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The market town of Wirksworth, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 16:16 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

The market town of Wirksworth, Derbyshire

The market town of Wirksworth, Derbyshire

During September Wirksworth welcomes visitors from across the county and country to its vibrant arts festival, ASHLEY FRANKLIN looks into the past and present of Derbyshire's 'hidden gem'.

As I sweep down the steep lane from the eastern side of town, Wirksworth is a picturesque panoramic postcard, a typically attractive county market town nestled snugly in Derbyshire's 'Middle West' in between limestone quarries and green hills on the edge of the White Peak.

Shamefully, I have rather neglected Wirksworth considering I have lived less than ten miles away these last 30 years, all the more ironic given it was the first Derbyshire town I came to know. Wirksworth briefly entered my living room and the nation's consciousness in the days of TV's It's A Knockout, when some game, hardy townsfolk brushed with fame by throwing on silly costumes and hurling themselves into giant vats of water. More recently, Wirksworth has provided the location of ITV's Sweet Medicine, with the 'quiet dignity' of the town's attractive churchyard walk a notable feature.

Walking round the town, it struck me that some of its ginnels, nooks and crannies would slip unobtrusively into a period drama. There is a prescient line in Roy Christian's Derbyshire book of the late 1970s where he remarks that 'the churchyard has a little of the atmosphere of Barchester or Cranford.' Walking down Greenhill while exploring the Puzzle Gardens, where I got rather lost but nonetheless enjoyed the flora adorning the maze of tiny individual cottages, I would have barely raised an eyebrow had I seen a cloth-capped, short-trousered baker's son pushing his bicycle with some brown bread tucked under his arm. Actually, it could as easily have been a fisherman in a so'wester. Resident Lee Broderick, who lives on the other side of town up Gorsey Bank - a similarly quaint haphazard collection of cottages - reckons The Puzzle Gardens and to a lesser extent where she lives, is 'like Polperro without the sea'. When Prince Charles called the town 'Quirksworth', one can assume he was referring to the higgledy-piggledy houses.

Then there are the romantic George Eliot references. What is now called Adam Bede Cottage was the home of Eliot's uncle and aunt, Samuel and Elizabeth Evans, immortalised in Adam Bede. I have seen Wirksworth bedecked in snow and can easily picture the 'Snowfields' of that same novel.

According to Pevsner, 'Wirksworth is attractive as an ensemble rather than by means of individual houses' and although Roy Christian commended Wirksworth for its 'sturdy, comely houses of the 16th and 17th century', he also remarked that the town looked 'firmly rooted in its setting but slightly withered' and that it 'has leanings towards tourism but not yet sufficient facilities.' However, since those words, Wirksworth has earned a Europe Nostra Award (1983) for 'the exemplary regeneration of a small country town through a broad programme of self-help and innovative features which could be applied to other towns.'

A major instance of the remedial work carried out can be seen in the Heritage Centre, itself one of the outcomes of the Wirksworth Regeneration Project: there are 'before and after' photographs of part of 15 Market Place, a Georgian building once home to generations of the local legal profession. What once looked like a relic awaiting a wrecking ball is now handsomely re-appointed.


The new vibrancy of Wirksworth is reflected in the town signposts which welcome you to 'Derbyshire's hidden gem'. The gem is now shining out of the dust and grime which gathered over centuries of lead mining and quarrying. There is evidence of a settlement in Wirksworth - 'Weorc's fortified enclosure' - even before the Romans came to mine lead. The Saxons left evidence of their presence in the town through a coffin lid, dug up in 1820, dating from the 7th century. Thought to be the tomb of an early missionary, Pevsner described it as 'one of the most interesting sculptural remains of its date.'

The legacy of the industry that shaped and developed Wirksworth lies in the thousands of lead mining holes in the town's outlying area along with its vast quarries. It's a legacy that has lingered long: when the Heritage Centre Manager Marian Vaughan moved to Wirksworth in 1963, she observed that 'the town still had a reputation as something of a rough and gritty place. Both the lead miners and quarry workers worked and lived hard. There were more than 80 pubs and alehouses listed in the 19th century and quite a lot of them were still open when we came to the town.' One good reason for the proliferation of pubs was that beer drinking was believed to help ward off lead poisoning.

