The village of Ashover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 16:13 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:31 20 February 2013
Mike Smith takes a walk around Ashover, the country's Village of the Year 2005, whose motto is 'Community First', and discovers an inn that celebrates Agincourt and took part in the English Civil War.
When you visit the handsome village of Ashover, be sure to read its many inscriptions, for they reveal a great deal about the history of this fascinating little place, including details of three occasions when momentous national events temporarily disturbed the peace and quiet of the village.
The first inscription is to be found on a millstone in the garden of a cottage on Hockley Lane, which approaches the village along a ridge above the infant River Amber. It reads: Leonard Wheatcroft Cottage, 1676.
For information about Mr Wheatcroft, I was directed to the landlord of the Old Poets Corner at the head of the lane. On my way to the pub, I paused to take in the beautiful view across the river valley to the wooded hills beyond. It would be hard to find a better approach to a village and, as I would discover, it would be hard to find a village more worthy of such an introduction.
I also stopped to read the flower-decked boundary sign, which carries the inscription, Welcome to Ashover; Community First: a slogan that gives a vital clue to Ashovers success in the Calor Village of the Year Competition in 2005, when it was named as the overall winner out of scores of entries from all over England. Ashovers parish boundaries enclose an area of 10,000 acres, making it one of the largest parishes in the country, but this particular boundary sign marks the entrance to the village proper.
At the time of my visit, the mock half-timbered faade of the Old Poets Corner was emblazoned with a banner declaring that it had been named CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Pub of the Year in both 2006 and 2009. Previously known as the Red Lion and then Old Red, the pub was renamed by Kim Beresford when he took over as landlord five years ago. After running the Dead Poets Inn in Holbrook for some years, he was keen to rebrand his Ashover inn with a name that would include a reference to poets.
As luck would have it, Kim discovered that Leonard Wheatcroft, the former occupant of the cottage in Hockley Lane, had been a prolific poet. He also came across an old picture that showed someone reading a manuscript to drinkers at the pub in the days when it was called the Red Lion. Having decided, with a touch of poetic licence, that the reader might be Leonard Wheatcroft, Kim adopted the image for his inn sign, which is inscribed with a quotation from a poem by James Townley that was used by Hogarth on his etching of Beer Street: We quaff thy balmy juice with glee. And water leave to France.
Kim worked in the catering industry before he became a landlord, which explains why his pub has such a good reputation for hearty, home-cooked food. It is also known for its traditional ciders, which earned it the title National Cider Pub of Britain in 2006, and for its cask-conditioned ales, many of which emanate from the micro-brewery behind the pub, which Kim runs with Roy Sharrock. Their products include All Saints (the name of Ashovers church), Coffin Lane Stout and, of course, Poets Tipple. Needless to say, the pub is much frequented by lovers of real ale, especially during its twice-yearly beer festivals.
The Old Poets Corner stands at the foot of Church Street, Ashovers main road, which is flanked by some very fine stone houses as it climbs towards the parish church. Although the one and only shop on the road is officially called the Old Tuck Shop, it is known by everyone in the village as Romas, after the lady who has run it for the last 62 years. Roma is helped by her daughter, Anna Unwin, who has been working in the shop since she could walk. The shop has a large selection of crafts, most of which are produced locally, and is famed for its delicious homemade cakes. When Prince Charles popped into the shop on the occasion of Ashovers triumph in the Calor Village of the Year competition, Roma shook his hand and promptly told him that it felt cold. The Prince assured her that his cold hand hid a warm heart, then sat down, as instructed by Roma, and enjoyed a cake and a cup of tea.
Celebrations of a different kind took place in 1814, when the bells of the parish church rang out so vigorously to greet the fall of Napoleon that the C Sharp bell was fractured. The bells are housed in a tall, slender spire that dominates all views of the village. Unfortunately, wind and rain have taken their toll on this beautiful landmark and left the top section in urgent need of repair. To make matters worse, an earthquake in 2008 dislodged the cockerel weathervane on top of the spire.
Ron Eyley, who handles publicity for the Save Our Spire (SOS) appeal, told me: Sadly, the threat to the tower is not the whole story. The 2004 Quinquennial Report identified an equally pressing need for repairs to the fabric of the church itself. In all, we need something like 150,000. Over the past year, Rons wife Anne has been responding to the SOS appeal by organizing a Flower Festival. She persuaded top flower-arranger Jonathan Mosley to run a day-long floral workshop and harnessed the combined talents of the Flower Guild and the Flower Arranging Club to put on a superb event that raised 8,000.
