Inside Derbyshire's Golden Triangle

Ashley Franklin finds out what it's like to live in the villages of Dalbury Lees, Long Lane, Longford, Sutton on the Hill and Trusley

Inside a triangle with Derby at the apex, the roads to Ashbourne and Uttoxeter forming the sides, and the River Dove the baseline, is a sparsely populated area of small, scattered settlements. As Roy Christian pointed out: ‘This is deep country; the sort we sometimes think has disappeared.’

Barely two miles west of Derby’s conurbation spread, the road signposted to Longford takes you through a gently undulating landscape of fields that seem to go on forever. A few miles further on, the narrow, snaking, tractor-muddied lanes with high hedgerows feel more Devon than Derbyshire. The last time I visited here – to explore Church Broughton – a villager spoke of his love for its ‘out-of-the-wayness’. This time I was exploring countryside even more literally off the beaten track, a smaller triangle roughly contained within the so-called Longford 8, a grouping of churches incorporating Dalbury Lees, Long Lane, Longford, Sutton on the Hill and Trusley (the other three being Boylestone, Church Broughton and Radbourne).

I realised there were even smaller, unsignposted places I may have driven past or missed entirely after I asked Longford Primary’s headteacher Philip Searson about the school’s catchment area. Amidst a long list he mentioned Sapperton, Mammerton, Lower Thurvaston, Hales Green and Hungry Bentley. These are places barely on the map. In fact, Hungry Bentley is classified as an ‘abandoned village’, I discovered there are about 20 deserted villages in this area alone, thought to have lost their population due to the move from arable to sheep farming or the ravages of the Black Death. 

Still life on the farm

This is still farmland, as pointed out by David Coke-Steel, Derbyshire’s High Sheriff. He lives with wife Jane in Trusley Old Hall which presides over an agricultural estate. ‘This area has the same acreage of farming that we had a hundred years ago,’ he points out. ‘It’s only the nature of farming that has changed.’ It’s likely, too, he explains, that farming will long continue: ‘The heavy clay soil has always produced good grass for grazing and so there has been resistance to turning over the grassland to forestry.’

Joan Lennard’s family has farmed in this area for over 300 years. Around 50 years ago most of this area was composed almost entirely of families whose living came from the land. As Joan explains, the established farming families are still here ‘keeping the countryside in good heart’ but making a living from farming has become difficult over these last 50 years: ‘Since the 1960s, many farming families have found their offspring unwilling to keep the farm on, so they were sold, often to developers. Also, with old farms where the only source of power you needed was horse and man, you could make a living off a few acres. Now farms have to be larger. So, again, farm buildings came to be sold off for housing, especially here as this is a very desirable area for commuters. As a result, farm sizes have grown but there are fewer farmers actually working the land.’

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Sutton on the Hill

Despite its name, Sutton on the Hill isn’t, apart from its 90 foot high church, St Michael’s, whose broach spire surveys the surrounding land some 250 feet above sea level. It’s also a quarter of a mile away from the village centre, pointing possibly to another disappeared village, of which only the church remains. Typical of this area, there isn’t much to Sutton – population around 180 – although it’s an active and communal village, as I discovered when invited to photograph the opening of their refurbished village hall following some admirable fundraising. I saw Sutton on a pretty winter’s day and returned, as advised by resident Rob Palmer, to behold the place in the spring sunshine. What I photographed was akin to what Wordsworth encapsulated in verse. While the poet lauded 10,000 daffodils ‘tossing their heads in a sprightly dance’, I gazed in awe at 80,000. These golden hosts line the hillside overlooking the Gothic, romantic splendour of Sutton Hall whose incumbent Henry Buckston originally set them in 1908. The display is a glorious reminder of a devoted gardener who regularly showed at Chelsea. The Buckstons later made their mark at cricket, with two of them – Captain George Buckston and his son Robin – captaining Derbyshire in the 1920s and 30s. The next generation Buckston, the present owner Charles, didn’t attain county standard but will leave a legacy to Sutton as valuable as his green-fingered great grandfather: the cricket club doesn’t have to pay to play on his land.

