PUBLISHED: 14:44 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013
The village of Spondon from Saxon Cross to Spondon Mile, a community in bloom
Spondon must be the most visible village in Derbyshire yet, in another sense, it's possibly the most invisible. Thousands of us see Spondon every day though I am referring here to our view as a motorist, which is invariably limited to but a brief glance across to its imposing Methodist Church, perched beside the A52 as we cruise the carriageway to Nottingham. Even if we motorists turn into the village, we are usually bound for Ilkeston and although we may cast an admiring eye on the church of St Werburgh's standing 114 feet high on rising ground to the left, a right turn takes us away from it into the main shopping street and thence to a long lane flanked by homogeneous housing.
However, should you drive further up the hill by the side of the church, you will glimpse a conservation area which includes a village green, built in the late 1980s and reckoned to be the newest in the country. Set a little further back is Spondon's oldest dwelling, The Grange, an attractive timber-framed 16th century merchant's house. Park the car and explore a little further and you'll see a line of Victorian almshouses, stockingers cottages, handsome Georgian residences and even a thatched cottage. Drive out of Spondon on this road and you will behold a sweeping panorama of green. What's more, nestled in 300 acres of this parkland is the Locko Park estate, the ancestral home of the Drury-Lowe family.
'Suburbs tend to be disregarded by guidebook writers and consequently by visitors,' wrote Roy Christian in his 1978 book Derbyshire. 'This often results in good buildings being overlooked in ancient villages that have been almost swamped by suburbia.' Roy was referring here to Spondon and thus would have heartily approved of A walk round Spondon - An introduction to a 1,600 year old village, a leaflet which has been produced by Spondon Historical Society since the early 1990s and is available from the library. Visit all 26 points of interest in the leaflet and the walk will take you one and a half hours. It would take you longer if only several handsome properties had been preserved, like Spondon Hall. At least Spondon houses possibly the finest Georgian building in Derbyshire, The Homestead, built in the early 18th century and one of nine Grade I listed buildings in Derby. Two notable residents were Sir Henry Fowler, Chief Engineer for the London Midland and Scottish Railway, and surgeon Dr James Cade who married the daughter of Joseph Wright, though even greater renown was to come through their great-granddaughter Rowena moving to Cornwall and famously creating the Minack Open Air Theatre. The 18th century Locko Hall, too, is a splendid building whose sumptuous interiors make it a palatial wedding venue. Ramblers can roam the footpaths in the estate and obtain an eye-gladdening view of the Hall across the lake.
It's little wonder, then, that Spondonians baulk if you refer to their place as anything other than a village. 'Call us a suburb and you sign your own death warrant,' joked proud resident of 70 years Roy Battelle when I called in at a village hall function. I wouldn't have dared utter the 's' word, anyway, surrounded as I was by most of the movers and shakers in Spondon at a celebratory meeting of the Spondon Community Association's Village Improvement Committee where community-minded residents were awarded certificates of appreciation for good works in the village.
That evening also saw the launch of Spondon's bid to regain the East Midlands in Bloom trophy it won in 2004, 2006 and 2007. It also won the Britain in Bloom trophy in 2005, leading one resident to point up the fact that 'In Bloom' competitions are as much about community activity as floral displays. Pertinently, no-one offered the information that Spondon enters this competition in the 'Urban Community' category. I also discovered that Spondon's high-flying First XI cricket team isn't allowed to enter the National Village Cricket Competition because the village is deemed too big. However, given the fact that its population of around 12,500 is bigger than some towns and that since 1968 it has officially been within Derby's city boundaries, Spondon defiantly and admirably maintains its historical status as a village or, as Community Association co-founder Derek Hathaway calls it, 'the village within the city.'
'I like the way Spondon is perched between town and country,' says Pete Wright. 'The city is so accessible yet the countryside is only a short walk away. By any objective view, Spondon is a suburb, but the most powerful factor helping it maintain its self-image as a village is simply that it's how its inhabitants choose to regard it.' Community Association trustee David Hayes concedes that 'Spondon has many characteristics of a suburb: large swathes of public and private housing estates, four primary schools and a large comprehensive, plus other amenities, including nine pubs. Yet it also has historic buildings which, together with its library, village hall and main shopping area, are all in a reasonably central location.' A further factor in Spondon's strong identity, according to Derek Hathaway, is its recognisable boundary: 'There is a natural boundary to the south in the River Derwent, Green Belt to the north and east, and the City Council's "green wedge" to the west between us and Chaddesden. These well-defined boundaries are probably one reason we have a great sense of community. Our boundaries have pretty well "held" so far and will be vigorously defended by the community!'
