Great and Little Longstone - off the beaten track at the heart of the Peak District
- Credit: Archant
Mike Smith ponders on why the villages of Great and Little Longstone grew in the heart of the Peak District countryside
As I was enjoying a grandstand view of Great Longstone’s long main street from the tiny raised green at its centre, I fell into conversation with Dan Handley, who had popped into the village to buy provisions to see him through the remainder of his stay in the area. Dan was based at the Dale Farm Campsite, on Moor Road, a lane that runs from the main street to the heights of Longstone Edge.
On the previous evening, Dan had walked from his campsite to the summit, where he had stayed until sunset, when the pastel colours finally fade from the glorious White Peak countryside and the light grey buildings of Great and Little Longstone merge into the very land that provided the stone for their construction. Reflecting on his late night ramble, Dan said, ‘I am so pleased that I chose to take a break in an area that is well away from the main roads that pass through the Peak District.’
But what caused two substantial villages to take root and grow in a place that appears, at first sight, to be well off the beaten track? One of the joys of visiting Great and Little Longstone is to search for clues that might throw up some answers to this tantalising question.
Detective work should begin at St Giles’ Church, whose location at some distance from the middle of Great Longstone suggests that the centre of gravity of the settlement must have shifted at some point, most probably at a time when a series of crofts were being developed behind a neat line of cottages that would eventually become the new main street.
There are two approaches to the church. One passes through a lych gate; the other enters the churchyard via a ridiculously narrow gap between two upright stones, known locally as a ‘squeeze’. The stained glass in the east window of the Anglican church was designed as a tribute to a member of the Wrights, a prominent local family, and the chantry chapel was built for the exclusive use of the Eyres, even though they were Roman Catholics. Other notable features in the church include ancient nave arcades, fine hatchments and an elaborate fourteenth-century timbered roof.
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Two of the carvings in the roof provide obvious clues about the main occupations of villagers in times gone by. One depicts a lead miner and the other carries an image of a milk-maid. Lead rakes have been exploited in the area over many centuries and Longstone Edge has been heavily quarried for limestone and, more recently, for fluorspar. And the land that surrounds the villages is perfect for rearing sheep and cattle.
Close to a large dairy and beef farm on Church Lane, there is a line of four stone troughs, conjoined and fed by a spring. This unusual feature is a clue that the village was sited at the very place in the White Peak where water emerges from a fissure at the junction between limestone and shale.
More clues about the village’s foundation and subsequent prosperity are to be found on the long main street. Many of the older dwellings date from a time when farmers doubled as lead miners and some of its grander houses were built by families who had made substantial profits from the mines. The existence of a large village cross indicates that regular markets were once held on the green, while a restored vintage petrol pump is a reminder of a time when fuel was served to passing motorists. Today, motorists and walkers pause in the village for a very different kind of refuelling, because fine food and ales are served at two popular pubs. One is called the White Lion; the other is named after St Crispin, the patron saint of the shoe-makers who were once based in the village.
Until recently, residents and visitors were well catered for at a village shop that had been run for 50 years by members of the Casey family. Sadly, this business has now closed down, but Sally and Keith Brown have stepped into the breach by converting their tent-hire centre into a store called ‘Sally B’y’. Sally said, ‘In response to a questionnaire that we issued to our customers, we are now stocking bread, scones, pork pies, pasties, oatcakes, cooked meats, ice-cream and even traditional sweets.’
The main street has a wonderful feeling of unity because almost all its buildings are fashioned in local limestone. However, there is one notable exception. The vernacular style was completely ignored when Longstone Hall was re-built in 1747, with the architect choosing red-brick and a strictly symmetrical Georgian design. Surprisingly, the new hall was commissioned by John Wright, whose family had re-built Eyam Hall in a much more traditional manner, a mere 80 years earlier.
When the main street of Great Longstone finally arrives at the lower slopes of Longstone Edge, it turns away from the slopes and veers sharply to the left, heading for the village of Little Longstone, a miniature version of its larger neighbour. As at Great Longstone, there are lots of picturesque limestone cottages with exuberant gardens, plus a few grander houses, including the Manor House, home to many generations of the Longsdon family. The village even has a series of interlinked water troughs strikingly similar in appearance to those in Great Longstone.
But there are some differences. Unlike the main street of Great Longstone, which rises steadily along its considerable length, the main street of Little Longstone follows a switchback route through a deep dip known as The Hollow. The road contains a very fine set of stocks and its name of Butts Lane is a clue that archery practice once took place in the vicinity.
Little Longstone’s pub is every bit as popular as the two public houses in the neighbouring village. Once upon a time, it was used as a watering hole by leaders of packhorses making their way over the White Peak. Explaining the pub’s present reputation, landlord David Cooper said: ‘We are fortunate to be tied with the brewery at Thornbridge Hall – we always stock four of their beers, along with a guest beer. Thanks to our ‘comedy quiz master’ Andrew Gawne, our weekly Quiz Night attracts lots of customers, and our chefs Ben and Tom Mizon ensure that we serve good food on a daily basis.’
The pub is well known to the many walkers who pass through the village and is one of the draws that bring a steady stream of visitors to the various holiday lets, including four luxury self-catering holiday cottages in a sensitively-converted range of farm buildings. Another pull for visitors is a new tea garden, set in a scenic location at the top end of the village. Clearly, tourism has become very important for the on-going prosperity of this attractive village.
Little Longstone is now seeking to cash in on another of its assets. A little Congregational chapel, which stands in splendid isolation just beyond the village, is being advertised as a ‘film location available for hire for period dramas’. We should not be surprised by this enterprising initiative. After all, there are plenty of clues which point to the fact that the two villages have always made the most of their assets, whether they are mineral deposits, natural springs and good grazing land or the appeal to potential visitors of the local hostelries and the stunning surrounding countryside.