smaller, country house – Stainsborough Hall – which, likewise, has outbuildings converted into holiday cottages. Tim and Joanne moved into this 17th century house six months ago, having worked mainly abroad in the corporate world for over 20 years. ‘We still can’t quite believe we are in this sublime country retreat in a stunning location,’ says Joanne. There’s a beautiful garden, too, and they – and their guests, of course – can walk directly from their fields onto the pathway around Carsington Water.

Tim and Joanne spent most of their first months at Stainsborough renovating their four holiday cottages. The Visitors’ Book is glowing with good reviews and they have found an unexpected bonus, as Joanne explains: ‘We love meeting our different guests and, as they are on holiday, it sometimes feels as if we are, too!’

They are also loving life in the community. ‘We’ve never lived in a village before,’ says Joanne, ‘and we never imagined how friendly and welcoming people would be. From the moment we arrived, people reached out to welcome us.’

Parish councillor Ruth Miles also fell in love with the area when she and her husband moved in to a house which was formerly the local forge. They, too, soon became immersed in community life. ‘We feel so fortunate,’ says Ruth. ‘The property and the place brought us here, and the people make living here truly wonderful.’

There’s one aspect of Carsington Water that makes life for Ruth even more special, as she explains: ‘The reservoir has attracted so many birds in both variety and volume that the dawn chorus is always loud, and different each time. My weekly treat is rising early on Saturday to hear nature’s orchestra at its absolute best.’

Dog walking is a constant pleasure, one of Ruth’s daughters is now sailing at Carsington Water, and Ruth herself is enjoying researching the rich history of the parish. She could learn much just from sitting with Peter Oldfield of Owslow Farm. Peter’s family has lived in the area since the 1600s and been farming since 1832. It’s now the only working farm in an area where in the 1950s, as Peter recalls, there were nine.

Times would have been harsh for those farms, if Peter’s experience is anything to go by: ‘There was no electricity here until 1959. We lived by candlelight, our open range cooker being our only heat source. There wasn’t one easy chair in the house, but then we only used our home for two things – eating and sleeping. The rest of the time, we were working.’

Peter helped on the farm from a young age. ‘I drove a tractor as soon as I could touch the pedals,’ he recalls. ‘Even when I was taking my O Levels I was milking 100 cows a day.’ Beef cattle and sheep now occupy his 360 acres and he still loves the work and the life. ‘How many people can look out of one window onto a reservoir, and see hills stretching for miles through the other?’ he asks.

Peter also devotes time, as churchwarden, to St Margaret’s, Carsington’s quaint church which is possibly of 12th century origin. Beautifully situated, it seems tucked into the tree-sloped hillside of Carsington Pasture, which rises 1,000 feet to a plateau strewn with evidence of the village’s lead mining past. Inside St Margaret’s, stained glass windows are dedicated to various Gells and there is an interesting reference in the church register to a spirited past resident, Sarah Tissington. Born in 1664, Sarah had no arms but learned to knit with her feet.

Peter says the church is quite active – there is an annual flower festival and regular bingo nights – though they are trying to utilise the building more now that chairs have replaced the pews.

Between the church and handsome 17th century Glebe House is the restored village green. It was here that I caught the delightful annual fête, co-organised by the church and CARE – Community Activity & Recreational Enthusiasts for Hopton & Carsington. For two small, seemingly sleepy villages, Carsington and Hopton are very active, largely thanks to CARE which for over 30 years has been organising Easter egg hunts, bonfire nights, Carols on the Green, rounders’ matches and boat races on the reservoir.

Even more satisfying, says CARE volunteer Simon Wildash, is the mix of those involved in village life, from newcomers to those who have lived here for generations: ‘At a recent Beetle Drive fundraiser for the church flower festival, the youngest involved was six and the oldest 92!’

As for the fête, I felt I had entered a portal into post-war village life. Taking place around me were charmingly traditional games like Splat the Rat, Hook a Duck and Coconut Shy and the fête climaxed with the re-burial of the community’s Millennium Time Capsule, a local primary school project. What the capsule will reveal to future inhabitants is that the Temperance Gell C of E School was in a ‘federation’ with Kirk Ireton Primary whereby it shared its headteacher – Peter Johnston.

This certainly seems to be a model for the future as an Ofsted Report stating that the school ‘Requires Improvement’ has, within two years, become ‘Good’ with an ‘Outstanding’ Early Years judgement. This has been helped in part by Carsington and Hopton Primary following Kirk Ireton Primary’s policy of every child learning a foreign language and a musical instrument, and being able to swim at least 25 metres by the end of Year 2.

The school was built in the 18th century, as was the Miner’s Arms which offers traditional, hearty pub food with a well-regarded carvery, and provides a beer garden, play area and even bike hire. There are many other fine old buildings in the two villages, including Townend House, Hopton’s almshouses – another Gell bequest – and, next door, the pretty Tudor Cottage.

This rural hideaway seems a world away from the hive of activity at Carsington Water and it’s pleasing that these two worlds co-exist so close-by. Near to the reservoir is The Pudding Room, run by Angie Cooper who, in 2014, was a finalist on ITV’s Britain’s Best Bakery, representing the Peak District and North East England. Fundamental to creating ‘the best bake’, says Angie, is that ‘it must be made with love, and the best quality ingredients.’ A frequent attendee at food festivals around the county, Angie not only supplies shops with her produce but has her own shop in the midst of a 20-pitch camping and caravanning site, with a holiday let above the shop, too.

Angie is one of many locals to have benefited from the presence of Carsington Water – the ninth largest reservoir in Britain, holding almost eight billion gallons of water. Carsington resident Sarah Peel learned to windsurf at the reservoir as a youngster, and started work at Carsington Sports & Leisure as a beach hand over 23 years ago. In 2000 she took on the post of centre manager. ‘It’s the perfect commute,’ states Sarah. ‘I go from one idyllic location to another.’

There is a raft of water sport activities at the reservoir, along with walking, birdwatching and biking – a cycle ride round the reservoir is eight miles, all off-road. Alternatively, you can lose yourself in the peace and quiet of the surrounding grassland meadows and diverse woodlands, and enjoy the shops, restaurants and interactive exhibition at the Visitor Centre.

One of the beauties of Carsington Water is that it doesn’t look or feel man-made. ‘Yes, it’s as if it’s been here forever,’ says ranger Shirley Rhodes, who also lives in Carsington. ‘There’s nothing polished about it; it’s very rustic and feels as if it’s a natural part of the landscape.’

As visitor centre manager Dan Taberner points out, this is one of the reasons annual visitor numbers have reached their target of one million: ‘Even though the site looks dramatically different throughout the changing seasons, it always looks fantastic, wild and beautiful. Also, because of the diversity of the visitor experience, we always have plenty of visitors coming to see us, no matter what the weather is like or what time of year it is.’

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