Heage and Nether Heage, Derbyshire
True Derbyshire villages 'made and sustained by a great community.
You'll need a warm coat when you come and visit us,' said Heage Primary School's headteacher Karen Murgatroyd. 'They didn't build a windmill here for no reason.' Indeed, the name Heage is a derivation of 'High Edge' and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. Sublime is the view of this splendid, restored windmill as one sweeps down into Nether Heage. I feel envious of residents like John and Sally Tams who have it in permanent view. 'There's a certain irony in that whilst it's Heage windmill, Nether Heage has the best of her glory,' remarks John, 'Most kitchens and sitting rooms have the windmill to look up to.' John adds that the view from the mill is a Derbyshire sight as historic and iconic as Crich Stand. With a vista Roy Christian referred to as 'a spectacularly rumpled, folded green countryside of sharp edges and deep valleys', one can forget for a moment the wind that snaps at one's vitals.
However, there is more to Heage than its windmill. It may not be a Peak picture postcard - like neighbouring Ambergate it is what one would largely call an industrial village, being large, shapeless and without a true centre - but in spite of its closeness to the sprawl of Belper and Ripley, it proudly hangs on to its rurality. 'It is a true Derbyshire village,' affirms John, 'made and sustained by a great community. And where else, if you choose, can you walk down the middle of the road on your way back from the pub?'
It's often been said that a village is measured by its pub. These days, with five pubs in the UK closing every day, one could say the mere existence of a village pub is indicative of a strong community. If so, Heage and Nether Heage are veritable beacons of pride. With a population of around 5,000, it's one of Derbyshire's larger villages - some Heage residents recall being told at school that at one time it was the largest village in the country - but it's still remarkable that Heage and Nether Heage have a total of six pubs. Some villagers simply point out that each pub is different and has its own clientele. Others say the competition helps keep them on their toes. Juliette Blake believes it's emblematic of a more significant factor, namely 'Heage's big heart.'
'This is a friendly, sociable community with a real sense of belonging,' she states, 'and what helps fill our pubs even more - with outsiders as well as residents - is that our pubs are traditional and welcoming.'
That sense of belonging is also reflected in the presence in the village of one of this country's biggest privately-owned construction companies, Bowmer & Kirkland. Group chairman John Kirkland admits there is 'a degree of romanticism' in siting the firm's head office in the village. 'This is where my grandfather started his business with Mr Bowmer, on the same road as this head office,' states John. 'Also, this is very much a mining area; my grandfather was a miner and my mother a miner's daughter, so Heage has always been very precious to me.' As John further points out, it was the mines that essentially formed and sustained Heage and it's both Bowmer & Kirkland and LB Plastics - another big company in Nether Heage - that have managed to keep the community together. How many villages can house two massive companies - both of international renown - and still call themselves a village?
As with most Derbyshire villages, Heage's origins lie in agriculture, though many farms have now been converted to housing. However, Heage's growth was also due to the nearby quarries that produced the yellowish-grey stone of which the older village buildings are made. From the late 18th century, many Heage men were employed at the ironworks at Morley Park which housed Derbyshire's first coke-fired blast furnaces and there was much extraction of coal from shallow workings known as footrills. What is now a valley of green was reportedly once black with footrills.
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Heage's history has been unfairly blackened by an infamous tale of murder which, although dating back to 1842, still summons up the taunting phrase 'they hang 'em in bunches in Heage'. This refers to a crime whereby three men from the village burgled a house in Stanley and attacked an elderly spinster with an iron bar, leaving her to bleed to death in her bedroom. Legend has it that the men were hung together in a bunch from a Heage tree. Documentation tells that the men were simply executed on the same day in Derby, watched by an excited crowd of up to 40,000, although such was the persistence of the legend that in Heage a bunch became known as three. Such is still the sensitivity about this story that if you dare mention it in the village, you might get a bunch of fives.
