Living with history in South Wingfield

Wingfield Manor

Wingfield Manor - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin visits South Wingfield and finds a welcoming modern community keen to preserve its unique heritage

The mid-Derbyshire village of South Wingfield appears dominated by the massive, imposing ruins of Wingfield Manor. Historically as well as geographically: it was thrice the prison home of Mary, Queen of Scots; twice the site of English Civil War sieges; and once immortalised in Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence. For 18th century diarist the Hon. John Byng, it was ‘one of the most curious and well-worth seeing bits of antiquity in the kingdom.’ It still is, though the residents of South Wingfield would like to think there is more to their local kingdom than this ruined pile.

There is also more to South Wingfield’s history than the Manor. The famous Pentrich Rising in 1817 – a ‘revolution’ by aggrieved stocking frame knitters – may have been planned in Pentrich but the workers’ march began in South Wingfield, two of the three ringleaders and 13 of the 50 men involved hailed from the village, and the only fatality occurred in Wingfield Park.

Along with framework knitting, the village’s working past is rooted in agriculture and, more latterly, mining. The church, corn mill and railway station further enrich that history. James Cullen, who lives at Wingfield Hall, believes that ‘the village has a case for being the most historic in Derbyshire.’

‘My Roots are Here’

Given South Wingfield’s mining legacy, it’s no surprise to hear several senior residents declare: ‘My roots are here.’ Hardly surprising, too, that resident John Hardwick has become a keen historian – his own roots in the village date back to the late 16th century.

John speaks of a ‘friendly, caring’ community though maybe one not as close-knit as it once was owing to an influx of professional people who live in a village handily placed near to the A38 and M1. However, according to Valerie Thorpe, 15 years a Borough Councillor for the parish, all newcomers are made welcome. ‘There are good Christian people here, always concerned about the village and constantly looking out for each other,’ she declares.

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‘This village is one big family,’ says octogenarian Parish Councillor Nellie Birkin. Five years ago, Parish Councillor Jo Miln returned to the village after 14 years away – ‘I love the nicely mixed, harmonious community here,’ she says, mentioning that her mother-in-law, who had always lived in the Peak, came to live in South Wingfield and ‘found such warmth in the village.’

‘We have a saying in South Wingfield,’ Valerie declares, ‘“You may come as a stranger but when you leave, you’ll be our best friend.” Once here, though, not many people want to leave.’

Malthouse and Ale Houses

John Hardwick points out that aside from South Wingfield’s lack of a proper nucleus – it being a ribbon settlement – it is still ‘a proper village’. He points to a handsome church, well regarded primary school, lots of activity and leisure groups including a thriving Derbyshire County League cricket club, a social club and two local pubs with several other pubs within the parish. Better still, one pub has just re-opened and the village store was recently revived.

The shopkeeper David Stone says that as a lad in the village during the 60s – when there were 14 shops including three sweet shops and a gentlemen’s outfitters – he couldn’t sit back and allow the last remaining store to close. The village store is handy for those goods residents run out of in between the supermarket shop, but David has been amazed and delighted to find that some community-minded locals are supporting the store in preference to their local supermarket. David also revealed that he has met more villagers during his 18-month occupancy than in a lifetime living in South Wingfield, including old school friends who he hadn’t realised still lived there! He is also heartened by the ‘exceptional children’ of South Wingfield: ‘90% of the money in my donation box is from the youth of the village.’

David operates a daily newspaper round, the elderly have groceries delivered and the store is open every day. It’s also being refurbished, with plans for a tea room which would help encourage more walkers and cyclists to explore the verdant countryside around.

Even though The Bluebell pub has never closed, it was ‘ailing and run down,’ says local regular Steve Seaman, so he took it over two years ago and installed Jayne Simpson as landlady. ‘It’s now back to being a clean, friendly, atmospheric drinking den,’ says Steve, who has also created two tastefully decorated guest rooms. Back in the days of the colliery, The Bluebell was open from 6am to serve thirsty miners coming off the night shift. South Wingfield now has two pubs, with The Yew Tree having just re-opened.