Not only do most Spondonians pertinently speak of a 'community' but also, as David Hayes points out, Spondon's long establishment as a community gives it strong social cohesion. 'The Saxon Cross in the churchyard I can see from my window is an example of its longevity,' he remarks.
Furthermore, as Spondon councillor Evonne Williams states: 'There are still Spondon families whose roots go back to Domesday'. In Domesday Book Spondon is recorded as Spondune, long interpreted to mean a 'gravelly hill' or 'the hill where (wood) shingles are made', though others point to an 11th century reference to the shape of the settlement from the church tower resembling a spoon or, different again, a connection with springs of water.
An interesting street name in Spondon is Louise Greaves Lane. Apparently, this is a corruption of 'Lousy Graves', relating to a burial ground for lepers, a likely reference to the time around the 13th century when the Locko estate passed into the hands of the Burton Lazars, a religious order dedicated to the care of lepers. This also helps explain the name Locko, as it's derived partly from the old French 'loques', meaning rags, lints or bandages. It's said that to enable the lepers to worship, the church constructed a special window affording a view of the altar.
St Werburgh's is Spondon's oldest landmark, although a previous church stood here until 1340 when 'The Great Fire of Spondon' burnt it to the ground and all but destroyed the village. Speculative accounts of its cause tell of drying malt coming alight on the current site of the Malt Shovel Inn. What is clear is that on the fateful day, a fire fanned by strong winds raged so wildly through Spondon that it left only four cottages standing and 'burned Henry Penk to death in the street'. So devastating was the conflagration that King Edward III was petitioned, leading to a year's exemption from all taxes which enabled the residents to rebuild their village.
Like most Derbyshire villages, there is a long history of agriculture predominating alongside various cottage industries before the coming of the canal and subsequent railway network brought fresh industry and concomitant prosperity and expansion. Spondon's population grew further with the arrival of British Cellulose, to be later and more famously re-titled British Celanese, a combination of the word 'cellulose' and 'ease', the latter to indicate the comfort of the artificial silk ladies underwear it came to produce. Initially, though, the company was set up to aid the War Office who employed the Swiss Dreyfus brothers, Henri and Camille, to supervise the production of cellulose acetate dope, a special fabric coating which greatly reduced the fire risk to aircraft in battle.
So rapid was the company's growth that at one time between the Wars, Celanese employed more than 20,000 workers. Born to meet a specialised need in the First World War, Celanese became a vital part of the Second World War effort in producing acetone, needed in the manufacture of cordite for ammunition. In subsequent years, the company evolved into Courtaulds, then Acordis, and more recently has been reborn as Celanese Acetate Ltd.
When I came to Derbyshire in the late 1970s, the first I heard of the village came through the phrase 'The Spondon Hum', alluding to the combined smells emanating from the Celanese factory (at one point nick-named 'smellanese') and the sewage works. Although Courtaulds and Severn Trent cured their respective problems many 20 years ago, several residents became exasperated by outsiders' continued references to it. In a perverse way though, this urban myth helped to create the Village Improvement Committee at the turn of the millennium. 'We wanted to make our villagers proud of Spondon,' declares secretary Anita Hayes. 'We've changed the views of outsiders by challenging their perceptions of Spondon. For example, when the local paper published its usual remarks about the Spondon Hum, regardless of what the article was about, we challenged them to substantiate the claim. Now it is rarely mentioned.'
The Committee has improved the village in other ways, such as installing sponsored hanging baskets and flower containers. One of its most notable achievements was transforming a disused cemetery into a popular sensory garden which recently won the Best Community Garden prize in Derby in Bloom.
