The town of Dronfield, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 16:22 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013
A town full of surprises, such as the world's oldest football club and some fascintaing architecture.
Back in 1974, Dronfield had a very narrow escape. The Boundary Commissioners were minded to take the town out of Derbyshire and transfer it to South Yorkshire. Appalled at the prospect of being swallowed up by the city of Sheffield, Dronfielders decided to put up a fight. 'People power' won in the end and Dronfield was allowed to stay in the county. This decision didn't go down too well with Sheffield's soccer enthusiasts, because it meant that the world's oldest football club, Sheffield FC, which was founded in 1857, would also remain in Derbyshire. The team plays its matches at the Bright Finance Stadium, next door to the Coach and Horses, on the outskirts of Dronfield.
Civic pride is very evident in the town. Dronfield is noted for its flower displays and the numerous local organisations include the Old Dronfield Society, which produces books, leaflets and displays celebrating the town's wonderful architectural legacy. As if to emphasise their hard-won independence from Sheffield, the council has offices in a large modern building on one side of a shopping square that is grandly labelled 'Dronfield Civic Centre'.
Unfortunately, the architecture of the square doesn't quite match up to its billing. Although the ground floor of the council offices has rusticated stone work and a splendid portico, the first floor is incongruously fashioned in brick, almost as if its architect had suffered a sudden loss of nerve. The shop units have projecting roofs that provide welcome protection on rainy days and they are serviced by ample free parking, but their style is typical of the Sixties. Judgement must wait on the architectural merits of two large buildings which are currently under construction in the area: the re-styled leisure centre and a new health centre.
However, there can be no doubt about the architectural merit of the old Manor House, which was erected in 1700 for Ralph Burton, who purchased the title of Lord of the Manor and became the first holder of that position to live in the town. This perfectly proportioned building, which stands at the junction of the civic centre and Dronfield's main street, is the former home of the council offices and now accommodates the town's lending library.
The Manor House overlooks the Peel Monument, which was erected in 1854 on the site of the old market cross. Standing slap bang in the middle of the main street and looking like an elaborate well, it was built as a tribute to Sir Robert Peel and commemorates the repeal of the Corn Laws, which must have been a source of rejoicing for the local free-traders at a time when Dronfield had aspirations to be an important commercial town.
I had arranged to meet Ann Brown on the steps of the monument. Ann, who is chairman of the Old Dronfield Society, had offered to take me on a guided walk along the main street, which follows a serpentine descent from the Peel Monument to the valley of the river Drone. I decided that I would then retrace my steps and talk to some of the people who work in the handsome old buildings that flank what must be one of the finest streets in Derbyshire.
Ann immediately pointed out two buildings on the north side of the road: a 17th century house simply known as The Cottage and a very imposing residence entitled The Hall. The former is said to have been owned by Lord Byron and the latter is reputed to be haunted by a 'white lady'. Ann couldn't produce evidence for either claim. Haunted or not, the Hall is a very odd Queen Anne building, which has a heavy roof-top balustrade and two tiers of mullioned and transomed windows that look like a throw-back to an earlier age.
Adjacent to The Hall but set well back from the road, there is an old building with a medieval king post roof. With their apparent fondness for simple house names, Dronfielders call this building The Barn, but Ann believes it may have a grander origin as medieval predecessor of The Hall. She told me of tentative plans to convert the upper storey into a museum and the lower storey into a caf.
Turning to the south side of the road, we inspected the inn sign of the Blue Stoops, which shows ale being poured into blue goblets. Once again, Ann gave me an alternative explanation. She believes that the name is a reference to the medieval custom of adding blue paint to door posts and bollards, or stoops, to indicate the presence of an inn to travellers. When I called back later, Katie Harrison, who was standing in for landlady Clare Race, showed me the old stone chimneypiece which forms a 'baffle wall' immediately behind the front door, forcing anyone who enters to turn immediately left or right.
The adjacent Manor House Restaurant is no less fascinating. I wasn't sure whether to regard the ridiculously-low former doorway on the side of the building as evidence that people in bygone days were diminutive in stature or as an indicator that the street level has been raised. Ann wasn't sure either, but she did tell me that recent alterations in the hotel, which has ten en-suite rooms and a restaurant with 70 covers, had unexpectedly uncovered a large moulded stone fireplace, which has now been re-sited alongside the disused main doorway. Manager Michael Holdich also showed me the hotel's new rear extension, which is a particularly fine example of sympathetic development in a conservation area.
