The tranquil villages of Norbury, Roston and Snelston
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Derbyshire Life visits the idyllic villages south-east of Ashbourne
In a typical village article, residents are invariably quoted pointing out advantages to where they live such as a shop, school, pub or public transport. So, it was a first to hear Snelston residents Edmund and Sue Jarvis cite the lack of such provisions as positives. ‘We have no shop, school, pub or public transport,’ they declared. ‘We like that because it means no distractions, and no noise.’
Several residents speak of the peace and quiet in the village, as do most of Edmund and Sue’s B&B guests at their Oldfield House home. As they recounted: ‘One of our guests who had spent the evening relaxing in the sitting room said in the whole time he was there, not a single car went past. He could barely believe it.’ However, Snelston isn’t quite the quintessential ‘sleepy village’. Although it has a Reading Room – almost directly opposite Oldfield House – that same B&B guest might have heard more than the turning of a page; the Reading Room now operates as the village hall and has been known to host live bands.
As it is, I’m also here to write about the neighbouring parish of Norbury and Roston, which does have the ‘distractions’ of a school and pub, and even a factory. This peaceful, secluded slice of green south-east of Ashbourne also contains an agricultural estate with a rich manorial heritage, a historic and majestic church with a link to a great 19th century novel and was home to one of the county’s greatest ‘lost’ country houses.
Although the busy Ashbourne to Uttoxeter B-road is just a mile from Norbury, I chose a route via Clifton which felt like an adventure. The lane narrows and signs of human habitation seem distant in this wild, rolling countryside, as if you’re heading towards the Village that Hides from Man… or a Shangri-La, especially as resident Linda-Jane Stanton said: ‘It feels as if this part of the world is undiscovered.’
The road ends at a T-junction and, after turning right for 50 yards or so, a driveway through an open gate takes you to one of the most impressive, imposing and eye-gladdening sights in old England. It’s a scene that appears to have been locked in time for several centuries. To the left is the prominent red-brick 15th century Manor, comprising handsome mullioned windows with glass roundels, a rare survival of secular stained glass in a domestic setting. Smaller and less noticeable but even more historic is the adjoining medieval stone-built manor house, before the eye sweeps right to the splendour of Norbury Church. The Church of St Mary & St Barlok is like a miniature cathedral, made more striking and unusual by the position of its tower over the middle bay of the nave rather than to the east or west.
Inside, the chancel, which is almost as long as the nave, contains the church’s historic treasure: eight windows housing stained glass – the earliest inserted in 1306 – described by the heritage website Britain Express as ‘among the finest examples of early medieval glass in the country.’ Together with the great east window, they allow so much light into the chancel that it has been described as ‘a lantern in stone.’ The church also contains a font, c.1200, the shafts from two Saxon crosses and has deep slashes on two walls outside where Civil War soldiers sharpened their swords.‘The church has such a great presence,’ declares former church warden David Coxon.
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Timothy Clowes, the owner of the Norbury estate and a former church warden, describes it as ‘a place of glorious religiosity.’ Timothy told me of the considerable renovation work carried out on the chancel glass windows in 2004, at a cost of £335,000. It is a great tribute to the community that after English Heritage’s contribution of £216,000, the Parish raised the remainder. A generous donation would undoubtedly have come from Lloyd Clarke, a parishioner who emigrated to Iowa but still sends $1,000 to the church each year.
Norbury Church benefited in another way from the renovation programme, as Timothy recounts: ‘We persuaded English Heritage to put in a new heating system. This was to help the glass but, at the same time, it solved our problem with damp and, as a result, the church feels warmer.’
On Sunday for the last 54 years, the congregation has been warmed by the pipe organ music provided by John Prince. ‘There has never been anyone to take my place, so I carry on,’ remarks John.
David Coxon remembers when the church used to be two-thirds full every Sunday. The congregation is smaller these days but there are constant visitors drawn both to the church and the Old Manor, open Fridays and Saturdays.
A few devoted lovers of literature also come here: a headstone marks the grave of George and Mary Evans. One of their sons, Robert, sang in Norbury church choir before moving to Warwickshire and fathering George Eliot, whose novel Adam Bede is set largely in the Dove Valley – Norbury features in it as ‘Norbourne’.
Two tombs in the chancel point to the most prominent name linked with Norbury: Fitzherbert. Norbury was the principal seat of the Fitzherbert family from 1125 and the Old Manor – built at the end of the 13th century – and the church stand as their legacy. The medieval hall is a rare survival situated unusually on the first floor, it would probably have been reached by an external staircase. The Manor House was also built by a Fitzherbert and is now a National Trust holiday let.