Perhaps Spondon can now be known for its 'Bag'. The Spondon Bag was an initiative launched by the Improvement Committee last summer to cut down on the use of plastic bags and encourage local shopping. It's a pronounced success: after selling its entire batch of 2,000 bags, there is now a Spondon Big Bag - 'It's now got a gusset,' explains Anita. There is even a competition for the best photo taken of the bag on holiday. Smiling Spondonians have been pictured proudly clutching their Bag as far away as Japan and Ecuador.
Actually, there is still a hum in Spondon, says David Hayes - 'but it's auditory rather than olfactory,' he points out - referring to the noise heard in some parts from the tyres of vehicles on the A52. According to Derek Hathaway, one of the challenges the community needs to address is that the building of the A52 dual carriageway over 50 years ago cleaved Spondon in two. The Village Improvement Committee wants to better the community facilities in the area south of the A52 and Derek has a personal campaign to revive the name of Stony Cross which, he points out, is the original name for the area and is still marked on Ordnance Survey maps.
There might be an objection to a name change from the staff of the Go Dive store in that area: all are Spondon-born. Manager Mark Hudson runs the biggest diving store in the UK, an ironic statistic given Spondon couldn't be much further from the sea, though its central location and closeness to the M1 makes its positioning highly convenient, aided by the fact that its comprehensive stocklist allows customers, in Mark's words, 'to walk out with everything they need in one go'. Starting as a scuba diving school, Go-Dive still trains around 1,000 people a year to dive, whether they want to explore rivers, reefs, caves, wrecks or the delights of underwater photography. If you prefer leisure pursuits on terra firma, Spondon is also home to The Derby Runner which has, in its own words, 'probably the best selection of running equipment in the Midlands'.
When it comes to shopping, Spondon is almost as self sufficient as it was a century ago. Although the village has the Spondon Flyer bus service which is not only very efficient but was also voted Britain's friendliest - 'That's because of us Spondonians,' said a proud resident - Tim Bacon of Spondon Hardware told me he hasn't needed to shop in Derby for over a year - 'and I might not need to go there ever again unless I need a new suit,' he remarks. If he needs to buy a carpet, he could either go round the corner to Lewis's Interiors whose impressive website boasts of being 'one of the leading suppliers of interior products, design and consultation in the Midlands' or, on the roundabout opposite ASDA, to Spondon Carpets which is celebrating its 40th year as the largest stockist in Derby. 'Who needs to go into the city when they can come to us for every leading brand of carpet and flooring, and also park here for nothing?' enquires owner Joss.
On the village's admirably comprehensive website, I found some choice reminiscences of Spondon's retail past through resident Victor Pelech, as he recalls an Open All Hours shop on Church Street where Mrs Cholerton would 'carefully slice up ham so thinly you could see through it.' He also recalls Clarke's the greengrocers having a bare earth floor. According to Victor, 'This fooled the potatoes into thinking they were still planted in the garden and thus kept them fresh.'
There is a lovely old-fashioned feel to Spondon Hardware, even though Tim and Julie Bacon only took it over a year ago. 'They call us an Aladdin's Cave,' says Julie, 'as we sell everything from hot water bottle stoppers to cherry pitters, plus tools, screws, cookware, compost, cleaning products, paints, plants and electrical and plumbing goods.' If Ronnie Corbett called in, they would have no trouble in servicing him with either four candles or fork 'andles. Tim also has the nickname 'Arkwright' after the other Ronnie in Open All Hours.
Tim is a founder member of the newly-formed Spondon Traders Association, chaired by optician of 28 years standing, Mark Davis, who revealed how traders came together on the back of a mini crime wave affecting businesses, mainly break-ins. 'The creation of the Association allowed traders to access funding,' explains Mark, 'and from there it was natural to promote Spondon and ensure that local customers would want to continue coming into their own village. Better still, we feel the balance of shops in Spondon is just about right.'
Tim Bacon recalls how the village felt a little unbalanced a decade ago when three funeral parlours operated. 'The local paper caught up on this and ran a story on Spondon being the "dead centre" of Derby,' recalls Tim. 'Now there are only two parlours, so Spondonians must be living longer!'
