The village of Etwall - the best of all worlds?

PUBLISHED: 11:11 02 February 2016 | UPDATED: 11:11 02 February 2016

Main Street

Main Street

Ashley Franklin Photography

After a five-year gap Ashley Franklin returns to the village on the outskirts of Derby to see what has changed

Perhaps the most pleasing thing to say about Etwall, on returning to the village after a five year gap, is that little appears to have changed. That previous visit was on the heels of a Parish Plan which satisfyingly stated that Etwall ‘retains the feel of a village rather than a suburb’, largely due to its ‘charming, traditional village centre.’ Most of Etwall’s Georgian houses and its amenities are appropriately clustered around the parish church, small but perfectly prominent on a raised expanse of green which quietly leads to what are arguably the most attractive almshouses in the county.

During my 2010 visit, new resident and former city dweller Grant Blake said that Etwall is ‘how I imagined village life to be, with lovely old buildings, and people who are proud of their surroundings, community-spirited and very welcoming.’ Comments from my latest visit happily confirm that. ‘People smile in the street here,’ says resident Vicky Basford. ‘There are a lot of people here with a true passion for this community,’ says Parish Cllr Tom Owen.

One of the reasons Parish Cllr Dave McDonald moved his family here from Mickleover 19 years ago was that ‘Etwall always seemed to have a nice, compact, “villagey” feel about it, especially with the green in the centre.’

‘There were good amenities, too’ adds Dave, ‘but just as important was its comfortable atmosphere and the warm, helpful and approachable residents. Couple the amenities and activities with goodhearted people and you have a recipe for community.’

Main StreetMain Street

The amenities Dave refers to include three pubs – Hawk & Buckle, Spread Eagle and Seven Wells – two convenience stores, a Post Office, pharmacy, dentist, veterinary cardiologist, hair salon, health and beauty salon, barber and a chip shop which bears the light-hearted logo ‘Etwall’s No 1 eating emporium’, though that may well be challenged by the Blenheim House Hotel restaurant, the three hostelries, a Chinese takeaway and a Balti/pizza outlet.

Activities are numerous with cricket, bowls and tennis clubs, art and dance groups, a Scout group, knitting circles, an allotment association, a local history society that has twice hosted lectures by Melvyn Bragg, and a thriving Well Dressing Association.

As one resident interestingly pointed out, Etwall’s location six miles south west of Derby makes it ideally placed for residents commuting to work as it gives them more time to participate in social activities.

Another reason Dave McDonald moved to Etwall was that his daughters were starting ‘big’ school at John Port. It is a big school, quite literally – the largest comprehensive in the county. When 2,000 pupils and over 230 full, part-time and associate staff pour through the school gates the population of Etwall almost doubles, and there’s more if you add the 1,000 users a day of the Leisure Centre which has a six-lane swimming pool, six-court sports hall, squash courts, gym and other state of the art facilities.

Blenheim House HotelBlenheim House Hotel

Opened in 2009, time will tell if the Leisure Centre throws up some Olympic hopefuls. As for John Port School: former Derby County coach Steve Round, assistant to David Moyes at both Everton and Manchester United, and the Rams’ new chairman, entrepreneur and Sunday Times Rich List entry Mel Morris, are both former pupils.

Other alumni who illuminate John Port’s slogan ‘Opportunities to Succeed’ include: film and TV actor Jason Riddington; Kathy Pritchard Jones, Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Chief Medical Officer, London Cancer at University College, London; and Becki Wilson, an animator whose skills as a crowd simulation artist were employed in the latest Bond film Spectre, and who previously did ‘nose replacement work’ on Lord Voldemort for one of the Harry Potter films.

There is craft and artistry to be seen every May in Etwall with the Well Dressing festival, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2015. What began with two well dressings to mark the centenary of the primary school has risen to 10.

‘Standards improve year upon year and we believe our displays stand up well to even Tissington and Youlgreave,’ declare Clifford and Desiree Noons, who became heavily involved in the dressings after moving to Etwall in 2001 from the south. ‘We initially thought well dressing was something to do with fashion,’ admits Desiree.

The AlmshousesThe Almshouses

Key to the success of the well dressings are ‘design, planning and patience,’ says Clifford. ‘Participation, too,’ adds Desiree; ‘each “well” can involve anything from 10 to 50 people. This year’s WI well took over 400 women hours to complete.’

It’s appropriate that Etwall’s biggest annual event alludes to the village’s very origins. Recorded as Etewelle in Domesday, it’s thought that this derived from Etta’s well. A settlement was established here around the 7th century because it was easy to dig wells to the water stored on the clay base, giving rise to springs and streams.

The word ‘Etwell’ is still embossed on the bricks of the village’s older properties as a consequence of the thriving brick industry that grew up here, though it was agriculture that dominated over the centuries.

