Middleton-by-Wirksworth - a village with a rich past and a vibrant present

One of the wicker cycle installations in the village

One of the wicker cycle installations in the village - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Derbyshire Life explores Middleton-by-Wirksworth and finds one of the county’s finest villages with a rich past and a vibrant present

Middleton Primary School headteacher Alison Dugdale with Kingfisher Class Year 2

Middleton Primary School headteacher Alison Dugdale with Kingfisher Class Year 2 - Credit: Ashley Franklin

One of the most heartening aspects of exploring Derbyshire’s villages is discovering their community spirit, whether or not the activities in a place are due to just a handful of movers and shakers. ‘Middleton is a living, vibrant village,’ says parish councillor John Sedgwick, ‘and one of Derbyshire’s best kept secrets.’

Clearly there is something special about the mid-west Derbyshire village of Middleton-by-Wirksworth and this month it has the honour of representing the East Midlands in the Britain in Bloom competition, having won the Villages category last year. As Middleton in Bloom’s 2015 portfolio declared: ‘We have moved from Bloom being delivered by a small group of enthusiasts to a sustainable concept which engages the whole community.’

You certainly need more than a few hands if your village enters East Midlands in Bloom. It needs more than green fingers, too, as nowadays ‘Bloom’ judges mark not only on ‘horticultural achievement’ but also ‘environmental responsibility’ and ‘community participation.’ Consequently, Bloom entry requires a huge dollop of community-spirited residents.

Participation in East Midlands in Bloom may have invigorated Middleton but there is much more to this village – enough to make me believe that its community spirit should be bottled and sold on the National Health. When a 90-year-old resident, the late Jack Beresford, was asked why he never went on holiday, he replied: ‘Why would I want to go on holiday? What more could you want than this?’

Middleton Top Engine House

Middleton Top Engine House - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Middleton may not be everyone’s idea of a picture postcard village, but as its Environment Group’s walks booklet describes it, it is a ‘rugged village full of character’. Parts of it are more than 1,000 feet above sea level and it is frequently referred to as ‘one overcoat colder than Wirksworth’. Indeed the village has only recently been able to shrug off its ‘industrial village’ tag after many centuries of lead mining then quarrying. Bloom volunteer Rob Stamper, who has a holiday cottage in Middleton – which alone tells you how the village has changed – told me that within a mile of his cottage there have been over 1,000 mine workings, from little lead scrapings to big quarries, with Middleton Mine alone containing 27 miles of caverns. There were also many long years of lorries rumbling up and down the village street.

Fellow Bloom volunteer Mike Coveney remarked that ‘the appearance and ambience of Middleton as a home of heavy industry persisted longer in Middleton than elsewhere due to the two huge quarries and stone mine on the doorstep. It’s hard to think of any other Derbyshire village so hemmed in by workings.’

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The hills around Middleton carry the scars of its earlier industry with various dips and hollows signifying spoil heaps and the remains of lead mines. However, the High Peak Trail runs through those same hills and the aforementioned booklet lists 11 bracing walks which take you to Black Rocks, Carsington and Hopton, Bonsall, Brassington, Cromford Canal and the Steeple Grange Light Railway. Middleton Top is just a short walk away with its picturesque views and beautifully restored Engine House that used to wind trucks up and down the Middleton Incline with a 1 in 8 gradient.

One look along the main street also confirms exactly why Roy Christian observed in his book Derbyshire that it has ‘something of the character of a Cornish village, with stone cottages sticking themselves out into the roadway as you climb its steep main street.’ The same is true of other streets where there is charm and endless variety in the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of houses that cling to the hillside. The stiff walk up that hillside to The Moor rewards you with a spellbinding panorama where I could make out Riber Castle, Crich Stand, Holloway village and Alport Height. ‘From the height it is very beautiful,’ wrote D H Lawrence in 1919 after he climbed to the ‘bare top of the hills’ while residing at Mountain Cottage on the outskirts of the village.

