The Spotted Calf - how community spirit in Holbrook saved the village pub
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 November 2018
Community spirit is alive and well in this charming, characterful village five miles north of Derby where residents pulled together to rescue their 400-year-old inn
If village community spirit could be bottled, that bottle should have Holbrook on the label. I caught that spirit when writing about the village over ten years ago and on hearing recently that one of its pubs, The Spotted Cow, had re-opened as a community pub with community-run café next door – The Spotted Calf – realised it must be as strong.
As long-time resident Julie Marshall points out: ‘How many villages with a modest population (around 1,500) can boast three pubs, two schools, two churches, two football clubs, a café, post office, village store, village hall and a miners’ welfare? We’ve even got our own flag now.’
‘All of us on the Parish Council think Holbrook is a special place,’ says Chairman Richard Massey. ‘We have a fantastic community spirit here, great facilities, a wide variety of activities including a magnificent village fête, a thriving school, fascinating history and a great rural location offering wonderful walks and beautiful countryside. It’s a lovely village to live in and bring children up in.’
Such is the number and variety of goings-on in Holbrook that last year the Parish Council hit upon the idea of holding an open day for local clubs and groups to showcase what they did. Over 40 groups, clubs and businesses were listed at the event. Although, as Richard adds: ‘There is a lot going on and plenty to take part in but one of Holbrook’s other fine qualities is that it’s a peaceful village.’
The growing list of events now includes Damson Sunday, which Stephanie Limb – one of the leading lights behind the purchase of the Spotted Cow and a member of the committee that runs the café – was inspired to revive after reading my 2007 article. The tradition is linked to Holbrook’s history as a centre of framework knitting: the local trees are a special variety brought from abroad because its large, juicy fruit was perfect for purple and blue dyes for the cloth.
So, a special visit was in order to raise a glass of damson gin, of course, to Holbrook on Damson Sunday, the first Sunday after St Michael’s Day, and admire the competition entries of bakes, beverages and preserves, all made with damsons. Lisa Pilley, Kevan Tomlinson and family were even persuaded to pose for a photograph, proudly holding a plate of damson scones in the midst of their own orchard. Kevan could even point to one of the wash houses used for dyeing.
The long windows that allowed in more light for those working on the large knitting frames are also still in evidence in some houses. In fact, by the mid-19th century nearly a third of Holbrook’s 1,000 population was involved in making cotton stockings, silk gloves, underwear and ties of a quality that brought orders from royalty, including Queen Victoria and the King of Siam.
Holbrook’s history can be traced even further back: in 1962 evidence was unearthed of a Roman settlement through the excavation of two kilns, one capable of baking 200-250 jars at one firing, making it the largest kiln ever discovered in the British Isles.
With work at local quarries and nearby mines, Holbrook evolved into an industrial, working class village, followed at the turn of the 20th century by a growth of large ‘dormitory’ houses, leading one resident to state that today, ‘Holbrook is like a microcosm of England in that we’ve a broad church of people in a wide spectrum of properties.’
With its impressive facilities and robust community spirit, Holbrook is not so much a microcosm, more a model that other English villages should aspire to. For example, there is an excellent C of E Primary School. In 2007, I declared that the school was run ‘with evident passion’ by headteacher Andrew Davies. He’s still at the helm and steering the school onward with that same ardour.
In the intervening years, Holbrook Primary has opened a new kitchen and a hall that is extensively used by the wider community, and the Parents Friends Association has raised a remarkable £10,000 since being established only three years ago. Also, two years ago, Holbrook C of E became part of Derby Diocesan Academy Trust which, says Andrew, has enabled the school ‘to improve in all manner of ways, notably in standards and quality of teaching.’ The school is also very involved in the community, recently contributing the designs which helped artist Julie Marshall create Holbrook’s new village flag.
Holbrook’s village store on Chapel Street has also been ‘brought back to life’ by local residents Tracey Barker, husband Craig and daughter Holly. If there was ever a template for the ideal village store, it’s here. First and foremost, it’s an archetypal convenience store, amusingly referred to by Tracey as a ‘Dammit-I’ve-Forgotten-It shop’, though it’s so well-stocked that some elderly residents actually do a full shop here. For infirm or housebound residents, there is a delivery service. Milk is delivered by Craig to 50 doors every morning and 150 houses have their newspaper delivered. There is also a cash machine, a National Lottery terminal, a printing and photocopying service, gift flower deliveries, a dry cleaning post, an impressive ‘Wine Cave’ and a drop-off and pick-up post for Hermes parcels. It’s also a social hub – browse long enough and you’ll be offered a cup of tea.
Just when I thought I had seen everything you would want in a village store, Tracey showed me their recently-opened gift shop upstairs, brimming with cards, jewellery, local art, party balloons, candles, rucksacks, lunchboxes, children’s waistcoats, walking sticks and handmade mobiles.
Just a few yards up Chapel Street sits the Dead Poets Inn. With its stone floors, alcove seating, log fire and dried hops hanging from low beams, it’s the perfect pub for good beer and conversation. There are always eight ales, six on the handpump and two – Abbot and Bass – from the barrel.
When Jason Holmes took over 9½ years ago, his aim was ‘to not change a thing.’ He admits to updating the décor but, as Jason points out, ‘I’ve improved the look and feel of the pub without damaging the essence.’
