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The village of Breadsall, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 21:00 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

Breadsall Priory

Breadsall Priory

If you find yourself fuming in the regular thick of traffic around<br/><br/>Little Eaton roundabout, here's a way to ease your pain: cast your gaze<br/><br/>eastwards.

If you find yourself fuming in the regular thick of traffic around Little Eaton roundabout, here's a way to ease your pain: cast your gaze eastwards. You will be greeted by the calming, reverential and quintessentially English sight of a needle-sharp church spire. Adjacent stand elegant, slender poplars giving the impression that the natural world is competing in a game of Keep-up-with-the-Jones's as the trees 'aspire' to grow as tall as their man-made neighbour.
As Pigot and Co's Derbyshire Directory of 1835 records, this church is 'a large and handsome edifice, with a lofty needle spire, which forms a prominent object for a considerable distance around.' With a spire of 190 feet and a tower of 180 feet, All Saints' could be the tallest village church in Derbyshire. There is no doubt about its presence: I have ambled around Breadsall over the last four seasons attempting to complete a calendar of the village and wherever I walked, it wasn't long before that spire shot into view, convincing me that its design was commissioned by a holy man who believed his flock should never stray from the sight of The Lord, My Shepherd.
Ironically, research reveals that Breadsall's most famous incumbent - Dr Erasmus Darwin - was a pronounced influence on his grandson Charles in the promulgation of the Origin of Species which so offended Christian thinking. More ironically, Erasmus is buried in All Saints' with a venerable inscription on his monument. Erasmus lived, albeit for only the last 25 days of his life, at Breadsall Priory, another familiar landmark.
Down below is a village of properties old and new, handsome and functional, set in comparative calm in a pleasant rural enclave yet which is only 21/2 miles from the heart of Derby city, and only a few hundred yards from a busy well-linked commuter route.
When writing in these pages about Breadsall in 1992, Roy Christian found it remarkable that Breadsall was still a village - 'it has for long looked a tempting morsel for the city to swallow,' he commented, especially given the developments nearby of both Breadsall Hill Top in the 1920s and Oakwood in the 1970s. Roy mentions a subsequent take-over bid for the village from the city council, fortunately rejected by the Boundary Commission, and in spite of some in-filling Breadsall has hung on to its greenbelt-tight rurality. As resident June Antill points out, 'You can still walk for miles across meadows and fields.'
'Breadsall is comfortable and convenient,' declares parish councillor Janet Bailey. However, the village is also convenient for numerous vehicle drivers: in the last two decades Brookside Road and Croft Lane have turned into a notorious 'rat run', situated as they are between the vast Oakwood estate and the constantly busy Frank Whittle Road. A 2005 traffic survey alarmingly revealed that in this village of only 800 population, more than 8,000 vehicles drove through each weekday. The Brookside Road chicanes introduced ten years ago have slowed the traffic but not reduced the volume. Worse still, there are numerous 30-ton lorries, mainly foreign, whose sat-navs don't alert their drivers to the road's 71/2 ton weight limit.
Ninety-four year old Ted Mather, who remembers a village where there was more cattle traffic than cars, bemoans the fact that Breadsall has become 'a sleeping headquarters'. In truth, virtually every Derbyshire village I've written about has its share of 'executives playing the let's-go-live-in-the-country game', as one steadfast ruralite once remarked to me, but I've also found that a village perceived as a dormitory is not necessarily dormant and, happily, Breadsall appears very active if one looks at the goings-on in the Memorial Hall alone, in use virtually every evening. 'Breadsall has a strong community presence with many flourishing organisations,' says Rob Dowling, Memorial Hall Chairman, pointing to set-ups like the WI, Playgroup and Parent & Toddler group, Gardening Club and two dance groups and healthy cricket, football, bowls and tennis clubs. Breadsall Cricket Club is flourishing in particular with several adult and junior teams. '80 juniors turn up every Thursday,' says a proud Janet Robertson whose son Tony, a former Repton First XI player, plays for Breadsall's First XI and coaches the youngsters. The club hopes to get a new pavilion next summer, although it's hoped this won't be as arduous a process as obtaining a licence for a club bar - 'it took five years,' reveals parish councillor Roy Ling. 'It would have been easier to get a Polaris missile.'