Like something out of a Trollope novel says a resident. The Vicarage

Like something out of a Trollope novel says a resident. The Vicarage - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Lawrence wasn’t moved to use Middleton in a subsequent novel but perhaps a certain other novelist should have. When taking a photograph of The Vicarage – now a private residence – a villager walked past me saying: ‘It’s like something out of a Trollope novel, isn’t it?’ For architectural distinction, this vicarage is surely one of the most handsome in the county, nestling behind the church in its own quiet, green valley. Its setting was one of the attractions for owners Mike and Jane Irwing who refer to its style as ‘Gritstone Gothic’. To make this even more perfect they have lovingly transformed the garden, choosing the aptly named ‘Rambling Rector’ rose to climb the frontage.

Mike and Jane love Middleton, too. ‘We’re in a quiet village out in the country where you can hear owls hooting at night,’ Mike points out, ‘and there are great walks just out of the door.’

The adjacent battlemented Holy Trinity Church was built out of stone from nearby Black Rocks in 1839. In the churchyard are the graves of the Killer family who owned most of the quarries around Middleton. Killer, like Spencer and Doxey, is an old Middleton name. Oddly but appropriately, there was once a female butcher with the name Killer, and heaven help any batsmen in the mid-1900s who played Middleton and beheld the fact that their opening bowlers were Killer and Death.

Middleton’s lead mining industry can be traced as far back as the Bronze Age but quarrying became the village’s chief industry. Quarrying of the area’s high quality limestone began hereabouts in Roman times, but was only carried out intensively from the end of the 19th century – conveniently coinciding with the end of lead mining. Famous Hopton-Wood Stone was being quarried in the mid-18th century and largely the reason for the words ‘Pride in Stone’ on Middleton’s (stone) village sign. Stone was eventually – from 1959 to its closure in 2009 – mined from the very heart of the village and was famed for its purity, hardness and compactness. It could take a high polish and could be quarried in very large blocks. Furthermore, it could be cut very easily and because of its fine, marble-like qualities has always been in great demand from sculptors, including Henry Moore, Eric Gill and Barbara Hepworth.

The Rising Sun

The Rising Sun - Credit: Ashley Franklin

As ‘England’s premier decorative stone’ was particularly suited to carving, it has also been particularly popular for tombstones. More than one resident glowed with pride while informing me that Hopton-Wood stone was commissioned to provide 120,000 headstones for World War One graves. The limestone’s density means that after carving it can be exposed to all weathers without deterioration and the distinguished list of buildings it has supplied includes the Law Courts, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Albert Memorial, Bank of England, Lichfield Cathedral and Southwell Minster.

It’s interesting to note that limestone is used in refining sugar-beet and making glass, toothpaste, tyres and cosmetics. You can learn about this and more at the nearby National Stone Centre, whose 50-acre site includes six quarries. Volunteer Geoff Selby told me the Centre came into being in 1990: ‘Because the quarrying industry had a bad name in the view of the general public, it was decided we needed to inform them why we had so many quarries.’ The Centre now informs over 3,200 visitors per year and, with its growing popularity with children, a play area is being built. I dropped in on Ian Pitts and Julian D’Amico who were doing the dry stone walling for that playground. It was Julian’s first job after qualifying through a drystone wall course at the Centre. ‘This is my office now,’ says Julian, ‘and it’s the perfect environment.’

You can also take drystone walling courses at the adjacent Derbyshire Eco Centre which provides ‘sustainability learning’ incorporating rural crafts, arts, environment and energy saving courses.

Also close by is Mount Cook, a new adventure centre. Founders Colin Adams and Robin Sibson chose this area because of its ‘abundance of outdoor adventure facilities’, notably Carsington Water, Black Rocks and the High Peak Trail. Mount Cook sleeps 140 guests, has a glass-fronted dining area for 100, an indoor climbing wall, high ropes course and five acres of land to explore. ‘We believe we are at the forefront of the UK’s adventure industry,’ claim Colin and Robin.