Daniel Defoe, who visited the town, wrote of 'a rude, boorish kind of people but bold, daring and desperate.' It's clear the ore was worked hard as Defoe remarked that the market for lead in Wirksworth could be compared only with the considerable trading quarters of the Custom House Quays of London. As it prospered, Wirksworth became the third largest town in Derbyshire. Despite this, a miner's life was very harsh. It's recorded that in times of slump, some mining families died of starvation. Some, of course, grew rich as shown by the many fine houses around the town. The old grammar school and almshouses (for the relief of 'six pore impotent men') lining the churchyard walk attest to the benevolence of the wealthiest of the lead merchant families, the Gells. The Anthony Gell School still commemorates the name today. Walking round the Heritage Centre, several visitors around me were thrilled to discover that one of the school's most notable former pupils is a certain Ellen Macarthur. My own head was turned by the sight of 'The Old Bone Hole' which I gingerly slid through to feel something of the cramped, claustrophobic conditions the lead miners endured. It's fitting that the town's symbol - a Saxon carving of a leadminer known as T'Owd Man - depicts a hunched figure holding a pick and whisker (a sort of basket). The carving can be seen in the wall of St Mary's Church.

Another visible legacy of the mining industry is The Moot Hall which displays decorative stone panels from the original building it replaced, the Barmote Court, the oldest industrial court in the country. 700 years on, the court still convenes once a year to hear and arbitrate on lead mining disputes in the 'Queen's Field', with the traditional serving up of ale and cheese for the jurymen, together with tobacco and a clay pipe to smoke it in.

By the time The Moot Hall was built in 1815, the local lead mining industry was in terminal decline, with the town population halving by the turn of the 20th century. Wirksworth might well have become a ghost town had it not been for limestone quarrying, boosted in 1867 by the arrival of the railway, which allowed distribution nationwide. A century on, in its final years, Middlepeak Quarry supplied millions of tons of roadstone for our motorways. To learn the full story, visit either the Heritage Centre or the National Stone Centre, sited among former quarries nearby.

As well as thinking of Wirksworth every time I cruise the M1, it will now also come to mind with the phrase 'red tape'. This symbol of bureaucracy originated in Wirksworth: six textile mills, including Haarlem Mill, built by Richard Arkwright in 1780 (also mentioned in Adam Bede as the manager was George Eliot's paternal uncle) and the nearby Providence Mill in Gorsey Bank - both still standing proud - manufactured the red tape used by government offices to bind official documents.

The old elegant buildings that make Wirksworth a 'gem' of a county town exist due to its dusty past. As Marian Vaughan explained: 'When the decline of lead mining left Wirksworth poorer, it became a neglected town. Consequently, many of the most interesting buildings were left in a poor state of repair and there was little incentive to repair or rebuild in more modern materials. These buildings remained untouched and following the Wirksworth Project many of them have been revitalised. This is what makes Wirksworth a unique gem in Derbyshire's crown.'

Wirksworth is unique in other ways. Is there another town in Derbyshire where the parish church sits in such a wide ringed churchyard? There can surely be few more attractive churchyards in England. 'The Church Walk is Wirksworth's real gem for us,' affirm Colin and Janet Pidgeon, Chair and Treasurer respectively of Wirksworth Civic Society which has been a force for betterment in the town since its inception in 1969. As well as producing a hugely informative Town Map with vital information on the town's history and heritage, there is now a project entitled 'Wirksworth's Timeless Jewel'. This new project's plans range from providing storage for the unsightly wheelie bins around the church to boosting the town's impressive history and heritage.

Is Wirksworth unique, too, in the 700-year-old tradition of 'clypping'? This is where the townsfolk join hands around the church in 'a sign of love and devotion'. Given the history of St Mary's Church, not least its numerous tombs, it could easily warrant an article on its own.