Seeing cricket being played while looking round a house for sale in the village was a strong factor in Sue and Michael Hartley’s decision to buy the property in 1963. Sue recalls that up to six herds of cattle passed by the house every day and further laments the loss of the post office and village shop run by Mrs Redfern, who had a charmingly relaxed approach to customer service: ‘Many is the time I had to wait to get served while she finished the ironing.’ A post box survives, however, which I noticed gleaming in the sun as a result of a fresh coat of red paint along with an adjacent telephone box. It’s pleasing to see them still standing, especially as the village pub, the Chetham’s Arms – named after the Sutton family who founded the famous Manchester school, hospital and library – closed way back in 1938. ‘I like Sutton because it’s not too grandiose a place; it’s on a very personal level,’ remarks Sue. ‘It means that anyone can do little things here and still make a difference.’

Longford 8

After growing up in a city, the Rev. Michael Bishop is now enjoying, as he terms it, the ‘relaxed and personal’ way of life in the countryside, which he embraced 15 years ago even though he took on the exacting responsibility of overseeing eight churches. How does he cope as the vicar of the Longford 8? ‘With the goodwill and support of the parishioners’ is the simple reply. Although Michael’s vicarage is in Church Broughton, he is careful not to show any favouritism and ensures he is always in each parish church at least once or twice a week. ‘This is a lovely part of the world with very friendly and supportive people,’ he declares, ‘and we have a wonderful group of historic churches.’

Like Sutton’s St Michael’s, Longford’s St Chad’s is well outside the village centre, reached via a long tree-lined driveway which also takes one to the entrance to Longford Hall, a large and imposing manor house with impressive gates by Robert Bakewell.

However, it’s the two smallest of the eight churches which arguably possesses the most character. Dalbury’s All Saints is a ‘dinky’ church with a small but significant stained glass lancet window depicting St Michael, dated by Pevsner as ‘probably 12th century’ which might make it the oldest stained glass in the country, and certainly in the county. Equally as dainty is All Saints in Trusley with a similarly charming low tower, and an antiquated interior with high box pews and striking, decorative stained glass.

As Trusley’s population numbers about 70 and the church’s Sunday congregation frequently gets into double figures, Trusley Old Hall incumbent and churchwarden David Coke-Steel boasts that in percentage terms, All Saints may have the highest Sabbath attendance in Derbyshire! He is also proud that the church uses the 1662 Prayer Book.

 ‘We are small and inconsequential here in Trusley, and I hope it stays that way,’ remarks David, though he admits there is one niggling drawback to life in this contented rural haven: low speed broadband. This has led to a high speed campaign by residents like David to improve the service which he feels is discouraging potential incomers, especially those who run home-based businesses.

Welcome inn

Dalbury Lees is actually two villages: Dalbury, smaller even than Trusley; and Lees, even though signposts display both names.  The village can boast two beautiful English attributes that much larger villages can’t: a village green and, better still, a pub.

Since taking over The Black Cow a year ago, the owners Mark and Sean Goodwin, along with manager Daniel Smith, have completely refurbished it. The recent arrival of a new chef, Jazz, has also made ‘a massive difference’ says Daniel, it coinciding with the completion of a plush restaurant-style dining area for 40 customers, alongside the cosy, traditional bar area. There is even a farm shop – it’s as tiny as a cupboard (in fact, it is a cupboard!) but highly valued by villagers and pub regulars. A beer festival is planned for the Jubilee weekend and B&B accommodation is to be another development. One Dalbury pub, long gone, was intriguingly titled The Easy Chair. Does anyone know why?

The story behind Long Lane village retaining its pub is an admirable one: threatened with closure in 1989, 16 people, most of them regulars, saved The Three Horseshoes by jointly raising the �100,000 to buy it. As one shareholder, Mike Rennie, explains: ‘One of the attractions of moving to the village was its pub and we just couldn’t bear to see it go.’ Keeping it open hasn’t been easy: there has been a succession of managers and tenants, it has shut its doors on numerous occasions and sweated its way through this recession, but Mike and his fellow shareholders feel the pub is now being run – by new tenant Chris – more than satisfactorily: ‘The drinking contingent is well served, there’s very nice food and wine at competitive prices, special events are organised and local clubs and societies cultivated. In other words, it’s operating exactly as we hoped at the beginning of our involvement nearly 25 years ago.’ Shareholder Richard Stone pointed out: ‘My house is worth more because we have a pub.’

