The village of Stanton by Dale - from ironworks to ‘idyllic oasis’

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 October 2017

Dale Road

Dale Road

Ashley Franklin Photography

Ashley Franklin visits Stanton by Dale in south-east Derbyshire – ‘Once you get here, you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else’

My journey to Stanton by Dale involved a pleasurable drive through neighbouring Dale Abbey. When I wrote in these pages about Dale Abbey, I referred to it as a Shangri-La, adding: ‘It’s as if the village has been sequestered away.’ I felt that same splendid isolation in Stanton by Dale when visiting the village for the first time last September.

As with the recent articles on West Hallam and Kirk Langley, I must thank the WI for effectively bringing this article about. On visiting to give a talk I was quietly admonished for having ignored their wonderful village in my 12 years of writing village articles for Derbyshire Life and promised to return with notebook and camera.

On my return, I made a surprising discovery. Beyond Dale Abbey, the lanes leading to Stanton sweep into further open countryside but one of the two other roads into Stanton leads, in two miles, to Junction 25 of the M1 and just half a mile down the third road is the massive industrial estate where Stanton and Staveley ironworks once employed 7,000 workers. This makes it even more remarkable that Stanton by Dale is, as one resident told me, an ‘idyllic oasis’. Better still, this oasis has two ‘watering holes’ – the Chequers Inn and Stanhope Arms. To complete the idyll, there are charming cottages, handsome almshouses, a traditional archetypal parish church and village hall, an age-old cricket ground and even a medieval cross overlooking a village green which, furthermore, is close to a Victorian cast-iron water pump. Also unchanging is the layout of the streets, which is almost the same as it was in Burdett’s Derbyshire map of 1767. Stanton by Dale even has its own blue plaque, commemorating aviation pioneer Hugh Oswald Short (1883–1969) who, with his two brothers, built some of the first British aircraft in history.

Estate agents often highlight the extraordinary statistic that Stanton by Dale is exactly 6.9 miles from both Derby and Nottingham. They also frequently refer to a ‘picturesque, sought after’ village and, along with the aforementioned features, point to ‘the many public footpaths providing walks over the surrounding countryside.’ It was the footpaths leading to Stanton that brought Stapleford resident Marie Edinborough and her husband to visit the village, fall in love with it and move here 18 years ago. As Marie has further found, ‘You can walk ten miles from here and only cross two roads.’ Marie also loves the fact that from her house, ‘the only noise you hear are the sheep.’

Cottages beside the village greenCottages beside the village green

Arguably, all that is missing in this quintessential English village is the noise of children squealing with glee in a primary school playground, and perhaps a post office/store, though the old schoolhouse – also once the site of the community post office – is now a delightful deli/café. Although Stanton by Dale is also missing its historic main employer – the ironworks – its heritage can be found across the globe: wherever you are, just look down and you may well see a manhole cover with the embedded name ‘Stanton & Staveley.’ Look up and if you see an old concrete lamp post, it could also bear the same name.

There is evidence of iron production here from Roman times, long before blast furnaces were lit at the Stanton works. Listed as Stantun in Domesday, the name means ‘the settlement – or farm – on stony ground.’ As with most early settlements, agriculture would have been the mainstay of the village over the centuries, with five farms in the village alone. Resident Thomas Roper told me that cows were herded through the main street right up until the 1980s.

One of the village roads, Quarry Hill, confirms that the stony ground was worked hereabouts, the quarries providing much of the stone in Stanton’s pre-1800 buildings and walls, with some of the local buildings containing stone seized from Dale Abbey following the abbey’s dissolution in 1538. It was after the Dissolution that the estate – which included Stanton – was granted to the Babingtons, then the Willoughbys of Risley and, in 1716, to the last private owners, the Earls Stanhope of Chevening in Kent.

1796 saw the first glimmerings of Stanton’s iron industry with the building of a single blast furnace, followed by another in 1801, though both had been demolished by 1806. However, in 1846, Benjamin Smith – known as ‘The Ironmaster’ – came to live at Stanton Hall and took a 21-year lease from Earl Stanhope to establish an ironworks by the Nutbrook Canal. Smith didn’t feel quite so masterly three years later: he went bankrupt. However, a succession of further leaseholders, backers and bankers eventually saw – in 1858 – the formation of a new Stanton Iron Company.

Village PumpVillage Pump

Perversely, the company’s success was cemented by war: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 created a huge demand for iron, as did World War I. During the Second World War, the plant produced 873,500 bomb casings and 100,000 tons of concrete air raid shelters. The Stanton plant was hailed as the most modern and efficient of its type in the world, yet the Nazis never bombed it. Intriguingly, it’s reckoned the Germans left it alone because they wanted it for themselves.

Stanton was a major producer of iron pipes, concrete pipes, street furniture and cast-iron tunnel segments – famously used in the construction of the London Underground and Mersey Tunnel. By the late 1960s, it had become the UK’s biggest supplier of iron products. However, after joining the Common Market in 1973, iron production went abroad and, ironically, the plant was purchased in 1985 by the French Pont-à-Mousson Group, which later become Saint-Gobain Pipelines. They still own it today, although the last pipe was cast in 2007.

