The bright and beautiful village of Brassington
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Derbyshire Life delights in Brassington’s ‘uniqueness’ with its history, award-winning pub, celebrated school and a host of activity groups
Nestled in the mid-Derbyshire hills between Ashbourne and Wirksworth, Brassington sits in splendid isolation, a country mile off the main road. As I drive down the lane off the B5035, the village gradually heaves into view, its grey limestone houses huddled together clinging onto the steep hillside with the 900-year-old Church of St James an appropriately dominant presence, as if presiding over its flock.
This is, as several villagers affirmed, a unique place. Brassington may feel like a typical Peak District village but its location marks the transition from the White Peak to the south Derbyshire plains.
The hills around are unquestionably unique with their striking rocky outcrops and clumps of hardy trees hiding both the caves and hollows that have yielded evidence of occupation in Iron Age and Roman times, and the shafts that were mined for lead and other minerals which, along with farming, helped develop and sustain this settlement.
For resident Jane Smith, Brassington is not only unique because of ‘the beautiful scenery that surrounds it’ but also ‘the tranquillity and community spirit.’ I caught a sense of both during my several visits to Brassington. Although it’s a sizeable village of 240 households and just under 600 permanent residents, I always found it as quiet as a Sunday morning, yet when a head popped out of a window or a resident walked by, there was a smile and a greeting. One villager, hanging out her washing, saw my camera and immediately engaged me in conversation, urging me to come back in the spring when the hills would be carpeted with dandelions, then buttercups, as well as cowslips, harebells and orchids. ‘You ought to come for our Wakes Week in the summer, too,’ she added; and I eventually discovered that in spite of its tranquil façade, Brassington is a very active village.
‘Without knowing the village or living here, it might seem quite sleepy,’ says newcomer Chris Johnstone, ‘but that’s part of the attraction. There are, though, all kinds of things happening if you wish to engage with them.’
What adds to Brassington’s uniqueness is that the old part of the village has no house numbers, with only a few nameplates on the cottages and very few signed lanes. The fact that most homes are called by the names of occupants, former or present, would seem to confirm the presence of a close-knit community as well as a tolerant postman.
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What also makes Brassington unique, says Jane, is that it’s ‘unspoilt.’ As villager historian Ron Slack points out, ‘photographs of Brassington taken at the turn of the 20th century show a village which looks remarkably like the Brassington of today.’
What also contributes to Brassington’s uniqueness, says Jane, is that the 400-year-old Olde Gate Inn is ‘one of the finest original pubs in the country.’ This is unspoilt, too, and that’s official: ‘The Gate’ has just won the Best Unspoilt Pub in the Country award in The Good Pub Guide 2017. It is also, according to The Independent, one of the best 13 pubs in the country.
Furthermore, Brassington has another pub – The Miner’s Arms – a celebrated school, a host of activity groups from Brownies to an Over 60s Club, a luxurious B&B, an award-winning self-catering holiday centre, a bespoke furniture business, one of the UK’s leading quarries, an award-winning landscape painter and a renowned wildlife photographer.
That photographer is Chris Johnstone who, since moving to Brassington five years ago, has stunningly captured a diverse range of species in the area, especially kestrel, buzzard and brown hare, and encourages other photographers to shoot here by renting out his hides. ‘Hides give you the opportunity to make images of species that might otherwise be difficult to capture,’ says Chris, adding that hides are great for non-photographers, too – ‘it’s a wonderful way of watching wildlife in peaceful surroundings.’
Chris is increasingly engaging with landowners and farmers as ‘they have a unique knowledge of the wildlife on their land, enabling me to pick up valuable information.’
This was once a landscape teeming with wildlife. Various unearthed bones point to the hillside crags sheltering prehistoric animals such as the sabre-toothed tiger and woolly rhinoceros and, later, hyena, bison, brown bear, Irish elk, lynx and wolf. The early settlers who hunted on these uplands found water in the springs and shelter in the caves, as did a few later settlers who Daniel Defoe met while touring Britain in the early 18th century. If you visit Harborough Rocks, the cave with the smoke-stained roof belonged to a lead mining family. The father, recalled Defoe, was ‘as lean as a skeleton, pale as a dead corpse... he looked like an inhabitant of the dark regions below,’ which well he might as the miner and his fellow ‘subterranean creatures’ were working over 400 feet down. For that, the miner told Defoe he earned five pence a day ‘if he was doing well.’
