In the valley of Combs - exploring the secluded Peak District village
- Credit: Archant
Mike Smith visits the idyllic secluded village near Chapel-en-le-Frith and bounded by the high gritstone hills of Castle Naze, Combs Moss and Ladder Hill.
Scottie McFrith’s affectionate tribute to this lovely Peak District valley remains as valid today as it did when his words were published 52 years ago in Peggy Bellhouse’s book, The Story of Combs, My Village. Embraced on three sides by the gritstone hills of the Dark Peak, including the great ridge of Combs Moss, the village of Combs sits in a verdant valley that would be enclosed almost completely if it were not for the mile-long lane which approaches the centre of the settlement from the north.
‘THE LADY WITH THE LAMP’
A noted Derbyshire Unitarian called William Nightingale succumbed to the considerable charms of Combs in 1840, when he purchased Pyegreave, a substantial house located over 1,000ft above the village and surrounded by 12 acres of land. 12th May 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William’s daughter in the Italian city after which she was named. Florence would gain fame as a brilliant statistician, a social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. She came to be known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ when she made her nightly rounds of the hospital where she trained the nurses who cared for soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.
Noel and Rita Pollard have lived for 44 years at Pyegreave, where they enjoy sweeping views stretching from the dark gritstone edges that tower above their house to the green valley that unfolds beneath it. They are always delighted to show a copy of Peggy Bellhouse’s book to the guests who stay in their holiday let, because Peggy’s exhaustive survey of the village lists all the people who have lived at Pyegreave from 1100. The Alleyns were the original tenants and William Nightingale owned the house from 1840 to 1857. According to Peggy, ‘Miss Morten of Ivy Cottage remembered seeing Florence Nightingale and her father riding through Combs on horseback when visiting their newly acquired property of Pyegreave, in 1840.’
‘SELF-CONTAINED IN ITS COMFORTABLE VALLEY’
Horse riders can often be seen in the lanes of Combs today, where other glimpses of animals in the village include goats grazing in the fields above Brookhouses Brook and a cat taking its ease, or more probably keeping a look out for mice, in the hayloft of a farm near the centre of the village. The well-known writer Crichton Porteous lived and farmed for many years in Combs and set many of his books in and around the delightful village, which he described as ‘self-contained in its comfortable valley’. One is reminded of Laurie Lee writing lovingly and nostalgically about his home village of Slad in Gloucestershire.
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Like all the best English villages, Combs has a welcoming public house at its hub. The Beehive Inn was built in 1864, at a time when gangs of construction workers were lodging in the village during the building of the Buxton spur to extend the railway line running from Manchester to Whaley Bridge. Popular with locals and visitors alike, this country inn has roaring fires in winter and colourful floral displays in summer. Weekday pub lunches, evening meals and Sunday roasts are home-cooked from local ingredients, and landlord Stefan Herling dispenses traditional cask ales, including a special ‘Beehive Bitter’. In true rural tradition, Stefan’s wife rears lambs, pigs, chickens and goats, and the Herlings own a rustic cottage adjacent to the pub which is available as a holiday let. Jenny Curtin’s holiday let, called Little Oak, located diagonally across the road from the Beehive, offers another perfect country hideaway.
A popular Quiz Night is held at the Beehive on Tuesday evenings and a Fun Day, founded several years ago by Jean Evanson and Liz Goodwin, is held in the village each August, when a barbecue takes place and children’s sports are organised, as well as fun events for participants of all ages. Apart from preserving long-established village activities such as these, Combs has managed to retain its traditional red telephone box. No longer in use for its original purpose, the box now accommodates a defibrillator. Mike Evanson, the chairman of the Combs Village Hall Trust, reports that 20 local people were given training in the effective use of a device that is potentially life-saving.
‘THIS IS A SPECIAL PLACE’
The Combs Village Hall Trust was very successful in raising funds and obtaining a Lottery Grant to construct an extension to the Victorian chapel-cum-schoolroom, a neat little building on Lesser Lane with an attractive array of Gothick windows. Linked to the old building by a glass-faced atrium, the extension serves as the Village Hall and is available for use by Combs Infant School during the school day.
Mike Evanson, who is a retired engineer, has used his professional experience and worked tirelessly to make this building as energy-efficient as possible. By using a combination of an air-to-air pump of Scandinavian design, solar heating tubes and a series of voltaic cells, he has managed to introduce a system that is highly cost-effective.
Since last September, the grounds of the school have witnessed the appearance of another new building. Unlike the Trust’s extension, which was constructed in a material to match that of the old schoolroom, this cheeky newcomer resembles a flying saucer that has landed from outer space. At odds with the style of the buildings that make up the rest of the village, the structure takes the form of a ‘rotunda’, ten metres in diameter and fashioned in locally-sourced timber. However, the impact of this ‘alien’ presence is counteracted by the natural look of the sedum roof of the building and the wildflowers that will grow on it.
The theme of cost-effectiveness, which is such an important feature of the Village Hall, is continued in the rotunda, because its circular lay-out uses 30 per cent less material than would be required in the construction of conventionally-shaped classrooms of similar capacity. Rotunda Roundhouses of Hazel Grove, the manufacturers of the new-build, advertise it as an ‘all-round better building’.
Headteacher Rosemary Cook is delighted with the new addition to her school, believing it to be ‘an innovative space that offers inspiring learning experiences’. The rotunda even has a wraparound veranda that gives the children a chance to experience ‘outdoor’ lessons and other activities in adverse weather conditions. Rosemary is a firm believer in education in the great outdoors. She is particularly grateful to a parent of one of her pupils who has made a field owned by her family available to children at the school.
The school’s curriculum embraces lots of creative activities and even includes the teaching of Spanish. Cooking, sports, gardening and a film club are also on offer as after-school activities. Not surprisingly, many parents who live outside the normal catchment area opt to send their children to a school classed by OFSTED as ‘outstanding’. As one parent told the inspectors: ‘This is a special place.’
That description is equally true of the village and its surroundings. Combs Reservoir is an idyllic venue for a sailing club which has competitions on Wednesday evenings and Sundays, as well as training for novices on Saturdays. Further sporting opportunities are provided at Chapel-en-le-Frith Golf Club, whose 18-hole course stretches onto the ‘Combs side’ of the main road linking the High Peak with Macclesfield. And if you don’t fancy sailing or golf, you can always go for bracing walks or tackle challenging rock climbs in the hills that cocoon Combs in its ‘comfortable valley’. u