If so, householders in Longford can rest easy: The Ostrich Inn (named after the local coat-of-arms) has fresh, enthusiastic hands at the pump, Kris Osborne and Dan Woolley. Encouragingly, they have a close, affectionate relationship with the pub, both as children, drinking regulars and working as serving staff. ‘As such, we understand the needs of both local residents and visitors alike,’ says Kris, ‘and we know The Ostrich is a family pub with huge potential. The peace and tranquillity of Longford makes this area a joy to work in.’

Longford and its cheesy past

Given the extremely rural nature of these parts, it is no surprise that Sutton resident Sue Hartley has recorded over 60 varieties of birds in her garden alone. These include buzzards, cuckoos, herons, woodpeckers and even the odd cormorant. In Longford, some 80 species can be seen including oystercatchers, curlews and even a little egret.

Clerk to Longford Parish Council Mick Tunnicliffe talks of its many special aspects: ‘The people are friendly, and although the village is small, it’s very active.’ There are some unusual, age-old customs like wassailing and mumming and even pumpkin growing. Longford once won Derbyshire Small Village of the Year mainly for its many and varied activities, community spirit and, notably, the transformation of the Longford Footpath Network which involved the remarkable installation of 84 stiles, 11 bridges and 20 finger posts.

An eye-gladdening sight is the handsomely preserved Longford Mill, now a private residence. As for the mill workings, the 14 tons of machinery, which could have been ‘working within five minutes with a spot of oil,’ according to a former miller, was given to the Arkwright Society; the mill wheel and grinding stones have been preserved on the site.

Opposite the mill is another private residence with a past: as England’s first cheese factory. Derbyshire was a prime site for a co-operative factory system as there were around 10,000 tons being shipped annually from the county when the site was opened in 1870. Within six years, ten other factories had opened in the county, including one at Sutton on the Hill. As the late Michael Hartley recounts in his book on the village, Sutton cheese won national prizes, though ‘there was one slight hiccup when consumers complained of an unpleasant taste.’ It was found that the cows had been eating copious amounts of wild garlic. Eventually, all but the factory in Hartington closed due to the import of cheaper foreign cheeses in refrigeration ships, an invention ironically patented in Derby.

There is still industry here: parish councillor Robert Wakefield is celebrating 25 years as a haulage contractor on the premises of a depot that once served the cheese factory. Robert hauls his lorry to towns and cities all over the UK and says this means he feels the pleasure of returning home to the rural peace and quiet all the more.

An education

Longford is proud of its C of E Primary, where one of the ‘Outstanding Features’ as recorded by OFSTED, was the ‘spiritual, moral and cultural development of children.’ As headteacher Philip Searson remarks: ‘OFSTED also confirmed us in the belief that our children are the true stars of the place and, in a sense, we give them ownership of the school. They have a big input in what we study and do.’

‘You become close friends with everyone here,’ says one pupil. ‘We are one big happy family,’ says another. That feeling is echoed by Suzanne Goodall, headteacher at Long Lane Primary which was also recently graded as ‘Outstanding’ in a Church Schools Inspection Report. As at Longford, the school has strong links with the local community, with the pupils winning the Children’s Cup eight times at the annual Brailsford & District Ploughing and Hedge Laying Competition.

Both schools speak of the advantages and pleasures of being rural, a feeling exemplified at Sutton Pre-School Playgroup, also rated ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED. A noted aspect of the activities is Friday Forest School. In this age of suffocating Health & Safety, it’s admirable to hear of youngsters being taken outside and encouraged to risk take. As assistant Jan Parker points out: ‘The children roll down banks, make dens and can even climb trees. They learn about and respect nature, gain self-esteem and confidence – one little boy was rather mute and we now can’t shut him up! – and the parents love it.’

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