Extensive Views and Hidden Halls in Holmesfield
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 May 2018
Mike Smith journeys to Holmesfield, an ancient manor on the hills south-west of Sheffield
The website of Penny Acres Primary School, which is situated on an elevated site above the village of Holmesfield, carries a lyrical description of the local landscape as ‘a rolling sea of undulating hills and moorland’. One side of the school looks south across a patchwork of green fields and hedgerows to the Cordwell Valley, whilst the other side looks west towards the orange-tinted eastern moorlands of the Peak District. The focus shifts again in the large areas of countryside visible from St Swithin’s Church, located on a knoll at the centre of the village. The view to the north looks across Totley Moor towards the leafy suburbs of Sheffield, whilst an equally extensive view to the south-east takes in, on a clear day, the outlines of Chesterfield’s gravity-defying twisted spire, the tall towers of Bess of Hardwick’s grandiose house and the château-like castle at Bolsover. Collectively, this quartet of extensive views encompasses many of the varied elements that make up the English landscape.
Although St Swithin’s Church stands 800-feet above sea-level on the site of a Christian settlement founded by monks in AD 641, the present building was constructed in 1826. The church is a rather strange building architecturally, with a nave featuring large Georgian-style windows that are at odds with the Gothic appearance of the pinnacled tower. The chancel was added in 1895 and the church hall, linked to the church by a glass atrium, was added in 2011 to host baptism and birthday parties, wedding receptions, funeral teas, talks, conferences and a variety of other functions.
Holmesfield is also privileged in having a village hall with a large function room that contains a stage and features a ‘millennium tapestry’ illustrating all the main landmarks in the village. Lettings officer Lucy Perry said: ‘The hall is very well used as a venue for a flower club, a gardening association, Neighbourhood Watch meetings, a toddler group, meetings of the Parish Council, social gatherings and weekly sessions for keep fit, dance, Pilates and yoga, as well as my very own Zumba class.’
The village is equally fortunate to have retained no fewer than four public houses. Located between the church and a public open space known as the Coronation Garden, the Angel is a pub that is much visited by people driving out from Sheffield to enjoy its real ales, freshly-prepared food, weekly quiz nights and log fires. Two other notable features of the Angel are a beer garden and a large conservatory. The Rutland Arms, also popular with locals and visitors alike, is a Punch Tavern that serves cask ales, lunchtime bar snacks and has an outside seating area enclosed by a low wall. The George and Dragon was voted CAMRA’s ‘most improved pub’ in 2017 and Holmesfield’s fourth public house, the Traveller’s Rest, now operates as a Thai restaurant in the evenings.
Until recently, the village even had a fifth pub called the Horns Inn. The former site is now occupied by a residential development, carefully designed to match the traditional style of the stone-built local houses, whether they be modest cottages or substantial farmhouses that have been sensitively modernised and extended. Holmesfield has long been a favoured place of residence, as is evidenced by the high concentration of ancient country houses in the parish. Holmesfield Hall was built in 1613 close to the centre of the village, but four other local halls lie hidden along the delightful byways that lead away from the main road into the glorious surrounding countryside.
After leaving the main road, Fanshawe Gate Lane twists its way down into a wooded valley until it arrives at Fanshawe Gate Hall, where members of the Fanshawe family lived from 1260 until 1944. Cynthia and John Ramsden bought the beautiful gabled house in 1959 and set about restoring it by exposing hidden stonework, beams, windows and mullions. They also added an extension in a style to blend seamlessly with the original house.
Once they had restored the house to its former glory, the Ramsdens turned their attention to the garden by creating terraces, planting a knot garden, adding water features, renovating a dovecote and fashioning topiary. When the garden was opened to the public through the National Gardens Scheme, it became recognised as one of the most beautiful private gardens in Derbyshire and remained so until ill-heath caused the Ramsdens to close the grounds to the public.
After Cynthia became ill, the garden became her ‘retreat and sanctuary’. Before her death at the age of 85 in 2016, she had written two beautifully illustrated books, A Garden in my Life and Garden Tales, about the garden that had given the Ramsdens ‘a lifetime of pleasure’. John died aged 89 in 2017 and the wonderful old hall has now passed into new ownership and is being re-roofed and restored once again.
After passing this stunning hall, Fanshawe Gate Lane carries on twisting its way into a secluded valley until it arrives at Woodthorpe Hall, a gabled, L-shaped manor house dating from the 17th century. The handsome hall and its spectacular formal garden, set in 2.5 acres, provide a superb backdrop for wedding photographs. A marquee in the grounds can accommodate up to 150 reception guests.
Almost like a mirror image of Fanshawe Gate Lane reflected in the main road, Horsleygate Lane is a road that twists its way down to the Cordwell Valley on the southern side of Holmesfield. On its descent, the lane passes Horsleygate Hall, which was built in 1783 and extended in 1879. Over the last 25 years, the Victorian gardens have been lovingly brought back to life and developed with the addition of new plants and garden structures. The hall has accommodation for up to ten people, who can choose self-catering or assisted catering, and it hosts wedding receptions and blessings.
Cartledge Lane, a second road that runs south from the main road, leads to yet another example of Holmesfield’s beautiful country houses. Cartledge Hall is a finely proportioned and superbly maintained Grade II* listed Elizabethan house, which was the residence of Robert Henry Gilchrist from 1892 until his death in 1917. Gilchrist, who lived at the hall with other members of the Gilchrist family and with his companion, George Garfitt, was a prolific writer who produced 22 novels embracing romance and Gothic horror, as well as six short story collections, four topographical books and a play.
Gilchrist was described by the Derbyshire Courier as ‘a man who was true gentleness personified’ and by the Derbyshire Daily Telegraph as a man who ‘loved old friends, old books, old music and old courtesies’. His funeral at Holmesfield Church was packed with villagers, literary acquaintances and also Belgian refugees to whom he had shown a great deal of kindness.
Another famous past resident was GHB Ward, the pioneer rambler, who was born in Sheffield, but spent the last 42 years of his life in Holmesfield. He was a founder member of the Labour Party and one of the founders of the Clarion Ramblers, the country’s first working-class rambling club. For 50 years, he was the editor of their famous handbook, the Sheffield Clarion.
As Roly Smith has written, Ward was ‘as much a legend in the Peak District as Wainwright was in the Lake District – and just as truculent’. He campaigned tirelessly for better access to the countryside, being involved in mass trespasses long before the legendary Mass Trespass that took place on Kinder Scout in 1932. It is thanks to Ward and all the other campaigners who followed him that members of the public have access to all the wonderful countryside visible in those extensive views that can be seen from Holmesfield.