There is a rich seam of Stanton history to be found in Erewash Museum, especially following the recent discovery of 70 rolls of 16mm film in a skip, documenting the period between 1943 and the end of the ’60s. Workers’ memories are largely of hard, gruelling work. One worker recalls his first day: ‘I saw men who’d had the steel taken out of them. They looked yellow, grey and sallow. I thought “you’ve come here to die.”’

Other employees speak of the noise and ‘a sense of danger.’ It was the smell that afflicted Ilkeston-born actor Robert Lindsay when he took on summer work at Stanton, aged 16: his job was to be lowered down a manhole to clean out the sewers. ‘I spent that whole summer doing nothing but shovel waste,’ he recalls, ‘it was the worst job I ever had.’

St Michaels & All Angels ChurchSt Michaels & All Angels Church

There was a different noxious smell sniffed by Stanton by Dale resident Thomas Roper who worked in the accounts office at Stanton for 41 years, from 1942 to 1983. ‘You would often get that sulphurous odour coming from the coke ovens,’ he recalled. ‘Mind you,’ he smiled, ‘Trowell got the worst of it.’ Locals coined a word for the smell after the coke oven manufacturers Woodall-Duckham, often saying ‘Duckhams is strong today.’

Mainly, though, Thomas recalls a workplace that ‘felt like a family.’ Also, as a Stanton by Dale resident, he had the advantage of a short walk or cycle ride to work which meant he had time to nip home for lunch.

In 1912, the Stanton company bought Earl Stanhope’s estate though, much to the relief of the residents, the only new buildings to appear were six semi-detached houses on Quarry Hill for middle management. As a result, youngsters like Thomas were not allowed to play at Quarry Hill so that the managers could rest in peace and quiet. Also, the managers and foremen were the only residents who could afford to pay the extra money to prop up the bar in the pub.

Only Stanton workers were allowed to live in the village so as well as Stanton by Dale retaining its look, layout and character, a bonded community grew. However, as it wasn’t until 1978 that the estate began to sell a few of the properties, it was too late to save the village school from closing in the 1980s with only five children on the roll. ‘It was a shame about the school,’ says Thomas, ‘because the village is an even better place now with younger families coming here.’

Middlemore's AlmhousesMiddlemore's Almhouses

I spoke with Thomas at the home of Ralph and Sylvia Homer who live in one of the eye-catching late 18th century Workers’ Cottages in a row on Stanton’s main street. Ralph and Sylvia’s longed-for purchase of the cottage came about through what sounds as much an act of faith as it was fate. Their house in Draycott had been on the market for four years without any viewers when they saw this workers’ cottage for sale. They prayed it could be theirs and amazingly, over the next weekend, 11 couples came to view their house and one of them bought it.

As a result, Ralph made up a framed copy of these lines from Jeremiah 29: ‘For I know the plans I have for you / Plans to prosper you and not to harm you / Plans to give you hope and a future.’ Just as amazingly, Sylvia came to discover that her great grandmother was born in this very cottage and that her great great grandmother was born next door.

That grandmother may well have been one of the women of Stanton who made a gift of the village pump in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s ‘beneficent reign.’ It made me wonder what the men gave but also, why the cast-iron pump was made at Coalbrookdale Ironworks rather than Stanton?

Just further down from the pump are the Middlemore’s Almshouses, a charming row of gabled brick cottages named after Mrs Winifred Middlemore who built four of them in 1711. The next four were added in 1735 and there were further extensions in 1829 and 1904. Remarkably, the houses blend so harmoniously that they appear to have all been built at the same time.

Adjacent to the almshouses stands the Church of St Michael & All Angels, parts of which date back to the 13th century. It was much altered in an 1872 restoration, although fortunately the battlemented 15th century west tower was left intact. Inside there are three stained glass windows designed by the renowned Victorian Charles Kempe. A young Kempe had seen the church as his vocation but when it became clear that his severe stammer would be an impediment to preaching, he decided that ‘if I was not permitted to minister in the Sanctuary, I would use my talents to adorn it.’

Five years ago, Stanton by Dale’s current rector, Glyn Lucas felt God was calling him to a rural parish – ‘to recognise the many small churches that needed gospel ministry’ – even though he was ministering a church in the town of Cheadle with a congregation of over 400. ‘Village communities value their parish church,’ states Glyn, ‘but they don’t necessarily recognise that they need clear preaching and teaching in order to keep them flourishing.’

Glyn is also the rector of the churches in Risley and Dale Abbey and is enjoying the challenge: ‘It is difficult to keep communities going – high house prices have made it difficult for young families to move into the village and living in a conservation area brings its own problems – but the people here are refreshingly straightforward and friendly and the good humour that pervades even the most difficult situation makes living here a wonderful experience.’

Glyn believes that the church has played its part in the growth of community spirit in Stanton, working hard, for example, to encourage participation in civil services such as Remembrance Sunday. There are also plans to refurbish the church, including the replacement of the pews with new ones. As Glyn points out: ‘This will retain the character of the building while affording greater flexibility to use the church for community events.’

