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The village of Weston on Trent, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 16:15 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

The Church of St Mary the Virgin

The Church of St Mary the Virgin

With its waterways, moated house and 'site of international espionage'

Entering Weston from the direction of Swarkestone via a long lane with views of sweeping farmland to the north and a glimpse of the canal through greenery to the south, one is greeted by a sign saying Weston upon Trent. This is shortly followed, bizarrely, by another signpost declaring entry to Weston on Trent. The County Council may not have made up its mind but I can confirm that villagers refer to Weston as being on rather than upon though, ironically, it is the Trent and Mersey Canal that marks the edge of Weston now rather than the more distant River Trent that originally brought settlers here.

Having once seen the pair of signs, curiously I carried on seeing Weston in terms of 'two'. There are two main roads into the village - the other from neighbouring Aston on Trent. Weston has two waterways, two fishing lakes, two churches, two farms and two pubs (though the future of one is uncertain) and even though there is only one primary school, the old one still stands, with memories of it very fresh given that the new building only opened - you've guessed it - two years ago.

However, there are no two ways about the affection its villagers have for Weston: as resident Kay Ward declared, 'Weston is an attractive, peaceful, tucked-away haven.'

'We have the best of both worlds here,' added Victoria Brown. 'We benefit from being in a wonderful historic village with buildings of character, magnificent open countryside and lovely walks along a tranquil canal; but we also have quick and easy access to major road networks and the airport.'

'Weston is also extremely neighbourly,' continued Kay. 'It's not everywhere that you see the vicar riding along on his bike, waving as he passes!' Kay also believes Weston has 'a true sense of community', evidenced by the sizeable turnouts for the various events which have celebrated Weston's own millennium this year, including a Medieval Family Fun Day and the annual scarecrow trail.

There have been plenty of scarecrows in the surrounding fields since King Ethelred signed a charter in 1009 which officially recognised Weston. The intensity of agriculture in these parts over the centuries led 17th century Derbyshire historian Philip Kinder to describe the area as 'the granary of Derbyshire'. Domesday notes that Weston had 'ten carucates of land' (a carucate being the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season). It also records the presence of a ferry boat. Such was the significance of its position that the 1009 charter describes Weston as the chief manor of a large estate including Aston, Shardlow and Wilne and confirms that Weston controlled the crossings of the Trent which, at the time, was one of the main routes for travellers moving up or down England. Remarkably, a ferry service continued right up to 1940.

Although today's village lies some distance from the Trent, it's significant that the parish church of St Mary the Virgin overlooks the river. This would suggest that its location made the nearby waters convenient for baptisms. It wouldn't entirely explain why the church stands at the extreme southern end of the village, but a fuller possible explanation surfaced in the 1950s when deep tractor ploughing unearthed numerous stones. According to Weston historian Kenneth Boyce, these stones may well have been the foundations of peasant cottages.

Whatever the reasons for St Mary's location, it stands most attractively in its isolation at the end of a long lane. Roy Christian pointed out in its favour that St Mary's is 'essentially of one time', as opposed to so many rural churches that have been continually refurbished through the centuries. The real beauty of St Mary's is its spacious bright interior, which Pevsner declared 'especially impressive for a church of its size, thanks to the surprisingly tall circular piers. They give a noble uprightness to the whole.'

I was also taken by the monument showing the kneeling figure of Richard Sale who was Rector of Weston for a remarkable 50 years before his death at 80 in 1625. Touchingly, his wife is depicted kneeling behind him and their eight children in the same posture behind her, all the more poignant in being rendered in a scaled-down size.

An entry in the church register of 1644 refers to the burial of soldiers, possibly from the same garrison that scratched into the plaster of the porch, as one of the inscriptions reveals the date of 1648. The burials were probably the result of a Civil War skirmish recorded in these parts. It's also believed that the local Roundhead commander, Sir John Gell, used Weston Hall as a barracks, stabling 200 horses in the cellars. The Hall, now Coopers Arms, was described by Roy Christian as 'a conspicuously tall, ungainly building', though this is because it is only one third of an Elizabethan E-shaped mansion. Look on one side of the uilding and you will see the brick toothing still exposed where the central hall section would have been. The mansion was begun by William Roper in the 1630s and was left unfinished when he plunged into debt. Successive owners, doubtless without Roper's initial wealth, gave no thought to completing his vision, especially as his plans would have produced a house to rival Hardwick or even Bolsover!