Barry and Karen Johnson were regulars at the White Hart in the adjacent hamlet of Moorwood Moor. In an age when two pubs a week are closing, it was a brave move for them not only to take over the old pub but also to rebuild it. Since opening eight months ago, the White Hart has been a success, all the more remarkable as it’s off the beaten path. ‘Word of mouth has worked wonders for us,’ says Karen, ‘and we have built up lots of customers based on a friendly atmosphere, good service, polite staff, great ale and fresh, homemade food – traditional English with a twist. We’re also surrounded by beautiful countryside.’ One regular sitting on the new garden terrace, said the pub is ‘a hidden gem’ while another said sitting there on a sunny day made her feel as if she was on holiday. There are 10 lettings rooms which is handy for weddings, parties and conferences, and the pub holds a monthly classic car event. The two other pubs in the parish are in Oakerthorpe: the Anchor and the Butcher’s Arms.

Wingfield Hall

After a succession of owners, Wingfield Hall eventually mimicked the Manor on the hill by falling into disrepair itself in the 1950s but it’s heartening to see it has gradually been restored thanks to James Cullen and his wife who bought Wingfield Hall in 1993. Looking for a place in the fresh air of the countryside – mindful of their two young sons’ asthma – they were captivated by this house in the valley, even though, as James reveals, ‘It had no roof, no windows, and very few floors. We saw 27 rooms of total dereliction.’

So why buy it? ‘It was a fairly standard Georgian manor house and not at all grandiose,’ admits James, ‘but there was something about the place. It was as if it was calling out for help and also saying “I could be so nice if you gave me a chance.” So we did.’

They almost gave up at the start as the house was riddled with dry rot. ‘It was hanging like mushrooms,’ recalls James. However, advice from a scientist at English Heritage – block the windows and light lots of fires – stopped the rot.

It was still long hard work – ‘You could spend four weeks just treating a stain in a ceiling corner’ reveals James – but, nearly 20 years later, the restoration is almost complete. ‘I sometimes think it would have been easier repainting the Forth Bridge,’ muses James, ‘but we feel as rejuvenated as the house. We’ve saved it for history.’

And the boys’ asthma? ‘Completely cured,’ smiles James.

Wingfield Manor

It’s a shame that protracted issues between English Heritage and the Wingfield Manor landowners restrict tours of the Manor to the first Saturday of the month as these splendid ruins would surely attract a great deal more visitors from around the world. On my tour there was a party of Japanese tourists. Touring the Manor’s desolate grandeur makes one yearn to behold the original glory of this palatial manor house whose design was the inspiration for Hampton Court Place.

As our tour guide Greg pointed out: ‘a Cromwell built the Manor and another Cromwell desecrated it.’ In the mid 15th century, Ralph, Lord Cromwell, one of the richest men in England, built one of the largest and most lavish houses in the realm – over 400 feet long and 250 feet wide, with a 72ft High Tower. The gatehouse alone was the size of a small castle.

The construction work was massive, complex and time consuming. On numerous occasions completed sections had to be partially demolished to enable modifications. The mansion was still unfinished after 15 years when Lord Cromwell sold it in 1455 to the 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury.

It was a century later that Wingfield Manor acquired its historic status when the sixth Earl, husband of Bess of Hardwick, was ordered by Queen Elizabeth to confine Mary, Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned three times at Wingfield between 1569 and 1585.

Grand mansion it may have appeared but Mary complained of her dank, dark and smelly accommodation. Much worse for the Queen, though, was the smell of conspiracy unearthed by Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster’ Francis Walsingham which eventually cost the Queen of Scots her head. One of the chief conspirators was young Anthony Babington of Dethick, a page to the Earl of Shrewsbury, who became infatuated with Mary.

On the Manor tour, we beheld a massive, straggling walnut tree which romantically, though also apocryphally, sprouted from a seed left after Babington smeared walnut juice over his face to disguise himself as a gypsy when making his clandestine visits to Mary.

