The village of Holbrook, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 20:55 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013
I frequently travel through Holbrook, approaching it by sweeping up the scarp from Makeney in the Derwent Valley.
The steep drive towards Holbrook is a particular pleasure in the spring when Red Lane turns blue owing to the abundance of bluebells adorning the roadside. A few hundred yards on a toll house still stands as a reminder that this was the turnpike road which carried coaches from Derby to Sheffield.
Holbrook proved a memorable sight a year ago when I snapped the village during its first hoar frost in a decade, and I was there again soon after when I noted that the snow lay a deal thicker than in the valley. This is not surprising because, as Roy Christian pointed out in Derbyshire Life & Countryside's previous feature on Holbrook, Red Lane 'marks the transition from Lowland to Highland Britain'. Dramatic as that sounds, Holbrook lies on the south-eastern edge of one of the southernmost spurs of the Pennines and, as Roy pointed out, 'it's high ground all the way to the Scottish border.'
When I return home via Holbrook, I approach it from the east on the Roman Portway ('the market road'). I always look up to admire the elegance of a tall copse of poplars, an ironic gift to the village by Mrs Arkwright after she came to live high up in Holbrook Hall from 1915. Appalled by the encroachment of several new houses near the Portway, she ordered that this blot on the landscape be removed from her view, hence the planting of the poplars.
It's down by the Portway that Holbrook gained its name, recorded in the Domesday Book as Holebroc, meaning 'the place where a stream runs in a hollow'. In 1962 evidence was unearthed hereabouts of a Roman settlement when two kilns were excavated and, as stated in Doris Howe's superbly detailed book The Holbrook Story, the second Roman kiln proved to be the largest ever discovered in the British Isles. Standing seven feet high, it would have been capable of baking 200-250 jars at one firing.
It's entirely fitting that the first evidence of life in these parts derives from pottery-making as Holbrook was to become renowned for its cottage industry. Although farming was the mainstay of the early settlers, parish records show that in 1851 only 21 people were engaged in agriculture. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Holbrook became substantially a village of framework knitters. By the mid-19th century, nearly a third of its 1,000 population was involved in making cotton stockings, silk gloves, underwear and ties. The long windows built to light up the large frames are still in evidence in some houses. The work was hard, noisy and monotonous with the frames busy from morning till night and children as young as seven employed by their elders. In spite of the drudgery, it was a proud industry: the quality of the produce brought orders from royals both at home and abroad, notably Queen Victoria and the King of Siam. Along with the framework knitting, there was work to be had in local quarries and nearby mines.
Thus, Holbrook compares with nearby Ambergate in that it grew up as more of an industrial than a rural village and, as the decline of the cottage industry at the turn of the 20th century coincided with the growth of large 'dormitory' houses, the worker base merged with the more leisured classes. There can't be many Derbyshire villages that house both manorial-style houses and a miners' welfare. For that matter, there can't be many villages with a similar population (1,800) which still has three pubs, a school, post office and store. The building of a suburbanite estate in and around Moorside Road in the 1960s has led to an even wider mix of people and properties, with the heart of the village still relatively unspoilt - an attractive cluster of stone houses with St Michael's Church an appropriately overlooking presence - with the more modern brick houses stretching towards Holbrook Moor and Bargate. 'It's like a microcosm of England here in that we've a broad church of people in a wide spectrum of properties,' observes Andrew West-Hunt of The Spotted Cow. 'The old and the new complement each other. I like the fact that Fred the retired miner can come in here and mix with the higher echelons who live in the fancy cottages. Fred's pint is as good as anyone's.
'Holbrook may be a commuter village but it doesn't feel like one,' adds Andrew. 'I think there's a robust sense of community here.' I certainly got a sense of camaraderie when virtually the entire parish council turned up after I'd set up a meeting through clerk Glenys Briggs. 'This is a thriving community that works together and is very active,' confirms Richard Biggin, current Vice-Chairman and parish councillor of 25 years. Glenys, who's been parish clerk for more than 25 years, says she 'can't envisage living anywhere else.' It sounds as though she doesn't have any choice, as Richard announced with a grin that Glenys won't ever be allowed to retire from her duties. 'The parish council wouldn't run without her,' he confirms.
