PUBLISHED: 12:54 06 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:27 20 February 2013
Mike Smith takes a walk around Melbourne - 'a small place that has made a big impact on the world' and adapted to change without losing its charm and community feeling.
Melbourne is a small place that has made a big impact on the world. Thomas Cook, who was born in the Derbyshire town in 1808, founded a pioneering travel agency, which now takes holidaymakers to destinations all around the globe, and the second Lord Melbourne gave his name to a tiny Australian settlement that grew to become the capital of Victoria.
Lord Melbourne first came to prominence when his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, embarked on a very public affair with Lord Byron, whom she famously described as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', but he later gained more positive fame as Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister and her trusted political mentor. In fact, the two became very close friends, often spending up to six hours a day together at Windsor Castle, where Lord Melbourne was given a private apartment.
Melbourne Hall, the politician's Derbyshire home, was founded in the 12th century as a safe refuge for the Bishops of Carlisle whenever trouble broke out on the Scottish border. When Sir John Coke, Secretary of State to Charles I, took up residence in 1629, he partially rebuilt the house, which was given a radical Georgian makeover in the following century by Thomas Coke and George Lewis Coke.
The present incumbents of the hall are Lord and Lady Ralph Kerr and their six children. Lord Ralph, who is a direct descendant of Sir John Coke, is the current High Sheriff of Derbyshire; Lady Ralph is an accomplished painter, who is known professionally as Marie-Claire Kerr and undertakes commissions for portrait, landscape and flower paintings. She was trained by the Catalan painter Joaquin Torrents-Llado, who took her on as an apprentice when she was just 16 years old and tutored her in his art school for six years and also in landscape painting sessions, which often began as early as 5.30am.
Although Lady Ralph still devotes many hours to painting, she has been equally committed to garden design since 1988, when she married Lord Ralph and came to live at the Hall. The house overlooks spectacular gardens that were created in the early 18th century by Thomas Coke, who was Vice Chamberlain to Queen Anne. Coke was assisted by the royal gardeners, Henry Wise and George London, who laid out the grounds 'to suit Versailles'. In fact, the pair did their job so well that it was once thought that the Melbourne gardens were actually the work of Andr Lentre, the garden-designer at Versailles.
The noted topographical writer, Revd Henry Thorold, who created his own garden at Marston Hall, near Grantham, was lavish in his praise of the garden at Melbourne. He said: 'The garden is not big, but by its careful planning and subdivision, it seems big and full of mystery. At unexpected turns are figures of little lead cupids, fighting, embracing or stringing their bows. The whole garden is a rare survival; there is none more perfect in England.'
When Lady Ralph took me on a tour of the garden that she has worked on so diligently for the last 20 years, she told me how Lord Walter Kerr had begun improvements by clearing the rampant laurel that was partially obscuring the view from the house of Robert Bakewell's 'Birdcage', a wrought-iron pergola that stands beyond a series of terraced lawns and was described by Arthur Mee as being 'as delicate as a piece of jewellery'. Lady Ralph continued the clearances by removing much of the self-seeded laurel, yew and ponticum, and then took a brave decision to 'add botanical interest' to a garden that was already deemed to be perfect.
In the southern flank of the garden, which lies beyond a famous yew tunnel, Lady Ralph planted several trees that have now grown into magnificent specimens. She also added a plethora of carefully selected flowers to the bank of a meandering stream, where there is now an annual blaze of colour. To the north of Jan van Nost's celebrated Vase of the Four Seasons, she is creating a new wildflower meadow and developing an arboretum, which is being under-planted and will be flanked by a yew hedge. Other recent improvements include a blue and white border on the uppermost terrace and the complete re-fashioning of a former rose garden by the Library Walk. Her next project is to open up and plant the area beyond the Birdcage.
When we returned to the hall, Lord Ralph was playing the harpsichord. His eclectic musical tastes are reflected in the many other instruments that are to be found throughout the house, which comprises a number of elegant Georgian rooms hung with fine paintings, as well as a beautiful panelled dining room that is the only survival from the 17th century hall. The house will be open to the public throughout August, when a range of small shops in the courtyard at the entrance to the gardens will benefit from the influx of visitors. As usual on the first day of opening, 13-year-old Amabel Kerr will be selling cakes that she has baked in order to raise money for charity.
The pupils of Melbourne Junior School have also been putting in a lot of effort to raise money for their favourite charities. Their support for good causes is matched by their support for each other, especially at break times, when a 'friendship bench' in the school grounds and a system of 'playground pals' ensures that no pupil feels excluded.
Not surprisingly, pupil behaviour was singled out for praise in a recent inspection report, which also contains very favourable comments about the teaching staff and the headteacher, Jane Hinchliff. She, in turn, is quick to recognise the support that she receives from parents and from the governors, whose effective financial management has enabled an extension to be constructed to provide extra teaching and office areas. The school motto - 'Only my best is good enough for me' - encourages every pupil to build on the excellent start to school life they received at the neighbouring infants' school, which also received an outstanding inspection report.
