Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 14:48 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013
Behind the busy roadside facade Mike Smith discovers a charming and characterful working village.
Writing in 1937, Arthur Mee described Stoney Middleton thus: 'It is singular and well named, for its houses rise tier upon tier on ledges of rock and under steep hanging cliffs. But it has little crooked ways and sudden turns with unexpected bits of charm, one of them by the church in company with pretty gardens and a little brook on its way to the grounds of the hall.'
Seven decades on, Stoney Middleton's charms are even more unexpected than they were in Mee's day, because most of them are hidden behind a main road that has become increasingly busy over the years. Passing motorists are so intent on negotiating their way through the narrow, traffic-choked gorge of Middleton Dale that very few of them think to pause and investigate the highly attractive village that lies behind the road-side faades.
According to Beth Eley, the former headteacher of Stoney Middleton's primary school, the camouflaging effect of the main road has been a blessing in disguise because it has prevented the village from becoming a major target for potential retirees, commuters and weekenders. Of course, there are some incomers but, being relatively few in number, they have integrated well into a village that remains a living and working community.
Merseyside-born Beth was an incomer herself 18 years ago when she took up her post as headteacher. Shortly after her retirement in 2006 the school was threatened with closure, but it was saved after a well-organised and vociferous protest by villagers, who saw the school as part of the life-blood of the community. Explaining why she had played a major part in the campaign Beth said, 'I had retired from the school, but I certainly hadn't retired from the village.'
In fact, Beth's involvement in the village in her retirement stretches far beyond the save-the-school campaign: she drives the community bus, organises a youth club, runs a Sunday school, edits the well-dressing programme and acts as secretary to the Bible Society. Describing herself as 'Christian by faith, Baptist by tradition and Wesleyan Reformist by convenience', she is also the lay minister of the Wesleyan Reform Chapel, a neat building that stands on The Bank, a limestone ledge immediately below Beth's charming hillside cottage.
Stoney Middleton's Anglican church, which is located in the valley at the foot of The Bank, is the centre-piece of the scene that so captivated Arthur Mee. It is approached along picturesque Mill Street where a terrace of ancient stone cottages flanks a fast-flowing stream. The street chicanes around the churchyard and then runs between two remarkable buildings: a single-storey, double-gabled edifice known as the Roman Baths and a large country house called Middleton Hall.
It is possible that the beneficial effects of Stoney Middleton's thermal spring were recognised in Roman times, but the bath that is fed by the spring is not remotely Roman. It was built in the 19th century for the benefit of estate tenants and workers by Lord Denman, who also restored and remodelled Middleton Hall which dates from the early 17th century and has a very impressive faade with a fine array of mullioned and transomed windows.
Although both these buildings are interesting and picturesque, they do not begin to compare with the Church of St Martin, which is a truly remarkable structure. Its squat tower dates from 1415, when it was commissioned by Joan Eyre as a thanksgiving for her husband's safe return from the Battle of Agincourt. However, the body of the church was destroyed by fire in 1757 and replaced by an octagonal nave, which has a lantern that is almost as high as the tower and a seating arrangement that places the congregation 'in the round'. It is one of only two octagonal naves in the entire country.
The man charged with preaching in this idiosyncratic space is the Revd Christopher Benson, who moved to Derbyshire in April of this year, having spent 18 years as a vicar in Chudleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. His former parish is located close to Chudleigh Rocks, a limestone outcrop that is apparently known as the 'Stoney Middleton of the South'. When the Revd Benson decided that he would like a change of scene, he opted for a new post in the real Stoney Middleton, partly because he knew it would offer him lots of opportunities to pursue his hobby of rock-climbing.
As well as experiencing his first well-dressing and his first taste of mushy peas, Christopher Benson has been struck by Stoney's 'strong sense of community', which he believes is helped by the fact that so many people work locally and have their origins in the village. He says, 'As well as being a working village, Stoney Middleton is a village that works.'
It is a view that is shared by churchwarden Michael Miller, who has built up a photographic record of local customs and taken some superb photographs of the village since retiring from his post as manager of Cole Brothers' store in Sheffield. He also produces an annual Christmas card to raise money for church funds and is responsible for many of the photographs in Stoney Middleton: a Working Village, an ambitious 'millennium' publication that was put together by some 50 residents.
One chapter in the book chronicles the history of boot and shoe manufacture in the village. A century ago, there were no fewer than nine manufacturers in Stoney Middleton, most of them producing working boots for miners, quarrymen and farmers. The sole survivor, so to speak, of this local industry is Lennon's, which was founded by William Lennon in 1904. When I was taken on a tour of the factory by Michael Cartledge and Dan Walker, who is William's great-grandson, I was shown examples of the firm's steel-capped safety boots, as well as a line in replica First World War footwear that is made on authentic equipment.
