The town of Glossop, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 20:45 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:12 18 January 2018

Looking across Norfolk Square

Looking across Norfolk Square

Mike Smith finds 'a host of unexpected assets and some very attractive enclaves' in this former industrial town that has undergone a remarkable makeover

All SaintsAll Saints

Not so very long ago, motorists who made their way through Glossop to the Snake Pass viewed the town as a last outpost of industry and habitation, before dark satanic mills and grey Victorian terraces gave way to the glorious wilderness of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow Hill. However, today's visitors will have noticed that the 'Gateway to the Peak' has undergone a remarkable makeover.

Almost all the mills have gone and the few that remain are being converted into up-market apartments. Extensive business and commercial centres have appeared on the western flank of the town centre, close to the seven-acre site of Glossop Caravans, and the main street has sprouted trees and long stretches of bright new paving. In any case, that grey exterior has always been a camouflage for a town with a colourful character.

Glossop has certainly produced more than its fair share of flamboyant personalities. Idiosyncratic television and radio presenter Stuart Hall, billionaire pornographer Paul Raymond and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood all spent a large part of their childhood in Glossop and, as I would discover, the town's links with the famous do not stop there. My exploration would also uncover a host of unexpected assets and some very attractive enclaves.

The town's most picturesque corner is Old Glossop, located on a hillside to the north of the main street and grouped around the large parish church, which is medieval in origin but was largely rebuilt in the 19th and early 20th centuries. On the sloping road adjacent to the churchyard, there is a superb row of perfectly preserved 17th-century cottages, which includes a double-gabled residence that was once occupied by the Manor Bailiff. At the foot of the terrace, a further group of attractive 17th-century cottages clusters around an old cross, where weekly markets and annual fairs were held from 1290 to 1844.

Many of these ancient buildings have survived because they have been cleverly adapted to new uses. For example, a triple-gabled former school building on Wesley Street is now the headquarters of Fluorochem, a company which supplies chemicals to research laboratories and university chemistry departments. Its managing director is Doug Birch, a former accountant, who was a member of the team that acquired Fluorochem from British Nuclear Fuels in a management buy-out in 1997. Doug showed me some old school registers that he had found in the attic of the building. They indicate that attendance in the school year 1881-82 was rather erratic!

The Bull's Head public house is also undergoing an internal makeover. When Paul Taylor, a former merchant seaman, and his wife Barbara, a former civil servant, took over the tenancy of the Grade II-listed building five years ago, they began making plans to maximise its potential. At the time of my visit, two superb en-suite rooms were nearing completion in a former weaving room and two further bedrooms, with a slightly more old-world feel, were being created in a two-storey wing that dates from 1609.

Real ale and hot curries are specialities of the Bull's Head, while Greek food is provided at a nearby taverna and a wide and varied menu is on offer at the Queen's Arms, at the foot of Old Glossop. Aside from its varied food and drink offerings and its visual delights, this ancient corner of the town is the starting point for exhilarating walks. A footpath known as Doctor's Gate climbs all the way to the Pennine Way and a gateway at the foot of Old Glossop provides entry to Manor Park, 60 acres of gardens, woodlands and lakes, supplemented by a miniature railway, play areas and facilities for various sports.

Manor Park can be traced back to the 16th century, when it formed the grounds of a small manor house. It was first opened to the public in 1927 and now benefits from the tender, loving care of a 'Friends' group. The town's second green lung also has a Friends group, which is working with the local council to develop the park in response to community needs. This area is known as Howard Park.

The park is named after the Howard family, whose head is the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal and the premier peer of England, who also carries the title Lord Howard of Glossop, or Howardtown, as it was called in Victorian times. The Manor of Glossop was acquired by the Howard family in 1600 as part of a dowry settlement and remained in their hands until 1926, when the estate was sold at auction.

In the first two centuries of their ownership, the Howards took more out of Glossop than they put into it, but the 12th Duke of Norfolk made his mark on the town in 1838, when he constructed a new town hall, with an arcaded ground floor and a very distinctive clock-tower. The 13th duke carried on the good work by adding a railway station, topped by a sculpture of a lion, representing the emblem of the Howards, and a market hall, which features the coat-of-arms of the Norfolks and has grand Doric pilasters and columns. One part of this building has been commandeered by High Peak Borough Council for use as offices, but the remaining area is still in use as an indoor market, which is supplemented by an outdoor market.

This rash of new developments, together with the welcome provision of piped water in 1852, was designed to cater for the huge population explosion that resulted from Glossop's development as a textile manufacturing centre. By the mid-19th century, there were over 50 mills in the town, largely devoted to the production of cheap fabrics for colonial markets. In addition, there was a paper works, founded by the Partington family,and a large print works, established by Edmund Potter and his cousin Charles.