Also in this bustling shopping area is Event Heydays, opened ten years ago by Kim Fletcher as a wedding and party decoration outlet and now a full-blown event business for wedding and corporate functions. Business has recently expanded with the opening of a bridal shop opposite. Walking across the road from one shop to the other can be precarious. In spite of the A52, Spondon continues to have a through traffic problem with the siting of the East Midlands Storage Depot further up the road in West Hallam. 'This road system evolved in the days of the horse and cart,' David Hayes points out. 'It is physically impossible to improve it.' Councillor Evonne Williams has tried in vain to impose a weight restriction on the road and fears that the go ahead for 4,500 homes on the Stanton Iron Works site will worsen the traffic congestion.
As I gaze on the HGVs rumbling through Sitwell Street, it's hard to imagine that right up to the turn of the 1950s, Dennis Cameron recalls livestock being part of the traffic, with one Spondon farmer, Frank Barton, driving sheep to and from Derby Market. Dennis himself helped herd cows along Locko Road which were occasionally tangled up with disgruntled Celanese bus drivers picking up the workers.
The rose-tinted clich 'I remember when this was all fields' was a truism for Dennis in his youth when he would cycle 'in complete safety' all over the parish as an errand boy for the post office. Today he lives on the Sancroft Road estate but is still only a few steps away from a footpath to Locko Park and other green spaces which, David Hayes romantically points out, 'provides plenty of breathing space and opportunities for children to experience life beyond the games console.' Several footpaths lead to West Park Meadow, a four-hectare nature reserve opened just over ten years ago.
Encouragingly, so many local youngsters are involved in the cricket club - every summer Wednesday up to a hundred 8 to 16 year olds attend coaching at Spondon CC's impressive new premises - that up to six young people's teams, along with four senior sides, turn out every week. As current President - and member since 1946 - Dennis Cameron proudly speaks of 350 associate members of Spondon CC.
The Village Hall is a hotbed of activity, too, with nearly 40,000 people using the facility yearly from organisations including Locko Amateur Dramatic Society, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Stroke Support, Mother & Baby Club and local Women's Institutes. Village Hall Manager Carole Chambers tells me that the Hall's dance floor is 'highly regarded', attracting dance groups from far and wide, notably a belly-dancing troupe including a dancer who performs for the Sultan of Dubai. Also, the old school in Spondon is now home to the East Midlands Bridge Academy, annually used by 15,000 including noted international players.
The churches are very active, too. St Werburgh's Vicar, The Revd Julian Hollywell, tells me that events such as Christingle or Remembrance Sunday are 'packed to the rafters' and baptisms are running at an impressive 100 a year. St Werburgh's has a suitably awe-inspiring interior with a splendid organ celebrating a sonorous centenary. Just beyond the organ, I saw the sunlight pouring through into the Sanctuary. 'A sight that always lifts my heart,' says Revd Julian, 'but it's the people that are the inspiration. I never cease to feel privileged at being called to serve here.'
On the Spondon website, a romantic reminiscence of the village by former resident Kenneth Porter tells of a time 'when cottages, farms, fields and meadows snuggled comfortably around the wooded hillside on which the towering spire of the old Church still stands as sentinel for us all.' Kenneth also recalls learning to swim in the canal waters, as well as 'fishing for minnows, floating toy boats and, on drowsy summer days, watching dragonflies hovering among the tall bullrushes.' In severe winters, Roy Battelle recalls skating along the canal to reach Markeaton Lake - five miles away!
This may be set to return. Although the existing canal route provides walking and cycling, there is now a very active campaign by the Derby and Sandiacre Canal Society to re-open the 'Spondon Mile' to add fishing, canoeing and other water sports as well as improving the wildlife habitat and incorporating a wetland reserve. Already, the previously dark, graffiti-strewn Station Road bridge along the canal route has been given a mural makeover and renamed Rainbow Bridge, indicative of a bright future for Spondon.
So, village, suburb or even town? It doesn't matter, really. What does matter is the people, and Spondon is in very good hands. Kenneth Porter's reminiscences speak sadly of modern developments which 'have sliced up the community and obliterated the uniqueness of Spondon' while 'faceless motorists speed through the anonymous housing estates, unaware of the peaceful and beautiful little village that used to be there'. However, it's better to close with the words of Carole Chambers: 'We know we no longer live in a Lark Rise to Candleford society, but what is more important is striving to develop the strong sense of community which exists at Spondon's core.'