There are very dark tales in a book entitled Heage Hall - The Haunted House based on a lengthy manuscript penned in the mid 19th century by Thomas Shore, one of the hall's incumbents. Shore's papers were written to show that ill fortune always followed those who lived in this house. Shore's accounts - subtitled Stories of Heage Hall and the inhabitants of Heage and Nether Heage with tales of Murder, Mystery, Suicide, Robbery and Religion - are full of dark florid prose, recounting stories to show that 'all that is connected with the haunted house is grim and terrible in the extreme'. One chapter tells of two notorious highway robbers called Bracy and Braskshaw who used Heage Hall as 'their place of refuge and concealment when robbing in this part of the country'. It's thought they not only robbed victims but also murdered them. In the same chapter, Thomas Shore remarks that at the turn of the 18th century, the 'moral condition of the inhabitants of Heage was exceedingly low - cockfighting, dog-fighting, man-fighting, drinking and other rude sports formed their chief amusements.' They were a godless bunch as well, according to Shore, as only three or four people attended the local chapel each week. This place of worship, St Luke's (still Heage's parish church), is referred to as Pole's Chapel, as George Pole of Heage Hall financed its rebuilding after the previous church had been blown down in a gale. However, he was a reluctant benefactor, as Shore's manuscript graphically explains. Pole is described as a man 'wicked above his fellows', a dandy who combined the traits of 'pride, meanness, treachery, covetousness and cruelty'. He was especially cruel to his wife, refusing to see or speak to her after she bore him two daughters instead of sons. This 'unfeeling conduct' was said to have made his wife ill - she 'faded, sickened and died, comparatively young in years, but old in disappointment and sorrow.' Soon after Mrs Pole's death it began to be whispered among the servants that the house was haunted - that Mrs Pole 'came again' - and thereafter George Pole became fearful of the dark, keeping a light burning in his bedroom. Haunted also by the fact that he had made his wife's life so miserable, Pole agreed to a suggestion by the vicar of Duffield that he build a church in Heage to ease his conscience.
St Luke's is an interesting church: its T-shape, recommended for Protestant worship from early times but rarely adopted (and this one wasn't until 1836), is reckoned to be unique in Derbyshire, as is its octagonal bell-tower. It was opposite the church in 1898 that Joseph Spendlove, the publican of The White Hart, began to take on small building jobs, using land behind the pub for his materials and putting up a small shed as his office. In 1923, Spendlove sold his business to Heage men Alfred Bowmer and Robert Kirkland. Sitting in John Kirkland's plush office in the 1989-built headquarters of a business that comprises 25 UK companies, employs nearly 2,000 people and has a turnover of nearly �1 billion, it's extraordinary to hear John tell of his grandfather earning his first crust by laying bricks for weeks on end - 'it was a tough existence,' remarks John, who himself began in a modest way, measuring corpses with his father in the family's coffin-making business during his school holidays. John also showed me a little Bowmer & Kirkland plaque which was always nailed into the firm's spade handles to denote their ownership and includes the company telephone number: Ambergate 16. The firm rapidly progressed from spades to cranes. 'We had 56 mobile cranes at one time, some of them over 100 tons,' recalls John, 'so at 4am each day when they were on the move, Heage would shake.'
The crane business was sold, the Bowmer family were bought out, and the revamped firm forged ahead, establishing a fine reputation for its building work. A tour of the company corridors revealed framed photos of some of B & K's most celebrated constructions including some very impressive glass-built edifices, luxury hotels, educational establishments (including Derby's Joseph Wright Centre) and over 200 retail outlets including supermarkets built of wood which earned one of its companies - B & K Timber Structures - the Most Innovative Company in GB prize at the National Business Awards.
The head office itself - High Edge Court - is an agreeable redbrick building which sits unobtrusively in Church Street. The rural views from the offices make this a pleasant place of employment, more so because regardless of where they live every employee has to drive through some portion of countryside in order to reach it.
It's the same for the 190 employees at LB Plastics in Nether Heage which began life in Belper in the 1930s and has occupied the site of a former prisoner-of-war camp since 1953. From a few sheds, LB has grown into a large manufacturing unit covering 11 acres, making plastic extrusions for use in a wide range of building products including PVCu windows. Although LB's big lorries have to traverse country roads, Human Resources manager at the site Nicola Bird says the local community is 'very supportive and recognises our contribution to the local economy'. As she points out, 95 per cent of the workforce live within an eight mile radius of the site.