Ann and I walked on past the old Town Hall and Taylor's Buildings, both constructed in 1877 at a time of prosperity for the town, when the coming of the railway prompted the owners of Wilson Camel to build a giant forge in the valley at the foot of the town. Unfortunately, this period of enormous employment opportunities was short-lived, because the company moved their plant to Workington after just ten years. Ann's society has paid a visit to the Cumbrian town to inspect the terraced houses which were built for the 'Dronners' who followed their jobs to the North West and left behind a stricken Derbyshire town.
Although it took Dronfield some time to recover from this blow, the town is now a booming residential and commercial area. The estate at Dronfield Woodhouse, on the western flank of the village, was the largest private housing estate in Europe when it was built in the 1970s. In recent years, many new businesses, from financial services to telecommunications and logistics, have been attracted to the edge of the town, where there is also a large new Sainsbury's supermarket.
The oldest shop in Dronfield is Fisher's Butchers, which stands on the main street, opposite Taylor's Buildings. 78-year-old Frank Fisher has worked there since 1942 and has absolutely no intention of retiring, largely because he loves talking to all the people who come into his shop. Michael Caine is a former customer and Tony Benn once called in for a chat, even though he is a vegetarian. Frank told me that he had even spoken to Picasso - at a World Peace Conference in Sheffield in 1948. When I asked him for his impressions of the great painter, he said, 'He was rather miserable and grumpy.'
When he's not passing the time of day with politicians, actors, artists and locals, the indefatigable Frank enjoys playing bridge, walking the hills and playing golf. His business was established by his great grandfather in 1852 and the shop dates from the reign of Queen Anne.
Immediately after it passes the butcher's shop, Dronfield's largely stone-built main street turns through a right angle and brings an unexpected confrontation with two 18th-century red-brick buildings. One is called the Red House and was built by voluntary subscription in 1731 for the assistant master of Henry Fanshawe's grammar school, which was founded in 1567. The school has remained in existence ever since. It is now Henry Fanshawe Technology College, a high-achieving 11-18 school for almost 2,000 pupils, based in modern buildings on the eastern edge of the town.
The Red House's brick-built neighbour is a former vicarage. It now houses the Parish Office, which occupies the left-hand side of the building and services five churches in North East Derbyshire. The office is administered by Sue Harvey, who also looks after the sales of second-hand books in an adjacent room.
Sue is a mine of information about the Church of St John the Baptist, which stands in its large churchyard on the eastern side of the road and dates from 1135. Its recently restored Perpendicular west tower and spire are landmarks for miles around and its chancel is so large that it dwarfs the nave. Nikolaus Pevsner was completely perplexed by the design of the chancel's great east window, which is divided by mullions and transoms and has no curves or diagonals whatsoever. 'Is it 17th century?' he wondered.
Professor Pevsner should have asked Sue Harvey, who has a ready explanation for the window's unique appearance. She told me: 'The chancel is at least 500 years old and was built by the canons of Beauchief Abbey. However, by 1563 the roof had partially collapsed, allowing birds to fly freely in the building, and much of the tracery of the window had fallen out. When the window was restored in 1570, only the vertical and horizontal tracery could be salvaged and put back in place.'
After rounding the churchyard, the main street passes a well-proportioned Georgian building that once housed a rival school to the old grammar school. Ann Brown told me that it had been founded, in somewhat disloyal fashion, by the original school's second master. Next door to this building is the Green Dragon pub, which faces the church gates and was once a dwelling for the chantry priests. Pub manager Liz Keeley showed me a medieval arch in the party-wall that the inn shares with the suitably named Chantry Hotel.
For the final leg of our fascinating tour, Ann and I walked down the steepest section of the main street, where there is a long building that contains no fewer than five pairs of cruck timbers. We ended our journey at the The Forge, a new precinct with up-market shops, a bar and a caf. This superb development results from the sensitive conversion of a group of old buildings formerly occupied by Butler and Sons, who closed down their forge in 1968. The precinct, which combines carefully restored half-timbered walls and a fabulous glass-topped central atrium, is symptomatic of a fiercely independent Derbyshire town that is proud of its past and confident about its future.