Also on the tour, Greg pointed to a wall splattered with cannon ball holes, the result of a second siege at the end of the English Civil War, and which mainly accounts for the Manor’s ruinous state. After this Royalist stronghold fell, Cromwell ordered the dismantling of the defences. Although the Manor was sold to the Halton family who repaired the main buildings, the rest was left to rot. Worse still, a century later in the late 18th century, Immanuel Halton built a new manor house in the valley. Unsurprisingly he used stone from the ruins – South Wingfield’s villagers had also long been helping themselves – but in an act of blatant vandalism he also stripped lead and timbers from the roof and floors, leaving the site even more ruinous.

‘The Most Perfect of All Railway Stations’

Sadly, there is one property in South Wingfield that if not restored soon could be lost forever. The Victorian railway station, described by an authority on railway architecture as ‘the most perfect of all railway stations’, was taken into private ownership after it closed in the 1960s and has fallen into a dilapidated state with the roofs near to collapse. Last year the Victorian Society included it in their list of the nation’s ten most endangered buildings. South Wingfield’s Local History Group is working diligently to see that this railway relic can be preserved. ‘It would be a disaster if this once-beautiful building were to be lost,’ says History Group Chairman John Hardwick.

Corn Mill, Church, Vicarage and Farmhouse

Is there something in the air in South Wingfield? Following my visit to Wingfield Hall, the village revealed four more superbly restored houses, all rescued from rack and ruin.

Taylor’s Corn Mill, built in 1685, had long ceased as a working mill when Diana Griffin inherited the business just prior to the death of her father, James Argyle Taylor, in 1999. ‘The mill was just being used for storage and it looked awful,’ reveals Diana. ‘If we had left it alone, I think it would have fallen down.’ So, Diana and husband Michael eventually decided to make it their home. The result is a modern yet sympathetically and tastefully restored building which sits with imposing grandeur at the eastern entrance to South Wingfield, right next to their business Taylor’s Corn Stores.

It took five year’s intensive work, though it might have taken much longer had the mill not been so well built. ‘Our builder Tony Slack declared it to be one of the best properties he has ever worked on,’ says Michael, ‘as everything was so plumb and precise, and the walls were really strong.’

‘As it was a working mill, it didn’t have what you would call attractive features,’ says Diana, ‘but we love the way it turned out and feel grateful every day.’ The Griffins are also grateful to the village: when they had difficulties over planning permission, the community raised a petition. As a thank you, Diana and Michael staged an open day, with 300 villagers touring the house and raising £5,500 for cancer relief. The locals are grateful, too, as Diana reveals: ‘One resident on the tour said “Thank you, you’ve put £10,000 on the value of every house in this village.” He said that anyone driving into this end of the village and seeing our beautifully renovated mill would say “this looks a nice place to live.” And it is!’

Although the mill wheel has gone, the River Amber still flows scenically under the converted mill. Before the Amber reaches there, it winds close to All Saints’ Church. Why a church on a flood plain? Traces of rough steps from churchyard to river lend support to the theory that the Amber was used in early Christian times for baptism by total immersion and thus became the obvious holy place for the first church.

Flooding hereabouts has long been a problem. Cllr Valerie Thorpe told me that last winter an elderly woman had a distressing wait of six weeks before she could bury her husband as the flood waters were almost up to the top of the gravestones.

On the opposite side of All Saints is another property beautifully restored – the Old Vicarage. For Jon and Julie Starr, it was ‘a leap of faith and a labour of love’ spending eight years renovating a ‘damp, decrepit and decaying’ early Victorian house. The result is a tasteful contemporary residence though with many original features retained. The property is now up for sale.

Further out of the parish is yet another handsomely restored property: Chestnut Farm, owned by Ken and Gill Allsop, who run Curiosity Interiors in Alfreton. In the mid-80s, they were looking for ‘somewhere convenient for work that had space, peace, quiet and rurality.’ They were also looking for a restoration project and found it in a brothers’ farmhouse split into two living quarters. It was four year’s work – the cowshed and stables, for example, were gradually turned into a kitchen – but the result is a striking, stately, ivy-clad farmhouse with an attractive garden. ‘We continue to enjoy both the house and an area that is still unspoilt, secluded and green,’ says Ken.

Back in the village – next door to the store – is another imposing ivy-clad cottage, a 400-year-old property restored by Tony Slack, who was commissioned to renovate the corn mill. The cellar below was a Civil War prison.