The village of Birchover
PUBLISHED: 15:40 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013
Mike Smith explores this 'mystical' gritstone village
Writing in the Shell Guide to Derbyshire, Henry Thorold described the landscape surrounding Birchover as romantic craggy country. Our journey through the village begins on the crags on the lip of Stanton Moor, an extensive stretch of high ground littered with standing stones and stone circles that are the very stuff of legend. Some of the megaliths are supposed to have been a location for Druid worship and thousands of people still gather to celebrate the solstices at the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, a ring of standing stones often associated with a legend that nine ladies were turned to stone as punishment for dancing on the Sabbath. Our walk ends with romantic tales too, because bizarre stories are also linked with the fantastic rock outcrops that are to be found hidden in the woods in the lowest reaches of the picturesque village of Birchover.
The gritstone that lies beneath Stanton Moor has long been valued as building stone and has been quarried for centuries. In recent years, there have been several long-running disputes between the Peak District National Park Authority and various companies who have sought to extend quarrying to within yards of the moors ancient stones. Gritstone from Birchover Quarry, one of three quarries that are still active on the edge of the moor, is said to have found its way into the fabric of many famous buildings, including the Houses of Parliament. To this day, stone from the quarry is expertly fashioned by Birchover Stone Ltd into building blocks for new developments throughout Derbyshire and beyond.
Another thriving business at the northern entrance to the village is Barn Farm, a working farm that also contains a camping and caravan site, as well as several holiday barns. The tourists who stay there bring welcome seasonal trade to Birchovers two public houses. Several cottages in the village and the former Primitive Methodist Chapel have also been converted into holiday lets.
Many of the dwellings occupied by locals are fronted by beautiful private gardens. One of the finest is to be found at Sunny Dene Cottage, which dates from 1810 and may have begun life as a farmhouse and barn before being converted into a single dwelling. The property has been beautifully restored by Glyn Holt, a retired teacher and Civil Servant, who has lived in the cottage with his wife Chris for 35 years. It is Chris who is responsible for magically fashioning a garden of dazzling colour and variety from a piece of elevated land that is exposed to the elements.
The tender, loving care that Chris gives to her garden reflects her contentment with life in Birchover, which she describes as a quiet, gentle village. While she is tending to the plants, her husband is working with wood in the den he has created in the former village chip shop, which stands adjacent to the cottage. A number of Birchovers other shops have closed over the years, most recently the general store that was located a few yards lower down the village street.
However, the good news for the village is that Matteo and Alyson Frau, the landlord and landlady of the Red Lion Inn, have filled the gap by opening Teos Shop and Delicatessen in a little building next to their pub. The enterprising couples plans do not stop there, because they intend to open a microbrewery that will make use of the water from a well which drops to a depth of 30 feet below the floor of the bar and is currently covered by a glass top.
It comes as a surprise to learn that Alyson has a second job as a teacher of English at John Port School in Derby. Given his Sardinian origins, it is rather less surprising that Matteo is not only an expert chef, but also an accomplished musician on the Sardinian pipes, which apparently require their players to practise the difficult technique of circular breathing. Matteo even recruits other musicians from the Mediterranean island to play at the pubs occasional Sardinian Evenings, which, of course, involve servings of Sardinian food.
Alyson and Mattteo took over the running of the Red Lion in 2006 and they are proud to display a banner that proclaims that their inn was declared the M.A.D. Pub of the Year for 2010. To avoid any misinterpretation of this accolade, it should be pointed out that M.A.D. is an acronym for Matlock and District. There are not many villages of Birchovers size that can boast two public houses, but a second famous hostelry, the Druid Inn, is to be found at the foot of the village street. The Druid has long had a reputation for traditional home-cooked food, which is reflected in the slogan on its exterior wall: Derbyshire tradition, contemporary style.
Owned by Stanton Estates and managed by Lee Hawksworth, the inn is due to close for a period this autumn for complete refurbishment. At the time of my visit, the landlord was on holiday, but his brother-in-law Nick Buchanan, who works in the pub as a barman, was marshalling his bar team in readiness for the heavy trade that was building up as participants in the Birchover Carnival assembled on the forecourt of the Druid.
The pub takes its name from the supposed association of Druids, not only with the stones on Stanton Moor, but also with Rowtor Rocks, a group of craggy outcrops that form a romantic backcloth to the pub. A short, steep path climbs from the back of the inn through woods to a series of overhanging rocks punctuated with entrances to a number of man-made caves. It is said that two of the caves were carved in the rock at the request of Rev. Thomas Eyre, who is reputed to have used one of the openings as a study where he could compose his sermons and another as a room where he could entertain his friends.
This eccentric man of the cloth was also responsible for building a private chapel in a hollow below Rowtor Rocks. After falling into disrepair, the chapel was rebuilt by the Thornhills of Stanton Hall and it became the parish church of St Michael in 1870. The building is highly unusual in two respects: firstly, it is almost hidden from view in a steep-sided valley; secondly, it has no windows whatsoever on two of its sides. These peculiarities seem to be entirely in keeping with the romantic and mysterious nature of so much that is to be found in and around the village of Birchover.