There are other businesses in Heage, some of which are so hidden away that they may not even be known to residents. Holtams Ltd, which makes kitchens and bedrooms, sits well off the main Heage road on the site of a former poultry farm. 'Sometimes we get the comment "you took some finding" but most leave saying it was worth the effort to find us,' remarks owner Graham Holtam. When the farm was wiped out by fowl pest disease in 1963, Graham's business turned into a woodyard dealing in windows and doors and ironmongery products, eventually moving into kitchens in 1986. Today he has a family business of 10 employees and 15 sub-contractors, enjoying healthy trade with 90 per cent of business coming either from recommendation - or the sight of the Holtams hot air balloon!
Another thriving family-run business is located down a quiet and charming country lane in Nether Heage. Only a small sign saying Country Tiles reveals a stone farm building to be a showroom selling an extensive range of ceramic and porcelain tiles for floors and walls. As founder Heather Jones remarks: 'Twenty years ago, I set about converting a barn and pig sties into an Aladdin's Cave of tiles. Being set in lovely countryside is such a bonus as our customers enjoy the drive out to see us and the rustic charm and character of the showroom. They also love the personal service we offer.'
Christina Powell, who helps run Castle Alarms in Heage, believes that being a small family business offering a 'personal and caring service' for more than 25 years is a significant selling point, borne out by the fact they are now servicing the third generation of most of their original customers. This year saw the company install state-of-the-art wireless alarm systems which can be tailored to any type of building. Another selling point for Castle, says Christina, is Heage itself. 'Heage has given us the best place to nurture and develop our business,' she affirms. 'Our village setting means that customers don't have to cope with the hustle and bustle associated with towns and yet we are in a good central location to both Derby and Nottingham and further blessed with a good network of roads.'
Access to the road network and the breathtaking views are also emphasised by Juliette Blake, who is the Amber Valley Borough Council member for Heage and Ambergate Ward and leader of Ripley Town Council. She lives at the Old Forge with her husband, three sons and assorted animals including one of only 20 Suffolk Punch stallions left in the country. On one of my village visits, I came across Roy and Jane Kellaway riding their horses on one of a number of bridleways in the village. Both also enjoy the many walks around and indulge in allotment gardening, recalling an earlier age by exchanging homemade cider or a jar of chutney with neighbours for something else to eat.
There was something charmingly old-fashioned about the way acclaimed folk singer/songwriter and actor John Tams and his wife Sally bought their home in Nether Heage six years ago. Desperate to move after a house sale fell through and rendered them officially homeless, John and Sally were driving through Nether Heage when they spotted a 'For Sale' sign at a cottage that would doubtless have had its estate agent highlighting the line 'affording fine view of ancient windmill'.
'We stopped, made ourselves known to the vendors and within 20 minutes had bought the house on a traditional handshake. The two families have remained friends and we've made many other good friends in this community. Nether Heage is the best of a backwater village: slightly off the beaten track and retaining a sense of looking out for one another.'
Tony and Jenny Cooper admit they had somewhere more rural in mind when they moved to Nether Heage 10 years ago. 'We were on the rebound from a rejected offer in Brassington,' Tony points out, 'but our expectations here have been exceeded. In some ways, this is the antithesis of a chocolate box village. There's nothing "precious" or elite about it; it's unpretentious and very neighbourly. It's the people who have long provided the cohesion you feel here; they always have time for a friendly word. You get the feeling people really like living here without making too much fuss about it. For the first seven years when I was commuting to Rolls-Royce, spending time here at weekends felt like being on holiday!'
On a day when it snowed, I was advised by Jenny to walk up Gun Lane. 'It's like stepping back in time,' she declared. 'It's what I love about this place: accessible walks along old paths and hedgerows with wonderful views, and hardly any noise or light pollution. When you move from an urban place, you really value the sound of sheep, cows and poultry rather than traffic and the still and quiet of a night when you can also gaze up and see the stars.'
