The town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire
Historic charm, a variety of annual events and everything a shopper could want with a vibrant market, new retail park and a plethora of high quality town centre shops. Mike Smith explores
Visitors approaching Ashbourne from the south look upon the town as the gateway to the Peak District, but travellers arriving from the north have a very different perspective. When the road from the limestone uplands begins its steep descent into the centre of the town, they are suddenly transported into a street flanked by red-brick houses. For them, Ashbourne is the first town in lowland England. In fact, this old Derbyshire settlement has managed to absorb the best of both the worlds on its doorstep, with an overall appearance that is an amalgam of northern sturdiness and southern softness. Stone and brick buildings sit side-by-side in many of its streets, and the town even has a quirky architectural style all of its own, which is found on several buildings, regardless of whether they are built in brick or stone.
The northern approach road leads directly to the triangular Market Place. In the words of Tony Grace, who works tirelessly for the town as a director of the Ashbourne Partnership, ‘On Market Days, it would be hard to find a better entrance, not only because the twice weekly stall market is so vibrant, but also because it creates a strong sense of place, with present-day stall holders selling their goods on the same plot of land where street trading began in 1257.’
I met Tony and his colleague Sarah Wolfe in the partnership’s offices, which are tucked into an alley on the eastern side of the market place. The partnership, comprising representatives from the public, private and voluntary sectors, was set up ten years ago with a mission ‘to make Ashbourne a better place in which to live, work and play’. Sarah has been working with great enthusiasm on the group’s latest project: a ‘Visible Heritage Scheme’ that was launched in March with the aim of ‘bringing history to the street’ through a series of strategically placed information panels. Inspired by display boards in leading tourist centres like Chester and Stratford-upon- Avon, they feature a new tourist map designed by local artist Sue Prince and a description of eight key stages in Ashbourne’s eventful history.
One of Sarah’s new panels stands in the car park at the foot of the town, where a large parking area is overlooked by a Waitrose supermarket, which opened recently, right alongside an existing Co-op food store and just a street away from a Sainsbury’s supermarket. All three stores can be accessed from Dig Street, a lively shopping street that runs up the hill from the lower town to the centre of Ashbourne.
Alternatively, the centre can be reached via Horse and Jockey Yard, a picturesque alleyway lined with highly attractive shops, with offerings such as clothes, kitchen goods, jewellery, pictures and prints. This acts as an appropriate introduction to a plethora of other high-quality shops in Ashbourne, where there is a particular emphasis on ladies’ boutiques, speciality food shops, art galleries and antique shops, as well as bistros, caf�s and restaurants.
A colourful display of flowers, fruit and vegetables marks the emergence of the alleyway into St John Street, where the shopping treats continue. A number of retail outlets in this street and elsewhere in the town have joined the Ashbourne Rewards Scheme, which is being pioneered by the Ashbourne Partnership and involves shoppers making a one-off payment for a card that entitles them to rewards at businesses where they have earned points as loyal shoppers. As Tony Grace and Sarah Wolfe explained, the message from the partnership is: Why travel elsewhere when you can be rewarded for shopping locally?
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Regardless of rewards earned by local people who make use of the loyalty card, Ashbourne offers a very rewarding shopping experience for visitors and residents alike. For example, Church Street, which is the continuation of St John Street beyond its junction with Dig Street, is a paradise for lovers of antiques, with furniture, ornaments, sculptures and paintings spilling out onto the pavement in front of a succession of quality antique shops. During the annual ‘Antiques in the Street’ event, trading even overflows into the carriageway.
The westward view along Church Street is dominated by the slender 212 ft spire of St Oswald’s Church, which would dominate the townscape even more if the church were not slightly sunken below road level. Described by George Eliot as ‘the finest mere parish church in the kingdom’, St Oswald’s is certainly impressive when viewed from the churchyard, but its interior is oddly proportioned. The absence of a north aisle makes the nave look lopsided and the view of the crossing is partially obscured by the intrusion of a large pillar that has presumably been inserted to give extra support to the tower.
In marked contrast, the transepts are so large that they give the impression of forming the main axis of the church. The north transept, which has a window with thirteenth century stained glass, is flanked by a chapel containing several large tombs dedicated to various members of the Cockayne, Bradbourne and Boothby families. Tucked into one corner, there is the much smaller tomb of Penelope Boothby, who died one month before her sixth birthday. It is covered by Thomas Banks’ marble sculpture of a sleeping child, which is given added poignancy by the inscription: ‘She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured all on this frail bark, and the wreck was total.’ The words are repeated in French, Latin and Italian, for it is claimed that Penelope had a grasp of all these languages.
The church gates open onto a view of the stone-built, multi-gabled fa�ade of Ashbourne’s original Grammar School, founded in 1585 by Sir Thomas Cockayne. Adjoining the old school is the stone-built Grey House, which has a splendid portico with a triangular pediment, above which is a large Venetian window topped by an unusual semi-circular window known as a ‘spalato’. A glance across the road shows that this quirky architectural arrangement is repeated precisely, but in brick rather than stone, on the Mansion House, which was once the home of Dr John Taylor, who often played host to Dr Johnson. This highly distinctive type of local styling can be spotted on some other buildings in Ashbourne.
With many other fine examples of Georgian town houses, as well as several groups of ancient almshouses in both brick and stone, Church Street is one of the best streets in Derbyshire. Eastward views along the road towards St John Street are framed by the gallows-style inn sign of the Green Man and Black’s Head Royal Hotel, which is suspended across the full-width of the street and is surmounted by a double-headed carving of a man. He looks happy on one side, but sad on the other.
