Chesterfield Town Trail - discovering one of Derbyshire’s most fascinating town centres
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Deryshire Life makes a voyage of discovery around Chesterfield
To make the most of your next visit to Chesterfield, call in at the tourist information centre and ask about a trail that will take you on a journey of discovery through one of Derbyshire’s most fascinating town centres. In exchange for a security deposit, you will be given an easy-to-follow map and a free audio guide with an easy-to-listen-to commentary, spoken by Joan Walker and Ken Christiansen, covering 30 points of interest. The trail is also available in French and German.
TALES WITH A TWIST
The octagonal shape of the tourist information centre deliberately mimics the eight-sided geometry of the spire of St Mary and All Saints, but makes no attempt to copy the alarming twist that is the steeple’s most famous feature, and one that tends to distract the eye from the architectural quality of the building below it, which is the largest parish church in Derbyshire.
The twisting of the spire is the subject of two legends. According to the first fable, the Devil sat on the spire to rest on his way from Nottingham to Sheffield, but the smell of incense from the church made him sneeze so violently that he had to steady himself by gripping the spire, causing it to twist. As you will learn by listening to the audio, the second fable gives a far more risqué explanation.
A rational explanation for the deformation is that tiles added 300 years after the spire was built were too heavy for the timber supports. You can take a guided walk up a spiral staircase to the base of the spire for a close-up view of the tangled internal structure.
THE TWO WINDING WHEELS
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- 6 Steph McGovern on her new lunchtime show, Steph’s Packed Lunch
- 7 6 great woodland walks in the Peak District
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- 9 The ultimate 5-day walk: Along the Derwent Valley Way
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After taking in various features in the immediate vicinity of the church, the trail leads to St Mary’s Gate, where a building with a very distinctive doorway is the former home of Gilbert Heathcote. One of Gilbert’s sons became Lord Mayor of London and the other one became Mayor of New York.
The nearby George Stephenson Memorial Hall houses the Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery. Stephenson came to Chesterfield in 1838 to oversee the building of the Derby to Leeds railway. He stayed on in the town for the last ten years of his life so that he could exploit the coal and iron ore deposits that had been found when a nine-mile railway tunnel was excavated under Clay Cross.
Among the museum’s many interesting exhibits is a gigantic medieval winding wheel, used in the construction of the church and rotated by a man walking inside it like a hamster on a treadmill. The adjacent building houses the Pomegranate Theatre, the oldest civic theatre in England. A few yards away there is a second theatre, called The Winding Wheel, whose black-and-white façade is a suitable prelude to the next stage of the trail.
LITTLE CHESTER AND CIVIC CHESTERFIELD
Chesterfield has a remarkable concentration of mock-Tudor, black-and-white buildings. They were designed in the 1920s and 1930s by architects who took their inspiration from Chester’s famous ‘Rows’, where, in the main, the buildings are no more genuinely Tudor than those in Chesterfield. The group on Knifesmithgate has gargoyle-like carvings and once contained a cinema, a billiard hall where the legendary Joe Davis began his career, and a ballroom that was frequented by ‘Robinsons’ Angels’. Listen to the commentary to find out who they were and why they got their name.
Rose Hill, to the west of Knifesmithgate, is the dramatic hill-top setting for Chesterfield’s very imposing neo-classical Town Hall. The architecture of the former Magistrates’ Court on the hillside below the Town Hall is far more innovative. It was cleverly designed to allow people to view what was going on inside the building so that justice could be seen to be done.
A WALK IN THE PARK
After leaving the Civic Quarter, the trail carries on over a footbridge to Queen’s Park, which has well-tended flower beds and rockeries, a boating lake with a resident population of ducks and geese, a miniature railway, a conservatory, a café and a cricket ground that hosts County matches. Many great cricketers, including W G Grace and Don Bradman, have played at Queen’s Park, described by former Yorkshire captain John Hampshire as ‘the loveliest cricket ground in the country’.
One of the public park’s best-loved features is the statue of the Little Flower Girl ‘Lalla’ (one of over 60 artworks on the Chesterfield Art Trail). The touching story of the girl who inspired it is told in a poem by Cathy Grindrod, Derbyshire’s first Poet Laureate, who can be heard reading her work on the audio recording.
The avenue leading from the park to the town centre passes two further sculptures. ‘Poise’ was designed by Angela Connor to move in the wind, but the large metal fence that protects it – and very nearly obliterates it – suggests that the mechanism might be rather delicately poised. The second sculpture, ‘Rosewall’ by Barbara Hepworth, features two prominent holes that make a contribution to the composition that is just as significant as those made by the solid parts of the sculpture.
SETTING OUT THEIR STALL
A work of art of a rather different sort is the decorated tiled façade of the Sun Inn, which stands alongside the road leading to the Market Place. The inn once housed the offices of the famous Brampton Brewery. By listening to the commentary, you can find how the name of the brewery has been re-born in recent years.
Chesterfield was granted its market charter by King John in 1204 and, even in these times when markets are struggling, the town’s open-air market is thriving and is one of the largest in the country. The colourful stalls of the open-air section are overlooked by a Market Hall containing 60 shops and stalls. The commentary explains how Victorian ladies were given ‘retiring areas’ here.
Peacock’s Coffee Lounge, on the south side of the Market Place, is one of the oldest buildings in the town. Its timber-framing, exposed after a fire in 1981, dates from about 1600. The information centre was housed here before the current centre on Rykneld Square was opened in 2002.
NO LONGER A SHAMBLES
A passage running away from the Market Place leads to a warren of alleyways known as The Shambles. By following the commentary, you can discover how the street name of Irongate is an unlikely clue to the former presence of butchers’ shops in the area. You can also hear about a dastardly deed that took place here and discover that the Royal Oak pub may have been a rest house for the Knights Templar. Given the interesting history of this little area, it is entirely appropriate that it should have been smartened up in recent years to become one of the town’s most attractive quarters.
After emerging from The Shambles, the trail heads to a junction that is overlooked by the most preposterous of all the town’s black-and-white buildings. Top-heavy and strangely chopped off at the rear, this building marks the entrance to Vicar Lane, a street that was rebuilt in 2000 and developed as a very pleasant and popular pedestrianised shopping area.
Beyond Vicar Lane, the trail follows the appropriately-named Steeplegate back to the audio trail’s starting point at the crooked spire, whose lopsided geometry has been likened to a big question mark. As our extracts from the trail show, this excellent guide provides entertaining answers to the big questions associated with the historic buildings of Chesterfield. w
The Chesterfield Audio Guide can be hired, free of charge, from the Tourist Information Centre on Rykneld Square and can be downloaded from the website www.acoustiguide.com