The town of Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Mike Smith explores the historic market town that's proud of its attractions and prime tourist location, and is forging ahead into the 21st century with some exciting new developments

Chesterfield is known by people from far and wide as the town with the crooked spire. Keen to capitalize on this fame, many of the town’s businesses and organisations, from Spire Estate Agents to the Transpire Bus Society, carry names that either make direct reference to the word ‘spire’ or are derivations of it, and the habit is catching. As a result of my recent visit, I have concluded that Chesterfield also deserves to be known for the inspired marketing of its tourist attractions, which extend well beyond a church with a quirky steeple, and for a remarkable renaissance that is being driven by those civic leaders and entrepreneurs who aspire to make this ancient Derbyshire settlement fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Last year, the town’s tourist information centre scooped the Gold Award for a second time in the prestigious Enjoy England Excellence Awards. As well as picking up top marks for customer care, range of services, customer feedback, accessibility and environmental standards, the centre impressed the judges with its new town-centre audio trail and the friendliness of its knowledgeable tourist officers. I’m not at all surprised that the adjudicators were won over, because it took the charming staff no time at all to convince me that Chesterfield has the best possible tourist location in the whole of England.

As they pointed out, the town not only stands between the Peak District and Robin Hood Country, but is also located at the hub of one of the greatest concentrations of country houses in England, with Chatsworth, Haddon, Hardwick, Renishaw, Sutton Scarsdale and Bolsover all within easy reach. Leaving the spire to speak for itself, the staff spoke enthusiastically about Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery, with its ‘terrific displays and exhibitions’, the Pomegranate Theatre, where the likes of Penelope Keith, Edward Fox and Diana Rigg had their first professional engagements, and the thatched Revolution House, where the Earl of Devonshire, the Earl of Danby and John d’Arcy plotted to overthrow James II.

The tourist officers also told me that Chesterfield has a shopping centre that is second to none. In fact, I needed little convincing on this score, because I had just walked to their centre from the huge stall market, which is overlooked by a vast Victorian market hall and obviously attracts shoppers from a very wide area. Along the way, I had walked through crowded shopping streets and precincts flanked by an enormous range of independent retail outlets and national chain stores. What is more, I had seen almost no empty units. Even in these difficult economic times, it would appear to be ‘business as usual’ in Chesterfield.

With an enthusiastic town centre and culture manager like Bernadette Wainwright at the helm, there is little chance of this vitality being lost. Bernadette told me of special events that help to keep Chesterfield’s stall market healthy when so many others around the country are failing. These include an annual Arts and Market Festival and periodic Continental Markets, as well as the occasional Medieval Market, held in a town centre that looks like a stage set for a medieval play, thanks to the erection of numerous black-and-white timbered buildings in the 1930s, when it almost seemed as though there was an attempt to convert Chesterfield into Derbyshire’s version of Chester. A more recent embellishment of the shopping area has seen the erection of street sculptures, part of a scheme that covers the entire borough. Bernadette is also responsible for the management of the award winning tourist information centre and is always seeking to extend its services. She showed me her latest acquisition, which is a tourist map for partially-sighted people. As well as having Braille labels, places of interest on the map are identified by raised blocks in the shape of the building they represent. The information centre itself has a polygonal shape, apparently designed to match the cross-section at the base of the church’s spire.

Armed with this information, I headed for the Church of St Mary and All Saints, where I was met by the verger, Paul Wilson, who showed me some of the interior features that would be much better known but for that headline-grabbing spire. Its treasures include brilliant Victorian and 20th-century stained glass, a Jacobean pulpit, a 16th-century screen, a Lady Chapel, which has splendid monuments to the Foljambe family, and a Lesser Lady Chapel, which is unusual in having the shape of an irregular hexagon.

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Having convinced me that the church would be worthy of a visit even if it didn’t have a crooked spire, Paul offered to take me up the church tower, and I duly followed him up the 152 steps of a narrow spiral stairway, banging my head several times along the way, unlike the very tall verger, who has learnt to ‘mould his body to the stairs’ as he ascends. When we reached the bell chamber, Paul pointed out a new bell that has been installed to replace one that was stolen in 1978 by means that are difficult to fathom. He also told me of the day when he jumped into the well containing the bells to retrieve a camera dropped by a tourist and had to make a quick exit when the bells started ringing all around him.

From the top of the 110ft tower, we were able to see up the inside of the crooked spire. The view of the tangle of timbers that make up the internal structure of the spire, which climbs in drunken fashion for another 118ft, reminded me of those deliberately distorted images of the Eiffel Tower painted by Robert Delaunay. Of course, the distortion in Chesterfield’s spire is real, with a 9ft 5” lean from the vertical and a 45 per cent twist, but the cause is unclear. Blame has been attached to the weight of the lead, the use of green timber, a lack of skilled craftsmen during the Black Death and insufficient cross-bracing.

Anne-Marie Knowles, curator of Chesterfield’s museum, is convinced that the spire did not become crooked until the end of the 18th century, because neither Daniel Defoe nor Celia Fiennes mentioned it in their descriptions of the town. Anne-Marie is the keeper of a prized possession in the form of a 20ft-diameter windlass used by medieval builders in the construction of the church. This huge device was rotated by men pushing on internal treading boards in the manner of mice on a treadmill.

Much of the museum is given over to superb displays of the social and industrial history of the town, from the days of its Roman fort through the early exploitation of coal and iron deposits and the subsequent expansion of coal-mining and engineering to the specialist industries of the today. Anne-Marie is keen to dispel the popular belief that manufacturing has ceased in Chesterfield. She points out that scientific instruments, titanium parts for the Space Shuttle, cricket balls used in Test matches worldwide and the stiff tubes used to hold contents ranging from Smarties to bottles of whisky are all made in a town that can also boast that it is the biggest manufacturer of horse-shoes in the country.