St John Street is linked to the market place by Victoria Square, a steep street festooned with flowers, some growing in street planters and others on display outside a florist’s shop. There are lots of eating places in and around the street and yet more wonderful independent shops in the alleyways that run away to the right. A picturesque old building in the Market Place houses the tourist information centre, where I found senior information officer Carol Akers and assistant Joan Passant giving out leaflets about the guided walks that were launched recently by the Ashbourne Partnership and are led by trained volunteer guides. The two officers were also providing information about this year’s Ashbourne Festival, including concerts by Derby Bach Choir and the Endellion String Quartet, as well as appearances by Stephen Booth and Jenny Eclair.
As Carol is keen to point out, the events, including late-night Christmas shopping, a half marathon, the Ashbourne Show (on 21st August) organised by the Ashbourne Shire Horse Society, the biggest Highland Gathering outside Scotland and, most famously of all, the Royal Shrovetide Football Game, played between the Up’ards and the Down’ards, those born on the north side and south side respectively of Henmore Brook. This is no ordinary game of football: there are no rules, the goals are three miles apart; there is no limit on the number of participants and the battle rages between 2pm and 10pm on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.
During the Shrovetide rough and tumble, shop windows throughout the town are boarded up for protection, but all the usual enticing window displays were on full view on the day of my visit. Some exquisite ceramics in the window of the Opus Gallery on St John Street had attracted the attention of Ann Potterton from Ashby-de-la Zouch and Wendy Howell from Essex, who was on a visit to the North Midlands. Ann had brought her friend to Ashbourne because she had been advised that the town would be ideal for a leisurely afternoon browse after a morning of walking the Tissington Trail. Wendy was suitably impressed by Ashbourne, describing it as fulfilling her idea of ‘a perfect English country town’.
The gallery was being staffed at the time by Tracey Turner, a former teacher, who was born in Chirk and went to school in Llangollen. When she and her husband came to live in Ashbourne just over two years ago, she was immediately struck by the gulf in affluence between the places where she had been brought up and the Derbyshire town. She quoted the example of a couple who came into the gallery and saw an original work by Rob Wilson, an artist who featured in our April edition, and were so bowled over by the painting that they bought it there and then for the asking price of almost �1,000.
A nearby gallery, which is known simply as The Gallery, not only shows contemporary arts and crafts over four floors of the former Magistrates’ Court, but also has a caf� that won Caf� of the Year in the Derbyshire Food and Drink Awards for 2009. As well as sourcing a wide range of local products, the owners use imported Fairtrade ingredients. Thanks to pioneering efforts by local campaigners such as Steve Porter, who has run the health food shop Natural Choice for 24 years, Ashbourne has sufficient retailers who have signed up to Fairtrade practices to earn it the status of a Fairtrade town. Steve told me of an event staged two years ago by the town’s Fairtrade group that saw scores of people, plus one dog, gathering in the street to set the record for the number of people eating Fairtrade bananas in one get-together. Strong support came from Sainsbury’s supermarket, which supplied the bananas, and the event was covered by reporters from as far afield as the North of Scotland and the South Coast.
Another store that has signed up to Fairtrade sourcing is the new branch of Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in the Waterside Retail Park, which also contains a Halfords and a Homebase and is being developed on the former site of the Nestl� factory, on the western edge of the town, by Peter Gadsby, an Ashbourne-born property developer. Peter’s father, Bernard Gadsby, worked at the Nestl�’s plant for 48 years and Peter is proud of the fact that his new retail park is already employing the same number of people who were working at the factory when it closed down. Although some town-centre traders had misgivings when the edge-of town retail park opened, many are now taking the view that Waterside is helping to boost trade in the town by reducing the need for local people to travel to Derby for some of their shopping. To help matters further, a regular Shopper Hopper bus service runs between Waterside and the town centre.
Peter, who figures in the Sunday Times Rich List, might well have pursued a career as a footballer but for a knee injury. However, he has made up for his thwarted ambition by being involved in the running of Derby County for 20 years and he has now donated a piece of land at Waterside for use by local football teams. Peter has also pulled off a rare double by scoring a goal in the Shrovetide game in 1965 and ‘turning up’ the ball for the start of the game in 1997. To symbolize the town’s most famous annual event he commissioned a sculpture by local artist Neil Hawksworth of a typical scrum or ‘hug’ in the Ashbourne game. Known simply as ‘The Hug’, the sculpture now forms a gateway feature and provides a welcoming embrace for visitors entering one of Derbyshire’s most attractive towns.
TOP TIPS FOR A VISIT TO ASHBOURNE
• Indulge in retail therapy in the town’s chain and independent shops, including ladies’ boutiques, food supermarkets, speciality food shops and art galleries, and pause for refreshment at one of the excellent caf�s, bistros and pubs.
• Browse for antiques on Church Street and make a special visit for ‘Antiques in the Street’, which takes place this year on 6th September.
• Book a guided walking tour of Ashbourne at the information centre. Sample the architectural delights of a town with 200 listed buildings and find out more about its fascinating history on the new tourist panels.
• Visit ‘the finest mere parish church in England’ and seek out the Sleeping Child, a touching marble statue dedicated to the memory of Penelope Boothby, who died just before her sixth birthday.
• Visit the Market Place on Thursday or Saturday, when it buzzes with market trading.
• Time your visit to coincide with one or more of Ashbourne’s annual events, which include late-night Christmas shopping, an agricultural show, a Highland gathering and the famous Royal Shrovetide Football Game, a two-day rough and tumble through the streets, alleyways, streams and culverts of the town.