A Derbyshire road trip - Mayfield to Rocester
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
It’s easy to drive from A to B without realising what we’re missing along the way. Ashley Franklin finds some fascinating hidden places while driving from Mayfield to Rocester.
Taking a road trip from Mayfield to Rocester was like revisiting an old friend. When driving from Milford to work in Stoke in 2000/2001, I used to take the rural and more scenic route to Ashbourne, Mayfield and then the B5032. Given the proximity of JCB and Alton Towers, I wondered if I would be constantly stuck behind truck and tourist traffic. Not so – that traffic uses the A50 and A52, leaving me to chug down this quiet country lane in a relaxed, unhurried frame of mind – ideal when returning home after a stress-filled day.
I felt this same quietude on my return, though ironically I was in search of the life that lurked behind and beyond the hedgerows. Even more ironically, after meeting satisfied walkers roaming the paths up to the Weaver Hills or along the Dove and Churnet rivers, I realised rambling might have been better than road-tripping.
This is a journey that straddles the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border. The River Dove is the historic boundary between the two counties with crossings and bridges that were once part of the main coaching road from London to the ports of the North-West.
My first port of call was the Hanging Bridge before the turn to Mayfield. The ancient bridge was widened in 1937, although at river level you can still see the 500-year-old grey stone arches of the original bridge beneath the new – a curious bridge within a bridge.
Most of Mayfield’s rich history is hidden away from the B5032. I met members of the Mayfield Heritage Group at the 12th century Church of St John the Baptist with its Saxon cross. They pointed to the grave of Olivia Moore, young daughter of Ireland’s national poet Thomas Moore who lived in Mayfield from 1813 to 1817. She was also the goddaughter of Lord Byron, a friend of Moore’s and an occasional visitor to the village.
The churchyard also contains a memorial erected by the heritage group to the crew of a Wellington bomber that crashed in 1944 in an adjacent field, killing six men. You can still see the place in the hedge where the plane struck. If you visit the church, look also at the musket holes on the door, made by soldiers from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army who, on their retreat from Derby in 1745, decided to terrorise the villagers, some of whom successfully barricaded themselves in the church tower.
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Close to the church is the site of a 13th-century corn mill which, remarkably, is still a place of work, albeit a mill rebuilt in the early 19th century. On this 17-acre site sits Mayfield Yarns. General Manager Iain Bradley revealed that my road trip was safer as a result of their work with synthetic yarns. Pointing to their slogan ‘Our expertise helps saves lives’, he explained that a significant proportion of their work with yarns results in the production of airbags, seatbelts, parachutes and other automotive and aeronautical applications. Wider still, their work with yarns contributes to sewing threads and even hosepipes.
Mayfield Yarns employs about 90 people who work day and night. Extraordinarily, this industrious site is like its own little town as it’s also occupied by 43 residential properties. Once mill-owned, they are all private residences. ‘Some of them are home to our staff,’ reveals Iain, ‘giving them one of the shortest commutes in the world!’
Away from Church Mayfield, I took the lane up to Middle Mayfield (there is also Upper Mayfield) which is like a portal into the 19th century. As Graham of the Heritage Group told me, ‘when you look at our old buildings and field systems dating back centuries and compare the Mayfield of today with the tithe maps of the 19th century, little has changed in 250 years.’ I was taken by the gabled glory of the renovated 16th-century Old Hall and the splendour of Mayfield Hall but especially captivated by the quaint grandeur of Holme Farm, built in 1474. Farmer Mark Rowlinson bought it in 2016. ‘I instantly fell in love with it,’ he recalls and, three years on, tells me that ‘visiting friends and family still point out features I hadn’t noticed.’
Overall, Mayfield is, according to the Heritage Group, a ‘living village of both young and old’ with many active groups and clubs. As Graham adds: ‘Most of the population have either lived here all their lives or are recent arrivals who come to love the place and never leave.’ Graham also mentioned the beautiful countryside encompassing the river, pastureland, hills and woods. Indeed, farmer Mark tells me he is constantly chatting with walkers and bikers who come by.