Fiona Sheppard, a resident of ten years, praises ‘the wonderful vicar Glyn and his wife Anne’ for leading lots of inclusive church events. ‘Christmas is particularly special with the candlelit carol service,’ says Fiona, ‘though it can be difficult to see the carol service sheet!’ What Fiona also loves about Stanton is ‘the wonderful sense of community.’ In fact, both she and Stevie Short, a resident of two and a half years, told me of the wonderful welcome they received as newcomers. ‘We know so many people already,’ says Stevie, ‘far more than where we used to live in Nottingham.’

One can discern that Stanton by Dale is a proper village as a lot of community activity seems to include tea and cake. Stevie mentions that friends she made via the WI formed a gardening club to talk about plants and planting, although it doesn’t appear to involve much gardening: ‘We sit in each other’s gardens, drinking tea and eating cake,’ reveals Stevie. Then there is a Church group called Tea & Company, where cake is also provided along with games and a chat.

There is the prospect of further tea and cake in The Old Schoolhouse Café/Deli, run by Joanne Foster and her husband Wayne, who came here in 2014 following careers as paramedics. Although tucked away down a country lane, Jo believes that’s part of their appeal: ‘I think there’s something lovely about being hidden away, and I also love the fact that we are surrounded by nature in a very beautiful rural village. This also brings in walkers and cyclists.’

Key to success here, believes Jo, is ‘customer service, keeping the food simple, fresh and well presented, happy staff, lots of laughter and a healthy dollop of socialising. We also offer a cosy environment with comfy seating, gentle background music and a welcoming atmosphere.’

Coffee is supplied by a friend, Greg Campher, who lives in the village and runs a thriving business, Outpost Coffee, and virtually all the cakes and scones are home-made, including a very popular gooseberry and coconut cake and a plum and almond slice ‘to die for’.

I learnt that on the road outside the café, an entry last year in the village’s Scarecrow Festival – of a Lollipop Man – was on display long after the festival ended as it proved very effective for slowing the traffic down. I not only slowed down but also stopped to take a photo of two superb scarecrows from this year: a Calendar Girl and an ingenious, winning creation of a scared crow.

The Scarecrow Festival is held around the date of the village fête, one of many events that have sprung to life following the formation of the Friends of Stanton by Dale in 2001. Remarkably, all the other events and activities they organise – Christmas Fayre, Sports Day, Salvation Army concert, community litter pick – are spearheaded by just five women – and lots of valuable volunteers.

The sociability of Stanton is aided immeasurably by the presence of two public houses. When Ian Moon arrived at the Chequers with his wife Sue in 2001, the pub was ‘ailing’. Within five years, trade had doubled. Key to its renewed appeal, believes Ian, was ‘having a traditional landlord and landlady who lived on site, could build a relationship with customers who like a drink and a natter, and are seen as a pillar of the community.’

Ian has proved the latter by funding the Friends of Stanton by Dale and a children’s park in the village. Ian also sponsors his wife’s carriage driving. Sue Moon and her lovely miniature Shetland ponies ‘Aero’ and ‘Twinkle’ are a popular sight at country shows around the region.

It’s heartening that although, like most pubs, Ian and Sue serve food – ‘traditional pub grub with pies that are home-made’ – the Chequers has retained its reputation as a drinker’s pub and, admirably, become a destination pub at the same time, with 80 per cent of its customers driving out to them. ‘It helps being in a beautiful village,’ adds Ian, ‘and we pride ourselves in providing a cosy, warm and welcoming ambience.’

In contrast to Ian and Sue’s 16 years at the Chequers, when I visited Ryan Sims-Atkins and Beth Lumbis they had yet to chalk up 16 weeks as landlord and landlady at the Stanhope Arms. Ryan and Beth were certainly attracted to the pub: ‘We fell in love with the place almost as soon as we walked in and saw its traditional look with the beams; and when we tasted the food, we loved it even more. It already feels like home, and this is such a lovely, unspoilt village.’ The menu comprises ‘home-made traditional pub food with an upmarket feel’ and I can vouch for the Famous Stanhope Arms Scotch Egg where the sausage meat has been infused with black pudding, with the whole dish set off by a delicious sweet chilli jam.

‘We are looking forward to the exciting challenge ahead,’ say Ryan and Beth. Just ahead for them is a refurbishment of the seating and opening a function room, which will surely add to the custom they already enjoy from the cricket club, Erewash Golf Club and the Men’s Social Club who meet here.

Custom may well increase should the proposed 2,000 homes ever get built on the nearby ironworks site. This is a concern for villagers, not surprisingly given that 5,000 vehicles a day already pass through Stanton by Dale, so it’s hoped the new estate won’t spoil what, for residents Thomas, Ralph and Marie, is a very special place.

‘At my age I feel I ought to downsize but I just won’t leave Stanton,’ says Thomas. ‘It’s in my blood. I love the fact that you can’t walk up the street without stopping for a chat. This is a very close-knit village.’

‘Stanton is a warm, friendly village that wraps itself around you,’ says Ralph. ‘Before long, it’s like you’ve never lived anywhere else.’

‘And once you get here,’ adds Marie, ‘you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.’

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside