The town of Longnor, Derbyshire

Mike Smith explores Longnor, a compact and charming market town within easy reach of both Buxton and the glories of the Dove and Manifold Valleys

Until it became popular with tourists, weekenders, commuters and retirees, the village of Longnor was caught in a time warp. Its fine old market hall is still inscribed with a table of tolls payable by sellers and buyers at markets and fairs: ‘For every sheep – one half penny; for every pig – one penny; for every horse – four pence’, and so on. The inscriptions were engraved in 1904 and have never been replaced, because they date from the moment that Longnor’s years as an important moorland market town and transport hub came to an abrupt end.

It was the coming of the railways that destroyed Longnor’s traditional role. Because it was not possible to construct the new railway lines across the high ridge on which the village stands, trans-Peak goods traffic transferred from the= moorland tracks that ran through Longnor to steam trains that passed through less elevated places. The village’s inn-keepers and traders lost much of their custom and, to make matters worse, many young people from the locality began to leave and seek work in the rapidly expanding towns and cities on the edge of the Peak District. Longnor simply stopped growing and became fossilised as one of the smallest market towns in England.

As a result, Longnor has an unmistakably urban appearance, even though it has the dimensions of a compact village. One of its best Georgian town houses stands at the entrance to Chapel Street, a narrow alley that winds its picturesque way from the market square to the church. An adjacent building once served as the Red Bull Inn and a huge gable-end on the opposite side of the road is the rear of the former Wesleyan Chapel. All in all, Chapel Street is an alleyway with grand buildings and modest dimensions – just like the charming village itself!

A flight of steps at the head of Chapel Street leads to St Bartholomew’s Church, which was rebuilt in 1781 and comprises a tall, pinnacled west tower and a simple nave pierced by two tiers of roundheaded windows. The upper windows were added in 1812, when the walls of the church were raised to allow the construction of galleries, but they are only visible from the outside, because the interior of the nave was reduced to its original height in 1949 by the insertion of a false roof. Aside from this oddity, the church is known for its Norman font but, to my eyes at least, its greatest treasure is a modern sculpture of St Bertram by Harry Everington, who was a member of the Frink School of figurative sculpture, but would seem to have been influenced by Eric Gill, as well as Elisabeth Frink.

The Church of England school is situated several yards west of the church. Its 28 pupils have the privilege of being educated in this idyllic spot on the Staffordshire Moorlands until they move on to Churnet View Middle School. As if the healthy location of their school were not enough, the children have a play area marked out with a ‘healthy heart’ circuit and they can retreat to a ‘breathing space’, where there is a wildlife meadow, a sensory garden, a pond and a vegetable patch. Recently they have been learning about the very different lives of children in a West African village, with the help of some role-playing that required headteacher Sue Evans to dress up as a village chief.

Sue, who has been in post for 14 years, has the support of the most dedicated staff and parents imaginable. For example, some of the parents have been trained to lead pupil activities designed to promote healthy eating and a recent joint effort by staff and parents resulted in a summer fair that raised �1,200 for the school, which is a colossal amount for a small village and helps to explain why foundation governor Sam Kidd tells everyone that this little school is ‘the heart of the community’.

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With a long career as a farmer behind him, 70-year-old Sam could easily have retired to a quiet life on his outlying farm, but he is so proud of his heritage that he works tirelessly for the church, the school and for Longnor as a whole. He is a long serving chairman of the Longnor Action Group, which has managed to obtain funding for the re-gilding of the church clock, the up-grading of equipment in an adventure playground, the installation of new tourist signs, the creation of a skatepark, the production of an improved website and the publication of a regularly-updated guide to the village.

Sam is rightly proud of all these improvements, but he acknowledges that his lovely village has two overriding problems that have yet to be solved: a lack of local employment opportunities and insufficient affordable housing. Sam was instrumental in bringing a workshop for people with learning difficulties to the village, but this has now gone, together with all the other businesses that were located in some starter units constructed near the fire station at the top of the village.

The problems associated with a lack of affordable housing were made clear to me by two people who were born in the village. Volunteer firefighter Nigel Allen now lives in Buxton, because he can’t afford a house in Longnor, even though he works in the village, where he manages Massey Brothers Feeds, which supplies food for poultry and cattle. Vanda Simpson and her husband bought a Longnor cottage for �15,000 when they got married a quarter of a century ago. Three nearby cottages were sold recently to people from outside the village for prices around �550,000, which explains why Vanda’s 23-yearold daughter can’t afford to move out of the family home.

In recent years, there has even been a reduction in the number of pubs in the village. The Grapes is currently empty and the Crewe and Harpur Arms is now reserved for private functions and business meetings. However, locals and visitors can still enjoy traditional hospitality at the Horseshoe Inn, which dates from 1609 and achieved fame in an episode of Peak Practice, albeit under the pseudonym of the Black Swan, and at the Cheshire Cheese, a pub which is full of surprises.

The Cheshire Cheese is furnished with several glass-topped tables containing numerous artefacts collected by landlady Lynn Stevenson’s uncle. A life-like statue next to the bar is purported to be a reincarnation of old Thirza Robinson, who was the landlady between 1909 and 1947. As if by magic, Thirza appears again, large as life, in the dining room. In fact, one room in the pub is called the Magic Room and is festooned with photographs from Chris Stevenson’s career as an award-winning magician who performs countrywide and is the resident magician at Manchester United’s stadium.

Chris and Lynn have converted some agricultural buildings across the road into holiday lets that are in great demand but, as Chairman of the Parish Council, Chris is just as aware as Sam Kidd of the local demand for affordable housing. However, he is proud of the fact that the village has a far better range of shops, facilities and services than almost any village of its size. The sloping, cobbled market place is overlooked by a general store, a delicatessen, a craft and coffee shop and a fish and chip restaurant and takeaway, and there is a post office a little further along the road.

Sweetmore’s general store serves as newsagents, confectioners and tobacconist, and even houses a tourist information centre. Cobbles was opened 18 months ago by Jackie Bills as a gift shop and delicatessen selling fresh bread and cakes, locally sourced meat and locally made ice cream. The former Market Hall, which still displays those fossilized inscriptions of toll payments, was sensitively converted some years ago into a showroom for beautifullycrafted furniture made by Peter Fox at his workshop near Longnor, where every piece is inscribed with a small signature image of a fox.

Peter’s wife, Alison, manages the showroom which also houses an exhibition space for paintings and hand-made crafts by local artists, and a coffee shop that provides light lunches, cream teas and own-baked cakes and scones. Della Malkin, who was serving on the day of my visit and is the daughter of Chris and Lynn Stevenson, told me that 73-year-old Francis Albert does all the baking. She also revealed that she spent much of her childhood acting as a guinea-pig for her father’s magic tricks.

Because it serves a wide rural area, Longnor’s post office managed to survive the recent national cull of post offices. It is run by Stephen Hitchen and his partner Christine Pym, both of whom have a university degree in children’s illustration. As well as making her own greeting cards, Christine has illustrated Ellie Patterson’s book The Tail of the Whale, while Stephen writes and illustrates a weekly comic strip that is based on the life and times of none other than Christine and himself.

As I was chatting to Stephen and Christine, two customers were waiting to be served. When I apologized for delaying them, they said that they were in no rush as they were only too pleased to spend time in the village shops listening to the latest gossip and sharing a little news of their own. Time moves slowly in Longnor, and the locals would not have it any other way.

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