The village of Sudbury, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 14:25 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013

Sudbury Hall

Sudbury Hall

The people and places behind 'an unspoilt village with a very original charm.'

Taking the road into Sudbury is sweetly reminiscent of the drive into other Derbyshire estate villages. It's like slipping through a portal in time, leaving all the clutter, congestion and confusion of contemporary civilisation behind. As the owner of the Sudbury Estate, the Hon Mrs JE Fitzalan Howard declares: 'So many people can't believe what they see when they come into Sudbury because it feels as if they've stepped back in time.'

With Sudbury, it's particularly pleasant to escape the clamour of the busy A50 Derby-Stoke dual carriageway as one drives down the long lane into the village to be greeted by the elegant imposing Sudbury Hall. As Roy Christian points out in his book Derbyshire: 'Sudbury Hall is open to the public in more senses than one, not hiding behind a high wall and demanding privacy in the 18th and 19th century fashion but looking out boldly across the road inviting the admiration it deserves.'

Then comes the village itself, rebuilt by George Vernon in the 1670s to harmonise with the new Hall he was erecting. 'It's an unspoilt village with a very original charm,' says Claire Cork, who runs the post office/store. Certainly, with a place like Sudbury the wires, signposts and aerials become almost invisible and the construction of a by-pass in 1972 has restored some of the serenity the village must have enjoyed in the 17th century

Current villagers might even be better off than those around in the 1870s when a by-pass was first suggested by the 6th Lord Vernon because of the dust and dirt thrown up by horse-drawn vehicles. As Caroline Wheeler wrote in Derbyshire Life at the turn of this century, 'little has changed here since the vicar led a dance down the village street to celebrate Wellington's victory at Waterloo.' There's little wonder that the BBC filmed in the village street in a charming 1980 version of Pride and Prejudice, preceding the better known 1995 version which used interior shots of the Hall for Darcy's Derbyshire stately home, Pemberley.

However, this is not to say that Sudbury is a quiescent village. The Hall and its renowned Museum of Childhood attract a vast number of visitors and there is an active church, a busy pub, post office/store and butcher's shop, a highly regarded primary school, and a thriving cricket and bowls club. It's also home to the famous Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt. All this points to the efficacy of estate aegis. As Estate Office manager Hugo Mallaby states: 'We have managed to keep open the post office, butcher's shop, pub and school, amenities which have long since vanished from other villages. This is because we are committed to Sudbury's properties and its inhabitants and, as a result, we have maintained the essential vitality and character of the village.'

Before the Hall and estate came along, the name Sudbury suggests the settlement would have had some strategic importance as its Saxon name translates as 'the southern fortified place'. Following the Norman Conquest, Sudbury was one of over 200 manors given to Henry de Ferrers. However, it is the name Vernon that equates with Sudbury, especially George Vernon who succeeded to the estate in 1660 and almost immediately began to rebuild the family manor house. Vernon was described as 'a prudent young man, sober and active'. One can add patience and dedication to his attributes as some of the interior decorations of Sudbury Hall weren't completed until 30 years after the house was begun. More extraordinary still is that few changes have been made since, save for the addition of a domestic wing in Victorian times, and that it remained the home of the Vernons without interruption until the 10th Lord Vernon handed it to the National Trust in 1967.

Although death duties arising from the demise of the 9th Lord Vernon were reportedly behind handing the Hall to the NT, Joanna Fitzalan Howard saw it as a catalyst: 'It was mainly death duties that determined this decision but my father also realised the world had changed and he felt it wasn't appropriate to live in so huge a house. Unless you employ lots of servants, it's extremely hard work. It would also have been hard work if he had tried to open it to the public himself. He would have felt the loss of privacy as well, and he was also genuinely warm to the idea of the public coming to enjoy the house and gardens.'

What the public enjoys most is the Long Gallery, at 138 feet twice the length of a cricket pitch, with an ornate ceiling described by the National Trust as 'perhaps the finest of its kind in any English house', and the great carved white staircase, reckoned by the Trust to be 'perhaps the finest staircase of its date in situ in an English country house.' However, what the guidebook to the Hall doesn't reveal is that when redecorating to replicate its 17th century look, the restorers found white paint beneath the brown of the staircase and assumed this was its original colour. Joanna told me that the staircase was more likely to have been natural wood as a decade or so after the NT's refurbishment, evidence came to light that it hadn't been painted white until the mid 1850s when a misguided housekeeper decided to 'brighten the place up' while the family was away in Italy over the winter. Although the Vernons were reportedly horrified on their return, they didn't return it to its original mode. 'Mind you, the white paint was far better than the chocolate brown the family had it painted in the 1920s,' smiles Joanna.

