- Credit: Archant
Mike Smith falls prey to the many charms of a most attractive and intriguing town
St John’s Street flows through the centre of Wirksworth like a meandering river with many tributaries. To make the most of this fascinating old Derbyshire town, visitors should drift slowly along the street to enjoy its shops, some with bow-windows, quirky names and surprising interiors, before navigating the many rewarding little alleyways and lanes that run away from the main road.
The central section of St John’s Street is dominated by a wide shop frontage with a large bow-window and a shop-sign that declares ‘Gifts Galore - Nails No More’. Shop assistant Sandra Farrand explained the meaning of the name by telling me that Marsden’s ironmonger’s shop once occupied the premises, as well as a number of the adjacent buildings, including a little shop which now has the delightful name of ‘Nelly Pot, forget me not florist’. The ceiling of Gifts Galore takes new customers by surprise because it features decorative plasterwork dating from the early 17th century.
Visitors to Wirksworth would be well advised to take a cue from the words of the song and ‘follow every byway’, not least by walking up the steep lanes that run up the hillside to the right and left of the former ironmonger’s emporium. The lane to the right begins with a wide triangular space overlooked by a magnificent Georgian town house that was a home for many years to members of the legal profession. A narrow adjacent building with a Palladian frontage was the attorney’s office.
Immediately beyond this great classical set piece, the road narrows to become a steep lane known as The Dale. It is flanked on the right by some restored 16th-century buildings, which now accommodate offices, and on the left by a The Book Shop, which well deserves the definitive article in its title because it matches every bibliophile’s idea of what a book shop should be. The Dale also contains a shop called Piccalilli, which sells homemade cakes and sandwiches.
The road to the left of the former Marsden’s ironmonger’s shop widens out into a steep triangular space that has accommodated a stall market ever since a market charter was granted to the town in 1306. The outdoor market is held here on Tuesdays and a farmers’ market is held on a southern stretch of the main street on the first Saturday in every month.
An alleyway on the northern side of the market place leads to Crown Yard, where a former silk and fustian mill has been converted into an information point, heritage centre and art gallery, staffed entirely by volunteers. The exhibits tell of Wirksworth’s early role as a centre of the lead mining industry followed by its time as the hub of limestone quarrying operations. Imaginative, child-friendly displays include a reconstruction of the room in a quarryman’s house, complete with life-size figures. I was guided around the centre by little cut-out representations of ‘T’Owd Man’, the guardian spirit of lead-miners, who would crop up in two other locations on my tour of the town.
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Returning to St John’s Street, I was struck by the attractiveness, range and catchy names of the independent shops, cafés and antique dealers. A tearoom, ice cream and gift shop trades under the name Scrum Diddly Umptious and a bistro and wine shop with a distinctly Provençal flavour to its food and wine is called Le Mistral. A shop with a well-preserved double bow-windowed frontage was opened as an apothecary in 1756 and has been dispensing medicines ever since. The pharmacist’s is now owned by Nicholas Payne, whose father and grandfather ran the business before him.
The entrance to Coldwell Street, at the northern end of St John’s Street, is marked by two prominent buildings: the Red Lion Inn and the Town Hall. The inn dates from the 1790s and features exactly the same elaborate window arrangement as that found on Ashbourne’s grandest town houses. The Town Hall was built in 1873 with Yorkshire stone, despite the ready availability of local stone. A town guide produced by the Wirksworth Civic Society pointedly suggests that this surprising choice of foreign building material may well have led to subsequent ‘weathering problems’.
Lanes running off Coldwell Street to the north lead past Gothick-windowed cottages to the former Temperance Hall and to the old Moot Hall, where local lead-mining disputes were settled at the Barmote Court. Several fascinating little lanes and alleyways run away from the east side of St John’s Street. One leads to a courtyard where beer is dispensed from barrels outside the Wirksworth Brewery, established five years ago as a ‘retirement venture’ by Jeff Green, a former plumber. One of his classic bitters is called T’Owd Man – it’s that man again!
Another short alleyway, directly opposite the excellent Coffee Drop café, has pavement displays of flowers on one side and fruit and vegetables on the other side. The adjacent alley leads directly to the churchyard of St Mary’s Parish Church and one of the least expected sights in this town of narrow lanes and alleyways. The churchyard is extensive and completely surrounded by buildings of architectural distinction. In fact, it looks exactly like the sort of grand close that surrounds most of the great cathedrals of England.
The line of tall houses on the western side of the close is a visual delight and the old grammar school in the north-eastern corner is a fantastic neo-gothic structure with battlements and pinnacles. In marked contrast, a little house on the northern-eastern edge of the ‘close’ must rank as one of the smallest dwellings in the country.
The gem at the centre of this superb setting is a cruciform church of cathedral-like proportions, although its suitably grand central tower is incongruously topped by a little ‘spike’ rather than a steeple. The church was built in the late thirteenth century to replace a Norman church, which had stood on the site of a Saxon church. Fragments of Anglo-Saxon carvings in the church include a remarkable coffin lid, now mounted on the wall of the nave. Known as the Wirksworth Stone, it features scenes from the life of Christ and a tight-knit procession of crudely sculpted figures.
The wall of the south transept brings another encounter with T’Owd Man, represented as a carved figure of a lead-miner carrying his pick and kibble. The little effigy, said to be the earliest surviving representation of the guardian spirit of lead-miners, originally resided in the church at Bonsall but was removed for safe-keeping into the garden of one of the churchwardens during the restoration of Bonsall Church in the 1870s. When it showed little sign of leaving the garden, it was removed yet again for safe-keeping to Wirksworth Church, where it has remained ever since.
Needless to say, the people of Bonsall would like to see the return of T’Owd Man, but there seems to be little chance of this happening, not only because he is firmly embedded in the wall of the chancel, but also because the people of Wirksworth have adopted him as the name of one of their splendid beers and as the guiding figure in their excellent heritage centre. For all intents and purposes, T’Owd Man has become their man.
EVENTS AND NEARBY ATTRACTIONS
Wirksworth Festival (6th – 22nd September 2013) – Theatrical performances, street entertainment, community events and displays of art throughout the town www.wirksworthfestival.co.uk
Clypping the church – on first Sunday after 8th September, members of St Mary’s Church hold hands and encircle the church.
Middleton Top Engine House – installed in 1825 to haul waggons on the Cromford and High Peak Railway and still in working order. www.middleton-leawood.org.uk
National Stone Centre – contains six former quarries, four lime kilns, over one hundred mine shafts. The Discovery Centre tells the ‘story of stone’. Popular courses on dry-stone walling. www.nationalstonecentre.org.uk. Also worth noting is The Derbyshire Eco Centre at Middleton-by-Wirsworth, the county hub for courses and activities focusing on education for sustainable development www.derbyshire.gov.uk/ecocentre.
Ecclesbourne Valley Railway – Passenger services between Wirksworth and Duffield using heritage diesel railcars, with steam-hauled services on the Wirksworth-Ravenstor branch line. For timetable, see: www.e-v-r.com