You’ll see framed photos of the scenery along with charming period photographs of Mayfield if you step inside the Rose & Crown, an excellent gastropub run for the last 14 years by Danny and Henrietta Breen. There’s accommodation in three rooms, too. This is the epitome of a family-run business as all three sons Thomas (aged 15), Charlie (12) and James (7) help out in some way.
Impressively, Danny was a House of Commons chef for 12 years, but with family in this area, he and Henrietta decided to move and saw the exciting potential of this pub, gradually renovating and improving it to the point where on Trip Advisor it’s now Number Two in the Top Ten Restaurants in the Ashbourne area. As one reviewer wrote: ‘Staff were friendly, beer was good, food was yummy.’
As Danny states: ‘We have become known as a quality destination dining pub with realistic prices.’ I can vouch for that. Sitting in a warm traditional pub with a cool contemporary touch, my wife relished her blackened salmon fillet with ginger, honey and soy marinade, while I savoured a sirloin steak cooked to perfection. Wine prices are reasonable and as spring turns into summer, you can sit outside and take in the verdant views.
Continuing along the B5032, I stopped at Calwich under Canvas, where ‘Nature meets Luxury’ and you can combine the thrill of camping with the comforts of home by staying in a yurt. Manager Sarah showed me one of three tastefully furnished canvas yurts (a fourth is wooden). There is no electricity (except in the washrooms and communal kitchen), but with a log burner and candles it’s no wonder one reviewer wrote: ‘You really have put the glam into glamping.’ There are also two wood-fired hot tubs and a sauna.
As well as sending her guests to the Rose & Crown, Sarah also points them further along the B5032 to the Duncombe Arms in Ellastone. It’s extraordinary to think that only seven years ago, this handsome inn of 1850 was boarded up and derelict, until local couple Johnny and Laura Greenall, progressively saddened by driving past it every day, decided to combine their experience in the brewing, cooking and hospitality industries and restore the social hub of their village. Visitors come from far and wide to this two AA Rosette, Michelin-rated pub which, according to general manager James Oddy, offers ‘classic and modern high quality British food’.
You can enjoy fine dining in a traditional rustic pub with cosy nooks and snugs. As Tom Parker Bowles wrote in The Mail on Sunday, ‘It’s the local we wish we all had.’ It’s even got its own ale – very palatable accompanying my delicious beef sourdough sandwich. There are 160 wines listed, too.
A couple I spoke to were halfway through a 7½-mile circular walk from Rocester and told me: ‘It’s been such a pleasant, even walk taking in the burbling river and quiet, fallow fields. It’s as if nothing has changed in 200 years and there’s so much beauty.’
There’s an attractive-sounding walk around Ellastone itself which is ideal for spring. Writing in Peak District Online, Simon Corble charts a ramble which takes in the remains of Calwich Abbey, whose nearby lake was said to have inspired Handel to compose his Water Music, and through Gold’s Wood, ‘a wonderful mix of different tree species’ and ‘a woodland floor rich in bluebells, ferns and forget-me-nots’.
I’d recommend any walk that takes you to nearby Norbury where the 15th century manor sits alongside a medieval hall and a church that resembles a miniature cathedral with eight glorious medieval stained-glass windows.
As the journey to and from Norbury takes you over the River Dove, this is a good point to mention that the river has, in recent years, seen the introduction of 120,000 salmon and, come autumn, you can see them leaping at the weir here.
This is also a good point to mention that the Duncombe Arms can provide luxury accommodation in its adjacent Garden Cottage and nearby Walnut House. Stay and you will have time to walk around Ellastone. If you visit its 16th-century church, you can pick up a booklet to go on the Adam Bede Walk. Ellastone features as Hayslope in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The author’s father spent the early part of his life in the village working as a carpenter and it’s thought she returned to Ellastone because the descriptions of the locality are so accurate.
Onwards from Ellastone, I turned off the B5032 on to the B5031 to Denstone, home of Denstone College, an awe-inspiring icon of Victorian Gothic architecture set in 100 acres of countryside. Opening in 1873 with 46 boarding boys, the college is now home to over 600 pupils and is referred to by headmaster Miles Norris as ‘a beacon of excellence across the Midlands.’