Etwall’s history is dominated by the man whose name adorns the school he bequeathed to the village: John Port. Appropriately, it was children that brought Sir John’s grandfather to establish an estate in Etwall. Although his business was based in Chester, it’s thought that Etwall Hall was the only house available in a wide radius that was big enough to accommodate his 17 offspring. Sir John also bequeathed the almshouses, rebuilt in 1681 in mellow red brick with stone-mullioned windows and grouped on three sides of a courtyard. Although Etwall Hall was demolished to make way for the development of the school, a legacy of the Hall lives on here: Robert Bakewell’s wrought-iron gates that guarded the Hall drive were recovered from a scrapyard and restored to their former glory at the entrance to this courtyard.

Four well dressings from the 2015 Festival: top left, Etwall Primary School; top right, Women's Institute; bottom left, Blenheim House; bottom right, Scout GroupFour well dressings from the 2015 Festival: top left, Etwall Primary School; top right, Women's Institute; bottom left, Blenheim House; bottom right, Scout Group

Remarkably, up until the 1960s – four centuries on – the Almsmen were still wearing the traditional costume of mortar-board style hats and blue cloaks with a silver clasp, an outfit they were also buried in.

As Clerk to the Almshouses Trustees Joyce Newton revealed, applicants to the Almshouses still need to meet time-honoured criteria which include being over 50 years of age and either living in or having an association with Etwall. I was invited into one of the almshouses by resident Christopher Muller to behold a warm, cosy, spacious lounge and well-fitted galley kitchen. ‘Look at those beams,’ said Christopher proudly. ‘I love it here; it’s a beautiful, historic, quiet corner of Etwall; quiet except when the church bells ring but I love to hear those anyway!’

The Church of St Helen has its origins in the 12th century, though most of the building dates from the 15th and 19th centuries. Two 21st century features that please the Revd Fiona Solman are ‘efficient heating’ and a toilet – ‘essential but rare in country churches!’ says Fiona.

Licensed as Rector of Etwall and Egginton in 2009, Fiona thrives on the busy demands of the parish and, when she was off work having had major surgery in 2013, she was delighted to discover the ‘great support we have in the many church volunteers.’

Support for services comes from ‘a faithful core of worshippers’ and she also works with the village’s Methodist Church. There’s much planned for the New Year, including a flower festival which neatly coincides with the well dressings on 21st to 23rd May. When Fiona has time for contemplation, she will often gaze at the beautiful embroidery of St Helen, created by Derbyshire artist Sarah Burgess. ‘It’s really inspiring,’ says Fiona, ‘and depending on the way the light falls, she has many different expressions!’

Another dominant presence in this village centre is the Spread Eagle pub which dates back to 1577. Back in 2009 the ‘ailing’ tavern was bought out Victor Kiam-style by three regulars, who also brought a smile to the purchase proceedings: as they bought the freehold from Punch Taverns, they cheekily named their independent company Judy Taverns, with the motto: ‘That’s the way to do it.’

The other pub in the centre of Etwall, the Hawk & Buckle, is another previously ailing hostelry given fresh life only two months ago by resident and Parish Councillor Tom Owen. My introduction to this early 19th century inn was a huge log fire, a fine pint of Pedigree and a scrumptious pork pie amidst attractive beamed ceilings and wood panelled walls. ‘This is a true traditional pub, steeped in history,’ enthuses Tom, who has already ditched the corporate menu in favour of home cooked, locally-sourced food, with an emphasis on ‘well kept local ales.’ Pie night is already a popular draw.

While in the pub I met resident Dan Smith who discovered his affection for Etwall when, ironically, he was thinking of moving away. ‘We needed a bigger house,’ says Dan, ‘but when we thought about everything we wanted in a village, we realised it was all here in Etwall. So, we decided to stay and it just so happened that the house next door came up for sale so we bought it and knocked through to create our big new home.’

As I walk from the Hawk & Buckle, I cast my eye on The Ivies, a timber-frame house thought to be nearly 600 years old, making it the village’s oldest secular building. I then spot Blenheim House Hotel, an 18th century former farmhouse, which has changed hands since my last visit. Phil and Helga Ritchie-Smith, previously partners at a Market Harborough Hotel, took over in 2011 when they ‘saw the potential’ of this Grade II-listed restaurant/hotel, and took the opportunity to give the establishment a ‘new lease of life’.

‘It was always a dream to return to our home county to live and work,’ says Helga, ‘and the style and quirkiness of Blenheim House appealed. It’s had a chequered history so it was a risk but we were confident in our experience and ability. We’ve refurbished throughout and created a high standard of food, service and hotel facility.’ Key to success, says Phil, has been ‘team effort from all the departments and keeping a focus on customer care.’ Their customers clearly feel the regeneration of Blenheim House has worked as their Trip Advisor page resounds with praise for atmosphere, hospitality, attention to detail and quality of both the service and food, which is described as ‘a mix of best of British traditional favourites with a creative twist.’

As well as being well-supported locally, Blenheim House reaps the benefit of its location, with plenty of business coming from Toyota, JCB, Rolls-Royce and Nestlé.