I also met long-time resident Malcolm Rhodes, nicknamed 'The Mower Man' for the fact that most of Holbrook's garden machinery is still working beyond its life expectancy; Ken Hunt, whose 40 year involvement with the scouts has led to today's currently thriving group; and Janet Bott who spoke of the flourishing Women's Institute. Janet has lived in Holbrook for 15 years and smilingly remarked that she finally felt accepted after ten. 'You were luckier than most, then,' uttered the dry voice of Mel Hall, an ex-Mayor of Amber Valley and a voice for Holbrook on the Borough Council. He got into politics on retiring, although he says if he'd had any sense, he'd have taken up golf. Born and bred in Bolton, he now feels very much at home in Holbrook, although he still thinks we 'talk strange' here. 'You lot mash tea,' states Mel. 'I mash potatoes. And "ey up" means "get out the way" in Lancashire.' Mind you, what Bolton didn't have was the view of fields Mel enjoys every time he opens his window. 'I just love the rural aspect here,' he says.
So does parish councillor Bertha Morral who found Holbrook 'surprisingly beautiful' and a lovely area to walk her dogs. Bertha joined the parish council five years ago because she became angry about the parking on Chapel Street in the heart of the village. This brought fellow councillor Colin Murfin to shuffle a little uneasily in his chair as he owns the general store/off licence on that same street although, parking problem or not, the parish council dearly hopes Colin can keep the store going, especially as another councillor, Gloria Smith, closed Holbrook's other store earlier this year after 32 years. Colin admits he is just keeping his head above water and could do with posting a sign on the shop window: 'Use It or Lose It'.
Thankfully, Holbrook Post Office, run for the last 28 years by David and Linda Bower, wasn't on the recent list of scheduled closures. 'We'd be mortified if that happened,' declares Linda. 'We're a vital service to this community and not only that, we've a lovely warm clientele.' Footfall has increased, too, through son David opening a computer business on the premises. Thus, we have the irony of a customer base whose needs cover both traditional and electronic mail.
There's further evidence of IT enterprise just up the road inside The Wheel pub. Landlord Paul Romney, who arrived last February, has set up Wi-Fi access for any customer who wants to sip on a pint while surfing the net. It's one of many changes Paul and his wife Jane have introduced to revive an 'ailing' inn. 'We'd been locals for five years,' reveals Paul, 'and although we knew nothing of the trade, we couldn't sit by and watch a flagging pub, so we took it over.' He's enjoying the regenerated atmosphere at a pub which now bears on its sign the strapline 'The Heart of Holbrook'. The locals are returning and there are increasing visitors from afar who tuck in to a revamped menu - 'hearty, home-cooked pub grub,' says Paul - and a wide selection of beers, which the locals even have a say in. The Wheel could become the first pub in Britain to produce its own wine: Paul showed me a proper grapevine hanging from the Mediterranean terrace. A keen local well versed in vino has promised to cultivate the grape so don't be surprised at some future point to be offered a glass of Wheel Wine - or maybe should it be marketed as Chteau La Roue?
A local well versed in art has added to the uniqueness of The Wheel by lining the walls with his oils. Artist James Preston has lived in Holbrook for 25 years. 'After living in Birmingham until the age of 16,' says James, 'Holbrook felt like heaven.' Indeed, this celestial spot has inspired James 'every time I walk around the village' and he has painted, on numerous occasions, a favourite tree in a field off Makeney Road, one which certainly caught my photographer's eye, too. There's another Holbrook artist whose work I was thrilled to discover while walking through the heart of the village. Near the Spotted Cow I stumbled on a quaint, artful shop sign bearing the words Gaslight Gallery. On the window shelves were handsome, Victorian-style pottery figures. On enquiring within, I was greeted by Linda Forster and the sight of more pottery wonders, all made by her late husband Charles. Linda told me how Charles's first wife died young, leaving him with a little girl only eight months old. Already a gifted artist and art teacher, Charles turned to pottery as therapy - 'He'd simply disappear into the workshop with a lump of clay,' recalls Linda, 'and he found it so enjoyable, he turned to it full time.' In 1980, after she met and married Charles, they moved to Holbrook. Between 1976 and his death in 2004, Charles Forster sold 11,500 pieces. As well as small figures - including many of beautiful young women - he carved buildings and modes of transport, most of them peopled by small figures and largely representative of times past. The idiosyncratic and humorous nature of many of his pieces is reflected in Charles's own summary of his work as 'Trams, Trains, Toilets and Tarts'. 'He always had a mischievous sense of humour,' says Linda. 'If he carved out a doctor's waiting room, you'd see someone with a saucepan stuck on their head.'
