The Heart of Hathersage project in the Peak District village

PUBLISHED: 08:46 19 March 2019 | UPDATED: 08:46 19 March 2019

The Heart of Hathersage

The Heart of Hathersage

mike smith

Redolent of literary associations and legend, thanks to its residents the village now has an award-winning design at its centre. Mike Smith reports

New benches and a stone wall inset with a millstone in the new community spaceNew benches and a stone wall inset with a millstone in the new community space

Anyone who has driven through Hathersage in recent months will have noticed a striking new presence at the heart of the village. The new arrival is a structure fashioned in material that is in keeping with the characteristic gritstone appearance of the village but differs markedly in shape from any other building in the Peak District settlement. The completion of this iconic building and the new public space that surrounds it is the fulfilment of a wish that was first expressed by the villagers in 2003 but took 15 years of remarkable persistence to come to fruition.

In 2003, the Peak District National Park invited the villagers to come up with a ‘Village Plan’, based on a ‘wish list’ that would be drawn up in a series of public meetings. The various groups of volunteers set up to help progress the wishes expressed in those meetings included a group with a remit to find ways of improving the centre of the village, where a toilet block and an adjacent bus shelter built in the 1960s had become an embarrassing eyesore.

In the welcoming café at Coleman’s Deli, I talked to Chris Winfield, who has valiantly chaired this key community group throughout its long years of endeavour, and Alistair Cook, who has helped to steer the volunteers through the choppy waters they have had to navigate.

Recalling the start of the group’s work, Chris said: ‘After a great deal of consultation, we came up with a plan for the central area that would include a new public space where there would be improved tourist information and new seating to enable residents and visitors to relax and enjoy views of the surrounding hills.’

The new building at the Heart of HathersageThe new building at the Heart of Hathersage

With regard to the public conveniences, Alistair said, ‘In 2011, Derbyshire Dales District Council announced that they were going to close the toilets as a cost-saving measure unless the Parish Council was prepared to take on the running and maintenance of the block, which the villagers pleaded should remain open after making their views known at a public meeting.’

Chris said, ‘Our group, which eventually adopted the slogan “The Heart of Hathersage”, received valuable advice from Adele Metcalfe, the Peak District National Park Authority’s rural community officer, and our success in obtaining two £20,000 Lottery Grants allowed us to employ locally-based landscape architects to draw up a village centre design that secured planning permission. Ongoing fundraising by the local community continued as the Heart of Hathersage committee applied for a number of grants for substantial funds, all to no avail. Before the planning permission expired, we had to reduce the scale and cost of the design, but were most grateful when the Parish Council offered to find funding which finally enabled the scheme to become a reality.’

The new Heart of Hathersage was finally declared open at a joyous public gathering in April 2018. The building designed to accommodate the new toilet facilities and parish office, as well as the new stone walls and curved seating areas on the perimeter of the community space and the engravings listing the families and businesses which have sponsored the scheme have all been designed and constructed locally. This wonderful local effort has resulted in a scheme that was given the Peak District National Park Authority’s Landscape Award for 2018.

The architect responsible for designing the parish office and new public conveniences is Simon Gedye. Explaining the distinctive shape of his building, nicknamed ‘The Ark’ by local people, Simon said, ‘Its contours echo the elliptical form of the community space, its curved roof overhang offers some protection from the rain and its distinctive appearance has been designed to emphasize its civic importance.’

The crowd at the ceremony to mark the completion of the Heart of Hathersage project, April 2018 (photo: Alistair Cook)The crowd at the ceremony to mark the completion of the Heart of Hathersage project, April 2018 (photo: Alistair Cook)

Simon is now being charged with designing a new glass and oak shelter that will be added to the community space. A special fitting set into the centre of the area has already been used to mount the village Christmas tree, Meryl Skyrme’s Lion King Scarecrow, which was a focal point of the 2018 Hathersage Gala, and a Poppy and Trenches display designed by Bernard Madden.

The excellent illustrated tourist information boards on the outer wall of Simon’s new building provide visitors with a ‘heartfelt’ invitation to explore Hathersage’s many attractions, including the great gritstone escarpments of the Stanage and Millstone Edges, which overlook the village and attract climbers from all over the world.

One local worthy commemorated on the information panels is George Herbert Lawrence, an industrialist and philanthropist who helped to fund lots of local projects, including the open-air heated swimming pool that has been a magnet attracting people of all ages ever since it opened in 1936. Tragically, Lawrence, who said, ‘I want to use my money in my own lifetime to do good for the greatest number of people’, died in the first Blitz on Sheffield in 1940 whilst helping his workers.

Also highlighted on the tourist boards are two people who are nationally famous and had strong connections with Hathersage. Little John, the giant of a man who was Robin Hood’s trusty lieutenant, is reputedly buried in a suitably long grave in the churchyard of Saint Michael and All Angels’ Church, having died in a cottage, now destroyed, to the east of the churchyard. It is said that a thighbone of a man who stood more that seven feet tall was exhumed from the grave in 1784. The fine battlemented church and its adjacent vicarage, which stand on a steep hillside above the village, also have fascinating connections with Charlotte Brontë, and particularly with her most famous novel.

In 1845, two years before Jane Eyre was published, Charlotte stayed with her old school friend Ellen Nussey in the vicarage to prepare the house for the return from honeymoon of Ellen’s brother, Henry, who had become the vicar of Hathersage. During her visit, Charlotte would have admired the ancient brasses in the church which are memorials to various members of the Eyre family. She is also likely to have seen the tomb of Damer de Rochester. As well as adopting these names for characters in the novel she was about to write, she is thought have based Morton, the fictitious town in her book, on Hathersage itself, borrowing the name of Mr Morton, the landlord she met at the George Hotel.

During their visit to the Peak District, Ellen and Charlotte embarked on a walk through the fields outside Hathersage that brought them to North Lees Hall, a castellated tower house which was built in Elizabethan times and has now been carefully restored. According to Claire Harman, the author of Charlotte Brontë, a Life, the owner of North Lees, a widow called Mary Eyre, told them how ‘a former mistress of the house had gone mad and been kept in a padded room on the top floor, where she died in a fire that damaged the house severely.’ As Claire Harman says, ‘Charlotte took it all in.’

After taking in the shock of seeing a new building at the heart of Hathersage, present-day visitors encounter another architectural surprise at the David Mellor cutlery factory, which has a ‘floating roof’ conceived by the famous architect Michael Hopkins. The adjacent visitor centre and café, also designed by Hopkins, showcases Mellor’s superb cutlery and has examples of his street furniture, including sets of working traffic lights and an unusual square post box.

David Mellor’s widow, Fiona MacCarthy, the celebrated biographer, has just published a biography of Walter Gropius, who founded the highly influential Bauhaus School of Architecture 100 years ago. And David’s son, Corin, who has inherited his father’s flair for design and now runs the cutlery factory founded by his late father, has designed and made a new bench for the public space at the ‘Heart of Hathersage’. All in all, the ancient village of Hathersage deserves an honourable mention in any account of modern design.

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