Ease of access and proximity to major road networks has worked for many other Etwall businesses. Snugly situated behind the Blenheim is The Frangipani Tree, a health and beauty salon run by Penelope Taylor. The frangipani is Penelope’s favourite tree and reminds her of being far away on holiday – ‘that feeling of escapism and relaxation that I wanted to create as soon as you step into the salon.’

Penelope loves her location. ‘I am nicely tucked away so my clients can have privacy coming in and out, and there’s also easy parking. I love being in Etwall, too. This is a community you can get involved with, they are always happy to help out and they really care about the businesses in the village.’

You know what clients think of Sarah Smith’s veterinary cardiology practice as soon as you come into reception: there are two noticeboards completely covered in ‘Thank You’ cards. ‘There’s more upstairs,’ smiles Sarah. A vet in Derbyshire since 1994, with a small general practice called Beech Vets in Willington, Sarah has specialised in cardiology since 2009, choosing Etwall for its rural location and good access to major roads. Clients come from far and wide – she is the only Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons recognised specialist in veterinary cardiology in Derbyshire and one of only 20 in the UK. Easy parking is essential, too, as the animals she treats have restricted exercise ability.

It was also the location that brought Chris Thomas to open his dental practice. Sitting as it does on Main Street in the centre of the village, it’s easy to see why he appreciated the building’s ‘kerb appeal’, with patients able to enjoy the view of the church and almshouses.

The Post Office – also a convenience store and tea rooms – is prospering under the tenure of Norman and Shelagh Stansfield. In their 13th year here, one of their first actions when they arrived was to canvass customers and discover what they required.

Norman appeared very relaxed for someone who gets up at 4.30am and often works through to 7pm. The pressure of work means he hardly ever leaves the premises. ‘I really ought to walk round the village at some point to see what it’s like,’ he smiles.

In 2012, location was also a prime factor when antiques expert Charles Hanson bought the Old Hatton Bathroom Centre on the roundabout of the A516 by-pass, finding a permanent home for his ten-year-old auction business.

‘The move was pivotal to Hansons going forward,’ declares Charles. ‘Etwall’s location is excellent for a national and international business such as ours if you look at the way the A516 links effortlessly to the A38, A50 and onward to the M1, the lifelines for movement of goods throughout Britain and, indeed, Europe.’

I caught Charles in auction action, perched on his podium, hand waving, entreating, urging and cajoling. It’s like a performance. ‘I do thrive on the momentum of an auction,’ says Charles. ‘You have to ensure the action keeps the audience interested in the sale. The drama and theatre of an auction are very much what drives me.’

This purpose-built showroom is bright and spacious, though it seems a shame that a business that deals in antiques is housed in an industrial building. ‘Yes, having an eye for the beauty of objects from times past I would love to run the business from a building which reflected this,’ admits Charles, ‘but in the modern world, our Auction Centre is ideal, with the space and light given to us within and the parking that ensures ease of access. That said, I am very fond of architecture, especially Georgian, so you never know what might be round the corner.’

Round the corner more immediately for Hansons is the growth of their reputation. ‘It amazes me to think I began this business in my spare bedroom,’ muses Charles. ‘Now we have 22 full-time staff alongside a host of others who work with us, and we keep working hard, continuing the tradition of art and creativity for which Derbyshire is well known throughout the world.’

There are 14 staff working at another business just off the A516 though still officially in Etwall: Barleyfields, an equestrian centre started from scratch by Fiona Holton 21 years ago. Here, good accessibility is matched by verdant surroundings where there is ample stabling for over 50 horses. These horses come in all sizes in order to accommodate riders from three years old to those in their seventies. Barleyfields is geared for leisure, learning and competition with an indoor and outdoor arena, two cross country courses, show jumping facilities and ‘pleasant hacking country,’ plus a well-stocked saddlery.

Fiona prides herself on personal contact with all her customers, ‘caring that they ride the right horses for their ability and ambition, and answering the phone rather a lot!’

There was no by-pass when I first visited Etwall just after I moved to Derbyshire in the late 1970s, driving on what was then the main route between Derby and Stoke. The by-pass was eventually built in 1992 and undoubtedly helped preserve Etwall’s rurality and stave off the kind of suburban sprawl which engulfed neighbouring Mickleover, even though Etwall expanded threefold between the 1950s and 1980s through residential developments.

More housing is on the horizon which could put a strain on the local infrastructure. ‘We must always embrace change,’ says District and Parish Councillor David Muller, ‘but it must be considered and sympathetic change. We must not become an extension to Mickleover or Derby and our planners need to listen to residents’ views, enabling Etwall to retain its village charm.’

David spoke of one positive future for Etwall: the potential twinning with French village Morthemer near the medieval city of Chauvigny. Currently, the two villages have formed a Friendship Association with regular visits to and from France planned as David and his team seek to involve the schools, churches and local groups.

Another initiative David will be pushing for in the New Year is a farmers’ market in the village centre with stalls on the green. ‘It would be a great way of promoting Etwall and supporting our local farms. After all this is farming country, and it would help maintain Etwall as a true village.’

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