Although Joanna only lived in the Hall as a baby, she recalls having the freedom as an infant to play there. She discovered stairs leading to the Hall's striking gold-topped cupola, crowned with a golden ball to reflect the sun and act as a beacon for travellers. These stairs took Joanna and her playmates on to a flat roof. 'We played chicken on that high rooftop,' Joanna mischievously reveals. 'It felt quite safe though I'm sure Health and Safety today would have a fit.'

Joanna also interestingly revealed that as the house was being refashioned in its original 17th century scheme, the Victorian wing was deemed a 'unfortunate addition'. Trees were arranged on the lakeside so that when viewing the Hall it was shielded and, soon after, the Trust's first administrator, John Hodgson, came up with the idea of converting the wing to the Museum of Childhood - recently refurbished in excellent style.

What makes Joanna especially appreciative of her former home is 'the quality of the decoration in the staircase and ceilings.' The baroque plasterwork features an ornate wealth of fruit, flowers and, curiously, grasshoppers. Joanna feels: 'Sudbury Hall is not a great palace like Chatsworth or Kedleston but whereas those houses have their showy state rooms, Sudbury has a more "lived-in" quality, a grand gentleman's residence that you can easily imagine a family inhabiting and enjoying.'

Pevsner was certainly impressed, writing: 'Sudbury Hall is uncommonly satisfying to the eye both outside and inside.' He was less gracious about the adjoining All Saints' Church, believing it 'over-restored'. However, its attractive exterior is, as church warden Cath Goodwin points out, 'much as it was in the 1660s'. Cath regards All Saints' as 'a much loved, welcoming and well kept church' and I found it immensely peaceful. Screened by trees, All Saints' has a number of Victorian memorial windows - the east-facing one was actually presented by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A later church visitor, Alan Aitken, also donated a delightful window on behalf of the children, like himself, who were evacuated to Sudbury from Manchester at the beginning of World War II. Depicting two children complete with label and gas mask, it has the poignant inscription: 'I was a stranger and you took me in.'

It was Joanna's grandmother, Merry, wife of the 9th Lord Vernon, who arranged for Derby Children's Hospital to occupy a wind of Sudbury Hall throughout the War and also organised the placement of the evacuees. Many years later she received a visit from one of the evacuees. 'I remember it well because he was a dapperly-dressed man who turned up in a Bentley so large and grand that it dwarfed our family motor. He had made his fortune.'

Life in Sudbury for an evacuee from the town would have been idyllic, according to 82-year-old resident Ralph Bessant, a member of the choir at All Saint's since the age of 8. It may sound hackneyed but that old adage 'you could leave your door unlocked' applied in pre-war Sudbury. Ralph reminisced about playing freely and fearlessly in the fields, scrumping apples and riding his bike on lanes where he would be more likely to encounter a pony and trap than a motor vehicle - 'I recall only four villagers owning a car.' Ralph also recalls the tradition of attending church twice on a Sunday, when you were not allowed to play - 'only read in the parlour or walk out with your parents'. Ralph is still a chorister at the church, which, as Cath Goodwin points out, is one of the very few churches in the area that still manages to keep a four-part church choir and 'an exceptional organist'. The choir recently took part in BBC Radio 3's Mendelssohn Celebration.

Like Cath, Ralph Bessant grew up in Sudbury because his father was employed on the estate. 'If workers had children, Lord Vernon would do his best to find them accommodation,' Ralph recounts. 'He was also very paternal should anyone fall ill - and every villager received a gift at Christmas.' As Joanna Fitzalan Howard confirms, even now a family connection is taken into consideration when property is up for rent. 'It's good for the community,' Joanna affirms. 'It means youngsters who moved out of the village can return - or at least it makes it easier for them to move back.' Estate Office manager Hugo proudly confirms that there are up to four generations of some families living on the estate.

One abiding memory of Ralph Bessant's was a game of Hare and Hounds using a trail of chalk arrows, or even chasing behind real hounds with the local Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt. 'We'd run with them for miles but it was worth it because we'd also help open gates for riders and get threepence each,' he smilingly mentions.

Jamie Nicklin was four when he first rode out with the Meynell, and his long-time wish to be Kennel Huntsman became reality two seasons ago. 'This is my dream job,' he declares. 'For one thing, the kennels are superb.' Indeed, as The Meynell Hunt Song goes: Hurrah for the hounds of the Meynell;

The world cannot boast such a kennel.
'These kennels were built for the job in the late 19th century,' states Jamie. 'The Victorians were very astute in ensuring that the buildings are warm in winter and cool in summer. What's more, the area around Sudbury is home to just about the finest countryside you could wish for hunting in. It's a big operation, too, hunting 550 square miles three days a week in the season and we've seen a recent rise in support.'