The beer is obviously top-notch as a brewing scientist from Stoke drops in with his wife two or three times a week. The Dead Poets’ lunchtime food – cooked up by Chris Brown – has also received much praise. One local told me Chris’s curry was the finest in the western world.
Holbrook Primary School Headteacher Andrew Davies with senior teacher Jean Matthews and pupils from each of the school classes
Craig & Tracy Barker with daughter Holly of the Holbrook Village Store
Tracey Barker in the gift shop of Holbrook Village Store
The Parish Council meeting in Arkwright Hall. Left to right: Tracey Barker, Jan Bradshaw, Paul Roberts, Roger Kennedy ( Vice Chairman), Hannah Owen (Clerk), Richard Massey (Chairman), Anne Cruickshank, Glenys Briggs and Simon Bullas
Julie Marshall in her garden
Lisa Pilley and Kevan Tomlinson with children Hector, Agnes and Flora in the family orchard, with their entry of Damson scones for Damson Sunday
Stephanie and Christian Limb of the Spotted Calf cafe
The Spotted Cow sign
Paul and Cheryl Brew of The Spotted Cow
Jason Holmes, Landlord of The Dead Poets pub with cook and 'chief bottle washer' Chris Brown
Dee Ainsworth, landlady of The Wheel
Pottery figures by Charles Forster
The Gaslight Gallery
One of Holbrook's Victorian wash houses where dye was made for stockings
St Michael's Church
Holbrook's Memorial Cross
Houses on Town Street
Houses on Church Street
The countryside around Holbrook
View of Kilburn from Moorside Road
Just 200 yards up the road from the Poets is The Wheel, run for the last 18 months by young landlady Dee Ainsworth. She knew she wanted to run the pub as soon as she walked in: ‘It was quaint, quirky, with different rooms, lots of space, a cosy bar, two open fires, a welcoming atmosphere and, best of all, a superb pub garden.’
Dee has clearly given The Wheel fresh life, introducing traditional pub food, a quiz, a pool team and – soon – a skittles team. There are six ales available and plenty of regulars to enjoy them, one telling me that The Wheel had returned to being ‘a proper pub.’ It’s also dog-friendly, has a talking parrot, and a resident ghost – a little red-haired girl whose presence was noted by a paranormal investigator.
The sight of a re-opened Spotted Cow can almost be seen as a miraculous manifestation. In 2016, faced with an application from a property developer to convert the 400-year-old pub and car park into residential properties, a few residents came together and dared to dream, not just of opposing this move but of clubbing together to raise the £¼ million plus needed to buy it. The villagers found they could list the Cow as an Asset of Community Value and their campaign began. There were leaflet drops, meetings, a Facebook page, a film appeal, and a life-size plastic cow displayed in a succession of front gardens for passers-by to wonder at.
As leading campaigner Stephanie Limb recounts: ‘We saw the Spotted Cow as emblematic of this community and we couldn’t face Holbrook’s heart being ripped apart.’
Happily, much of the local community felt the same and so, after asking for a minimum investment of £250, 260 people – mainly residents – chipped in to raise the necessary £296,000.
Then came a further rush of community spirit as residents volunteered their skills – decorating, carpentry, gardening etc – to help with the renovation, with all the investors having a say in the finished pub.
One of the volunteer labourers, Brian Singleton, says: ‘It’s been a labour of love where I’ve gained skills – and friends, too. It’s brought Holbrook closer together.’
Elizabeth Swift, a café volunteer who also works in the Post Office which has now been installed in the café, was house-hunting in Holbrook when the campaign started and she was so taken by the appeal that she bought shares before she bought a house. Now a resident, she says that living in Holbrook ‘feels like one long holiday.’
Astutely, the Spotted Cow committee brought in two experienced publicans – the aptly named Paul and Cheryl Brew – to run the pub which opened in July of last year. ‘It’s a joy to work in a gem of a pub and village,’ says Cheryl. Paul’s attention to the beer – there are six ales on every three or four days, all sourced from local microbreweries – has already earnt the pub a place in the Good Beer Guide. Once a food-led pub with a Sunday carvery, the Spotted Cow offers hearty, traditional pub food. The Spotted Calf café is also winning plaudits for its delicious fare.
There is so much more that needs to be highlighted in Holbrook, including the School for Autism which has grown in reputation and size from the time it opened in 1997 with ten pupils – there are now over 120. A little further up the road is St Michael’s Church, a striking looking building described by worshipper David Mellor as ‘a hidden architectural gem.’
Another individual building is the quaint house bearing the title Gaslight Gallery where Linda Forster keeps alive the legacy of her late husband Charles who between 1976 and his death in 2004, sold 11,500 pieces of his sculpted period figures, buildings and vehicles, pottery of a humorous and idiosyncratic nature that should have seen Charles heralded as the LS Lowry of ceramics. Further up the road is artist Julie Marshall who has contributed to many local art projects, though her latest is an initiative called The Green Team, ‘a platform to survey, discuss and protect the village environment.’ For example, Julie aims to put up bird boxes, cultivate wild flowers along the verges and record wildlife – already a pink grasshopper and common lizard have been monitored. Julie is keen to involve the schools and ‘create enthusiasm for nature so that we begin to care about and take responsibility for our environment.’
Given the zest for village life I’ve seen in Holbrook, something tells me Julie’s project will be warmly embraced!