Long Eaton ‒ Past, Present and Future
- Credit: Archant
Mike Smith visits a leading county town intent on turning an industrious past into a glorious future
Long Eaton’s historic fabric
Located close to the county boundary, Long Eaton represents Derbyshire’s last gasp before it expires and gives way to Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It might be thought that this former mill town would also be one of the last places in the county where you would find great architecture, but this is not so. Look carefully at its built fabric and, among the ordinary, you will find the extraordinary.
St Laurence’s Church is a good example of the extraordinary. Norman in origin, it underwent a drastic re-modelling in the nineteenth century, when the old nave was adopted as the new south aisle. According to architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner, the rather lopsided result has ‘made a pretty picture’. Long Eaton Hall, is no less eye-catching. Designed in 1778 by the Derby architect Joseph Pickford, it was absorbed into Long Eaton’s new Town Hall complex in the 1980s, but allowed to retain its individual dignity – a better integration of old and new would be hard to find.
By the turn of the century, the Georgian style, so splendidly represented in Long Eaton Hall, was beginning to give way to a new swirly-whirly form of architecture called Art Nouveau, a style so slow to catch on in Derbyshire that it never really caught on at all in most parts of the county. Thanks to James Gorman and Edmund Herbert Child, Long Eaton was an exception. Their design for the Midland Counties Bank on Market Street, now home to a café, features slender oriel windows set beneath a gable decorated with green and blue tiles. The practice of Gorman, Child and Ross went on to use the Art Nouveau style for their own offices next door to the bank and for the Carnegie Library. Unfortunately, Gorman moved to Penang in 1904 and the partnership was dissolved.
Long Eaton is also associated with a very different form of historic fabric. In 1907, no fewer than 4,000 of its townspeople were employed in the making of lace. The most impressive of the many fine industrial buildings that have survived from its lace-making heyday is Harrington Mill. Built in 1885, this immensely-long, four-storey former factory has a brick façade punctuated by a series of staircase turrets which resemble the defensive towers of a medieval walled town. The vast wall is pierced by almost 250 large windows. Like Hardwick Hall, Harrington Mill is ‘more glass than wall’.
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When demand for lace began to fall away, many manufacturers started using their machinery to make other products, particularly upholstery. Long Eaton is now as famous for upholstery and furniture as it once was for lace. Eleven of its finest producers are members of the Long Eaton Guild of Furniture Makers, which only accepts makers of the highest quality hand-crafted furniture.
One of that select club is Jim Mitchell, whose father founded the first family-run furniture-makers in Long Eaton in 1952. Jim bubbled with enthusiasm as he showed me around his huge workshop on Bridge Street. Pausing at a six-feet high chair being made for a customer in Egypt, he said, ‘Our bespoke products, sold under the labels Iain James Furniture and Artistic Upholstery, are made for grand houses, luxury hotels and embassies all over the world. Even though I’ve been in the trade for 56 years, I still come into work at 6.30am each day and get enormous satisfaction from what I do.’
That pride is evident in all the other members of the Guild of Furniture Makers. For example, a couple of years ago Nathan Furniture introduced a new Citadel 21 chair which became one of only 20 designs to be awarded a Design Guild Mark by the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers.
Furniture-making is not the only thing that makes Long Eaton special. With a stall market operating on three days per week, two superstores just a short walk from the main shopping area, with its wide range of shops, Long Eaton is a great shopping centre. It is also home to the largest interiors showroom in the East Midlands: Stephen Christopher Design, founded in a converted lace factory by the father and son team of Stephen and Tom Baker, who provide quality fittings and design advice that helps people to achieve their dream kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, wet room or study.
Another redundant former lace-making area has been put to use by Jackie and Jeremy Berridge, who took out a lease on two empty floors of Harrington Mill in 2011 and created an exhibition space and 18 studios for local artists. Jackie told me, ‘The studios receive fantastic natural light through the large windows and all our resident artists are professionals who are passionate about their work.’