The Nelson Arms' Knit Knatter Group

The Nelson Arms' Knit Knatter Group - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Visitors to Mount Cook will discover that as well as the High Peak Trail, Middleton has nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It’s not surprising that Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has established its new base in the village. It’s now closer to nature, quite literally, with the trust’s Gang Mine Nature Reserve less than a mile away. Indeed, the Trust has helped eradicate eyesores created by quarrying – Hopton Quarry being an important example of how wildlife can re-colonise limestone quarry workings.

There are now flowers everywhere you look in Middleton, partly thanks to the Bloom Group. Sometimes you have to look hard as the narrowness of the village street almost totally precludes front gardens but as Middleton’s Britain in Bloom portfolio points out: ‘The genius of the gardeners here is to make good use of odd corners, daunting slopes and container planting.’

I visited two hidden gardens. At one John Spencer has made a quarry industry sawing stone into a distinctive feature of his verdant patch. The other has been a long labour of love for Jerry and Hildegard Wiesehofer who came to live in Middleton 16 years ago and started transforming disused commercial greenhouses into a garden. ‘We got through a four-ton skip every other weekend,’ she recalls. ‘We stopped counting after two years.’

She smiles as she recalls Jerry’s ‘shopping list’ for their new home: ‘It included a river, would you believe? In the end, we got a spring so at least he has the sound of water.’

What they hadn’t expected was the limestone dust. ‘It was everywhere,’ recalls Hildegard. As Joan Webb, one of the older residents of the village told me: ‘When we ran across the fields as children, lime dust flew up. We never saw a green tree.’

‘A lot of residents came to use inhalers,’ adds Anne Repton, also noting the children were healthy due to endless play on the moor and down the middle of the street where you would always find a game of tennis, football or kick-the-can. Cars hardly bothered them. ‘I only remember three up to the end of the 1940s,’ recalls Lou Spencer.

‘All our older residents are pretty fit,’ says Brenda Hobson. ‘That’s because they spent a lifetime walking up and down the village street.’

A few male residents have exercised their voices in the Dalesmen Choir, which Lou Spencer founded in Middleton in the 1980s. It gained national fame in 1992 when it took part in a Cardiff Arms Park choral competition which drew a worldwide TV audience of 20 million. The choir still sings, though it is now based in Belper.

All the residents I met sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to Middleton Bloom. Some reside in the senior bungalows in Duke Field which won a Judges’ Award in East Midlands in Bloom last year for the colourful, immaculate front gardens. Next to Duke Field is the village’s Millennium Garden, a tremendous community resource which catalysed the formation of the Bloom group. ‘It was previously contaminated waste ground which had become a dog toilet with weeds,’ recalls district councillor Pete Slack. There are tables and seats inside a bandstand festooned with knitted bunting and some beautifully maintained floral displays, including three rows of plastic milk bottles coloured to resemble faces and filled with plants – the work of the village children.

Middleton’s youth is the pride and joy of this community. The primary school is described by chairman of the board of governors Mike Coveney as a ‘happy and inclusive’ school. ‘Help and support for our school is plentiful due to the strong sense of community,’ says headteacher Alison Dugdale. One of the school’s most valuable resources is a small woodland where the pupils can develop outdoor skills and learn about the environment.

Former school governor Marc Hadfield and wife Julia moved here because they ‘wanted our children to have a rural upbringing, the best education and a value for nature, which we certainly found through this visionary school.’

I don’t think I have ever visited a place where I have heard such glowing words about its youth. Several residents remarked on their politeness, behaviour – ‘we have no graffiti in this village,’ said one resident – and respect for their elders. ‘The children look you in the eye and talk to you,’ says Hildegard Wiesehofer.

