Dethick, Lea and Holloway
Ashley Franklin finds famous residents, a floral extravaganza and an area of the county that's made its mark in history
Dethick Lea & Holloway... sounds like a kindly, age-old country town law firm from a Victorian novel. So well preserved is this mid-Derbyshire parish that one can easily envisage a trio of monocled, bewhiskered solicitors housed in one of the elegant stone buildings lining Church Street in Holloway.
Interestingly, each of the three villages is associated with historical figures whose names resound well beyond the parish. While Holloway claims ‘Lady of the Lamp’ Florence Nightingale, Dethick is bonded to Mary Queen of Scots plotter Anthony Babington, and Lea links to textile industrialist John Smedley. However, there is no rivalry or division in this parish: each of the three villages has its own identity but exists as an entity, 1200 residents in 480 scattered households happily combining as one community, sharing a week-long carnival, a village hall home to multifarious activities, four churches, two pubs, two art galleries, a store/post office, family butcher, and flourishing new website – dlhvillage.org.uk – which has an impressive 150 pages, 1,200 page views a month and even includes an online booking facility for anyone organising an event in one of the three main village venues. It’s a glowing template for other village websites.
According to the site’s webmaster Denis Sauzier, the parish is ‘a healthy mix of people: incomers and those who have lived here forever.’ As an incomer himself, he was drawn to ‘an appealing blend of peaceful rural setting, thriving community spirit and easy access to lots of places.’
‘It’s a vibrant and accommodating place where people really care for each other,’ declares Dennis Brooks who has lived here for 40 years. For former Londoners Paul and Valerie Robinson who came over 30 years ago, what appealed was ‘the quietness, the spectacular views and its off-the-beaten-track isolation.’
WOODS & WILDLIFE
Each time I came off the beaten track of the A6 on my several visits to these western gritstone slopes, I encountered hordes of ramblers, taking in the expansive variety of farmland, moorland and woodland as well as the area’s industrial history.
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‘The bluebells in Bow Wood are sensational,’ declares resident Maggie Shields. According to villagers Jim and Audrey Lambeth, the parish is also ‘an oasis of nature’, adding that the peaceful solitude they enjoy is broken in the best possible way by myriad birdsong.
Fittingly, the DL&H website currently devotes its Home Page to a slide show of superb bird images captured locally by Dennis Brooks. On another page, Dennis writes about the parish and declares that Lea Wood ‘symbolises the village at its best’. In the last
Jays are still spotted in this neck of the woods. Here the bird is as iconic as the raven at the Tower. Industrialist John Smedley was taken by the local proliferation of jays and so adopted it as the symbol of his business. Although the Smedley name is more famously associated with Matlock, Lea Mills is where the family empire is rooted: the first John Smedley – in partnership with Peter Nightingale – utilised Lea Brook to set up a spinning mill in 1784. In terms of progress and development, the most important of the four John Smedleys was the last, assuming control on his 21st birthday in 1888 and remaining as Managing Director for the next 70 years – a record in industrial history?
On a wall display at the Lea Mills site – specially erected in 2009 to mark 225 years – the company proudly boasts of its many attributes. Phrases that stand out include ‘Timeless style,’ ‘Washed in local spring waters,’ and ‘Infusion of heritage and technology.’ Mill shop manager Andy Bull chooses ‘British made’, pointing out that this aspect largely accounts for 70 per cent of Smedley’s wares being sold in Japan.
Smedley’s is as much a family business on the shop floor as in the boardroom, with a long lineage of local families who have worked here. Iris Smedley (no relation), who has worked at the mill shop for 12 years, told me of her parents meeting at Smedleys, and of grandparents who worked for Florence Nightingale. And what has kept her in these parts? ‘The countryside, the fresh air, the sense of history, and the friendly people.’
The atmosphere of a paternal, close-knit working community would have been helped by the owners living locally. The Smedleys eventually parted company with the parish in 1960 when the family’s 65-year ownership of Lea Green house was passed on to Derbyshire County Council. The family insisted on the house being used ‘for the young people of Derbyshire’ and Lea Green now flourishes on its 25 acre site as one of the country’s leading outdoor learning and personal development centres. During my visit, I met an exhilarating buzz of activity and impressive facilities – parkland, camping areas, walks, climbing walls and sports pitches, while inside there are studios, workshops, accommodation for 86, and a dining hall with leather all round the walls. I was also shown a photo from 1964 of some famous footballers in training, suggesting that Lea Green helped inspire the England team to win the World Cup two years later.