As it stands - imposingly overlooking a 35-peg fishing lake brimming with bream, carp, roach and tench - Weston Hall is the only moated private house in the county and one of only a few in the country. As the Coopers Arms, it has won even more recognition as a country pub, winning Freehouse of the Year Award in 2000 and 2003 and being voted best Pub in the Midlands in 1999. The Coopers Arms is a reference not, as you might think, to the building's past as a brewery but simply to the name of the Hall owner, Tom Cooper. Tom, who has lived on the top floor of the Hall for 30 years, was a plant hire manager who decided 18 years ago to open his own pub. Although he leased it off five years ago, he recently moved back in and installed his 24 year-old son James as landlord. Tom's wife Vicky and daughter Amy are currently building up its reputation as the busiest wedding venue in Derbyshire. Its new lease of life is also reflected in the extension of its popular Sunday carvery to all-day sittings. On its launch on Mothering Sunday last March, the 160-seater pub served a record 525 meals, and now averages a remarkable 450. According to Tom, the success of the Coopers Arms is down to 'giving our customers what they want.'

Although only 24, James reveals that he's already had 16 years experience in the trade: from the age of 8, he would don his dicky bow to help out his dad. He clearly relishes the responsibility of his new post, enthusing about his introduction of tapas food, the refurbishment of the carvery area, plus exciting plans to create 14 bedrooms. Although notable as an eatery and now wedding venue, James is also keen to make the Coopers Arms welcome as a local. I can certainly endorse the pub's own ale, a most palatable and full-bodied brew with a fruity flavour.

Opening its arms to village drinkers was a prescient move as the Old Plough, standing loftily in a picturesque part of Weston overlooking the village green, has just closed. Its six landlords/ landladies over the last two years allude to difficulties but although patronage had fallen, resident Marla Thompson told me of a time when the pub was 'well-run and buzzing' and that those days could return.

'We've already lost the social hub that was the post office,' resident Kay Ward points out, 'and it would be a disaster if another iconic part of the village landscape was to disappear.' There is further concern that the landscape will be spoiled should new houses spring up on the site of the Old Plough.

Iconic village features long gone in Weston are the 'cottages finely thatched' that so pleased Arthur Mee in his King's England book on Derbyshire. They gradually gave way to new houses in the 1960s. Evidence that not all new housing is an eyesore can be seen in the tasteful Weston Court development, where the plan and some of the fabric of a 17th century farm and its outbuildings have been elegantly preserved.

Although one of the thatched casualties was the attractive Old Gate Farm, its site is now occupied by a splendid new primary school. By a neat coincidence, the original Weston School was two thatched cottages. Proud headteacher of ten years, Helen Salih, told me of the enormous relief and delight of moving away from the cramped two-class Victorian building into a 3 million state-of-the-art school to which Helen, her staff and pupils were invited to contribute their own vision. 'As a Church of England Aided School, I said it was important to reflect the Christian beliefs and ethos,' Helen explains. 'From above, the building is in the shape of three-quarters of a Celtic cross, with a curved entrance reflecting the open arms of welcome.' Walking round, I could see that Helen has created 'a place of space, light and peace', which she also believes is 'a stimulating learning environment where children feel safe, secure, loved and inspired to learn.' With its various links in Weston with St Mary's Church, the Methodist Church, and both the Weston Under 5s and Over 50s, Helen also believes the school is 'fulfilling our aim to be a central cog in the village and beyond.'

A book of school memories was produced to commemorate the recent move, providing a fascinating social history of the village from the 1820s. It includes this curious entry in the Vestry minutes of 1823: 'It was resolved that every parishioner shall catch his own rats, moles and sparrows.' Even more curiously, money was given to any villager who caught a sparrow. I also enjoyed Peter Hiley's fond memories of the early 1940s where he recalls 'a spring in Trent Lane with beautiful, clear, cold water - "just like wine", my father would say,' so Peter used to fill a jar to take to drink at school. As for the contemporary entries, the pupils' verdicts on the new school include: 'At PE, you get more room'... 'I love the heated floor'... 'I like the bigger playground with a lot of huff and puff equipment... a bigger hall... bigger everything!'

School governor Victoria Brown loves the 'innovative ethos' at Weston School whereby 'the focus is on children's individual abilities and helping them reach their full potential'. Victoria herself is fulfilling her potential as an artist after deciding to become professional five years ago. She has built a studio extension to her Weston home, in place of one at Banks' Mill in?Derby, which allows her to enjoy her morning walks around Weston. Victoria paints bright, highly colourful canvases which boldly depict the natural world. Her latest series of paintings 'Hanami' has been created as a direct response to walking around the village last spring studying trees in blossom.

