The village of Combs, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 20:44 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:26 20 February 2013
Mike Smith takes a walk around the village of Combs - 'stage set for a perfect English hamlet'.
Combs Road runs southwards from a sharp bend on the main road between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge. Signposted 'Combs Village Only', it promises entry to a cul-de-sac village at the end of a three-sided valley bounded by the high gritstone hills of Castle Naze, Combs Moss and Ladder Hill. On its approach to the village, the lane meanders through pleasant countryside, with the blue waters of Combs Lake to the west and a green swathe of land to the east. There are some residential properties along the way, but they never threaten to merge into a ribbon development.
After exactly one mile, the lane opens out to reveal a scene that looks like a stage set for a perfect English hamlet. Stage right, there is a pub, decorated with colourful hanging baskets and fronted by wooden benches and tables set in a low-walled enclosure. Stage left, there is a red telephone box, which appears to lean on an adjacent telegraph pole. Centre stage, there is a cluster of cottages, picturesquely positioned in front of a dramatic backcloth of Peakland hills.
At first sight, this little square seems to mark the end of the cul-de-sac that was promised by the sign on the main road, but a closer inspection reveals that the road divides at this point into three narrow lanes. The writer Crichton Porteous, who lived in Combs for many years, likened the configuration of the village to the print of a hen's foot, with the back spur being the long lane from the main road and the toes being the three lanes that split away from the square, 'with the roads going narrower and poorer-surfaced until they lead out on to high moorland and become for the general motorist impossible'.
The western spur is still impossible for the general motorist beyond a beautiful moorland house known as Spire Hollins, but the narrow lane to the east is navigable with care as it climbs for two miles over the shoulder of Castle Naze to the village of Dove Holes. The central spur, known as Lesser Lane, is also passable, even though it ascends almost to the summit of Combs Moss before making its way across the moors to Horwich End.
A few yards along Lesser Lane, there is a small gabled building with an attractive symmetrical faade. Two large Gothick windows flank a central doorway topped by a Gothick fan-light, and a sign above the doorway reveals that the building serves as village hall, school and chapel. An inscription says, 'This is a special place.'
In order to meet some of the people who live, work and play in this idyllic valley, I retraced my route from the main road. My journey began on the shores of Combs Lake, a reservoir constructed in 1794 as a feeder for the Peak Forest Canal. Since 1950, the lake has been the home of Combs Sailing Club, whose members carried on sailing throughout an eight-year period when the water-level was drastically reduced to facilitate remedial work on the dam's retaining wall, which had been dislodged by a gale in 1975. Their determination almost certainly saved the club from closure.
Today, the organisation prides itself on being a family-friendly club with about 100 members. On the day of my visit, Norman Whiteley and committee-member Russell Talbot were busily preparing for one of the competitions that take place each week. On Saturday mornings, Norman works alongside Harry Mayo to instruct novices, including members of a local Scout group, in the art of sailing. He is also the current holder of the Copper Pot, presented to the winner of a race for lone sailors in two-handed boats. The trophy was given to the club by founder-member Philip Carpenter, who made it by sawing a ballcock in half!
Sporting activity also takes place on the eastern side of Combs Road, where some of the land is in the ownership of Chapel-en-le-Frith Golf Club. However, a large swathe of the land on this flank of the road is occupied by Owlgreave Farm, which is worked by Peter and Ian Barratt. Two of their relatives also own farms in Combs: Bill Barratt, who farms at Rye Flatt, and Richard Barratt, who farms at Lane End.
Richard told me that there were once 22 dairy farms, both large and small, in the Combs Valley. Thanks to the squeeze on profits caused by supermarkets, coupled with the introduction of bulk tankers that cannot negotiate narrow lanes, not one of the five remaining farms in the valley is now given over to milk production.
Signs of further change were evident on the day of my visit to Lane End Farm. Although Richard's son, Sam, was helping to shear some of the 500 sheep on the family farm, he intends to take up electrical work as a career. Until 1998, Richard's wife, Rosie, ran the village shop and post office. That too was killed off by the impact of supermarkets.
Richard and Rosie's home is adjacent to the Beehive Inn, which was built in 1864 with profits made when gangs of construction workers lodged in the area during the building of a Buxton spur on the Manchester to Whaley Bridge rail line. Landlord Stefan Herling employs over 40 people at the pub, which has daily offerings of delicious meals cooked from locally-sourced produce. Not surprisingly, the Beehive is a hugely popular eating-place for locals and visitors alike. It also has a holiday cottage in an adjacent barn.