Edmund was the grandfather of Beatrix Potter, who always expressed pride in her Glossop connections. She wrote: 'My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there. But our descent, our interests and our joy were in the North Country.' Beatrix made good use of the family business by having the de luxe editions of The Tailor of Gloucester and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin bound in flower-pattern cloth supplied by the Glossop printworks.

Many of Beatrix Potter's admirers, and especially her American fans, are drawn to Glossop to seek out her family history. They can find a wealth of material in the town''s excellent Heritage Centre, which is run by a trust and was established in 1986 after fierce lobbying by Peggy Davies, a former teacher. The museum, which now shares its premises with the Tourist Information Centre, houses an extensive display of artefacts and archival material. It also provides gallery and work space for local artists.

I was shown around the centre by 20-year-old Matthew Cox, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, who first became fascinated by Glossop's history when he came to the centre on a school visit. He is now the guide for school parties, who are invited to spend part of their visit in a mock-up of a Victorian room, where they can dress in 19th-century clothes and turn their hand to washing, baking and weaving. Matthew then dons a Victorian top hat and takes them on a guided walk around the town.

Victorian dress is by no means an unusual sight in modern Glossop. Each September, residents are encouraged to wear appropriate garb for the Victorian Weekend, when the streets are filled with steam wagons, old-fashioned fairground rides, accordion players and stilt walkers. However, acting is not confined to this annual event, because the Partington Theatre, where Matthew is theatre manager, is home to a very strong local group of thespians, known as the Partington Players.

The theatre building, which was originally constructed by Sir Edward Partington as a Liberal Club, stands alongside Norfolk Square. Surrounded by the imposing stone buildings of Howardtown, the square has manicured lawns, colourful flower-beds, a pavement café and lots of seats. One of the retail outlets on its perimeter is an Oxfam shop, which carries the usual range of goods for sale in a good cause. However, as manager Anne Musson confirmed, this is no ordinary charity shop. Thanks to the generosity and good literary taste of local people, its books are good enough to pull in the sort of bibliophiles who normally haunt the best second-hand bookshops.

In fact, Glossop is a magnet for book-lovers, because it has no fewer than three independent booksellers, who have all found ways of surviving in the face of cut-price competition from Amazon and the supermarkets. As well as providing great customer service with a smile, Sarah Woolley of Bay Tree Books sells unusual individual gifts; David Jones of George Street Books provides a secure paddock for young readers and sponsors story-telling sessions at the Partington Theatre; Chris Niblett of Bestsellers makes sure that his stock is responsive to 'what the people of Glossop want'.

These enterprising booksellers are not the only independent traders to flourish in Glossop. Alongside several national chain stores, there are no fewer than 50 independent outlets. They include newcomers like Simon Dunn, the chocolatier, who first established his business in 1984 but opened a branch in Glossop just two years ago, and long-standing businesses like Mettrick & Sons, who have been serving meat to the people of Glossop for almost a century, and Purcell's Hardware store, a well-stocked emporium where virtually any hardware request can be satisfied.

The faade of Purcell's store is one of a number of traditional frontages that have been restored with generous grants from English Heritage. An even bigger boost to the town's regeneration efforts came in 2004, when it was chosen as one of 27 pilot towns in the government's 'liveability drive', which brought a cash-injection of over £2million. After a public consultation, a 15-year master plan was drawn up to 'create a sustainable and vibrant town centre and boost investor confidence'.

Sarah Poru, the Glossop Vision Programme Manager, showed me some of the projects that have resulted: a bright new pavement on a long stretch of High Street, where trees have also been planted; a more pedestrian-friendly forecourt at the station; new railings painted in a distinctive 'Glossop green' and new bollards, which have even been coloured to echo the hue of the heather on the nearby moors.

Sarah hopes that Glossop Vision will also be able to create a green walkway along the bank of the river that links the town's two remaining mills: Wren's Nest Mill, on the western side of the town, and Howard Town Mill, on the eastern side, both of which are being converted for residential and retail use. In the meantime, a very ambitious project has been completed in the form of a wide, bright stairway, which forms a superb physical and visual link between Norfolk Square and the station.

When I asked Sarah to pose for a photograph on the stairway, I remembered a quotation by another of the town's famous past residents, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived in Glossop while he was studying at Manchester University. The great philosopher once said, 'A picture is a fact.' If he were still alive and resident in the town today, I'm sure he would agree that my picture of Sarah on the new stairway illustrates the fact that the days when Glossop was a grey place of dark satanic mills are long gone.'

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