Picture Perfect Tissington
PUBLISHED: 14:59 29 May 2013 | UPDATED: 15:30 29 May 2013
Ashley Franklin Photography
Besides the annual well dressings, Ashley Franklin discovers there are plenty of other reasons to stop by this popular estate village...
Tissington Well Dressings is one of Derbyshire’s annual, iconic ‘must-go-to’ events. As Sir Richard FitzHerbert, Tissington Hall’s 9th baronet and estate owner, states: ‘Although we can no longer say we have the biggest or the best well dressings, we are the oldest, best known and, I like to think, most well-loved.’
There is certainly a fondness for the Tissington tradition of blessing each and every one of the six wells – all genuine wells, too – and an expectation of quality. ‘The wells are exquisite year in, year out,’ affirms Sir Richard. Then there is the added attraction of the village itself, arguably the most charming in the county. Situated at the gateway to the Peak just north of Ashbourne, its own gateway leads down a long lime tree-lined drive to a carefully laid out estate village with attractive limestone cottages, a quaint square-towered church on a hillock, a picture postcard pond and the Jacobean splendour of the Hall. Set back but still imposing and pleasingly integral to the village, Tissington Hall is renowned for its fine oak-panelling, decorative plasterwork, fascinating paintings and a grandiose library furnished with books from a collection of over 3,000 volumes.
A fresh well spring
My recent visit to Tissington revealed a village beaming with fresh vitality. In a Derbyshire Life article in 1989, Roy Christian noted that ‘apart from the tea-room and post office, there is nowhere to spend money in Tissington.’ Pertinently, it was in that year that 24-year-old Richard FitzHerbert inherited the baronetcy and the Hall together with the estate village’s 2,500 acres, 13 farms and 40 properties.
Sir Richard confesses that as a young wine merchant stepping into this new role following the death of his uncle, he sat down and cried at the magnitude of the responsibility before him. However, he pulled himself together and, cognisant of the FitzHerbert lineage, said to himself: ‘You have an obligation.’
The Hall, with its 61 rooms, 48 chimneys, 7 staircases and 4,032 panels of glass, was in disrepair. In these last 24 years, Sir Richard has worked tirelessly to improve and maintain the house, which now hosts weddings, tours and dinners, while also attending to the village itself and its 100-plus community. He admits that he was initially ‘a bit green’ when having to deal with tenants: ‘I had a few telling me “your uncle did things this way and that way and only charged us two halfpennies and a carrot.” I was hoodwinked a few times and had to learn the job as I went along but I think I know how to handle things these days.’
Handling the changing rural economy has been his crowning achievement: ‘With modern practices reducing employment on a farm to one man and his dog, it’s been of prime importance to replace those lost jobs, otherwise this community would not have survived.’
A testament to Sir Richard’s dedicated work is the recent re-branding of Tissington which can be seen in a brochure announcing ‘a plethora of micro-businesses in the village.’
One of the more visible businesses is by the entrance to the village. Fifteen years ago candle maker Annie Maudling was fed up with making a waxy mess in her kitchen and moved her business first to an old pig-sty and then to a blacksmith’s forge. Here, trading under the delightful name On a Wick and a Prayer, she makes a wide array of candles from scented pillars and decorative wax lanterns to ceramic troughs. Annie’s candles can be found on sale in 80 National Trust properties. ‘It’s about good quality craftsmanship and being British,’ she states.
There is further artisanship at Glass @ the Barn where Angela Thompson creates bespoke glassware which includes coasters, clocks, plates and window panels. There’s also workshop space where visitors can produce their own glass art.
Around the corner from Wick & A Prayer, just beyond the pond, there’s quality and variety at Tissington Nursery. This is run with great enthusiasm by Mairi Longdon, an experienced horticulturist with a passion for herbaceous perennials. Amidst a vast array of plants there are, for example, over 50 different species of heleniums. ‘More than half of my stock can’t be found in any garden centre,’ Mairi points out.
At the other end of the village the long-established Acanthus sells homeware, gifts, toys and games. Also selling homeware – dating from the 1940s – is the sweetshop Edward & Vintage, run by David Westcott-Walker. Only in its fourth year of business, it has already been listed in BBC Homes & Antiques magazine’s Top Ten Best Vintage Shops in the UK.