You might recall seeing Charles Forster's work when he ran a shop in Crich Tramway Museum and, latterly, Caudwell's Mill. In his last year, Charles was struck with motor neurone disease, though Linda told me how he'd continue to carve even when he was reduced to movement in one hand. Indeed, he died of a heart attack while working on a piece, aged 69, in 2004.
There are over a hundred pieces still unsold, although collectors from all over the world still come to the Gaslight Gallery. Naturally, there are pieces Linda would never sell as they provide poignant memories. Indeed, the very home she lives in is a living tribute to the work he put in to return the original late 19th century features to the house. Sitting by the coal warmth of the Victorian hearth, I felt I'd stepped back in time. After Linda pointed out some of Charles's charming pieces dotted around the wooden shelves, she quietly sipped on her tea and said: 'He is around me, so I'm very happy here. I also have a memory of a lovely man who made an impression on everyone he met and who made a living doing what he loved, though I do think his talents are still largely unrecognised.'
Another late, lamented figure from the arts world in Holbrook is Belper poet Stuart Mills, who appropriately frequented the Dead Poets, the pub run for nigh on five years by Bill and Sue Holmes. On hearing that 60 UK pubs are closing every month, it's a great testament to this tavern that it defiantly remains a place for good beer and conversation. There are always 25 to 30 ales in the cellar, eight hand pumps on the bar and two jugs, one of Abbot, the other Pedigree. You might get a cheese cob of an evening - indeed, locals drop in with nibbles - but the Dead Poets is largely run as Bill and Sue found it when they first came in as customers: as a comfortable, friendly, atmospheric pub where locals gather round a real fire and put the world to rights. 'Remember people talking to each other?' queried Bill. 'Thank heavens, that art has not been lost here.' Indeed, there's one innovation at the Dead Poets that came about as a result of a heated chin wag between locals 'John the Potter' and 'Chum' along the lines of: 'You think you can make a good game pie, do you? Well, I can make a great game pie'... 'Oh, can you now? Let's put 'em both to the test'... The Dead Poets' first Game Pie Contest attracted seven entries and it's now in its fifth year, featuring up to 15 competitors, both amateur and professional. 'Some of the home-made pies are beautifully made,' Sue points out, 'and a few competitors keep their recipes secret. Still, it's all good fun and we raise up to 500 for charity.'
Perhaps the Poets could help revive Damson Sunday - the first Sunday after St Michael's Day, 29th September - when damson pies were eaten in every Holbrook house. However, the tradition ceased in the 1920s and one wonders if the village gardens have clung on to the same special variety of damson trees brought from abroad which bore very large and juicy fruit, essential for the making of purple and blue dyes for the frame-knitting industry.
The signature dish at the Holbrook Spotted Cow is Gleneagles Fillet: steak interwoven with haggis, cream whisky sauce and a temple of chips. Indeed, the Cow is a temple to fine food, winning in 2006 a Midlands Food Pub of the Year award. Andrew and Fiona West-Hunt bought the pub four years ago following careers in I.T. - 'up at 5 am, home by 9pm, saw the world but never saw the children,' remarks Andrew. 'This is far better.' The owners pride themselves on their homemade food - a mix of English and Continental - with Italian Chicken a favourite dish but the carvery their mainstay. One weekend they served 350 carvery meals and had to turn away a hundred diners. They also pride themselves on knowing their customers. 'If I see a certain 4x4 come into the car park, I know I've got to get some dauphinoise potatoes on,' smiles Andrew. 'The meals here are fantastic,' agree regulars Gary and Sarah. Another customer, Kathy, spoke of the 'buzzing atmosphere', which I caught on a Friday jazz night where the accomplished clarinettist turned out to be Paul Winfield who I'd come to know as a Belper Ritz projectionist. Another surprise was discovering that the Spotted Cow has three stylish en-suite accommodation rooms.