I discovered other cottage industries in Weston. Mandy Heathcote is a photographer and website designer who said she and husband Darren planned to live in Weston for five years. 'That was 12 years ago,' she declares. 'We have a great social circle here and love the closeness to the canal and countryside.'

Kay Ward, who has lived in the village with husband Mike for ten years, is a home stylist. Their home, a 16th century beamed farm worker's cottage, has become the perfect advertisement, although Kay admits her 'dream cottage' was more like a nightmare prior to the renovation work, particularly when Mike removed some skirting boards and a tree root sprang out, complete with soil.

There's also been splendid renovation work at the Grade II listed Rectory Cottage, a former farmhouse which is now The Secret Garden, a salon offering a wide spectrum of beauty and health treatments. Rachel Twiggs and her husband couldn't believe their good fortune at discovering the property. 'Many of our clients comment that when they visit us, it feels like they've escaped to a private retreat,' Rachel affirmed.

Testimonials for The Willows, the only Bed & Breakfast in Weston, glow just as brightly: 'Beautiful, relaxing setting'... 'lovely breakfast'... 'great hospitality'. As soon as Tony and Jean Bradshaw opened their doors in 1995, they were awarded a Visit Britain Quality in Tourism rating of four stars, though they equally cherish the award in their guest book from an Essex couple of 12 out of 10. 'This corner of Weston is so peaceful,' says Tony, 'with wonderful views over the water meadows and the Donington parkland rising majestically in the distance.'

Their amazingly long lawn also leads down to the quietude of the Trent & Mersey Canal which opened in 1777 and enjoyed a brisk trade taking plaster and alabaster from nearby workings to wider markets. A century later, the railway altered lives again. In the 1880s, London was taking some 15,000 gallons of Derbyshire milk per day, much of it from this area, with the Weston station providing two milk collections a day. The line is still used for freight, but there was a time in between the Wars on summer Saturdays and Bank Holidays, when passenger trains would bring day trippers and fishermen to Weston.

There is actually a 'holiday centre' in Weston today for Derbyshire Ukrainians - a legacy of a Ukrainian youth camp which saw 400 young foreigners take over one of the village's World War II depots. Another depot was reportedly the venue for a concert with Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller. Weston also hit the headlines in 1980, the year of the Moscow Olympics, when The Times reported that it had been named by the Russians as a site of international espionage. It was believed that 'anti-Olympic agents' were being trained at the Ukrainian camp by the CIA.

The only underhand dealings I know of in Weston today are when canal boater Angela Simpson barters her mulled wine for kindling with other 'boaties'. Angela is an endearing character who took to the waters in her late 50s. Approaching retirement as a divorcee and overcoming breast cancer, Angela fancied a challenge. Now 63, she enjoys an independent, carefree canal boat life which sees her mooring at Weston every late autumn to early spring so she can be close to her daughter's family in the village.

Although Angela had prior experience sailing dinghies, she had a nervous start on her boat 'Madrigal'. 'Suddenly I was handling 45 feet of narrowboat,' she recalls. 'I went far too fast at first, knocking into lock gates and other boats. I came to see canal boating as a contact sport. Now, I couldn't be more content. I look after the boat well. I even change the oil and grease the workings, though occasionally I'll offer a sweet smile to a man if a lock gate appears heavy. I don't feel lonely because family and friends are around me if I need them - it's good to get a hot bath at my daughter's house! I love having the option of flitting in and out of "everyday" life. But what I cherish most is wrapping myself in the tranquility of the waterways where I am close to nature. Kingfishers come to sit on my bow and I see chaffinches, dunnets, geese, heron, grebe, even shag. I can happily spend hours watching a moorhen with her chicks, though I've also come to regard mallards as the bandits of the canal - they terrorise the moorhens and go about in gangs pecking the algae off my boat at five in the morning! I love the winter in Weston; there's such a stillness to the place. Canal life is spiritual and paradisiacal... and it's what I've made of it.'

Angela isn't the only one who flashes a feminine smile towards chivalrous men at canal locks. I ended up helping Charlotte Selby open the heavy gates at Weston for her boat 'Tara No 1' to pass through, before walking the towpath and feeling that same serenity that Angela described. I've been told to return in autumn when the golden leaves form a canopy over the water.

'The canal is certainly special,' says Kay Ward, 'but so is Weston generally. We just hope we can maintain the place as a small sleepy village of peace and solitude, warm friendship and community spirit.'

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