Wirksworth could also be unique in its staging of one of Britain's biggest and brightest small town arts festivals. In the last 15 years, Wirksworth has become a noted 'arts town' and a remarkable 150 professional artists are said to reside here. Many gravitated to the town when an 'Art Trail' was set up in the late 1980s by a group keen to coincide showing their work with the already established music festival. Festival Chairman Bill Lounds explained that the celebrated Art & Architecture Trail involves transforming homes, offices, workshops, churches, stores and other spaces into art galleries for a weekend. Currently, the Wirksworth Festival stages around 30 performance, workshop and film programme events in 17 days and showcases displays by 200 artists and craftspeople in over 100 venues.

'The success of the Festival typifies our town,' believes Town Councillor Alison Clamp. 'It's grown because townspeople were willing to put in so much of their time and effort and professional skills. It's this generosity which has put Wirksworth on the UK's cultural map.'

Wirksworth also boasts 'one of the largest independent factory shops in the UK' at North End Mills. In these worrying days for British manufacturing, North End Mills is one of the few companies still producing hosiery. Visitors attracted by the promise of a bargain or the chance for some sustenance from the popular restaurant and coffee shop, can also watch the knitting machines in action between 2 and 4pm each day.

Although many of the traditional industries Wirksworth was founded on have long gone, like other such Derbyshire towns it has adapted and advanced and is now home to a range of different businesses. Marian Vaughan recalls the Wirksworth of the early 1960s providing a traditional level of retail service that included a 'Miss Stokes at the grocers packing sugar in blue bags and selling butter loose wrapped in greaseproof paper. If we ran out of anything, a phone call would bring the errand boy with his bike.' Regarding today's retail industries, Wirksworth provides for most needs, 'save for a decent shoe shop,' remarks Marian. I was amused by the fact that the pharmacy is called Paynes - an 'apothecary' since 1756 - and the butchers, another old family business, is called Killers. I was also taken by the Marsden's gift shop sign which announces that it has 'Nails No More', though this former hardware store more than compensates for that with a wide range of gifts.

Opposite Marsden's, Le Mistral has brought a wind of change to Wirksworth with its fine French cuisine. I dined there on a baked camembert starter (a meal in itself) followed by a tasty Steak Hache. Ironically, I was holidaying in Provence and so missed the Provencal Night with its menu of white bean soup, Nioise salad, noisettes of lamb, red mullet and poached pear.

Another business to appreciate Wirksworth's character and the visitor potential of its setting close to attractions like Carsington and the Derwent Valley, is Red Pepper Pictures, which has built a formidable reputation for both commercial and private photographic work in the 5 years it's been here.

A newer arrival is Peli Deli. Just three months ago Mike and Jessica Blair decided to extend their delicatessen and coffee bar empire beyond their Matlock outlet and now run a thriving second shop in Wirksworth's St John's Street. 'We had a lot of customers from Wirksworth at our Matlock deli,' explains Mike. 'One of them had the cheek to suggest that if we moved to Wirksworth it would save them a lot of time and trouble! I checked out the town when I next visited and sensed it was a friendly and welcoming place, so we took the plunge. I'm so glad we did because we love it here.' Along with an extensive range of meats and cheeses, Peli Deli's walls add to Wirksworth's reputation as an arts town - there's a year-long waiting list for gallery space and Mike and Jessica are looking forward to being another stop on the Art & Architecture Trail.

The building that houses Peli Deli is owned by Alexandra Greenbank and her partner David who fell in love with Wirksworth after discovering the town by accident on a return trip from nearby Carsington Reservoir. They moved in last November and run the other business in the building, Peak House Practice, a complementary therapy centre specialising in traditional Chinese medicine and counselling with regular meditation classes and wellbeing workshops attracting clients from around the country. Alexandra comments, 'The local community has been extremely welcoming to us as newcomers and the town has so much to offer and so much going on.'