Ron has good reason to be confident that SOSs target sum will be reached, because the villagers always pull together when funds are required for vital projects. Whats more, as sacristan Viv Lord explained, the church has a large and active membership, which not only responds generously to money-raising efforts, but also gives tremendous support to the churchs many activities. One of the highlights of their year is the Easter Sunrise Service, when everyone makes for the top of the Fabrick, a crag on the edge of the village that is said to command views as far as Lincoln Cathedral.
Ashovers church has treasures that many cathedrals would envy. Vivs husband Peter, who is a church warden, showed me the Norman font, which has beautifully carved figures and is, unexpectedly, the only lead font in a county known for its deposits of the metal. He then pointed out the 16th-century rood screen and the tomb of Thomas Babington and his wife, described by Pevsner as the best of its date in Derbyshire. Above the tomb is a brass plaque to the Babingtons, which has obviously been re-used because it has an inscription on the reverse to someone else entirely.
Inscriptions on some of the wall plaques are even more intriguing. One reads: In memory of David Wall, whose superior performance on the bassoon endeared him to an extensive musical acquaintance. His social life closed on 4th December 1796, in his 57th year. Across the road from the church, there is an equally enigmatic inscription on a former school, which urges bring up the child in the way he should go, without indicating which way that should be. The building, now used as a parish room, is highly unusual. It has a very tallprojecting porch bay, a fancy gable and large diamond-leaded windows.
Ashovers most prominent inscription is to be found on a cottage that stands next to the churchyard and serves as the restaurant for the Crispin Inn, which adjoins it. Recalling the impact on Ashover of conflicts from two different periods of history, it reads: This house probably dates from the year 1416 when Thomas Babington of Dethick and several men of Asher returned from the battle of Agincourt which was fought on St Crispins Day. In 1646, Job Wall, the landlord of the inn, withstood the Kings troops in the doorway and told them that they should have no more drink in his house as they had had too much already. But they turned him out and set watch at the door till all the ale was drunk or wasted. The above incident occurred during the period when the troops of King Charles 1st were opposing Oliver Cromwells Army.
It should be pointed out that the behaviour of Cromwells troops was even worse. They destroyed the churchs records, demolished its windows and used its lead to make bullets the precious lead font survived because the rector had wisely hidden it in his garden. The Roundheads also reduced Eastwood Hall to the ruined state that is still visible today. Fortunately, another hall on the edge of the village is still in one piece. Known as Overton Hall, it was built in the 17th century and was once the home of Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain Cook to Australia.
Much of the Crispin Inn dates from a similar period. Its quaint exterior is a picturesque presence in the centre of the village, but the interior has been modernized in a very sensitive way. Landlady Michelle Harvey, who took over the pub five years ago with her husband Andrew, explained how an extra room had been created from a former toilet block and how the old pool room had now become part of the inns restaurant, which is very popular with residents and visitors alike.
At the head of Church Street, there is yet another pub. This is the Black Swan, which is reputed to have a ghost, detected by landlady Lyndsey Stevens as the sound of running feet in the upstairs rooms, even at times when her four children are tucked up in bed or so they claim! Since they took over the running of the pub last year, Lyndsey and her husband Duncan have introduced televised sports, pizza meals and weekly quiz nights, when villagers get together for an enjoyable evening their easy mixing prompts David to label Ashover as classless.
His claim is supported by an inscription on the nearby medical centre, which indicates that Joseph Holmes, a life-long parishioner, was asked to open the building in 2004. Joseph did not give the biggest donation towards the construction of the centre by any means, but he did donate all of his very modest life savings. Beyond the medical centre, there is a splendid parish hall, a sports ground and a showground, which is the location for many events, including an annual agricultural show, which provides the Black Swan with its busiest days of the year.
The Black Swans landlord is a man of many parts. He is chairman of Ashover Football Club, manager of his pubs team, a governor at the primary school and even the village postmaster. The post office stands on Moor Road, next to a shop that serves as butchers, greengrocers, grocers and off-licence. For the past 22 years, it has been run by David Bown, who is helped by his sister Kathleen Dronfield and by Sally Montague. David sources his game from Sallys son and his meat from Willow Tree Farm, which is run by Kathleens husband.
The village school stands on Narrowleys Lane, just off Moor Road. In a recent Ofsted Report, it was described as an outstanding school which provides pupils with an excellent start and prepares them very well for secondary school and their future lives. Ashovers children can count themselves lucky: they receive outstanding teaching; they are being brought up in a classless community and they live in a village that is one of the most handsome in Derbyshire.