There is a strong sense of history, particularly inside the imposing St Chad’s Chapel, but modernity, too: a beautiful recently-built library, a new Music School and a state-of-the-art sports hall. And how many schools can claim a golf course?
You can rub leather-patched elbows with a few Denstone teachers in the nearby Tavern, a popular inn that was 2016 winner of CAMRA’s Pub of the Year in Uttoxeter and district and Marston’s Pub of the Year in 2013. Landlord Chris Podmore came in 15 years ago and, improving on its old-fashioned ‘beams and horse brasses’ look, turned it into a smart gastropub while offering simple pub food and retaining the traditional tavern feel.
I paused to admire the village’s gothic church before turning in to Denstone Hall Farm Shop & Café – run by Rupert and Emma Evans – which, over 11 years, has been a story of exponential success. Their latest triumph is the Farm Retail Association 2019 Large Farm Shop & Café/Restaurant of the Year. Rupert beams as he points out that a previous winner was Chatsworth Farm Shop and then glows as he quotes the judge’s praise for his staff’s ‘confidence and professionalism’ and the high level of customer care. Pertinently, it took a while to interview Rupert as there were so many customers keen to chat with him, including Paul Draycott, himself a success in a family business: Draycotts Estate Agents. As he pointed out: ‘I love working in an area of so many attractive properties in so much green space.’
Paul applauds the Farm Shop for helping make Denstone a destination and, as I look around, it’s clear that this is more than a shop: it’s a large, flourishing café with an extensive menu; a butchery where the meat comes from native breeds; a deli; and a resplendent gift emporium. There are four shops in the courtyard, too: beauty salon Prep, hairstylist Ruby Ysabelle, Twine Clothing and White Dove Interiors.
Turning off the B5031 onto the B5030, you can’t fail to notice JCB’s factory surrounded by huge lakes. JCB’s decision to move to Rocester in 1950 was down to Bill Hirst, who rose from teaboy to company director and used to cycle two miles from his Rocester home to JCB’s first site at Crakemarsh. Aware the company was looking for bigger premises and that a former cheese factory at Rocester was available, he suggested this location, knowing it would allow him an extra ten minutes in bed each morning.
Today, JCB has 22 factories worldwide employing a workforce of 15,000 with 3,500 at JCB’s World Headquarters here, where there was plenty of space to expand and keep up with the company’s spiralling success. Prosperity has brought not only employment to this region but visitors. The three huge lakes draw in walkers, cyclists and registered anglers. There are also annual JCB Lakeside Races and, excitingly, the new JCB Golf & Country Club is set to be a Ryder Cup standard course.
So, my journey ends as it began – with a riverside mill. Or, in Rocester’s case, two mills: Joseph Arkwright’s Tutbury Mill beside the River Dove and Podmore’s corn mill beside the Churnet. Rocester’s rich history includes several Roman forts and an Augustinian abbey that became the home of the Trentham family, one of whom – Sir Thomas – escorted Mary, Queen of Scots on her final journey to Fotheringhay. However, since 1950 Rocester’s history has been inevitably linked with JCB. Podmore’s mill is now the home of JCB Finance and Arkwright’s mill is the JCB Academy. The company also sponsors Rocester FC, supports churches and schools and, in 2016, donated £10,000 to help repair the village hall.
JCB’s presence nearby hasn’t resulted in Rocester expanding into a bustling town. It struck me as a refreshingly quiet place. Resident Philip Atkins, Leader of Staffordshire County Council, loves the fact that Rocester has ‘retained its rural village feel.’ Parish Council Chairman Nigel Green affirms that in spite of its quietness, Rocester is a very active place with many longstanding families adding to a communal spirit, borne out by the fact that on 4th May, for the first time in many years, there is to be a village fête.
Rocester is also the start of the Limestone Way, a 50-mile trail to Castleton in the Peak. However, that’s for another article. In the meantime, there’s much to explore as you follow the Dove, and this is only a gentle 6½ miles! u