The Clowes family came into the picture in 1874. As Timothy Clowes recounts, his great grandfather Samuel W Clowes, a wealthy Lancashire landowner, bought Norbury Manor from the Fitzherberts: ‘Although he worked in Manchester, the railway had arrived at Norbury and it was easy to get to Manchester as the train went up to Buxton. It only took him 1½ hours – probably about the same as today! He also came here because he loved the countryside, was a keen watercolourist and he adored hunting.’
Timothy himself was brought up in Norbury Hall from the age of eight where he remembers a halcyon country life, ‘one of endless play around the fields and by the river.’ He also recalls a ten-acre garden with six gardeners.
Timothy’s career took him into the Navy and when he left, in 1969, his uncle Leigh Algernon Clowes, passed on the estate to him – ‘mainly to avoid punitive death duties,’ admits Timothy.
Just prior to this, the Clowes sold the Manor House and Old Manor to Marcus Stapleton Martin, a kinsman of the Fitzherberts, who carried out a thorough restoration, eventually bequeathing the property to the National Trust in 1987.
Mary Potts, now 85 and living in the North East, grew up in the Manor in the 1930s and 40s as her father worked as a groom for the Clowes. One of her main memories is of the massive main staircase: ‘I used to start dusting it at the top and, by the time I got to the bottom, the dust had begun to settle at the top again. It was like painting the Forth Bridge.’ Mary also recalls a very dark house: ‘There was no electric light; we used candlelight and I’m sure that’s why I cope with the dark better than most people.’
On a similar note, David Coxon said that moving to Norbury from Ashbourne was a ‘culture shock’ as he couldn’t get used to not having any street lights. However, he soon saw the virtue of residing in a place with so little light and noise pollution. As Pip Price, a keen local astronomer, told me: ‘This is the place to live if you want to see the stars.’
It was inheriting a bungalow that brought David Coxon and his wife Christine to Norbury but he has come to believe that it’s his true home. He soon discovered one descendant in the churchyard but after more research found a 17th century ancestor with the same name – John Charles Coxon – he had given his son.
David and Christine love the fact that this part of the world is ‘unspoilt’, a feeling shared by Timothy Clowes who says that about the only change he has seen in the land around him is the move from horse power to tractor power. Although Timothy speaks of an ‘unaltered’ landscape, he has actually altered it himself, in the best possible way: he is responsible for 80 acres of planted woodland. Farming practices may have changed, and there are fewer farms, but this is still extensive farmland.
As Pip Price points out, the farmland has in one way returned to earlier days: ‘Farmers are more ecologically aware these days. They don’t chop as many trees down and make the most of every bit of land they’ve got. There’s more respect for the environment, so it means we’re getting back to what farming was like when I was growing up.’
Former Snelston resident Derek Woolliscroft, a retired farmer, told me he started work on his father’s farm ‘as soon as I could put wellies on.’ When asked how many farms he could remember from his youth, Derek reeled off a list of farm names, eventually stopping at 18. Retired farmer Paul Cotterill also enjoys the peace and quiet of this area, adding ‘it’s free of infilling and factories.’
That’s not entirely true, as there is one factory – though set unobtrusively in former farmland in a quiet lane in Roston – which, appropriately, exists largely for the agricultural industry. Established in 1948, Deville & Lear Ltd are construction engineers for portal framed buildings. Over 600 of their buildings are in Derbyshire, with several thousand over the rest of the UK. From their beginnings in 1948, when agricultural engineer Henry Deville and young farmer Cyril Lear formed the workforce, the business now employs 30 staff with ten teams of sub-contractors. This is still a family business: director John Coxon is Cyril Lear’s grandson, John’s father and son work there and there are two Devilles.
John has always lived in Norbury. ‘My roots are here,’ he declares, ‘and I love it, not least because my children were fortunate to attend the fantastic primary school.’ He also points out that although his family live in cloistered countryside, it’s only a short hop to Ashbourne and extensive road links.
As Snelston resident James Hollingsworth adds: ‘We are also close to the Peak District yet we have none of the problems that tourism can bring.’
These positives clearly make property in Norbury, Roston and Snelston desirable and, as James points out, the decline in the number of farms has, to one extent, worked in the area’s favour: ‘Many of the farmhouses are now private homes with their barns also converted into homes. This has generated 18 new homes in the last 25 years. It’s increased the population and changed the parish but it means there are more people with a greater range of backgrounds, which makes for a more sustainable community.’
I got a firm sense of a close-knit community when attending a Harvest Supper at Snelston Hall, the home of estate owners Charles and Linda-Jane Stanton. Their home is part of a converted stable block, once a part of the original Snelston Hall, a spectacular edifice commissioned by estate owner John Harrison, designed by renowned Gothic Revival architect Lewis Cottingham (1787-1847) and inspired by the Romantic design of Alton Towers. Subsequently, Harrison engaged Cottingham to design estate cottages and farm buildings.