Jackie’s own work is inspired by her observation of people in local parks. Explaining her highly unusual methods, she said: ‘I see public parks as democratic spaces where people can express their individuality. Because most of the people who use them are locals, I disguise the figures in my paintings by giving them animal heads. Although I use a sketchpad to make preliminary drawings, I keep it firmly closed when I’m painting so that I have to rely on my memory.
Another Harrington Mill artist is Maggy Milner, a former nurse who changed the direction of her life after taking a degree in Fine Art. Showing me an installation called ‘A Delicate Balance’, which she made for Southwell Workhouse, she said, ‘I assembled a number of free-standing objects, some ready-made, others hand-crafted, in an attempt to represent the delicate balance between the need for state support and the need for independence.’
Enthusiastic amateur artists are given the chance to develop their talent at the Long Eaton Art Room on Lime Grove, where ‘everyone has the opportunity to have a go’. Developing talent of all kinds is, of course, the mission of Long Eaton’s three secondary schools, where imaginative approaches to education are giving young people a fine preparation for the challenges they will face in the future.
Reaching for the stars
The town’s secondary schools are all reaching for the stars in their own unique ways. The Long Eaton School, housed in a superb new building opened by Gordon Brown in 2006, is an Academy and a specialist science school. As well as having great facilities for Science and ICT, it has a very special asset in the form of an on-site observatory with a 16-inch reflecting telescope and observatory.
The telescope is remote-controlled and the dome of the observatory can be rotated with one finger because it floats on a circular channel of water. The students are clearly delighted with their window on the stars: Bethany Graham, who has ten A* passes at GCSE, is keen to take an Astronomy option in her Physics A-level course; Zuzana Svarna, who came to this country from Slovakia, is currently studying Astronomy for GCSE and Vaughan Bryan neatly summed up the value of the observatory when he said, ‘It’s great to learn about things outside the world where we live.’
Physics teacher Simon Patrick, who takes some of the classes in Astronomy, said: ‘It is not only our students who benefit. The astronomy club is open to parents and we put on astronomy sessions for lots of groups, such as rotary clubs and women’s institutes, as well as Brownies, Scouts and Guides, who come to work on their badges.’ Underlining the importance of these links, headteacher Neil Calvert said, ‘The observatory is helping to put us at the heart of a very big community.’
Wilsthorpe School, which is designated as a Business and Enterprise College, has been reaching for the stars in a different way. Last year, it had the highest percentage of pupils gaining A* to C grades at GCSE in Derbyshire and it has been nominated by the BBC and the Department for Education and Science in three consecutive years as one of the 100 most improved schools in the country. Explaining this success, headteacher Jonathan Crofts said: ‘We work very hard with pupils and parents to raise aspirations and, as well as paying rigorous attention to learning and target-setting, we are establishing really high standards in the classroom. Leadership academies and learning clinics are just two of the tools that we are using to drive our standards even higher.’
Jonathan has great faith in the quality of his staff, one of whom was named recently as Best Teacher in the East Midlands by the radio station GEM 106. Drama and English teacher Becky Simpson had been nominated for the award by year 9 pupil Lauren Riley, who said, ‘I aspire to be an English and Drama teacher myself, and I look up to Miss Simpson because she is superb at what she does.’
Trent College, Long Eaton’s independent secondary school, is equally keen to ensure its pupils make the most of their talents. As one means to this end, they regularly ‘reach for the stars’ by inviting some of the country’s highest achievers to talk to their students. Jane Cowie, the prefect who heads up the Arts and Speakers Programme, said, ‘The lecture programme is beneficial to students as they can hear about the experiences of successful people and be motivated in their own areas of interest. It is a great opportunity to meet aspirational characters from Paul Smith to Alastair Campbell.’
Two recent speakers to accept an invitation from the college are Mark Wainwright, the chief engineer on the new Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine, and Rob Lilwall, the explorer and adventurer. After listening to Rob’s presentation, Year 9 student Cameron Knight said, ‘It was really interesting to see what ordinary people can do when they put their mind to it – it was inspiring.’
Thanks to aspirational industrialists and entrepreneurs, Long Eaton was a leading lace-making town in the past and is a leading furniture-making town in the present. Given the aspirations being cultivated in the town’s young people, there is every reason to believe that it will be a leading town in the future.