As council leader Ray Russell explained, new businesses are also being encouraged by the provision of small units where they can incubate and larger units where they can grow. Twenty-four new units in the aptly named Prospect House at Staveley have been specifically designed for technology and knowledge-based companies; the Dunston Innovation Centre has 35 units and ten ‘rent-a-desks’, and Venture House has 35,000 sq feet of expansion space for knowledge-based companies. Thanks to these enterprising schemes, scores of new enterprises have been brought to the town.

However, as Ray acknowledges, the loss or relocation of old industries has created a ‘lunar landscape’ in parts of the town but, thanks to the combined efforts of entrepreneurs and politicians of all persuasions, Chesterfield’s ‘moonscape’ is being colonised to create an exciting new world. The former Trebor-Bassett site is being developed as a new visitor destination with shops, restaurants and leisure facilities around a new canal basin that will form part of an urban village on a 40-acre Chesterfield waterside site, where there will be 1,500 dwellings, as well as 30,000 sq metres of office space. The Birchall Estate, a former opencast mining area on the north side of Chesterfield, is to be transformed into the Peak Resort, a ‘Center Parcsstyle’ domed, all-weather leisure and tourist development with walking and cycling trails, water sports facilities, a championship-standard golf course, hotels and 250 woodland lodges. The former Bryan Donkin site is already home to a new DIY retail warehouse, the new Chesterfield Community Fire Station and phase one of a 250,000 sq ft business park known as Spire Walk – old naming habits die hard.

Exciting changes are also taking place on Chatsworth Road, on the western side of the town, which property developer Tim Turner believes is rapidly developing into Chesterfield’s version of Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road, with an increasing range of high quality restaurants, cafes, craft shops and boutiques. Tim has brought the award-winning Italian restaurant Nonna’s to Chesterfield in his eye-catching new development at 131 Chatsworth Road, which also accommodates Mode Salons and Ultimate Bathrooms. Local entrepreneur Steve Perez has recently completed two other developments on Chatsworth Road in the form of Bradbury Place, a residential block with 77 apartments, and the Maltings, a complex of 20 short-stay apartments for business people.

As a highly successful entrepreneur with hobbies that include piloting helicopters and racing rally cars, Steve Perez is the Richard Branson of Chesterfield. Having made a fortune from Vodka Kick, which is sold in 30 countries, he is now importing a range of alcoholic drinks from Eastern Europe and adding property development to the portfolio of his company Global Brands. As well as building Bradbury Place and the Maltings, he is constructing a new hotel on an old car auction site alongside the A61. As Chesterfield’s first four-star hotel, this will be a very important element in the town’s renaissance.

Steve told me that he has designed the hotel as a place where he would be happy to stay himself. Named Casa, which means ‘home’ in Spanish, the hotel will have d�cor with a Spanish touch and will include 100 de-luxe bedrooms with highquality sound-proofing, a large banqueting suite, a boost gym, eight meeting rooms and a wedding pavilion. Much of the food will come from Steve’s own organic farm and the entrepreneur is even planning to move the headquarters of Global Brands from Clay Cross to a specially-constructed suite that sits in dramatic fashion on top of the new hotel.

The 25-acre former Dema Glass site across the road from the new hotel is already the location of a Tesco Extra superstore and will soon be the new home of Chesterfield FC. The club’s conference and marketing manager Gary Cook, community director John Croot and chief executive Carol Wilby showed me around the 10,600-capacity ‘b2net Stadium’, which will be completed for the start of the new season. John will be basing his extensive community and education programmes in the Midlands Cooperative Community Stand, which includes classrooms, multi-purpose sports facilities, a rehabilitation wavepool and a healthy-living resource for people of all ages, and Gary is already marketing the main HTM Stand as ‘North Derbyshire’s premier venue for all occasions’.

Completely fronted in glass and with panoramic views over the pitch, the HTM Stand will offer bespoke catering and space for 500 guests, making it an ideal venue for exhibitions, conferences, company meetings, school proms, celebrations, dinner-dances, weddings and baby naming ceremonies. The other two stands in the new stadium have been sponsored by Printablity and by Carol Child, a local lottery winner and long time supporter of the club, and the pitch will have herringbone-drainage that should prevent the need for the frequent re-layings that are necessary at some top Premier League grounds.

Now that the club has a state-of-the- art ground, Carol Wilby is hoping that the ‘Spireites’ might achieve Premier League status themselves in the not-too-distant future. Whether or not this aspiration is realized, the b2net Stadium is yet another example of the exciting new developments that are placing Chesterfield in the premier league of towns.

TOP TIPS FOR A VISIT TO CHESTERFIELD                                                  

• Indulge in retail therapy in the huge stall market and in the town’s attractive and very comprehensive shopping area.

• Take a guided walk up the tower of the church for an amazing view of the inside of the crooked spire, but do not fail to seek out the many treasures in the church itself.

• Visit Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery to see a remarkable contraption used by medieval builders and to discover the social and industrial history of the town through displays, videos and exhibitions of evocative paintings.

• Take a trip to the thatched Revolution House where the Earl of Devonshire, the Earl of Derby and John d’Arcy met to plot the overthrow of James II.

• Visit the Tourist Information Centre to pick up a Town Centre Audio Trail or to plan a visit to the great country houses that are located within a few miles of the town.

• Visit Barrow Hill Roundhouse Railway Centre, the last working railway roundhouse in Britain.

• See a production at the Pomegranate Theatre or the Winding Wheel Concert Hall.

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