How the village of Sudbury is stepping back in time

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 April 2017 | UPDATED: 14:57 28 April 2017

Sudbury Hall

Sudbury Hall

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Derbyshire Life finds the charming village of Sudbury a perfect combination of historic interest and modern-day living

Edward Pierce's Grand StaircaseEdward Pierce's Grand Staircase

Visitors to Sudbury Hall are in for a very big surprise this year. Many of the furnishings and fittings in the rooms of Derbyshire’s grandest Carolean mansion are currently hidden from view under large dust sheets. First impressions suggest that these artefacts are being protected from damage whilst a team of painters and decorators are still at work in the building.

In fact, the dust sheets have been put in place for a very different reason. The objects currently hidden from public gaze are all those furnishings that have been purchased since the building was placed in the care of the National Trust in 1967. The only artefacts not currently under wraps are those that were already in place when the hall was handed over to the nation.

Explaining the motive behind this selective concealment, India Black, the National Trust’s Marketing and Communications Manager, said: ‘We wanted to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of our acquisition of the building by taking visitors back in time to 1967. Our aim was to reveal what the hall looked like when we first took possession of it. We have also opened up areas that are usually roped off in some of the rooms, because we wanted to allow visitors to get up close to the paintings, carvings and fireplaces that were in the hall when the Vernon family vacated it.’

Thanks to this unprecedented access, visitors can get within touching distance of exquisite wood carvings created by Grinling Gibbons, the celebrated wood-carver. They can also stand alongside the elaborate fireplace in the Queen’s Room, a former reception room where guests were greeted after they had ascended the Grand Staircase, which was carved by Edward Pierce in the late seventeenth century and is rightly considered to be one of the finest staircases of its period in the country.

The Long GalleryThe Long Gallery

Unlike other original fixtures in the house, the staircase does not actually resemble its 1967 appearance, because it was covered at that time in brown paint which had been added in the 1920s. After evidence came to light of an earlier coating of white paint, John Hodgson, the National Trust’s first administrator at Sudbury, decided to paint the staircase white on grounds of authenticity. However, some historians now believe that this colour was not actually applied until the 1850s. Whatever the truth may be about the staircase’s original seventeenth-century appearance, there is no doubt that the present white coat is the perfect way to highlight the intricacy of Pierce’s carvings.

The stairway forms a magnificent approach to an upper floor that is covered by an equally magnificent painted ceiling, one of a number of such ceilings in the hall. With so many artefacts currently under wraps, these ceilings can be appreciated without the distraction of objects at floor-level. This is particularly noticeable in the Long Gallery, which stretches along the full width of the south front. Even though the fashion for long galleries had ended when George Vernon finished the house in 1695, he was brave enough to step back in architectural time to add this final grand touch.

Visitors have a further chance to step back in time in the Museum of Childhood, created by John Hodgson in an empty wing of the house. With its hands-on collection of toys and games from the good old days when reality had not been replaced by virtual reality, the museum has become a magnet that draws visitors, both young and old, to Sudbury. The museum has a re-creation of an austere Victorian classroom and it contains an installation that gives young visitors some idea of the claustrophobic experience of children who worked as chimney-sweeps in times gone by.

Yet another chance to step back in time is provided at All Saints’ Church, which is located just outside the grounds of the hall. A stained-glass window in the church depicts the apprehensive arrival in the village of two evacuees from Manchester in the Second World War. Each child carries a gas mask and a carrier bag containing a piece of fruit cake, two apples and a banana.

Children and their parents gathering for a visit to the Museum of ChildhoodChildren and their parents gathering for a visit to the Museum of Childhood

The present appearance of the village, which is owned by the Sudbury Estate, is not greatly dissimilar to the place that hosted the evacuees. Unlike so many villages, it still has a school, a pub, a butcher’s shop, a village store and a post office. Explaining the survival of the Post Office at a time when so many have closed, shopkeeper Angela Cork says, ‘We also serve three nearby prisons.’

Wild’s Butchers has been a fixture in Sudbury for 40 years and attracts customers from far and wide to buy its pies and its locally-sourced meat. The village pub is the Vernon Arms, which takes visitors back in time to the coaching days when they spot marks left on stone work by the leather trousers of the stable boy as he waited for the stage coach to halt here on its way to Lichfield.

Landlord Rob Fabian, who has made the most of his experience in marketing, holds Poker Nights on Wednesdays and Sundays, hosts a Dominoes League on Thursdays and runs ‘Find the Joker Nights’ on Fridays, when participants might just be lucky enough to win a big prize. There are monthly quizzes, occasional ‘Vampire Bat Nights’ and days when ‘re-enactment groups’ stage mock battles.

In addition to these activities, there is always the lure of a wide selection of ales, including local brews such as Black Hole from Burton and Amber Ales from Ripley, and generous helpings of homemade food. Confirmation of customer satisfaction came when Sally Taylor from Chesterfield, interrupted my conversation with Rob to give him an unsolicited testimonial. She said, ‘We have just had the nicest meal we have tasted for a very long time, made even better by the excellent service.’

A couple who share Rob’s enthusiasm and his recognition of the need for effective promotion in running a successful business are Julie White and Nick Platt, who run Growing Rural Enterprise Ltd, an organisation that helps rural businesses to start, grow and develop. Explaining why the company has its office in Sudbury, Julie said: ‘Geographically, we are ideally placed to help people from both Derbyshire and Staffordshire. What’s more, we love the village – who wouldn’t? We also run ‘Wellies Projects’, therapeutic countryside activities for people with varying health and social care needs.’

Another enterprising couple are Janna and Alexander Fitzalan-Howard, owners of the Sudbury Estate, who have converted a group of former estate workshops into Sudbury Courtyard, a retail outlet to which they have lured equally enterprising business people.

Alison Freeman, who has been running Sweet Little in Barton-under-Needwood for over four years, said, ‘When I saw the stunning conversion of a former joiner’s workshop in the courtyard, I fell in love with the place immediately and decided to open a second shop.’ Her Sudbury shop is the perfect showroom for her beautifully presented and carefully selected range of gifts, homeware, gardenware, wallpapers and quality paints. An added bonus of Sweet Little is the welcoming café area, with its mouth-watering selection of homemade cakes and delicious afternoon teas.

Another enterprising businesswoman who has been lured to Sudbury is Mandy Hutson-Smith, who has been running Sticky Fingers, an award-winning shop in Ashbourne, for six years. Mandy’s shop in the courtyard not only specialises in British-made and designed gifts, including jewellery, candles, cuddly toys and cushions, but also offers workshops covering a range of crafts.

Georgina Naseby, who has been running the Whynot Gallery in Burton with her sister Libby Naseby since 2013, has opened Tweak, a shop that specialises in ‘statement upholstery’ and furniture ranging from Scandinavian and French-inspired items to British mahogany, oak and walnut pieces. The furniture is nicely complemented by gifts produced by local craftspeople.

Peter Lawrie has been making bespoke metal items, such as ornamental gates and railings, at a forge on the Sudbury Estate since 1971. Now, with his partner Debbie Wyatt, he has opened the Metwood Forge shop to showcase his range of highly original metal items for home and garden. These include curtain poles, candle-holders, ‘welly racks’ and a stunning iron-work dining table with a glass top.

As we have seen, a visit to Sudbury offers wonderful opportunities to step back in time, whether to 1967, the Second World War or to the eighteenth century. Now, thanks to the opening of Sudbury Courtyard, there are lots of opportunities to purchase some very up-to-the minute merchandise in this historic village.

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