The village of Allestree, Derby
A look around the leafy extensive suburb of Derby with its traditional village centre, park and shopping precinct.
A perfect morning in July. Neat red brick houses set back from the road with emerald lawns rolling up to the edge of the pavements. I had a sharp impression of well-kept gardens and some imposing flower displays and a wide stretch of road that curved into the heart of a sweep of model houses in the distance... it seemed I was in a world apart.’
This was local journalist George Rackham describing Allestree in the early 1970s. Even then his prose might have appeared as rose-tinged as those well-kept gardens, especially to outsiders who saw only suburban anonymity.
Forty years on, Derby’s northernmost suburb is even more developed, and thanks to the recently formed Allestree Preservation Group there is now, according to its website, combative opposition to ‘developers ravaging our neighbourhood.’
In spite of the suburban sprawl, my exploration of Allestree revealed a convivial, contented and convenient place for its populace. As Allestree Preservation Group Vice-Chairman Graham Reading points out: ‘a lot of people aspire to live here.’
If you are surprised at the Preservation Group’s aims to have Allestree designated as an ‘area of special architectural interest’, then I suggest you take a walk around, especially the old village centre where a 17th century pub – the Red Cow – sits next to a Norman church amidst a cluster of attractive cottages.
I was surprised myself to hear many senior Allestree residents coming close to uttering the oft-heard phrase ‘I remember when this was all fields’. John Ash reminisces about a ‘quiet, rural, idyllic and laid back village’ of the 40s and 50s where farmer Tom would distribute milk to households in churns brought by horse and cart. I would have loved to have been there even earlier in the 1920s when Nurse Martin visited local farms in a dog-cart made of wickerwork, pulled by a giant St Bernard. As late as 1938 the owners of the first house in Ford Lane, Jack and Eileen Robinson, had to fit a spring on their gate because ‘if it was left open, we had cattle on the lawn’. What a sight it would have been, too, to see a young John Ash and his pals, including a certain Alan Bates, playing football in roads that now clatter with commuter traffic.
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When I called in on an older John Ash I was impressed to find his street’s old telephone box in his garden. ‘So much of old Allestree has gone,’ sighed John, ‘but here was something going away that I could retain, so I bought it.’
If Allestree has retained anything, it is its verdancy. I drive along the A6 through Allestree several times a week and believe the sloping section of Duffield Road to be one of the loveliest tree-lined avenues in the county.
Turn left or right off Duffield Road and, yes, you will drive through suburbia, but it is of the leafiest kind. And how many other suburbs in this country can claim to be virtually surrounded by parkland? Allestree Park – the largest public park in Derbyshire – is to the north; Markeaton Park to the south; Darley Park to the east; and, over to the southwest, is the Kedleston Estate.
ALLESTREE THE HAMLET
Allestree is thus well-named. Often called ‘The Place of All the Trees’, Allestree was at one time almost hidden by woods and recorded by Domesday as a berewick – a small hamlet – attached to the manor of Markeaton. As also recorded in Domesday, Adlestre is thought to mean Adelard’s Tree. Adelard may well have been one of the Anglo- Saxons who was attracted to the farming possibilities of the rich, sandy-loamed soil hereabouts.
St Edmund’s Church in the old village has a doorway which dates it back to at least the 12th century and, although it’s doubtful the ancient yew tree in the churchyard is Adelard’s, this could well be where Allestree originated. Until I read a book on Allestree by J.W. Allen, I wasn’t aware that villages often grew up around yew trees as monks of an early age frequently chose the shelter of a yew tree for their preaching places. Subsequently a cross would be set up, and then a church. The yew’s foliage was also used as decoration for festivals and burials.
Under the spreading branches of that yew is an epitaph to the memory of Edmund Buxton who died at the turn of the 19th century, only 32. His epitaph reads: ‘To this must thou come. Remember and be ready.’