The Hunt's headquarters do not obviously belong to Sudbury as they were separated further from the village when the by-pass was built. 'The by-pass divided the village by cutting off Sudbury Park residents and creating two communities,' remarks Cath Goodwin. Joanna remembers her father putting 'an immense effort' into securing the by-pass but she now has her own fight to introduce traffic calming on the village's Main Road, even declaring that 'the biggest threat to this village is not development but traffic - the noise as well as volume.' As an instance, Joanna told me how she fought for 18 months to erect black metal bollards to protect the hanging Vernon Inn sign and the post office/store steps as they were being repeatedly hit by lorries.

Those worn ancient steps are just one of numerous architectural artefacts that delight the eye in the village. There is a stone at the base of the wall opposite the Vernon Arms which was long worn away by the leather breeches of the stable boys waiting for the stagecoach to arrive. The village stocks have been restored, too, and there is a quaint sign depicting a bull with an arrow pointing down School Lane towards 'A J Wild High Class Family Butcher'. Allan Wild, who came to the shop 33 years ago, runs a proper family business where on a Saturday morning you will find father, son Steven and daughter Helen serving customers. Steven has the responsibility of looking after the shop's own abattoir and they also have their own bakehouse where Allan's wife and daughter-in-law make their highly regarded pies. At Christmas time they bake hundreds a day. 'Their pies are marvellous,' declared one customer. 'I tell my husband I make them; it's a shame he doesn't believe me.'

The handsome school down this lane was purpose-built in the 1830s by Lord Vernon who announced that anyone who didn't send their children to school wouldn't be allowed a cottage. Thus Sudbury had compulsory education nearly 40 years before it was introduced nationally. The current primary has 36 children from Sudbury and beyond and Headteacher David Brown speaks warmly of the school's 'bright, colourful and spacious environment and its close community feel.'

Further down School Lane is the idiosyncratic old gas works building, later a blacksmiths. Although this is now empty, a little further down the is Metwood Forge. Founded in 1971 it has just been taken over by Peter Lawrie who manufactures wrought iron gates and railings and bespoke ironworks. 'As a lover of old skills, it's a real pleasure to produce ironwork in a traditional manner,' enthuses Peter. 'Having a forge in a lovely rural spot like this gives my business a wonderful advantage because my customers adore coming to this atmospheric and picturesque setting. This place is my dream come true and I intend to work here until I can retire and have a business for my children.'

It was also Anthony and Claire Cork's dream that they would one day run the post office/store. They married at All Saints' and fell in love with the village. Claire admits it's hard work competing with the supermarkets but there is staunch support from the villagers, not least from the older residents who welcome a chat in this social hub. A few others can be found on the green at Sudbury Bowling Club which is situated right beside the main street so that passers-by can pause by the stone wall to gaze at the play. 'Our beautiful setting makes our club a firm favourite with our visiting league teams,' says member Peter Calladine, who also mentions that the clubhouse roof beams were reportedly once part of Admiral Vernon's own ship. The club is hoping to build its own pavilion eventually.

Meanwhile the Vernon Arms is running quiz nights to raise funds for a new pavilion for the cricket club. The pub also has darts and domino teams, and is run by new chef/manager, Lorraine Chapman. A New Zealander 'brought up in the middle of nowhere', Lorraine feels very comfortable in this rural spot and loves the 'warm community spirit'. Business is brisk through good support from the locals, plus the many Hall visitors and prison staff from nearby Sudbury Open Prison. As well as bringing in real ales from local micro breweries, Lorraine now offers more choice food on the specials board. It's largely traditional pub grub - 'cooked fresh and sourced locally', or as local as she can get when it comes to serving crocodile, bison, kangaroo and ostrich.

The sign at the Vernon Arms bears the inscription Vernon Semper Viret - 'Vernons will always flourish'. Sadly, the last Lord Vernon of Sudbury died in 2000 but Sudbury appears to be in very good, caring hands. Ralph Bessant admits that the village will never return to the time when everybody knew each other, 'A lot of residents are transitory and some refuse to integrate, but there is still a good quality of life here.' As butcher Allan Wild observes, 'They say that in estate villages the buildings never change but here even the faces stay the same because once people come to live in Sudbury they never want to leave.'

As Joanna Fitzalan Howard affirms, it's vital the fabric of Sudbury is maintained. 'It's a small point but consider, for example, the fact that you see house doors painted the same colour. The uniform treatment of the houses is part of the essence of Sudbury. It wouldn't be the same if there were many different ownerships.' She does admit that it gets increasingly difficult to preserve the look of the village: 'Some residents rightly want everything to stay as it was but it's not always possible. I don't get precious over aerials and wires because people have to live in this modern age. Maintenance work is tasking because of increased legislation - a repair job which ten years ago needed a ladder now needs full scaffolding. It's more paperwork, more cost.

'Essentially, we have to strike a balance between our paternalism of the village and the cost of maintaining it. However, it's pleasing that we are not in the job of maximising profit. We simply work towards retaining the atmosphere of our beautiful village.'

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