Gwendolyn Miller has been active in Breadsall ever since she arrived in 1953. 'It's always a matter of what you can give out to a community,' she remarks with genuine Christian sentiment. 'I felt I'd been sent here, as if it was guidance,' she believes and, pertinently, she and her husband joined a church that was still raising funds for its restoration following the devastating fire of 1914. The cause of this notorious blaze has long been shrouded in mystery although a historical programme on BBC's Radio 4 in 2003 added to the weight of circumstantial evidence pointing to an act of arson by suffragettes.
All Saints' had already suffered damage in 1837 when the ceiling fell in, 'smashing the pulpit and several principal pews', according to the church register which further records that had it happened on the Sabbath, it's reckoned as many as 30 churchgoers would have been killed.
No-one was killed by the fire of 4th June 1914, but the damage was devastating, gutting the interior and destroying a 14th century door and 16th century benches plus pews, bells, organ and a prized chained library of eight 16th century books. Curiously, the news report in the Derbyshire Advertiser lavished praise on the fire engine (Derby's first petrol-driven one) in stating that it 'reached Breadsall without mishap in a few minutes' and that 'the engine ran beautifully and negotiated the difficult corner at the bridge in fine style.' The truth was: the fire brigade arrived nearly two hours after a group of Scouts raised the alarm. They also found the conflagration had wreaked its worst. It's believed the delay was due to the brigade insisting on fees being paid for a job outside the Borough boundary.
Suspicion of arson immediately fell on a Derby cell of suffragettes, so militant and well organised that a government-led agent provocateur infiltrated it for a time. Also, four other churches in the country had allegedly been set alight in the last year by suffragettes. Revenge was strongly suspected as Breadsall officials had turned down a recent request from the suffragettes to hold a meeting in the village. Other slight, if tangible, evidence pointed to the discovery of a hat pin and 'a piece of tweedy fluff from a coat' in the fire debris. However, when Alison Engerfield, a listener to Radio 4's Making History series, contacted the programme after hearing of the Charfield train crash and fire of 1928, she revealed that a distant cousin, Derby suffragette Hilda Cross, died that day on the train and that 'she lived with fire and died by fire'. Alison Engerfield strongly believes her cousin was the Breadsall arsonist for the compelling reason that 'so many different members of my family tell the same story'.
Although the church rebuilding bill was over 11,000 with only 6,000 recoverable from insurance companies, nearly 9,000 in cash was raised by 1918 (apparently due to the fire becoming something of a cause clbre) and some wily entrepreneur in the church can be credited for raising 113 gate money to 'view the ruins' in the days following the fire. In later years, one other clever idea led villagers to point proudly to the weathercock on top of the spire and boast that they had jumped over it. It was true: the cock had to be brought down by a steeplejack for wind damage repairs and, while on the ground, villagers were allowed to leap the vane if they gave a donation.
The restoration work at All Saints' was long and hard. The pews weren't fully replaced until the 1960s and Gwendolyn Miller reveals that it was 1972 - 58 years on - before All Saints' was completely restored, the last of eight new bells being the final item to replace everything lost.
Gwendolyn showed me an admirable book A History of Breadsall, compiled by the village's Women's Institute in 1974 and beautifully composed with a calligraphy pen by unnamed members. 'The history of most villages is crystallised in their churches,' it states, 'and this is very true of Breadsall.' Indeed, one can see from All Saints' sheltered position at the foot of a steep hill that a settlement grew up around it. The first known reference to Breadsall is 1002 with Domesday Book of 1086 recording a church and priest, 12 acres of meadow and 'one mill worth 13s 4d'.
A History of Breadsall contains a fascinating diary compiled by a Breadsall schoolmaster of the early 19th century. My favourite story is the one recording that in 1825, a ratcatcher presented himself at Breadsall and declared that he could rid the parish of all rats and mice in three or four days. In showing 'rolls of alleged bank notes' to the landlord of the Old Hall, he was given credit at the inn. As it turned out, this 'Pied Piper' did nothing more than get pie-eyed at the pub and although he did venture out to the fields, he was more interested in poaching than ratting. The diarist records that when the innkeeper finally asked for settlement of his tab in cash, the 'ratcatcher' bolted for the door and was 'chased for miles'. Sadly, it's not recorded whether this particular rat was caught.
History also records how agriculture dominated the village for many centuries. Ted Mather, born in 1913, believes there were at least 16 farms and smallholdings when he was a lad - 'and every household had an animal, usually a pig or two and some hens,' he recalls. Another villager remembers the farmer delivering milk every morning by horse and dray, ladling milk from the churn straight into her mother's jug. Parish councillor Janet Robertson spoke of driving through cow pats as late as the mid-80s, although the last farm in the village has now gone.
One unusual old rural industry was revealed to Janet when she moved into her Breadsall home, which is a converted barn, and discovered she had nine damson trees. Indeed, Breadsall had several orchards where the damsons were reputedly used for making dyes at Derby's Silk Mill. June Antill told me she still makes damson gin. Using an old WI recipe, she mixes a bottle of gin with a bottle of sherry, combining this cocktail in a large sealed jar with two pints of ripe damsons and 1lb of sugar. 'I was told that mixed with hot water, it was a great cure for colds,' remarks June. 'Mind you, it's better neat,' she adds with a smile, and presumably if it doesn't cure your cold after a few swigs, you are probably past caring anyway. Once the gin is drunk, June never throws the damsons away but treats subsequent dinner guests to a dessert she calls Pured Tipsy Damson - 'lovely with ice cream' June recommends.
Perhaps it was the preponderance of damson trees that encouraged Augustinian Canons to establish a small Priory at Breadsall in the 13th century, as their chosen setting was 'a pleasant plot of land in a fruitful sheltered nook', with further accounts referring to a Priory 'surrounded with gardens and orchards'. After the Dissolution of 1538, Sir John Bentley converted the ruined Priory into a dwelling house. As revealed by archivist Nick Redman in his thorough booklet An Illustrated History of Breadsall Priory, local superstition had it that as the house was built on what was once church land, it would never descend to the eldest son or remain in the same family for three generations. Indeed, in the 80 years after Bentley's death, the Breadsall estate changed hands frequently, with one owner dying in battle and another dying childless.
The superstition faded when two linked families, the Greensmiths and the Beards, owned Breadsall Priory for most of the 18th century. However, ill luck befell the Darwins' 61-year ownership from 1799 with the original incumbent, Erasmus (Dr Erasmus' son) and Dr Erasmus himself, each living at the house only a matter of weeks before dying. On Erasmus junior's last day in the Priory, aged only 41, he reportedly ran out of the house 'in a distressed state' and was later found drowned in the Derwent. 'Most likely it was suicide,' writes Nick Redman, 'committed in a fit of temporary insanity.'
The estate was bequeathed to his Derby-based father. Dr Erasmus Darwin was regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of the 18th century: a noted physician, he was also a poet and philosopher, botanist and naturalist and author of several books proving he was one of the originators of evolutionary theory. Although he didn't come up with natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson famously elaborated on 60 years later. One of Erasmus' beliefs was that man evolved from shellfish. Breadsall's vicar, Nick Watson, revealed that Darwin had three shells as his preferred coat of arms but was banned from displaying them on his carriage by the Dean Chapter of Lichfield. Nick further revealed that in travelling extensively as a physician, Erasmus had his carriage designed with revolutionary new suspension so that he could write more easily.
Darwin took to his Priory home straightaway, describing it in a letter to a friend as 'pleasant' with a 'pleasing valley and talkative stream'. However, only three and a half weeks after arriving, he died of a heart attack following a fever. As well as the monument in Breadsall Church, Darwin's name lives on in Derby with a Square, a Road, a Place and an Avenue named after him.
Breadsall Priory continued to change hands and was built on by several successive owners, notably Nottingham hosiery manufacturer Francis Morley and later, Derby engineer and inventor Sir Alfred Haslam, a noted pioneer of refrigeration. It was his son Capt. Eric Seale Haslam, the last owner of the house, who came to 'lavish much love and care on the estate', including the planting of many fine trees which so distinguish the Priory grounds, leading a visitor in 1938 to write of the Priory's 'air of comfortable well being' with 'everything in harmony'. It was also during Eric Haslam's time that, whilst building an air-raid shelter, a 13th century doorway from the original Priory was found. It is now a feature of the hotel which opened for business in 1976 with two golf courses extending over its 828 acres. Having photographed a golf day there recently, I can testify to the beautiful, undulating parkland of the Priory course. There is also now a golf shop and floodlit driving range. After becoming the Marriott Breadsall Priory Hotel and Country Club in 1996, a new block was added to increase the number of bedrooms to 116 and, in admirable deference to the Priory's history, the Oak, Library and Wedgwood Rooms became, respectively, the Haslam, Darwin and Morley Rooms with also the Monks cocktail bar becoming Bentley's Bar.
Famous family names are also connected with the manor of Breadsall: there were eight generations of both Curzons and Dethicks and three centuries of Harpurs, later Harpur-Crewes. The attractive stone and half-timbered Old Hall opposite the church was built as the manor house in the 14th century. It is now a private dwelling. In the centuries in between it changed hands frequently and I'm wondering if any single building in this land can claim to have had such varied usage: it's been a rectory, farmhouse, hunting lodge, school, joiner's shop, village shop, pub, post office and even a temporary church following the church fire.
Another famous resident, as Ted Mather remembers, was Lord Petersham, later Earl of Harrington, who lived in The Lodge on Rectory Lane. Ted and his pals used to excitedly follow his fox and hounds across the land around Breadsall. It would appear that was considerably less dangerous than encountering Lady Petersham driving her Rolls-Royce. 'There was no speed limit then and she used to fly through the village, frightening the life out of us,' recalls Ted. 'Mind you, if she was on her way to town and saw any resident walking out of the village, she would stop the car, wind down the window and shout "Derby?" - and she'd give you a lift. I got to sit in her Royce quite a few times. She and Lord Petersham were lovely people.'
Up until 1964, villagers could catch a regular train to Derby and other towns on the Great Northern Railway which came to Breadsall in 1878. In a Derby Evening Telegraph article of 1952, station lengthman of 43 years, Eli Mather, spoke of many day trippers making the short hop to Breadsall, recalling especially the three or more special trains that would be run out from Derby at Whitsuntide when 'milk churns would be placed in the fields for them to get a drink from.'
Stronger drink would be on the minds of hundreds of adult travellers on a Sunday: licensing laws curiously restricted the buying of alcohol on the Sabbath to those who could produce a train ticket showing they had travelled three miles. Ironically, although a trip to Breadsall Station earned the requisite mileage, the village was dry, so trippers either walked to Little Eaton or up the hill to Mansfield Road to the Windmill Inn (as many villagers do these days). Some Sunday drinkers chose to walk the three miles to Breadsall Station and then buy a ticket back to Derby, by which time they had worked up a thirst and rightly believed they had deserved their pint.
The lack of a pub in Breadsall derives from the Harpur-Crewes' long tenure of the estate: they simply didn't want one - and the same went for a Non-conformist chapel. The Wesleyan Methodists had to hold services on the village green or in private houses. Ironically, they found tea and sympathy from the owners of the land around the Windmill pub - the Walkers - who sold them a strip of land by the brook. This dinky 1826 chapel is now a beautifully converted home.
Many villagers believe the lack of a pub in Breadsall has helped prevent even more traffic from interrupting the rural calm. Those who disagree can take heart from the fact that Breadsall houses a busy primary school and newsagents/post office, amenities that are either absent or under threat in other villages. Breadsall's Church of England Primary School is a small building buzzing with life and smiles. Opened in 1837, there are currently 116 pupils, a third of whom are from the village, the rest predominately from Oakwood. Their passionate Head of the last seven years, Gail Goodman, revealed that two years ago they became one of only eight per cent of schools in the country to obtain an 'Outstanding' grade with Ofsted, and she's clearly proud of the 'traditional, caring Christian environment of a small, friendly village school.' There are strong links with the church as well as the community - 'I don't live in the village but there's certainly a feeling of belonging to a close-knit community here,' declares Gail, an example of which is shown by the Memorial Hall committee allowing the school to use its playing fields for games and sports.
Breadsall's newsagents/post office, which attractively sits in front of one of the several miniature village greens dotted around the village, has been run for the last two years by Sean and Caroline Guttridge. Sean told me they sell 'a bit of everything', including beer, wine and spirits, and are handily open until 8pm each weekday. 'It's hard work but the villagers are very supportive,' says Sean.
Just a few yards down the road in front of another green is The Old Post Office, home to John and June Antill. Originally a thatched cottage built 300 years ago, the house doubled as a post office from 1902 for nearly 100 years. The Antills took over in 1982 from Ruth Endsor - postmistress since 1938 - until they retired and closed it in 1998. During the renovation of the old post office, John and June unearthed some interesting artifacts including an exercise book in which Mr Endsor, Ruth's father, kept copies of correspondence to the Head Postmaster in Derby. In 1912, when asked to account for a decrease in the sale of postage stamps of 43 during the previous year, his reply explained that the drop in sales 'is owing to the Gentry being away for most of the time!'
June also showed me a flintlock pistol she found amongst the Endsor's belongings, leading her to discover that up to the turn of the 20th century, some postmen were required to carry a pistol as so much hard cash was delivered. It might have helped if John Antill had brandished that pistol when, in 1994, an armed robber walked in, demanded money and smashed through the counter glass with an ice axe, showering John with shards. However, he held his ground, pressed the alarm and the villain ran off, to be apprehended later (and jailed for five years). 1994 was certainly an eventful year for the Antills: they were also named Derbyshire Post Office of the Year.
A more recent award-winner lives just a few houses down from the Antills: 19 year-old golfer Melissa Reid won the Smyth Salver as top amateur at the recent Women's British Open - coming 16th overall and beating over 130 professionals - and with three other amateur majors to her belt in the last year, she is now on the cusp of a professional career. Her golfing parents Brian and Joy brought Melissa to swing a club aged 11 and by the time she was 13, she was in the England junior squad. Talking in the family kitchen, I was soon taken by Melissa's keen, confident and ambitious spirit: she enthuses about the way golf allows you to 'use your imagination and be creative' and there's evident passion as she speaks of 'the thrill of curving a ball around a tree'. Melissa praises her supportive parents - her dad has been her caddy for six years - and when she speaks of the 'mental strength' required to make it to the top, you can sense she has that in spades. What's more, her Breadsall home is a welcome haven inbetween the hurly burly of tournaments. The only irony about her living in Breadsall is that Melissa plays not at the Priory - 'It's more of a country club than a members club,' she points out - but at the Chevin club in Duffield.
There was a fresh intake of youth to the village when Revd Nick Watson became Vicar of Breadsall seven years ago. Formerly vicar on a new estate in Teesside, he loves the sense of history at All Saints'. 'Finding my name at the bottom of a list that stretches back to 1304 - with others before that - and knowing that so many people before me have sat at this sanctuary to pray, gives me tremendous strength,' says a satisfied Nick. 'That gives a depth to this building.'
Never mind the depth, what about the height? Does he like having such a tall, imposing spire? 'Yes, it's wonderful that you see the spire from afar,' says Nick. 'Funnily enough, after a while you take it for granted and wonder why other churches have such small spires!'

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