PUBLISHED: 20:51 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Mike Smith finds a wealth of splendid architecture and interest in the historic town of Tutbury dominated by its Castle.
When I arrived at the forbidding red-brick residence in the inner bailey of Tutbury Castle, I lifted the heavy knocker and hammered on the front door. Despite my loud banging, the door remained firmly closed. A few moments later Judith Collison, the castle's administrator, appeared from a side door. Relieved to see a real presence in the courtyard, she told me that knocking had sometimes been heard at the front door when no one was there.
Several other unexplained noises have been reported by some members of the public who have joined paranormal investigators on all-night vigils at the hill-top castle. Although daytime visitors are less likely to hear spooky sounds, they have every chance of coming across historical figures. On the day before my arrival a party of schoolchildren had been introduced to Henry VIII. Other visitors have encountered Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots.
The king is played by Tim Barnacle, a local man of very imposing stature, and the two queens by Lesley Smith, the curator of the castle, who wears specially-made authentic outfits and even coats her face with the white powder that was used by ladies of the court in the 16th century.
Ghost hunts and real-live historical figures are just two of the attractions introduced by Lesley who was appointed curator and lessee of Tutbury Castle by the Duchy of Lancaster in 1999. Other events include presentations by experts on Elizabethan costume, re-enactments of battles and a candlelit talk by 'Anne Boleyn' on the morning of her execution. A large marquee in the courtyard is available for corporate events, school proms, wedding receptions and even Ladies' Days, which are accompanied by television transmissions from Ascot.
Thanks to these enterprising initiatives and her appearances as an historical expert on Channel 4's The Worst Jobs in History and satellite television's Most Haunted, Lesley has increased visitor numbers to Tutbury Castle from 8,000 per year to over 100,000. Not surprisingly, this remarkable achievement has become an important case study for students of Heritage Management at Derby University, where Lesley was awarded an Honorary Degree of Master of the University last year.
The Castle makes an ideal setting for re-enactments because it has a fascinating history. Founded in the 11th century by Henry de Ferrers, it passed into the hands of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1267. The fabulously rich John of Gaunt made repeated visits with his second wife, Constance of Castile, and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the castle on four separate occasions. In the Civil War, Cromwell put the fortress under a long siege, which ended with harsh surrender terms that included the destruction of the building. However, the demolition was only partially carried out and some attempts at reconstruction took place during the Restoration.
Judith Collison took me on a tour of the buildings. After showing me the refurbished tea rooms with their trompe l'oeil murals, she led me to the Great Hall via a secret stairway which only came to light recently when a wall-cupboard was dismantled. The hall is a treasure trove of fascinating exhibits, including a collection of small artefacts such as pocket sundial 'watches' which have been placed in a cabinet for visiting schoolchildren to find and handle. Moving into the grounds, we wandered through the ruins of the South Tower, before making our way past the foundations of a former chapel and a recreated 16th century garden to the North Tower, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned during her final stay in 1585, just two years before her execution.
Judith is a former churchwarden at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, which stands just outside the perimeter wall of the castle. Founded in 1180 as a Benedictine priory, it now serves as the parish church for Tutbury, which is spread out below it on the plain at the foot of Castle Hill. Although a tower was added in the 16th century and the chancel was replaced in the Victorian era, the church retains two wonderful Norman doorways. One is topped by a weathered tympanum representing a boar hunt and the other is set in a frame of seven receding arches, each intricately carved. Leaving the church, I walked down Castle Street towards the town but found myself turning around on several occasions to stare back at the summit, where the gaunt outline of the ruined castle and the solid bulk of the ancient priory form striking silhouettes. After all this architectural and historical excitement, I fully expected that it would be all downhill from here. However, I quickly realised that nothing could be further from the truth.
At the foot of the hill I came across a very tall Georgian house. Although the sash windows in its second and third storeys are fancifully embellished with key-blocks and bracketed sills, the building has a simple elegance that results from perfect proportions. Its near neighbour, Croft House, at the corner of Duke Street, is equally impressive. As I was to discover, these fine houses are just two of many splendid Georgian buildings in the town.
A short diversion took me to the workshop and showroom of Georgian Crystal, which was founded in 1981 by Peter Shaw after he had been made redundant at the Royal Doulton factory where he was a foreman in the blowing shop. Peter's showroom contains a sparkling array of crystal ware with individual bowls and vases displayed alongside sets of glasses and goblets. A dozen people work in his factory where I watched in awe as craftsmen painstakingly used age-old techniques to blow and cut glass into exquisite cups and ornaments.