It struck me that Holbrook has the perfect balance in its three pubs: there is one to drink in, one to dine in and the other where you can do both, although some villagers say it's a shame that as Holbrook's most central pub, the Spotted Cow is no longer a place to pop in for a pint, even though ironically it serves up three real ales. One resident spoke of regular Sunday worshippers going 'from salvation back to sin' by exiting St Michael's and heading straight for the Cow - 'even the verger,' I was told. There was also plenty of Sunday drinking in the days of the framework knitting industry, so much so that the day after became known as 'Stockingers' Monday', effectively an extra day off for those sore heads reluctant or unable to work.
There was a great deal of drunkenness during the Village Wakes of 1842, shortly after the Rev. William Leeke arrived. Earlier that year, the fear of a Chartist revolt in the village saw the vicar put in charge of 90 special constables. Nothing occurred. However, during the Wakes, he was attacked by local drunks with stones and conducted the services on the following Sunday with two black eyes. However, this drink-fuelled incident would have been small beer to William Leeke: as his grave in St Michael's cemetery tells us, this 'beloved incumbent' of the parish 'carried the regimental colours of the 52nd Light Infantry at the Battle of Waterloo' in 1815. Another larger than life vicar was the Rev. Sidney Swann who arrived in 1914. He was a renowned athlete and Cambridge rowing 'blue' who, in 1911 aged 49, entered the Guinness Book of Records by sculling across the Channel in three hours fifty minutes. The record still stands. He became the talk of Holbrook when he single-handedly shifted a huge stone in the churchyard while two or three workmen were pondering on how best to lift it.
The church itself is a singular building, described by warden David Mellors as 'a hidden architectural gem'. Inside, there is a circular stained glass window in memory of Rev. Leeke and a most attractive semi-circular window depicting the four great archangels. According to the present vicar, Rev. Robert Harris, the interior has 'a welcoming gracious spaciousness' and 'a superb acoustic suitable for both worship and concerts.' Fittingly, there has been a tradition of great choirs down the years, accompanied for most of the last half of the 20th century by Margaret Smithyman. The story goes that in 1944 Margaret agreed to become temporary organist while a permanent one was found. One was eventually found ... nearly 50 years later and Margaret was happily relegated to temporary deputy organist.
Even Margaret's tenure pales in comparison with choir member Marjorie Foulk who I met at Holbrook Hall, thought to be the oldest house in the parish and now a residential home. Aged 99, Marjorie sang in the St Michael's choir until she was 94, though her memory of that time is graciously reserved for her sister as she had 'the voice of an angel whose richness echoed all around the church.' Marjorie has lived in Holbrook her whole life and as I walked in the elevated grounds of the hall, I came to appreciate the area's reputation for the purity of its air. It's reckoned this is why the cholera epidemic of the mid 19th century killed only 11 villagers even though it struck more than 150 families. Locals used to joke that the village was 'so healthy that they had to shoot somebody in order to start the new cemetery.'