Pupils at the two schools are not only drawn from families that have been in Melbourne for many generations, but also from families who have been attracted to the area by the employment opportunities at the Rolls-Royce works and at East Midlands Airport. In fact, the population of the town has doubled in the last 40 years.
When I asked the Vicar of Melbourne, The Revd Dr John Davies, about the effect of this influx, he said: 'There is no divide between old and new Melbourne, because the newcomers have been integrated into a community that is remarkably cohesive. They have also added zest to the town, which has a remarkable number of voluntary groups and stages an annual festival with an ambitious programme that includes a concert, an open art exhibition, a heritage and art trail and a celebration of literature.'
For the last eight years, Dr Davies has had the good fortune to be Vicar of the Parish Church of St Michael with St Mary's, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as 'one of the most ambitious Norman parish churches of England, with an interior as impressive and as well preserved as any.' The architecture of the nave is particularly stunning, because the massiveness of the Norman pillars is offset by their great height and by a delicately-arched clerestory, which forms an unbroken corridor above the arches of the north, west and south walls - a most unusual feature in a parish church.The vicar pointed out two other unusual interior features: a King's Seat in a gallery at the west end of the nave and the presence of twelve bells in the central tower, which makes Melbourne the 'grand piano of ringing'. The exterior is rather less impressive because the west end has long been obscured by a large tithe barn and the apsidal east end was squared off in the late 15th century. However, the central tower is very bold and the building stands at the head of a square that is almost as grand as a cathedral close.Immediately beyond the church, there is a large Dower House, which has been the home of William and Griselda Kerr since 1988. Just four years after they took up residence, William, who is the cousin of Lord Ralph Kerr, was given an opportunity to run a fund management business in Hong Kong. For a time, the whole family moved out to the Far East, but Griselda decided to return to Melbourne in 2000 because the couple's three children were at schools in England.During her husband's long absences she has devoted enormous energy to restoring and developing the garden, which covers almost an acre between the house and Melbourne Pool, a beautiful sheet of water that was originally created to service a mill. To prepare for her task she took two courses at the English Gardening School, followed by an RHS diploma at Broomfield College and a garden design course at Brooksby College. In the four years since obtaining her qualifications, she has created a wonderful garden, which includes a superb herbaceous border, a hellebore bed, a rose tunnel, a herb garden, a vegetable garden and a woodland area.
After leaving this lakeside idyll, I walked up Church Street, past the gabled Catholic church and groups of picturesque red-brick cottages, to the Market Place. This is the focus of Melbourne's thriving commercial area, which includes two flower shops, namely Kerry Brown's Blossom Tree, which was recently awarded a silver medal by the Flower Council of Holland, and Isobel the Florist, which was staffed at the time of my visit by Laura Twigg, one of Isobel Oldknow's former floristry pupils at Broomfield College. Amongst this thriving cluster of shops is also the long-standing arbiter of fashion Elle of Melbourne, well-known for its chic and stylish clothes. Ladies are also well catered for by the delicate wisps of lace and satin found at Bare Necessities.
Melbourne also keeps a shoe-repairer in business. It seems that local people share cobbler David Gray's belief that it is better to keep a good pair of shoes and have them repaired when necessary, rather than buy a succession of cheap shoes. David even continues to repair shoes for several former residents who have moved to places where a cobbler is hard to find.Less hard to find are good places to eat. Both the Bay Tree and the Melbourne Hotel attract diners from miles around. If you're keen to entertain at home Melbourne can also supply the finishing touches with elegant china, glassware and napery from the firm Executive Linen, found aptly on Commerce Street.
I also popped into the Melbourne branch of Birds, the well-known Derbyshire confectioners. The shop is managed by Linda Gadsby, who first worked at the shop when she left school and returned after raising her family. Her assistant is Jenny Tovell, who has worked in the shop for 13 years. Both ladies are delighted that they live and work in Melbourne, which they describe as a 'lovely town'.Melbourne is indeed a lovely town. Aside from the well-known set-piece of church, hall and pool, it has many attractive corners. At the foot of Potter Street, near the original medieval market place and the scant remains of Melbourne Castle, there is a cluster of half-timbered and thatched cottages. In High Street, there is a fine cruck cottage, as well as a picturesque group of dwellings endowed for the use of older residents by Thomas Cook of travel agency fame.However, Melbourne's greatest asset is probably its good community spirit, a quality which was evident in most towns in Victorian times but is often lacking today, especially in those places that are largely populated by commuters. In praise of that spirit, parish council chairman David Smith cited the enormous turn-out for a public meeting that was held to consider a new parish plan and the willingness of people to serve on the nine committees that grew out of the discussions.Jonathan Aitken once said of the Australian Melbourne: 'If Queen Victoria were still alive, not only would she approve of Melbourne, she would probably feel more at home there than in any other city of her former Empire'. I think it is safe to say that she would feel equally at home in the Derbyshire Melbourne.Melbourne Hall (01332 862502) and gardens open throughout August, except for the first three Mondays (Hall from 2pm to 4.15pm; gardens from 1.30pm to 5.30pm). The gardens of the hall are open 1.30 to 5.30pm on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from April to September.