Nowhere of course is completely idyllic and, along with the threat of 'housing creep' from Ripley and Belper, the price of available housing in Heage is a perennial problem for young adults who have grown up in the village and want to stay on. Another universal issue is the closure of post offices, with both Heage and Nether Heage losing theirs in the last two years. The Nether Heage post office was also the general store, and its loss has hit hard according to John Tams: 'It was a haven for senior villagers who you would regularly find in there with a mug of tea, having just popped in for a minute to pick up a few provisions, feeling wanted and shooting the breeze. It was part of the heart of the village.' Heage does, however, still have two stores, of which Village News stocks a wide variety of items, recently adding fruit and vegetables to its repertoire, and offers a friendly line in chat from its owner Paul Blagg. At Fourways Store in Park Road villagers also receive a warm welcome and can stock up on a range of goods.
Another universal bugbear is speeding cars, Heage being a 'cut through' from Belper to Ripley and vice-versa. Juliette Blake always walks her children to school but points out that the journey is 'dangerous'. Juliette helps run a community speed watch and is also campaigning to bring in MOT tests for trailers following a terrible accident in the summer of 2007 when 4-year-old Finlay Martin was killed by a runaway trailer just yards from his home. Juliette has discovered, to her horror, that many other people have been killed in this way - 'I will fight on until the government listens and forces millions of unroadworthy trailers off our roads,' she vows.
Vickie Newey is working hard on improving the village hall's facilities, although she and her colleagues have already brought it back to life. The Playgroup meets here three mornings a week and there are various other activities ranging from T'ai Chi to slimming. There is also an enthusiastic art group run by Margaret Bonsall who came to Nether Heage in 1962. Her earliest memory is a village shop run by the splendidly named Mrs Kneebone where produce was kept in big wooden drawers. Romantic as it seemed, the shop was very dusty, recalls Margaret 'and you were nervous about buying any food there'.
Margaret also remembers that if anybody died there would be a street collection for a wreath - 'a shame that doesn't happen now,' she remarks - and such was the rural nature of the village that even in the 1980s there was a local family that used a pony and trap to get around. However, come the inevitable influx of 'townies' and dormitory dwellers, rural aspects like a peacock strutting round the village led to complaints and it was locked up. 'If you live in a village, you really should accept village life,' states Margaret. 'However, I should add that it's refreshing to live in a village where even the youngsters are friendly and talk to you.'
Maybe that comes from the good teaching at Heage Primary School, run with evident pride by headteacher Karen Murgatroyd. Every one of her 13 years as head has seen a welcome development of some sort, including a new hall, three new classrooms and a new music and drama studio. The school is blessed with its own woodland and plenty of green space for sports and outdoor activities, so it's fitting that the latest project involves setting up an allotment, for which it has been awarded �8,400 from Derbyshire County Council's Growing Better Together scheme. Karen hopes the whole community will get involved and support the children in this. There is some concern amongst active villagers about lack of enthusiasm. 'There isn't the energy and drive to get involved in the community that we once saw,' laments Juliette Blake, 'and it was especially sad to see Heage Carnival die away eight years ago.' A loss that must have been keenly felt by Heage Band, which is still thriving.
Perhaps a few words need saying about each of Heage's six pubs. Indeed Sophie Harris at the White Hart believes that 'without pubs, there are no events, friendship or support.' Significantly five of Heage's six pubs - The White Hart, The Black Boy, The Eagle Tavern, The Spanker and The Tollgate - have all benefited from new proprietors. The Black Boy, for instance, was in danger of being turned into housing until Dave Gunston and his partner Angie Robinson saw the free house inn they were looking for. 'We love Heage,' say Dave and Angie, 'because we're close to major towns and cities yet live amidst lovely countryside.' They also feel they offer everything a traditional pub should: a warm, friendly atmosphere - made warmer by the real fire - and excellent food and drink that includes traditional ales and guest beers. Just up the road is The Tollgate, run by Geraldine Perring as a drinker's pub which also maintains the old tavern tradition whereby the welcome is as genuine as the ale. 'Newcomers are given the same welcome as regulars,' assures Geraldine, 'and you'll find friendly, likeable, quick-witted locals who like to share a joke, though you can come in and read a book and ignore us if you want. We play pub games and cards, talk about everything under the sun and young and old mix easily. Dogs are welcome, too, and we love it when we get a thirsty horse because that means there's an owner who is thirsty.'