The other historic house in this parish is Lea Hurst, Florence Nightingale’s summer residence as a child, and her home in later life. Indeed, it was to Lea Hurst she returned from Scutari in the Crimea, slipping off the train at Whatstandwell to avoid the cheering crowds at Matlock, and then trudging alone and carrying her own bags, up the steep road to Holloway.
I feel a lump in the throat when I drive up that same country lane but it’s not so much for Florence Nightingale as a certain Hilda Shepherd, a dear old lady I met in the late 1970s when I worked at Radio Derby. She responded to my on-air plea for memories of Christmas in Derbyshire with such engaging Yuletide reminiscences from her younger days in Upper Holloway that we gave Hilda her own radio series ‘A Derbyshire Childhood 1892-1904.’ It’s a treasure trove of fond, funny and moving recollections about penny farthing riders, milkmen carrying yokes, long summer days spent in ‘a panorama of loveliness’, gathering wildflowers in fields where ‘buttercups and daisies would stretch for miles’, and also meeting Florence Nightingale through Hilda’s great-grandmother who was a close friend. Hilda recalled ‘a frail but still gracious lady’, as well as her eccentricities, including the provision of a brass spittoon for every one of her four cats which the coachman had to clean out three times a day.
The most amusing of Hilda’s stories is of the time a young lodger called Aggie came to sleep in Hilda’s bedroom. There was something Hilda’s parents had forgotten to say about Aggie until they heard young Hilda’s screaming upstairs: she had witnessed Aggie unscrewing her wooden leg.
The most poignant story is of the slippers made for Florence by the Scutari soldiers which Miss Nightingale gave to Hilda’s great grandmother. She, in turn, bequeathed them to Hilda’s family. For many years, Hilda’s parents would raise money at church fetes by charging tuppence to see the slippers before Hilda’s uncle offered to sell them at Sotheby’s. It appears the uncle spent most of the money on a wild weekend in the capital as he returned with only �8, the amount he scribbled on a defaced receipt.
As a result of the radio series, a 90 year-old Hilda returned to the Holloway Village Fete – as the guest of honour. Later, parish resident George Wigglesworth asked me if he could add Hilda’s reminiscences to his series of 30-plus local history booklets he produced over 20 years. George died last year but happily his rich seam of stories and facts will gradually be inserted on the DL&H website.
DETHICK, BABINGTON, UTTLEY & GROOM
An abiding figure for Dethick resident Gilly Groom, as she leads me to the altar inside the village church, is Anthony Babington. She tells me, ‘I get shivers down my spine every time I stand here. This is the very spot where a 17-year-old Anthony got married.’ Eight years later, Babington’s life was over, hanged for his cloak and dagger conspiracy to free Mary, Queen of Scots and assassinate Elizabeth I. It’s ironic that the name Dethick is derived from ‘death oak’, a tree from which felons were hanged.
In the Groom household – a handsomely rustic, dark-beamed Manor Farm – lies the only trace of the Babingtons, who lost their estate as a result of the plot: a magnificent Elizabethan fireplace. Simon and Gilly Groom constantly receive visitors fascinated by the Babingtons. ‘We get coachloads from Japan where Babington is apparently more popular than Dickens,’ reveals Gilly.
Occasionally, the Manor House Bed & Breakfast guests realise they are in the presence of a former
Simon admits he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, and proved it by failing his O level Biology, but even when busy with
Simon and Gilly are also occupied as Trustees of the Alison Uttley Literary Property Trust which is highly appropriate as the feted author lived over the ridge from the Grooms and based her book
On the DL&H website, Dennis Brooks states: ‘It used to be said that a village had to have a priest, a policeman and a post office.’ Only one remains: DL&H now shares its vicar with St Giles, Matlock; the police house at Lea is long gone; the post office hangs on, though, as part of a general store. Strictly speaking, a village can be named as such if it contains a church; without one, it’s a hamlet. Thus, although Dethick is made up of only two farms, giving it a total population of four, its church makes it a village. This also makes Dethick, surely, the smallest village in the world.
As for the church itself, church warden Paul Robinson says it’s ‘one of the most peaceful churches I have ever been in, with a strong sense of history and, with seating for less than 50, it has a lovely sense of intimacy.’
CULTURE, AGRICULTURE & HORTICULTURE
Away from the quiet of Dethick Church and into Church Lane, Holloway, the Methodist Church is an imposing sight. Here, there is a thriving weekly soup and pudding lunch. It wouldn’t be surprising if lunch is washed down with a glass of apple juice, as last year the parish held, on the Methodist Church lawn, an Apple Juicing Day which attracted over 100 villagers, producing over 200 litres of juice.
