The Seven Pillars of Kirk Ireton
PUBLISHED: 10:49 16 August 2013 | UPDATED: 09:32 16 September 2013
Charm, community spirit, church, school, pub and shop... What more could anyone ask for in a village? Mike Smith visits one of the county’s finest settlements south of Carsington Water
As Peter Johnston, headteacher of Kirk Ireton Primary School points out, successful villages are built on the four pillars of church, school, pub and shop. If any one of these is removed, the entire edifice is in danger of collapsing. There is no present risk of this happening in Kirk Ireton, where these vital supports not only rest on firm foundations, but also make significant contributions to the unique character of the place. The village has three other pillars that help support its vibrancy: a little Methodist chapel, a village hall and, above all, a remarkable community spirit.
Kirk Ireton is also one of Derbyshire’s most attractive villages. The main street has a pleasing symmetry, with an ancient inn and a green at its head and an ancient church and another green at its foot. The handsome houses along its length are varied in style and date, but most are clad in the same mellow local stone. In many cases, the charm of the architecture has been enhanced by the practice of painting doors and window surrounds in the pale green that is often found on National Trust properties.
Respect for heritage is even more apparent at the village pub. Tony and Mary Short bought the hostelry in 1976 with the firm intention of preserving the unique character of a building that Tony describes as being ‘a good example of the late Derbyshire Jacobean style’. Whereas most pubs are no more than two storeys in height, the Barley Mow is characterised by its astonishing verticality. The stone façade is three storeys high and is topped by two prominent gables.
Thanks to the determination of two long-serving licensees, the interior of the Grade II* listed building is even more surprising than the exterior. Lillian Ford, who was the landlady from 1938 until her death in 1976, refused to up-date the furnishings in any way and rejected ‘all things modern’, including decimalisation. In fact, this was one of the last places in the country to ‘go decimal’.
Unfortunately, almost all the contents were sold on Lillian’s death. Recalling that only a poker and a galvanised bucket remained when she became landlady in 1976, Mary said: ‘Tony and I were determined to buy furnishings compatible with the building’s age. We acquired bench seats and made sure that we retained the tiled floors and low beams, some of which date back to 1600.’
But Mary’s insistence on preserving the traditional character of the Barley Mow extends well beyond its beams, floors and bench seats. Five varieties of real ale are kept in barrels behind a tiny serving hatch and beer is dispensed from a jug. There is always a roaring fire in the bar; filled rolls are standard fare at lunchtime, with hearty meals reserved for overnight guests. At the time of my visit, Roger Groves was propping up the bar with David Appleby, who lives alongside the lower of the two greens, where he has erected the village flag pole. Roger left Kirk Ireton for America 33 years ago, but was back in the village for a visit to his mother and was taking the opportunity to enjoy a traditional English pint in a traditional English pub.
The former stable of the Barley Mow houses the village shop, which is managed by Cathy Nelson and staffed by 30 volunteers from the community. The willing shop assistants are unpaid except for school students, who are paid for their work at the weekend – a thoughtful gesture from the organising committee, which is chaired by Malcolm Pollard, with his wife Cynthia as company secretary. All profits from the shop are contributed to the community, with subsidies promised this year for the firework display and the Over Sixties’ Luncheon Club.
It is not only the daily provision of newspapers, milk and fresh bread and the extensive stock of groceries, including the most delicious cakes and cup-cakes, which enable the shop to fulfil a local need. As customer Joanna Rees explained: ‘When the village didn’t have a shop, there were far fewer people on the streets and there was less opportunity to bump into other locals for a friendly chat and an exchange of news – particularly important for older people in the village.’
The young people of Kirk Ireton have the advantage of attending a primary school that has not only been judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, but has also been classified as an ‘outstanding church school’. The added value in terms of academic progress is even higher now than it was at the time of the inspections; every child learns a foreign language and a musical instrument, every child can swim at least 25 metres by the end of Year 2; gifted and talented children are stretched at every opportunity and the pupils’ overall progress in literacy places the school in the top five per cent in the country.
Lest it be thought that the school is merely an academic forcing house, it should be pointed out that nothing could be further from the truth. Headteacher Peter Johnston’s philosophy is simple: ‘Happiness comes first. Children learn best if they – and their teachers – are happy at school. At Kirk Ireton Primary, we all have a fantastic time each and every day. Some days are even more special, with a camp for all the infants and residential courses for the juniors – and we finished the last school year in great style by making and flying kites with siblings and parents.’
Peter and his staff are ably assisted by a very active parents’ association and by a governing body chaired by Mike Harwood, who moved to the village ten years ago and was delighted to find that his youngest daughter loved going to school every day. The academic prowess of the pupils seems to be mirrored in the achievements of both the chair of governors and the headteacher. Mike has a PhD in Sports Biomechanics and Peter is writing a PhD thesis about small schools.
The fourth pillar of Kirk Ireton is the Church of Holy Trinity, a building which is very short and very wide, almost enveloped in trees and set high above the green at the foot of the village. Constructed immediately after the Norman Conquest, the church is full of interest. The tower is Norman below the belfry; the nave retains its round arches and the fourteenth century chancel features a corbelled head that could be that of a man or a sheep.
When weddings take place, it is customary for local children to bar the exit of the bride and groom with a rope until they receive a toll in silver coins. In medieval times, it was customary for men to enter the church through the south door and for women and children to use the north door, which is now blocked up but retains a beautiful ogee arch that has been described as ‘sensual’.
Kirk Ireton also retains a charming Methodist Church, constructed on Coffin Lane in 1836. Services are held on the fourth Sunday of each month and various groups meet in the little chapel. The Village Hall provides another excellent venue for groups, including the Toddler Group, where I encountered Sarah Morrison, one of the six volunteers who run the Friday sessions.
Sarah also works as a child minder and, although she only moved from Derby to the village with her husband four years ago, she is already Chair of the Friends of Kirk Ireton School and Treasurer of the Kirk Ireton Community Association, which organises events such as the action-packed Wakes Week and the annual firework display. Thanks to her drive and energy, the printed programme for this year’s Wakes Week is packed with advertisements as well as information about the many events.
But Sarah is far from being alone in contributing to the community. She told me of Tony McLennan, who produces a comprehensive monthly diary of village events, even when he is staying at his house in France, and Niamh Goulder, who initiated the installation of a defibrillator in the redundant phone box and the training of 20 people to use it. And, of course, there are all those volunteers at the shop. But what impressed me most about the Kirk Ireton community was the fact that every person I encountered during my strolls around the streets greeted me with a smile and a few friendly words.