This account makes more apocryphal the story I heard when first visiting Ye Olde Gate Inn: that some lead miners used to boast about their prosperity by lighting their pipes on the log fire with banknotes.
Brassington certainly prospered after 1675 when it was literally put on the map of England: in John Ogilby’s prototype road atlas, the only road shown in Derbyshire went through Brassington as part of the London to Manchester route, eventually being turnpiked in 1738. At some point during this time, the village had 14 drinking houses.
In spite of the coming of the railway a century later, the mining industry – along with farming – began to decline, although the extraction of barytes from the old lead mines continued until 1953. Increasingly, there was work to be found in quarries, with two family-owned companies – Spencer Bros (1903) Ltd and Longcliffe Quarries, founded in 1927 – still thriving, the latter one of the largest independent hard rock quarries left in England. Their quarry at Brassington Moor is a source of exceptionally high purity limestone. Also hereabouts is Robinsons Longcliffe Ltd, celebrating 60 years in business; they provide steel fabrication and site maintenance through to crane hire and transport, while in the heart of the village itself is Old Farmhouse Furniture where, for nearly 30 years, Andrew Marshall has produced ‘real, bespoke wooden furniture’ for kitchens, bedrooms and studies.
Being a working village, many shops grew up in the 19th century and well into the 20th, making Brassington virtually self-sufficient. Kelly’s Directory of 1936 lists a dozen shops, including Brindley’s where the owner was not only a grocer but also a draper and medicine vendor, and Ernest Taylor’s shop, which was like a miniature department store, operating as a ‘grocer, confectioner, tobacconist, ironmonger, wireless apparatus, cycle agent and battery charging.’ In 1936, electricity still hadn’t reached outlying areas and piped water wasn’t made available on tap until 1939.
There was no electricity – or telephone service – for six consecutive weeks during the harsh winter of 1946-7. Long-time resident John Allsop recalls that Brassington had no bakehouse so two stout locals – Stan Needham and Ted Brittain – were dispatched with horses to the bakers at Hognaston, just under three miles away. As the road was impassable, they had to cross the fields. A journey that by car takes seven minutes, took the men three hours but they returned with 400 baked loaves and, as John recalls, some yeast and flour to bake more bread.
What John also recalls are endless hours of sledging down the main roads as school was closed due to lack of heating. As a youngster in the 1950s, Pat Horrocks remembers a large sledge called Big Bertha that could seat eight. ‘It took some dragging back up the hill,’ recalls Pat, ‘but we would be out there day after day until it was dark, only returning home for food and to change sodden socks.’
From the 1960s through to the 1990s, sledgers were joined by skiers. Derby Ski Club member Alan Robinson of local firm Robinson Longcliffe, aided by fellow members Don and Judy Charity – who, ironically, are now village residents – encouraged other members to try out the pistes around Brassington. When the snow was thick on the ground – some years it was up to the top of the walls – up to 70 skiers turned up. Even ski tows were provided and floodlights for night skiing.
This story by Heather Leach appeared in the excellent free village newsletter Brasson Banter – Brasson being the local epithet for Brassington. She also asks whether these skiing happenings could be revived: ‘Maybe,’ she ponders, ‘Brassington could become the Chamonix of the Derbyshire Dales?’
When Roy Christian wrote about Brassington in Derbyshire Life in 1982, a resident referred to it as ‘an old geezer village.’ Clearly, much has changed as Brassington has enjoyed since then an influx of young families who mix well with the long-standing incumbents.