A few doors away is a handsome house that doubles as The Little London Gallery, one of the county’s leading venues for contemporary fine art, run for over 25 years by Chris and Krystyna Tkacz. The gallery space is bright, spacious and homely, almost as if you have stepped into their front room. Chris, an accomplished artist himself, explains: ‘We aimed for a domestic feel because it allows customers to see the paintings as they would in their own homes.’ There is emphasis, too, on quality art with investment potential and a leaning towards Derbyshire-based artists.
Remarkably, the parish houses two art galleries, the other being around the corner on Lea Shaw Road. For the last six years, Karina Goodman has run Studio 61, selling British and handmade art, design and jewellery alongside gifts. This intimate space showcases the work of over 100 artists and still has room for Karina’s studio so you can watch her at work. Interestingly, the frequent evocation of the seaside in Karina’s art is present in many guest artists’ work, giving Studio 61 the feel of a gallery in St Ives. At the same time, Karina derives stimulation from the local countryside. ‘I love being away from the hustle and bustle of a busy town,’ says Karina, ‘in a place that is attractive to customers and is inspirational to my art. Every window, every corner turned, has a stunning view.’
Several artists live locally, including silk painter Jan Scott, and Carol Dolton, whose art is an open door, quite literally: Carol paints bold, striking and colourful portraits of contemporary icons such as Presley, Sinatra, Monroe and Clough on distressed doors, mostly sourced from building suppliers. Husband Steve is also a successful artist – in the world of theatre and film. A former director and actor with Compact Theatre for 20 years, he is now finding fresh outlets in the world of short film.
There are musical instrument manufacturers in the parish, too: Lea Bridge Piano Workshop and Kelvin D Steele Violins.
The older profession of farming is still part of the rural fabric here. A more visible business carving out a living locally is Robin Maycock Butchers. Robin has been running the shop for 35 years, although this butchers was established in 1850 by Thomas Walker. Like the Smedleys, the Christian name stayed the same through the generations. ‘At one time,’ says Robin, ‘the Walkers were affectionately known as Old Tom, Young Tom and Young Tom’s son Tom.’
Here we have a true ‘Master Butchers’, not least in having their own slaughterhouse, the last butchers to do so in Derbyshire. Another hallmark is that Robin’s son Jonathan is now an acknowledged livestock judge, recently being invited to judge cattle at Royal Smithfield later this year. Furthermore, Maycock’s is now as renowned as a bakery shop, with Robin’s wife Glynis, daughter Emily and other staff producing scrumptious tarts, pies, pastries, puddings and even meringues.
I can recommend the fluffy scones and cherry almond slices served in the caf� by Sarah Beet at Lea Gardens, a legacy of the Smedleys, run for the last 32 years by John Tye who, in the 20 previous years, flew jets for the RAF. ‘I was mentally and physically worn out, so I moved from bombs to barrows,’ he quips. John’s mother, Nancy, was a Smedleys tenant who bought the gardens for �1,500 in 1959. Today, its four acres support a riot of rhododendrons and azaleas – some 550 types – which attract over 10,000 visitors per year, not to mention over 50 species of bird. Although the flowers peak in early May, John says that during the flowering season the gardens ‘totally change every fortnight’, adding that several season ticket holders visit as much as twice a week. ‘They regard it as their own garden,’ says John, ‘and it’s such a peaceful haven. I feel privileged to live here.’ You will feel the same if you live in the parish: entry is free to all local residents.
Derbyshire Life, I wrote about the residents’ purchase of a village pub; here is a similar story, of villagers buying a local ancient wood. Fifteen years ago, the privately-owned 70 acre Lea Wood came up for sale. Faced with the sudden threat of a developer buying it up, the villagers decided to act, and had to do so quickly: in a dramatic flurry of fundraising over a single weekend, a remarkable �125,000 was secured to save the woodland from development hell. As evidence of an even tighter bond in the community, last year saw the formation of the Lea Wood Heritage Project, where volunteers can explore and investigate the archaeology, history and the environment of the woodland.Blue Peter presenter. Simon is still busily involved in the media, running Simon Groom Productions from ‘The Mediabarn’, though he still runs the family farm, following in the furrows of his parents, father Harold and mother Nancy, who played the church organ for a remarkable 65 years.Blue Peter, he would return to Manor Farm to help out at weekends. He now presides over 180 acres, home to a herd of Hereford cows, and Jacob sheep, a strain which goes back thousands of years.Traveller in Time on Manor Farm. ‘She brings in yet more visitors,’ declares Gilly; and then there is an occasional visitor to chill the air and blow out the candles: Anthony Babington reputedly haunts the place.