Starting out as an antiques business, a turning point came when David bought an antique shelf unit. ‘I filled the shelf with a few jars of old-fashioned sweets and sold so many I ordered more,’ he recounts. ‘I started with 20 jars; I’ve now got 350.’ Either home-made or locally-sourced, the confectionery here brings a nostalgic lump to the throat – or perhaps lick of the lips? – as you behold jars of bon-bons, liquorice, fudge, gums, toffees and gobstoppers alongside sugar pigs, sherbet dips, treacle dabs, coconut mushrooms and other mouth-watering treats.
An old-fashioned radio pumping out ’40s tunes and a room full of ’40s memorabilia enhance the period atmosphere. Plans for the future include handmade ice-cream and a ‘Penny Mix’ machine.
Entering White Peak Butchery also takes you back in time to the days of a traditional butcher’s shop. Butcher Richard Hobday has been in the trade since the age of 13 and the quality of his meat is evident from the names of some of his exclusive clientele, which include Hassop Hall and Fischer’s of Baslow. Amongst his home-made products are Gourmet Moroccan Sausage and Tissington Old Banger.
You can dine on Tissington Pie at the Bluebell Inn close to the estate entrance. The recently-installed young landlord John Cartledge will be holding the pub’s first beer festival in August. He also hopes to convert some of the inn’s outbuildings into accommodation.
There is holiday accommodation already available in Tissington. The beautiful 17th century Overfield Farm provides comfortable Bed and Breakfast, and Nurses Cottage and Hooper’s Barn were recently converted to self-catering holiday lets that offer ‘the perfect rural retreat’.
On the fringes of the village is Bassettwood. Run by Brian and Sarah Allen, it has recently been refurbished with additional accommodation in the quaint free-standing Shepherd’s Hut, and a tea room with a unique window into the cowshed! Farm animals, including ponies, pygmy goats, micro pigs and lambs, make Bassettwood a popular place for families with children. The views from here are glorious.
You can experience this idyllic landscape on horseback courtesy of Tissington Trekking Centre, which has been run for 16 years by Susan Torr. On one of 12 home-bred horses – ‘all safe, steady and sensible’ – you can take a beginner’s one-hour trek or a 2–3½ hour trek to Dovedale. The village offers a great photo opportunity and non-participants can enjoy a snack or homemade, locally sourced meal at the tastefully refurbished Old Coach House Tearooms while they wait.
The Tearooms will, of course, be gearing up for Thursday 9th May when the well dressings will be unveiled. Sir Richard says that every villager has some input – ‘whether it’s pressing in the petals or just making tea for those who do.’
The origins of the well dressings in the village date back to the mid-14th century when it is believed that Tissington escaped the ravages of the Black Death through the purity of its water. Chris Carr of Town Head Farm, a lifelong resident of Tissington, told me that well water was drunk in the village until the 1980s. ‘Its high lime content was always said to be beneficial, though it didn’t take long to fur up a kettle!’ he notes.
‘I’m concerned that the main well dressers are “getting on” and fewer flowers and natural materials are sourced in the village,’ observes Chris, ‘but the well dressings keep this village in the public domain so the tradition must endure.’
Dressed for the future
During well dressing week a large field is turned into a car park. At other times you can drive into the village itself, though the evident damage to the grass verges from visitors’ vehicles makes a compelling case for a permanent car park. Sweetshop owner David, who says living in Tissington is ‘like being on holiday every day’ points out that ‘visitors come to this beautiful place because it’s relatively unspoiled; it would be purely unspoiled if cars parked outside.’
Mairi at Tissington Nursery concurs: ‘I adore Tissington’s unchanging old-fashioned nature. You step back in time when you come here but it would look even more like 1813 than 2013 if you took the cars away.’
However, as Sir Richard points out, the ideal site for the car park – adjacent to the tree-lined avenue – is a listed field, and battling with the planning authorities is the one incessant frustration in his management of the estate. ‘I could build five houses today and do it all correctly – in the right stone and so on – and I could let them to families tomorrow, but the Peak Park Planning Board would recoil in horror. The planners I have to deal with probably wouldn’t have given consent to Tissington Hall.’
However, Sir Richard seems currently very satisfied with life, more so since he married his wife Fiona in the autumn of 2011. ‘She has brought energy, verve and passion to the place,’ he remarks. ‘As well as six dogs!’ Fiona herself says, ‘I feel fortunate to live in such wonderful, unique surroundings.’ A sentiment that was echoed by many of the tenants I met.
‘My passion is the preservation of this house and the evolution of the village,’ states Sir Richard. ‘We have the same problem as other honeypot villages in that we are trying both to attract visitors and to retain the village’s integrity. I’ll constantly strive for that, without turning Tissington into Alton Towers.’