A look inside Brasson Banter will show this is a village that hasn’t stood still. For instance, I found that allotments comprising 16 plots were opened only two years ago and that an environmental group has recently been launched to ‘protect, conserve and improve’ the village and surrounding landscape. Open Gardens is another recent addition to Brassington life with more than 20 gardens opening last summer.
There was also a very healthy 62 per cent response from residents to the recent Village Plan. Eighty-five per cent of those residents declared that the primary school was ‘the most important part of the village.’ When headteacher Liz Moorsom came here two years ago, she knew she had made the right choice: ‘What impressed me on my first visit was walking onto a very lively playground with scooters whizzing about everywhere and yet all the children were watching out for each other and were quick to speak to me in a polite and friendly way.’
As a former headteacher of a rural school, Liz is aware of the advantages of a village primary in that having small numbers – 53 at present – means that teachers and children know each other very well. Also, class sizes here are small so ‘pupils get lots of individual attention,’ well in accord with the school motto: Bringing out the Best in Everyone.
Also, as is mentioned in Brasson Banter, ‘the school encourages families to stay here and to move into the village, which helps to sustain the whole community for the long term.’
As for academic excellence, Liz proudly reports a 100 per cent success rate for Year 6 over the last three years in National Tests in Reading, Writing and Maths. Nationally, only 53 per cent of children achieved this. Liz praises her ‘brilliant staff’ who have ‘lots of unexpected talents’ with ‘brilliant support’ from parents, too, ‘bringing their skills to enhance the children’s experiences.’
The children clearly experience a lot: all Year 6 children learn to sail at nearby Carsington Water; there is an outdoor Forest School session every week; their Tag rugby team has just come third out of 14 local schools; and classes learn to play the trombone and steel drums – ‘so it’s a bit noisy sometimes,’ smiles Liz. The children have even tried out a JCB on the school field.
Although the school is in a handsome Victorian building, there is constant pressure on space and Liz would love to have a purpose-built eco-building for their youngest children, especially as it could be used outside school hours as a village hall.
When it comes to performing, the school uses St James’s which sits on high sloping ground overlooking the village. The oldest building in Brassington, it is essentially a Norman church which was expanded and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. The oldest house is Tudor House, built in 1615, a splendid building with two gables and mullioned and transomed windows. Large house it may be but I was astonished to discover that when it became a workhouse at one point, it housed 77 paupers.
Arguably the most attractive house in Brassington is the 17th century Manor House, run as a three-bedroom B&B by interior designer Sarah Copley who runs the shop Vintage Living in Baslow. The Manor House probably has the most luxurious interiors, too, with the house being featured in Period Living magazine for the way Sarah had ‘transformed a 17th century country manor house into a comfortable home with a distinctly Provençal flavour.’ The B&B’s Trip Advisor pages resound with approbation, not least for the antique beds and, in the main bathroom, a candle-lit cast-iron roll-top bath on a checkerboard tiled floor. A former guest was historian Richard Starkey who no doubt admired the kitchen beams, timbers originally bound for the English fleet about to fight the Spanish Armada.
Unusually, the Manor House appears to be the only B&B in Brassington, although there are several holiday lets. There is an award-winning set of holiday lets at Hoe Grange, on the north side of the village in glorious rolling countryside. Hoe Grange Holidays, started ten years ago by David and Felicity Brown, has become one of the most acclaimed eco-sensitive self-catering holiday centres in the country, with awards to prove it, notably their two Golds for Access for All in the Visit England Excellence Awards. When they won their second Gold earlier this year, they also scooped up the Silver Award in Sustainable Tourism.
David grew up at Hoe Grange Farm at a time when there were more than 20 dairy farms in the parish. During the 1970s, with farming in decline, David’s father Gordon came up with the idea of building log cabins. However, as David recalls, ‘He was discouraged by planners because, at the time, tourism was not seen as a part of Derbyshire’s future!’
