Exploring the village of Wormhill on the White Peak

The road across the plateau of the White Peak

The road across the plateau of the White Peak - Credit: Archant

Mike Smith visits an intriguing location on the White Peak plateau

Barry Peirson, Clerk to the Parish Council

Barry Peirson, Clerk to the Parish Council - Credit: Archant

A quiet country road running between Peak Dale and Millers Dale meanders for four miles across the plateau of the White Peak, a landscape where the only colours are the light grey of limestone enclosure walls and the bright green of fields that provide sweet pastures for sheep-grazing. Surprised to come across a settlement in an upland hollow at the heart of this peaceful stretch of countryside, Henry Thorold, the author of the Shell Guide to Derbyshire, described Wormhill as a ‘secret village’.

The first sign of habitation is a large country house called Hargate Hall, commissioned in 1899 by Joseph Wainwright, a local quarry owner. When Wainwright ran out of money, the hall was acquired by Robert Whitehead, who was the deputy chairman of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, chairman of Benger’s Food Ltd and a director of Cammell Laird. The wealthy businessman employed 26 servants, added an extra storey and a castellated tower to the main hall and extended his property by building a lodge, a coach house, a stable block, a potting shed and an orangery.

The hall was used as a recuperation centre for wounded servicemen during the Second World War and became a home for the elderly for a number of years before it was converted into self-catering apartments. Now owned by Julie and Anthony Knox, it is a wedding venue with a difference.

Explaining the unique ‘do-it-yourself’ wedding packages available at Hargate, Anthony said: ‘Couples can book the hall and the grounds as an idyllic Peak District location where they can get married and celebrate with their friends and family, who are able stay in rooms at the hall from 4pm on Friday until 10am on Monday morning. We can provide accommodation for up to 77 guests, cater for up to 140 people at the ceremony itself and offer help and advice about all the ingredients, including food, drink, music and dancing, that will make the weekend a memorable occasion for everyone.’

Julie added: ‘By working with a select group of local suppliers, we can organise as much or as little of the wedding as each couple requires. The hall and the grounds make a great setting for photographs whatever the weather and many guests are content to enjoy walking or playing croquet or archery in the grounds during their weekend stay, whereas others choose to make short trips into Buxton or to other nearby attractions such as Chatsworth. We also offer midweek wedding packages and make the apartments available as holiday accommodation when the hall is not reserved for weddings.’

The village of Wormhill is located a little further along the road to Millers Dale. It consists of a succession of substantial stone buildings standing a little way back from the village street. Some are located on working farms whilst others are former public buildings that have been converted into dwellings. Knotlow Farm, with its neat range of agricultural buildings, and Old Hall Farm, where the farmhouse is probably the original manor house, are notable examples of surviving working farms. By way of contrast, neither the village school nor the village pub, the Bagshawe Arms, serve their original purpose. Both buildings have been converted into fine private residences.

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At the centre of this unspoilt village, there is a sunken green with a set of stocks with the arm and leg apertures set so far apart that miscreants condemned to sit there must have endured excruciating pain. The village green also contains a gabled edifice that was built in 1875 as a memorial to James Brindley, the great canal-builder and Wormhill’s most famous past resident.

Despite being semi-literate throughout his life, Brindley’s intuitive engineering skills had become apparent in his late teens when he was working for a millwright at Sutton. While still an apprentice he single-handedly constructed an automatic water wheel and, by the age of 26, he was designing steam engines and solving flooding problems in collieries. In 1759, he was asked by the Duke of Bridgewater to design a waterway to carry coal to Manchester from his mines at Worsley. This became the first arterial canal in the country and was the forerunner of no fewer than 300 miles of canal designed by Brindley. An amazing achievement for a semi-literate man!

A second and much simpler memorial to Brindley marks the location of the cottage where he was born in the hamlet of Tunstead, a part of the parish that is perched above an escarpment that forms the longest limestone quarry face in Europe. Although the quarry cannot be seen from Wormhill, the dull sound of blasting can be heard in the village at periodic intervals.

I was given directions to this second memorial by Barry Peirson, who has been the parish council clerk for 25 years. Barry has been a long-serving secretary of the Well Dressing Committee and he and his wife Yvonne ran a village café for a time after his retirement from his job at the Daily Mirror offices in Manchester. As a churchwarden at St Margaret’s Church, he oversaw the installation of a convector heating system that allows him to claim the building is ‘Derbyshire’s warmest church’.

The church has a number of other claims to fame, including an unusual ‘helmet’ steeple that resembles those found on Rhineland churches but is probably copied from the Saxon steeple at Sompting in Sussex. Two stone heads, one male, the other female, decorate the porch, some pews have carvings by Advent Hunstone of Tideswell and there are various memorials and hatchments dedicated to members of the Bagshawe family, who provided the church’s curates and vicars for 200 years.

Immediately outside the porch, there are memorials to Tom Bagshawe (1911-1996) and Hilary Bagshawe (1916-2003) alongside the tomb of W L G Bagshawe and an elaborate cross marking the grave of Francis Westby Bagshawe. To discover more about the family, who acquired the manor of Wormhill in 1650, I visited Tim and Pamela Bagshawe. Together with their son William and his family, they are the present incumbents of Wormhill Hall, built by Adam Bagshawe in 1697 with an imposing symmetrical frontage and a doorway with a segmented pediment that anticipated an architectural feature that would be fashionable in the following century.

Tim showed me a very detailed family tree that traces the origins of his family back to Robert de Bagshawe of Abney, a 14th-century forester-of-fee in the Royal Forest of the Peak. Robert’s many descendants have settled in various places throughout the High Peak, including Ford Hall near Chapel-en-le-Frith, where William Bagshawe, the so-called ‘Apostle of the Peak’, conducted secret services after being expelled from his ministry in Glossop because he had refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer.

Another William Bagshawe, who was the vicar of Wormhill, wrote in his diary in 1794 how he had been sorry to see a group of boys playing football on the Sabbath: ‘I spoke to them but was laughed at and on my departure one of the boys gave the ball a wonderful kick – a proof this of the degeneracy of human nature.’ Another encounter of a more serious nature occurred in 1854 when young ‘Squire Bagshawe’ (WLG Bagshawe) spotted a group of poachers when he was returning to the hall one night. After rounding up a number of men to support him, he set out to confront the poachers and was killed by one of them. Incredibly, the magistrate who presided over the ensuing murder trial ruled that the man who had killed the squire was ‘not guilty’, presumably on grounds of self-defence.

After hearing Tim’s stories of his colourful ancestors, I listened to Pamela’s theory about the origin of Wormhill as place-name. Disputing the commonly held belief that the name means ‘wolf hill’, Pamela contends that it means ‘warm hill’ and refers to a volcanic vent near the village which took on mythical status as a dragon’s lair. She also showed me a book compiled by Tim and Pamela’s sons Henry, Josh and Ethan detailing the medieval and Roman objects they have found in the vicinity of the hall by using metal detectors. Pamela believes that the real secret village of Wormhill is a former Roman camp!

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