Peter claims that his workshop is the only factory in the country that manufactures full-lead English crystal, a technique that imparts strength and lustre to his products, which are in great demand as retirement and anniversary gifts and as prizes at golf clubs. The worldwide fame of Georgian Crystal has even prompted the Sultan of Brunei to order 500 goblets and 500 small rose bowls - all to be used for children's birthday parties!
Returning to Duke Street, I came across the Charity House, where a soup kitchen was set up in 1901. It now accommodates a small museum, run by a trust and largely comprising a collection of artefacts bequeathed by Aubrey Bailey. Rather confusingly, the building, which was constructed in 1844, has a plaque above its door that bears the date 1798. Apparently, this was salvaged from nearby almshouses when they were demolished in 1972.
On reaching the head of Duke Street, I turned into High Street, one of those wide main streets that are so often found in England's best towns. Comprised almost entirely of red-brick Georgian buildings, this fine street also contains one half-timbered building in the shape of Ye Olde Dog and Partridge. The picturesque inn, which has a fine bay window in the ground floor, dates from the 15th century and was once the town house of the Curzon family of Kedleston Hall. Deputy manager Stuart Jones told me that the inn has nine en-suite bedrooms and offers a range of home-cooked 'specials' each day. As I supped a pint of ale in this ancient English hostelry, I glanced up at one of the old timber beams, which is inscribed with the slogan 'Call frequently, drink moderately, part friendly'.
After parting friendly, I wandered along High Street towards Tutbury Mill Mews past a variety of shops ranging from the practical, like Tutbury Opticians to the decorative such as Sue Adams jewellery. There are a number of outlets for crystal and various antique shops, including one that is housed in a former Wesleyan chapel. Two public clocks caught my eye: one in the gable of the Tutbury Institute, where crooners and Elvis impersonators strut their stuff, and the other projecting from the faade of the Clock Shop, a vast emporium of mechanical clocks, both ancient and modern.
Robert James, whose family have been involved in clock-making for 100 years, told me that the timepiece on the front of his building once hung above platform six of the Gard du Nord in Paris. The various antique clocks within his shop, not least the stately grandfather clocks, are in great demand, as are Robert's modern bespoke versions. Many customers ask him to produce clocks with glass-fronted cabinets, where the soothing swing of the pendulum is visible, while others put in requests for chiming clocks with chimes that switch off during the night, on the grounds that you can have enough of a good thing, especially when you're trying to get to sleep.
Robert showed me a clock face that he had produced for a couple who had just been married at Tutbury's parish church. It featured a fine painting of the old priory. Another clock-face that was awaiting insertion in a wooden cabinet bore the date of a customer's retirement and the promise of many happy hours of relaxation. As well as producing one-off clocks such as this, Robert is now planning to produce batches of his most popular models, which will be marketed on the web as Trent Meridian.
With the hours ticking by, I decided that it was time for refreshment. Drawn in by an attractive window, I chose the Bay Tree delicatessen and coffee shop, where I was not surprised to hear that proprietor Jill Newbury is the most recent recipient of Tutbury Civic Society's Maintenance Cup. When he presented the award, judge Mike Shenton congratulated Jill on her 'choice of colour and signage, which is very refined and tasteful'.
My tasteful coffee was served up by Jan Buxton, a former conference organiser, who is combining part-time work in the shop with studies for a degree in Occupational Therapy, which will enable her to make a carefully considered change of career. Homemade cake was provided by Tony Brown who also works in the delicatessen on a part-time basis. Tony spends the rest of his week producing flower arrangements and travelling the country as a judge of flower-arranging competitions.
One of the customers in the delicatessen, Sheila Hazlehurst, told me that she had once worked at Tutbury's old corn mill. Although it had been converted at that time into a factory for the manufacture of sheepskin products, it still retained its old wooden water wheel and part of the drive shaft. This particular mill is now a private house and one of Tutbury's other former mills has been imaginatively converted into a small shopping precinct at the foot of High Street.
The old mill streams were fed by the River Dove, which meanders around the perimeter of the town and marks the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Once upon a time, the river played a significant part in Tutbury's annual bull-running ritual, which involved a bull being tormented before it was let loose around the town. If the townsfolk caught the animal before it reached the river, they could claim it as their own. If not, it became the property of the abbot.
This custom was banned in 1778, not because people took pity on the unfortunate bull but because a local man died from a fractured skull while trying to catch the animal. I trust that this is one tradition that will not be re-enacted by Lesley Smith!