‘The teenagers really engage with the older folk,’ says Jane Monaghan, who should know as she has kept an observant eye on the community since arriving as the landlady of the Nelson Arms. The Nelson operates in respectful harmony with The Rising Sun at the other end of Middleton, run by Steve Merrick who took over an ailing inn four years ago, had a £½ million pound re-fit and serves ‘traditional pub food to a high standard’ all day.

In contrast, the Nelson is a drinker’s pub and a remarkable social hub where several groups meet – all for free. The Nelson is known as the ‘Art Pub’ through having a dedicated art room for classes in drawing, painting, willow sculpture and ceramics, run by experienced artists/designers in creative education, Mark Hadfield and Ben Hardy. ‘We have drawn great inspiration from the community, landscape and history here,’ says Mark, ‘and we’ve got a wonderful creative vibe in the village.’

Landlady Jane had a good feeling about Middleton on the day she arrived with partner Alan five years ago. ‘The pub had been boarded up for six months but from the second we arrived, villagers were queuing up to ask if they could help. We had some good nights early on but even when we had the odd “tumbleweed moment” this community made it seem like a job I could take on.’

Jane’s intent was to make the pub fresh and alive while keeping it firmly traditional and homely. As she recalls: ‘When my daughter visited, she said “Mum, this pub is weird – it’s like being at home.” I knew then I had got it right!’

Jane and Alan also started hosting a visiting post office service for two afternoons and a morning following the closure of the official one. As Jane points out: ‘For older people, it’s about more than just buying a stamp. They come for a chat. I don’t sell that many stamps but I’ve solved a lot of problems.’

There’s a lot of chat every Monday afternoon when the Knit & Knatter group meets. From half a dozen locals four years ago, there are now up to 20 who attend. ‘They sit there with their demure smiles,’ observes Jane, ‘but what they natter about would raise eyebrows.’

I met them myself and when I asked what they did talk about, one wag replied: ‘Anyone who isn’t here.’

Another thriving group of up to 25 meet every month for a folk music jam which has now produced a band, their senior status reflected in its name – Not Dead Yet. One visitor on folk night remarked that the pub ‘recreated that west coast of Ireland spirit.’

One wonders if talk turned to literature when D H Lawrence used to pop in for a pint. Another famous visitor was Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. A social activist herself, it looks as if she abided by her father’s maxim: ‘I do not like money, money is the reason we fight’ as she spent the night at the pub, ate and drank royally, and left without paying the bill.

Other groups who meet in the Nelson are all connected in some way to the magnificent Bloom effort in Middleton. That includes the Environment Group who stage a produce show and family auction, publish walking books and local memoirs and organise the Open Gardens which this year involved a remarkable 40 gardens, representing nearly 20 per cent of the households.

There is also a Ladies Group, Gardening Club, a Mountain Bike Group, which organises village bike rides and created delightful wicker bike ‘installations’ with the Art Group, and the Village Green Group who manage the parish’s newly acquired Green.

Bloom chair Mike Coveney uses an appropriate phrase to explain why Middleton in Bloom has been such a success and galvanised the village: ‘It’s evolved organically. The Bloom has gradually become a part of every organisation in Middleton and villagers have adopted it as part of village life. Visitors tell us how colourful and cared for the village looks.’

As coordinator Rob Stamper reveals: ‘An Open Gardens visitor said “this is a proper place with proper people.”’ Marc Hadfield concurs: ‘We came to live here because we liked its real feel and its diverse social and economic mix, with local families going back generations but also young families; and all engage with the community.’

As Mike observes: ‘Lead mining is in the past and the quarries and the mine are more or less mothballed, yet they provide a rich history of which Middleton is proud. Employment here is more diverse but although more people commute, this is not a dormitory village. It’s very much alive and those who have come to live here are tuned in and keen to see Middleton thrive.’

As Rob Stamper concludes: ‘A number of locals described Middleton as “somewhere they just drove through” on the way home. Now they smile as they pass through.’

With special thanks to Mike Coveney and Rob Stamper for showing me round the village and Jane Monaghan for her hospitality.