In The Lost Houses of Derbyshire by Maxwell Craven and Michael Stanley, Snelston Hall’s design is described as ‘a bravura display of high Gothic.’ The interiors were ‘lavishly ornate’ and there were 30 acres of pleasure gardens and a plantation of 80 monkey puzzle trees, the first to grow successfully in Europe. Alas, the house was, according to Charles Stanton, ‘oversized and gloomy, seized by dry rot and in need of an army of helpers to run it’ so was demolished in the early 1950s.
The barn conversion the Stantons live in was built in the late 1940s, with Charles and Linda-Jane moving here when they inherited the estate in 1989. ‘All we’ve done is add a breakfast room,’ says Linda-Jane, a modest claim as I survey the elegant, tasteful interiors. The grounds, too, are attractive, with a quaint boathouse in the corner of a lake. The house contains artefacts from the original Hall including furniture, chimneypieces, panelling and a cut-down section of a spectacular Gothic staircase which was the work of a certain craftsman called Adam Bede. George Eliot knew Bede from her time spent at Norbury, as her grandfather was estate foreman and it’s believed Bede was an apprentice of his.
Like Norbury, Snelston has had a long succession of manorial ownership. As Charles Stanton told me, there was inter-marrying from the mid-17th century between the Harrisons and Stantons, with the Stantons finally inheriting the estate in 1906. Although Charles and Linda-Jane came to the estate from city jobs – chartered surveyor and credit insurer respectively – they have enjoyed the business of farming their 850 acres, with a side business being developed: Snelston Tweed, using the wool from their Shetland flock. The business has the delightful rhyming slogan ‘Our sheep, our tweed, our quality guaranteed’, though they also use the phrase ‘From field to fabric’. Linda-Jane designs all the textiles, ‘inspired by the changing colours of the estate.’
As Charles declares, he and Linda-Jane are very content: ‘We live quietly, enjoying the land, family and the quietude. We are not entrenched in anyone’s importance. We’re not for flying off on exotic holidays. We actually like farming; there’s nothing better than walking out onto a field and when we gaze at our 500 ewes, there’s a real sense of achievement. We’ve created that. It’s very satisfying.’
One of the Harvest Supper guests, James Hollingsworth, remarked: ‘Given that Snelston is quite secluded with scattered houses, the community spirit seems very much alive, as evidenced by today.’ He cites the Church of St Peter’s and the Reading Room as ‘active hubs of the community.’
It was the community spirit that endeared Snelston to David and Anne Woods, who returned to Derbyshire after living for 30 years in rural Essex. As Anne recounts: ‘On the first day we moved in we were told it was the Parish Council AGM, so we went along. When it was noticed that we newcomers were there, everyone came up to us and was so warm and friendly. We couldn’t have had a better welcome and knew we had found the right place to live, especially when we then came to the church.’
David and Anne also attend the various Reading Room events. ‘We recently had a live indie-folk duo called The Natterjacks who were big hits at the Y Not festival,’ says Anne, ‘so you might think it would appeal just to the young, yet everyone was there from infants to seniors.’
The venue also hosts wine tastings and nights where the room replicates a pub. There is a pub nearby: the Roston Inn, known locally as The Shant, after the shanties who built the railway at Norbury. Landlady Sarah Morrison and her husband Steve are about to celebrate their first year.
‘The pub needed new life,’ recounts Sarah, ‘so we refurbished inside and out and also built a kitchen so we could offer food.’ The food is traditional, hearty pub grub with a menu that includes a 32oz Grill and a 32oz Rump Steak. ‘That’s for the farmers,’ advises Sarah. ‘The locals welcomed us from day one and we’ve made this a warm and welcoming freehouse.’ A pub regular concurs: ‘This is a proper, unpretentious pub with a good ambience.’
Snelston once had two taverns, one of which – the Stanton Arms – is now Oldfield House. For owners Edmund and Sue Jarvis, this was ‘a dream move’. Their home is one of many handsome properties in Snelston, which has houses with Gothic barge boards, pseudo Tudor chimneys and stone mullions – all with their own unique charm. The delights of Oldfield House can be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to stay there: Edmund and Sue’s home is one of the Wolsley Lodge Collection guest houses, offering two ‘beautifully decorated and classically furnished bedrooms’. There is also a ‘serene one acre garden’ created by Edmund, who has cultivated 38 varieties of roses, and guests can walk the many public footpaths where there is abundant wildlife – owls, herons, pheasants, kestrels and cormorants. Sue, a Cordon Bleu cook, offers ‘scrummy homemade cake’, loves having guests and the Visitor’s Book glows with compliments.
And if I was asked to sign a Visitor’s Book for Norbury, Roston and Snelston? I would definitely write: ‘It’s a gem of a place.’