Needing to find an alternative income stream to supplement the farm, David and Felicity revisited the idea in 2004 and now have four stylish log cabins and, added only last year, two luxurious glamping pods. As farmers who were already part of UELs – an environmental land management scheme – they decided to promote the eco-friendly nature of their holiday sites. As David explains: ‘We treasure our special place and felt we had a duty to protect the very landscape that guests come to enjoy. It also makes very good business sense as we are less susceptible to the variations in energy prices, enabling us to keep ourselves competitive. There is also a growing number of people who make their holiday choice with one eye on the environmental impact and it helps us to differentiate ourselves from the ever-growing competition.
‘Our guests also enjoy the peace and quiet of Hoe Grange. Many arrive and go “wow!” at the stunning panoramic views which makes us realise how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place.’
I love the fact that David and Felicity offer a 10 per cent discount to guests who arrive on foot, by bicycle or bus or on horseback. What’s more, guests can bring their own horse and utilise Hoe Grange’s spacious stables and unlimited grazing. Many do, as the farm is also alongside the National Pennine Bridleway/ High Peak Trail.
Whether on foot or horseback, holidaymakers may well come across Roger Allen, an artist who moved into lodgings at Hoe Grange 20 years ago. As Roger recalls: ‘I was allowed to lodge here for six months in order to paint the local landscape, so it looks as if I’ve overstayed my welcome!’
Roger is a winner of the Derbyshire Life Prize at the Derby City Open, where he was praised for his ‘deep connection to the Derbyshire landscape.’ Always painting en plein air – ‘you see so much more because of the changeable and contrasting weather and seasonal farming operations’ – Roger never tires of depicting the area around him: ‘I love both the rugged, austere quality of the Dark Peak and the gentle, verdant lowlands of the White Peak. In the landscape around Brassington, you have both.’
I know there is game shooting to be enjoyed in this landscape, too, as I met a group of pheasant shooters in ‘The Gate’ Inn, rounding off their day with a pie and a pint. If they had popped in to the Miner’s Arms just up the road, they could have ordered pheasant casserole, one of the dishes introduced by landlady Janet Gosling when she took over the tenancy three years ago. Introducing ‘wholesome, home-cooked British pub food’ was one of the moves Janet made to give the pub ‘new life’ and, along with the attraction of four hand-pulled beers, she is enjoying the custom of an increasing number of locals and visiting walkers and cyclists.
Janet also deserves credit for bringing about Brassington’s new ‘automatic shop’ which is located in the pub’s car park. Although initially considering using part of the pub as a shop, Janet proposed Brassington follow Clifton and house one of the giant vending machines designed by Ashbourne engineer Peter Fox. The machine dispenses 80 products ranging from eggs, bacon, bread and milk to stamps, loo rolls, pet food and washing powder. Accepting cash or credit cards, the machine emails Peter whenever it dispenses an item so he can keep track of stock levels. Brassington’s alternative store has, I’m told, been a great success.
Ye Olde Gate Inn has also been given new life through Mel and Tony Cachart who took over last spring. They seem the perfect fit for this pub, not only because of their experience of the trade but also as long-term customers – Mel started working at the pub when she was 18.
You can feel the history as you walk in – and this was even before a local told me that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s soldiers were billeted here on their march south and that some of the oak beams came from ships of the Spanish Armada.
What does make ‘The Gate’ so special?
‘Let’s see now,’ ponders Mel with a glint in her eye. ‘What does make a pub first used in 1616 with three fires, four real ales, a beer garden, wooden beams, and winner of the Warmest Pub in Britain title, feel special? Let me think...’
You won’t find any better testimony than that from Harold Critchlow and partner Zandra who have come to ‘The Gate’ twice a week for the last 45 years, even though it’s a 50-mile trip from their Staffordshire home. ‘I love everything about it,’ says Harold, ‘the friendship, food, fireplace, beer, beams, brasses... if I had the money, I would buy it tomorrow.’
I can vouch for the excellence of their steak pie, though their noted speciality is a 10oz T-bone Tomahawk steak as well as line-caught trout from Carsington Water.
‘We love living and working here’ says Mel. ‘Brassington is a very honest village. OK, it’s not picture postcard pretty but whilst the buildings of any village are important, it is the people who make a village, and the people here are wonderful.’