Marjorie Foulk appears so sprightly you feel she could go on forever. She still goes out for walks, striding out in a regimented fashion borne out of her years in the ATS. 'We call her the sergeant major,' smiles staff member Christine Fretwell. Born in 1908, Marjorie was one of five children in a house so small that two of them had to live with their grandmother next door. 'We were as poor as church mice,' she recalls. Dad was a miner who had a daily ten-mile cycle ride to and from Mapperley pit. Marjorie came to own the family home, eventually named Shell Cottage due to the thousands of shells she cemented on the walls and stones, the result of years of beachcombing in Cornwall. Marjorie never married, although she was engaged twice. 'I turned down the first boy because he had nothing about him,' recalls Marjorie. 'Mind you, he had lovely wavy hair.' Sadly, the second fianc, who she did intend to marry, was killed in Africa during the War. 'He wrote beautiful love letters,' sighed Marjorie. Marjorie also fondly recalls the former incumbent of Holbrook Hall, Mrs Arkwright, who may not have been Lady Arkwright but was referred to as such by the needy villagers she helped. She would visit the sick with a basket of fruit and frequently paid for their medical care - sometimes sending them to the seaside to recuperate - and, according to Marjorie, she was a 'fairy godmother' to the local children. Her benefaction extended to the provision of a village hall in 1932.
'That hall has served Holbrook magnificently,' says parish councillor Richard Biggin, 'but it's a wooden structure with an estimated life span of 30 years, so it's well past its use by date, never mind sell by'. Towards the turn of the millennium, it was decided to replace the hall before it literally fell down. Through fund-raising and a council tax levy, they're more than halfway to the estimated 450,000 target. The new hall will be a welcome asset as it's constantly being used by groups in and around the village, not least the adjacent C of E school, a thriving institution of 137 pupils run with evident passion by head teacher Andrew Davies. The last C of E inspection revealed 'a distinctive, well developed Christian ethos which it brings to the heart of village and parish life' and for its last OFSTED report, Andrew recalls that 'our fingers were hurting from opening all the envelopes from parents'. Of the 100 families surveyed, a remarkable 80 responded. 'We had letters saying how privileged parents felt to have their child at the school,' smiles Andrew. 'All the staff were welling up.' The school also has a superb website which includes pupils' painted portraits of the teachers. Being kids' portrayals, most facial features are heightened, though according to Andrew, 'what's really scary is that we all look exactly as depicted.'
At the other end of the village, occupying Netherlea - the house built by Joseph Bourne who founded Denby Pottery - is a specialist education centre for over 50 autistic young people. Over ten years old, the Holbrook Centre for Autism is a most impressive place. Deputy Head Caroline Bell speaks with pride and passion about the expertise, dedication and innovation of the staff in 'meeting students' individual needs, identifying their life skills and nurturing them', with remarkable results.'We celebrate every breakthrough,' says Caroline, 'even a student independently putting on a coat after never being able to do so.'
One of the centre's most successful projects is an echo of Holbrook's past: the development of 'Cottage Industry' projects, small enterprises whereby students plant, grow and sell Christmas trees, and produce and sell items like bird boxes and hanging baskets. Another inspiring project is literally uncovering Holbrook's past. The gardens, grounds and woods of Netherlea were once attractive showpieces with Mrs Bourne-Wheeler acquiring many exotic plant and tree species from round the world. The Netherlea Woodland Project aims to regenerate the entire area. Having toured the grounds, I can see it's an ambitious undertaking - these grounds have lain untended for 50 years - but in creating woodland walks, enhancing wildlife and even returning some of the original plants, the students will have gained invaluable work experience.
It's pleasing to hear that in the Centre's efforts to engage with the local community, all Holbrook C of E pupils come to learn about autism. Further still, Holbrook Scouts have expressed an interest in using the Centre's new sports hall when it opens this month. So, with 2008 hopefully seeing work started on a new village hall and, having heard of an annual village fte that last year attracted over a thousand visitors, a post office that will remain open along with three flourishing pubs, two long-standing football teams - the Miners' Welfare and St Michael's - an active Church with its own social committee, a low crime rate and no more housing developments other than infill, Holbrook appears to be in a pretty buoyant state, especially when you can add to that the numerous footpaths and a nature reserve with 32 bird varieties including herons, siskins and sparrowhawks. Let's not forget, too, the purity of that air and the community togetherness. 'I've lived all over the place,' states The Wheel's landlord Paul Romney, 'but I've made more friends here than anywhere else. Everyone I know looks out for each other. There's a wonderful spirit about Holbrook.'