Wirksworth Heritage Centre - The town’s historic hub reopens

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 June 2019

Matthew Parris officially opens the heritage centre Photo: Chris Webb Photography

Matthew Parris officially opens the heritage centre Photo: Chris Webb Photography

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Catherine Roth attends the eagerly-awaited reopening of the town’s new historic hub

Work commences to turn the building into a brand new Heritage CentreWork commences to turn the building into a brand new Heritage Centre

With the opening of the Wirksworth Heritage Centre, not only has a brand new museum for the town been created, but an historic building has also been saved in the process. The Wirksworth Heritage Centre was officially opened in its new premises on 13th April by Matthew Parris, political writer and broadcaster and former MP. Over 100 people attended the opening, which included the opportunity to visit the museum and see the new displays. Matthew said, 'Wirksworth is my favourite town with its sense of community.'

It was certainly a different reception to the one Matthew Parris, who has a particular affection for the town, previously met with in Wirksworth and which is documented on one of the display boards in the Heritage Centre's shop: 'As a Derbyshire MP I was never booed anywhere but in Wirksworth Town Hall, never felt for any other town the curious affection Wirksworth inspires and know nowhere in England a town with a stronger sense of place.'

The museum features permanent exhibitions that explore the various aspects of Wirksworth. These include the town's former industries of lead mining, limestone quarrying and textiles, as well as people who have lived in the town.

Sally Barkley-Smith, Chair of Trustees for Wirksworth Heritage Centre, says, 'One of our exhibitions focuses on the families of Wirksworth and we always want to hear from people with their own family stories too.'

Wirksworth Heritage Centre Photo: Chris Webb PhotographyWirksworth Heritage Centre Photo: Chris Webb Photography

A series of temporary exhibitions is also planned. The opening weekend began with a display about 19th century novelist George Eliot's connection with Wirksworth as part of the town's annual book festival. Temporary exhibitions will also see special items of local historical importance brought to the town that wouldn't have been possible before. A gallery installed in a specially designed secure room will enable the Heritage Centre to borrow artefacts from national museums and galleries. Sally says, 'There were things we wanted to borrow before but we couldn't as we didn't have the required security so insurance was impossible.'
She adds, 'We now have a special case to display the artefacts in a secure room. It's something even Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible couldn't get into!' she laughs.

Sally hopes this will mean they can now display the original Miner's standard dish, currently held at Chatsworth, that was used at the Wirksworth Barmote Court, as well as some rather large woolly rhino bones found in the area.

As well as bringing the past to life in the museum itself, the Heritage Centre is keen to encompass the wider town by organising activities for groups and schools including guided walks that explore the town.

The Heritage Centre formerly occupied a once derelict silk mill which was bought by the Civic Society as part of the Wirksworth Heritage Project which saw the regeneration of buildings in the town. An independent and accredited museum, with a café and shop attached, it was opened in 1984 by Princess Margaret. Sally says, 'Over the years there wasn't the opportunity to update the museum, the building was quite out of sight and hard to access and, having really only two rooms, it was hard to give clarity to the collection.'

Tins of paint originally sold in Websters Photo: Chris Webb PhotographyTins of paint originally sold in Websters Photo: Chris Webb Photography

Then in 2010 the charity found out that Mrs Ethel Valerie Webster had bequeathed to the charity the building on the main road through Wirksworth that had been in her family for over 150 years. Sally says, 'We didn't know anything about the legacy before the solicitors informed us - it was incredible! It became a no-brainer to move and take advantage of this amazing building.'

However, it wasn't a case of simply packing up the exhibits and moving them to their new home. Instead the trustees talked about what they would want from a future Heritage Centre, sought advice from consultants and the community, and carried out countless research. With the award of a £1.3 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the trustees were then able to set about transforming the building into a sustainable museum for the future. Sally says, 'Here we have the opportunity to present everything in a much more logical way and to bring the presentations up-to-date to incorporate more interactive elements. Revitalising the museum into separate rooms gives us so many new opportunities and we have a lively activity plan with events for all ages and interests.' She continues, 'When we were talking with the community, one couple said that they visited 25 years ago and as they'd been once didn't feel the need to visit again! We want to ensure that the place is alive and engaging and that people will visit and then come back. It's not a place just stuck in one time, there are always things happening here.'

Building work began in late 2017 and took nearly a year to complete. Sally says, 'Working with the building was a massive challenge. It was in a more delicate state than anyone realised and would soon have been at risk if it had been left as it was. At one stage, I stood on the ground floor and looked up through three storeys to the roof and wondered if we'd ever get there!' Some plans also had to be changed as they went along, such as the location of the lift which was moved three times.

One of the new exhibitions Photo: Chris Webb PhotographyOne of the new exhibitions Photo: Chris Webb Photography

Sally describes the Heritage Centre as a jigsaw of buildings of different ages that have been connected together. The front of the building that houses the enquiry desk and shop is the oldest part and its low beams are still there. It is not known exactly when it was built but parts of it date from the 1600s. In more recent years it was run by Mr Webster as a decorators' shop and, when it closed in the 1980s, the Websters leased it to a local bakery.

A café is at the rear of the building and studio space, that is used for exhibitions, workshops and events, is upstairs. Walking through from front to back is literally like taking a walk through time as one steps into a modern extension that reflects in its design both the industrial heritage of the town and the nature of the building. Sally says, 'The extension really continues the building's story by adding another new part and it's been exciting to see the building continue to grow.'

The Heritage Centre is led by a small group of trustees supported by staff and volunteers. Sally says, 'We have a fantastic team of volunteers helping with all aspects of the Heritage Centre, including working on the museum collection, helping with events and activities, assisting in the shop and café and doing maintenance work. There are still lots of volunteering opportunities and we're also looking for additional trustees for anyone who wants to get involved.'

It has taken nine years and much hard work to move the museum but it's been worth it. Sally says, 'Wirksworth is just an amazing community and we hope that the Heritage Centre will continue to be an active part of the town just as we have been for the last 30 years, and that we will be a hub of activity for the local community.' u

The café and outside seating area Photo: Chris Webb PhotographyThe café and outside seating area Photo: Chris Webb Photography

The Heritage Centre is open everyday from 9am-5pm. Entrance to the shop and café is free. Museum admission: adults £4, children (12-16) £1, under 12s free. For further details or to enquire about volunteering opportunities visit www.wirksworthheritage.co.uk or phone 01629 707000

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