Other recent arrivals in Wirksworth include Acanthus, the florists run by Johanna McWilliam, where there is wall-to-wall flora in her cosy shop space in the Market Place; and Jeff Green has just opened the taps at the Wirksworth Brewery right next to the remains of a cruck beam cottage in St Mary's Gate. Not surprisingly, Jeff has been preparing a Wirksworth Festival Ale. Happily, local retailers have reported an increase in trade with the arrival of a monthly farmers' market - complete with live local musicians - the result of a National Lottery grant of 10,000 awarded to NOW (New Opportunities Wirksworth), which has been another force for good in the town. As a result of funding to the Youth Group, for instance, a much-needed skate park has been built.

As NOW Chair Stella Feldman remarks: 'Wirksworth amazes me. For a town so small, we are so lucky to have provisions like NOW, a health centre, sports centre, fine school, a festival, carnival, well dressings and so many community groups. There is a real sense of belonging in Wirksworth with so many people prepared to work for the good of the town'.

A shining example of that can be seen in the setting up of the Wirksworth Care Centre, the result of nearly 15 years of campaigning after it was noticed that many old residents were forced to leave when they could no longer look after themselves. Former chairman and treasurer of the Wirksworth Care Project, Lee Broderick, revealed that it was a mixture of happy coincidence and people power that brought the Care Centre into being. Waltham House, a former hospital paid for by the town's quarrymen, was being sold by the Mental Health Trust to a property developer who was, 'Visiting Wirksworth one day and called into a caf. People on the next table were heatedly discussing the "person" who had the nerve to buy a building that was really owned by the people of the town ... The next thing we knew, the developer pulled out and the Mental Health Trust agreed to sell to our building partner. The first residents moved in at the end of 2008 and the complex was opened by its oldest resident, Reg Dean, now 106. It was the end of over 14 years of unceasing effort and strife. Wirksworth people can feel very proud.'

There is justifiable pride in another Wirksworth-based project that has seen the rebirth of Wirksworth Railway Station and the re-opening of the lines through the Ecclesbourne Valley. The EVR - Ecclesbourne Valley Railway - began in 1992 and in 2004 the first part of the line from Wirksworth to Gorsey Bank was reopened. A year later the line had been extended to Ravenstor, a ride up the UK's steepest incline - 1 in 30. The line from Gorsey Bank now extends 2 miles to Idridgehay and work is concentrated on the 5 miles between Idridgehay and Duffield, to be opened in October next year. 'This is one of the fastest volunteer railway restoration projects in the world,' says the proud stationmaster Anton Shone. There is a passionate working volunteer force, too: nearly 100 of them, many of whom are local, though some travel from Sussex and Kent, with an additional 500 members who support the EVR in various ways, from donations to fundraising.

Local support for the EVR epitomises Wirksworth's remarkable community spirit and fondness for the town. Town Councillor Alison Clamp is so passionate about the place that she refers to Wirksworth as 'The centre of the known universe'; and when I asked Stella Feldman why she was so passionate about the town, she replied 'How long have you got?' Among its attributes, Stella speaks of 'the beautiful rolling hills that give me spiritual comfort', plenty of entertainment and creative development, and the overwhelming friendliness.

As Alison Clamp confirms, the regeneration of Wirksworth makes it a much more desirable place to live. It could become even more desirable: NOW consultations with the townsfolk reveal a strong yearning for a multi-purpose arts centre which will include a cinema. Marian Vaughan believes the town needs more B&Bs and hotel space to encourage more visitors.

More visitors are inevitable, according to Anton Shone of the EVR: 'With a relatively small population and the demise of limestone quarrying, Wirksworth nearly collapsed as a viable town in the 1980s. Efforts by the Town Council, Civic Society, Festival, the EVR and many others have all contributed to Wirksworth's resurgence. That said, the long term success of the town may also have to be guaranteed by a growth in population and size, and the many former quarrying sites probably need to be developed for housing. This expansion is what is needed to ensure that the local market, shops and businesses prosper as effectively out of the tourist season as during it.'

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