Up to this point, my explorations had been confined to the pretty, crooked lanes in the northern half of the village, but it was now time for me to venture along the main road that divides Stoney in two. As it cuts through the village, the road is forced to make a detour around a building that was erected in 1840 to serve as a toll house. This little octagonal structure now houses the shop where Barry Ridgeway serves his celebrated fish and chips, which have the distinction of being fried in ground-nut oil.
Stoney's hairdressing salon is another thriving main road business that attracts customers from well beyond the immediate area; it was founded 18 years ago by Nicki Drew, who worked on cruise ships for five years before settling in the village. In marked contrast to these two successful businesses, the general store and post office had ceased to operate at the time of my visit, even though the post office had not been identified for closure on the Government's 'hit list'.
At the western end of the village the main road runs past Lover's Leap, an overhanging cliff where Hannah Baddeley attempted to jump to her death in 1762 after being jilted by William Barnsley. She was saved by her crinoline dress, which acted as a parachute, but her luck ran out two years later when she died as a 26-year-old spinster. The long terrace at the foot of the cliff was formerly occupied by the Lover's Leap Caf, but it now houses Little India at Lover's Leap, a restaurant that was opened earlier this year by Ahad Miah. It is already proving popular, not only for fine dining in a beautifully-styled interior, but also for takeaway meals.
It was now time for me to cross the main road to the southern half of the village, which stretches from Middleton Dale to the edge of the moors and is set alongside a long, steep country lane that is grandly known as High Street. After dodging the traffic on the main road to reach the foot of the lane, I was relieved to find that schoolchildren are guided across by Carol Wilson who has worked for 13 years as a school crossing patrol warden and still prefers to be called a 'lollipop lady'.
This southern part of Stoney Middleton could be said to be 'over the Moon', because it is located directly above The Moon Inn, which sits at the bottom of High Street. Claire Littlewood and Ben Wilcock, who took over the pub in February of this year, are currently converting the upstairs rooms into bunk-house accommodation for the many walkers and climbers who visit the area. In the pub itself, they have quickly established a reputation for home-cooked food.
Their meat is supplied by the Castlegate Farm Shop, which stands on the other side of High Street and has changed little in appearance since its foundation by the Hancock family in 1829. The shop supplies savoury baked goods, bread, cheese and ready meals, in addition to meat that originates from the family farm where there are 100 cows and 350 ewes. James Hancock, who has worked in the shop for 24 years, has restored a snub-nosed Morris van and decorated it with the company's name.
John Hancock, the brother of James's great-great-grandfather, was the founder of Stoney's other butchery which is located in the higher reaches of High Street, in the premises where it was first established in 1871. The business is renowned for its 'Farm Assured' beef, which originates from cattle reared on Garry Hancock's nearby farm. Customers are served directly from the slab in the little shop, where Garry often has the assistance of his 80-year-old mother, Margaret.
Stoney Middleton's primary school stands directly across the road from the butcher's shop on a spectacular site overlooking Middleton Dale. Not surprisingly Chris Tupling, who took over the headship in January of this year, makes full use of the school's Peak District location. Having adopted a local woodland, his pupils are making bird and bat boxes with the help of a Peak Park ranger. At the time of my visit they were hard at work on an eight-foot wide panel-painting for the Christmas display at Chatsworth House.
Chris is also very conscious of the school's two other great advantages. He says, 'Because the school is small we can focus very closely on the needs of all our pupils. What's more, having saved the building from closure, the villagers are 100 per cent behind the school which is regarded as being at the very heart of the community. In fact the building also serves as a meeting place for several village groups, including the Women's Institute and the Parish Council.'
The new clerk to the Parish Council is Madge Greaves who moved into the village after marrying a local man. As a newcomer and a mother with a new baby girl she didn't want to be known simply as 'that lady who pushes a push-chair'. In order to get to know people she ran an Avon round before taking up her duties with the Parish Council. One of her tasks has involved a risk-assessment of the children's play area where she was helped by her other daughter, Amy, who likes being in Stoney Middleton so much that she describes it as 'like living in Emmerdale'.
For the past 12 years the Parish Council has been chaired by Jennifer Bettney. Relieved that the school has been saved, Jennifer is now focusing on the problems caused by the sad demise of the village shop and post office and the effects of the closure of the quarries in Middleton Dale. Recalling the village industries from the past she showed me a letter, written in 1794, which demands payment for boot-making machinery. Unearthed during renovations it shows that her cottage was once the home of the first boot manufacturer in the area. Two hundred and fourteen years later Stoney Middleton is still both a working village and a place that works very well as a village.