On the wall of the pub's lounge, there is a portrait of Peggy Bellhouse, a remarkable lady who was a geologist, archaeologist, archivist, artist and playwright, as well as a meticulous recorder of the geological and human history of Combs. The two books that she wrote in the Sixties and Seventies constitute a timely record of a rapidly disappearing way of life.
Peggy noted that the size of the indigenous population had already been overtaken by the number of incomers, who could be identified by their tendency to call the village 'Coombs', rather than 'Combs', as it is written. The fact that almost everyone calls the place 'Coombs' these days is an indicator that the village has attracted yet more incomers in the last 40 years.
Although many of the newer residents commute to Manchester on a daily basis, more and more of them are making use of modern technology in order to work from home. These people can claim to be true villagers in the sense that they live and work in Combs, just as the local farming families have done for many generations.
One of the 'new villagers' is Matthew Goldsbrough, who moved to Combs ten years ago and runs a marketing and business planning consultancy from an office in his old-world cottage, which is known as Little Corner. His pride in his adopted village is reflected in the website he has constructed as a pictorial celebration of the many and varied events that take place in the little community. Chief among these is the annual Fun Day, which was started ten years ago by Jean Evanson and Liz Gordon. This year's event includes a craft and produce show, a children's fancy dress competition, a pet show, a fell race, sports events for adults and children, a dance, a hog roast and a scarecrow competition. Jean was president of Combs Women's Institute until its demise in 2002. She has now resurrected the organisation as Combs Community Group, which puts on activities that appeal to both sexes. Her husband Mike is the chairman of Combs Village Hall Trust, which led a successful campaign in 1998 to raise funds and obtain a lottery grant to construct an extension to the village school. The new building, constructed in local stone and attached to the Victorian schoolroom-cum-chapel by a glass-faced link, has not only provided extra facilities for the school and Methodist chapel, but has also given the villagers a purpose-built village hall.
As a recently retired engineer, Mike is now using his expertise to drive forward an innovative project to make the village hall more energy efficient. His scheme includes the installation of a series of solar tubes to heat the water and a new heating system based on an air-to-air pump of Scandinavian design. All his plans could have been in vain if a recent threat to close the school had been carried out, because the termination of the triple-usage agreements between school, chapel and village hall would have been an economic disaster for the Village Hall Trust.
The battle to save the infants' school was won because old and new villagers came together to fight a brilliant battle. They included Rosie Barratt, who made an impassioned speech at a public meeting attended by representatives of the County Council, and Matthew Goldsbrough, who devoted many hours to the construction and maintenance of the Save Combs School website.
Reflecting on the successful school protest, Matthew told me: 'It was a model of how small villages should operate. In normal circumstances, villagers leave each other alone to get on with their lives, but they come together in a time of crisis.' His view is shared by two more recent incomers, Hugh and Amanda Barton, who likened the campaign to a 'war-time effort where everyone had a common purpose.'
The Bartons moved to Combs two and half years ago, when Hugh was looking for a property that would give him a larger home-office for his optical engineering work. Their integration into the community has been helped by their willingness to become involved in the battle to save the school. At the height of the campaign, Hugh gave a carefully reasoned presentation to members of the local parish council and Amanda, who is a lecturer in education at Manchester University, is an active and supportive governor at the school where their elder child is now a pupil.
The school was threatened with closure on viability grounds, because it has just 26 pupils, but headteacher Avis Curry rejects the notion that 'one size fits all'. She says, 'Some of the children who have done brilliantly here would have floundered in a larger school.' Avis, who is clearly a highly committed and energetic headteacher, insists that the inspectors' classification of Combs as 'an outstanding school' is down to superb team work by teaching and non-teaching staff alike.
During my short visit to the school, I was struck by the happy family atmosphere and the stimulating learning environment, and I was not surprised to learn that one of the parents had told the inspectors that 'this is a special place'. A series of landscape paintings made by the pupils after a recent walk in the surrounding hills with a National Park ranger reveal that they see their valley as a special place too.
Their view is shared by the many people who would like to live in Combs, but are deterred by the price of property. The school's dinner supervisor, Allan Gagen-Hill, has found one solution to the problem. He bought himself a dilapidated farmhouse with 'three walls and a roof' and set about converting it with his own hands into a home for himself, his wife and two children.
Allan took me up into the hills to show me his renovated house, which stands in a tiny farming hamlet and commands superb views over the valley. I was reminded of a verse by Scottie McFrith that is quoted in one of Peggy Bellhouse's books:
They rave about the glories of
In lines that would fill many tomes,
Of the charms and beauties of
But give me the valley of Combs.