In some contrast, the Spanker in Nether Heage is enjoying a great reputation for its cuisine, not surprisingly as it's run by Andrew West-Hunt who also looks after the highly regarded Spotted Cow in Holbrook. He came in to a pub that was in 'a distressed, downhill state with poor food'. He has spruced up the d�cor and enlivened the menu with freshly cooked local produce, including a delicious dish of haggis, black pudding and crispy bacon with whisky cream sauce. A wine board changes every fortnight, offers bin ends at very reasonable prices and there's a drinkers' area. Local people have differing views on the origin of the name of the pub, which sits on Spanker Lane. Although the pub sign shows a sporting dog (greyhound?) presumably known as 'Spanker', John Tams offered two other theories: one that it's named after a villager who made spinnakers (known colloquially as spankers) for canal boats; the other more romantic notion that horses who stopped at the inn after a long haul uphill had to be given a spank to get them the few extra yards to the top.
Back in Heage, the 400-year-old White Hart has been run since last July by Sophie Harris and her partner Luke. They also had restorative work to do and have refurbished the pub. They are the first new blood to take it over in more than a century - 'so it will probably take some time to be accepted by some of the village,' smiles Sophie who is a great believer in pubs not being just a place to drink and eat but being at the heart of the community. 'We take pride in The White Hart being a proper English drinking pub,' she asserts. 'We always have at least four real ales and a warm log fire in the evening.' There is also live entertainment including a very popular Live Jazz session on a Sunday afternoon. The other Heage pub - The Windmill Inn - is thriving too: and has the added attraction of an adjoining chippy and hairdressers.As for the windmill itself, there is now no danger of this handsome historic building grinding to a halt, so to speak, following the passionate and determined efforts of a band of volunteers to restore this unique six sail, stone tower windmill. It is the only working windmill in the county and the only one the public can visit. Built in 1797, storm and lightning damage plus erosion and neglect has seen its fortunes fluctuate until the Heage Windmill Society was formed in 1995. One important cog in the restorative process was founder trustee of the society Alan Gifford, who was instrumental in gaining the massive grants needed to fund the Society's work, even though filling in the application forms was 'like taking a degree,' he recalls.
I would urge you to visit the windmill to take in the inspiring story of its chequered history, which culminated with its reopening in 2002. What's especially heartwarming is that without local hands-on skills, the mill would never have been restored. For instance, every one of the 126 canvas shutters on the nine-metre long sails has been hand-sewn by volunteers. Those same volunteers also helped work on the elaborate system of cogs, levers, pulleys, weights and trapdoors so that the mill could produce its own flour for the first time in 84 years. They are now up to four tonnes a year which equates to 2,500 bags. 'I must stress that the raison d'tre of the mill is to show it to visitors,' explains Tony Cooper treasurer of the Friends of Heage Windmill. 'We only sell flour ourselves - at the Mill Visitor Centre and at the Belper and Bakewell Farmers' Markets - so that we can promote the mill to customers at the same time. Mind you, the flour sales help with the �14,000 a year we need for maintenance. For instance sails are always deteriorating and cost around �10,000 to replace.'
As vice-chair of the Friends and long-time Heage resident Brian Naylor declares: 'It's a great pleasure both to hear the old girl grinding wheat again and to pass on to the many visitors from all over the world our knowledge and the history of this wonderful mill. It's very satisfying to see it up on that hill and know that this village and other volunteers have worked so hard to see it returned to its former pride. It fills me with pride, for sure.'
There is fierce pride in Heage itself from Sophia Harris, even though she came to run The White Hart only six months ago: 'Heage has got heart and warmth and in spite of its size, it feels like a small closely-knit hamlet. Not only is it set in one of the most lovely parts of the world - the Amber Valley - it's also a beautiful village itself with lovely old stone cottages and buildings oozing charm and prominently stating our heritage. Who wouldn't like Heage?'