The same stone, divided by a line, is inscribed to the memory of his wife who died 40 years later. Her epitaph reads: ‘My love, I have come and have endeavoured to be ready.’
Through Elisabeth Eisenberg’s Derbyshire Life articles on Allestree, I further learnt that in 1516, the manor of Aldestrey was purchased by John Mundy who later became Lord Mayor of London. He already owned Mackworth and Markeaton which he had bought from a man called Noon, so he became known as Mundy-afternoon. The Mundys were to own the manor for the next 200 years.
ALLESTREE, THE HALL
Although Thomas William Evans’ mill empire in the 19th century was based in neighbouring Darley Abbey, he resided in Allestree Hall, built in 1806 and acquired by Evans in 1840. Evans was regarded as a benevolent squire, ensuring every one of his houses in Allestree was well maintained. Hospitality was such that the Hall was sometimes dubbed the ‘Vagrant Train’ as no deserving cause was turned away. The Evans family also provided all infant schoolchildren with a new pair of boots.
However, kindness was matched by strictness. On a Sunday, any child caught playing games would be rebuked, along with any parent displaying washing. What’s more, on a weekday any washing would be swiftly taken in if the squire or his lady was known to be passing.
Evans’s stringency extended to the many houses he built in Allestree for his mill workers. I was fascinated to photograph a line of houses on Robincroft Road where there are no front doors. Evans didn’t want the mill workers’ wives wasting their time talking to each other at the front.
However, Evans was no misogynist. I discovered a heartwarming story of Nanny Fowkes, aged 90, employed as a gardener at the Hall. Hearing that her son was coming up for trial at the Old Bailey on an assault charge, she decided to speak on his behalf and walked to London. Remarkably, she completed the journey in five days. She was in time to plead in court on her son’s behalf and he was acquitted. Nanny Fowkes set out on her return journey but Mr Evans was so touched by her resolution that he sent the fare for her to return by coach. She retired from her garden duties aged 98 and lived until 103.
ALAN BATES’ PLAYGROUND
Even though the parkland around Allestree Hall wasn’t opened until the City of Derby bought it in 1950, it had been the playground of a young Alan Bates and his pals John Ash and Peter Barry. John spoke to me of a carefree, idyllic childhood which involved scrumping apples from gardens and further capers in the Park where the trio would climb trees, build dens and light fires to roast potatoes. They also constructed a raft which unceremoniously sank on its maiden voyage. Alan was sent out to test it and was soon a foot underwater.
Alan was to find his feet treading the boards with Derby Shakespeare Company, and the rest is well known. Or is it? For the first time in 14 years, I called at his childhood home, No 3 Derwent Avenue. In 1996, cinema’s centenary year, I succeeded in erecting a Cinema 100 plaque on the house front. A delighted Alan Bates attended the unveiling. Permission to erect was granted by the homeowner Nick Payne who still lives there. Nick told me of a stream of visitors, mainly from America and Japan and even Italy. A few had had requests to view inside politely declined. The plaque has faded, as have the visits, and I was disappointed to hear that delivery people calling on 3 Derwent Avenue ask ‘who’s this Alan Bates, then?’
The young staff around the corner in the new Staffords Salons were also unaware of Alan Bates but fascinated when I told them that only a few doors away had lived one of Britain’s greatest actors. In turn, they told me of their own celebrity. These classy hair and beauty salons were created by Lee Stafford of TV’s Celebrity Scissorhands fame who visits the Allestree salon once a month. Every stylist gets trained by Lee. ‘We consider Allestree a high class area ideal for our VIP service,’ says manager Joanne Pilbeam – a service that includes facials, massage, Botox and teeth whitening.
Opposite Staffords is another leading Allestree salon, the family-run Smiths, while on the other side of the village in Blenheim Parade, Hayley Bennett has a flourishing salon she set up over two years ago. ‘This is the best possible pitch,’ Hayley declares. ‘No one has to travel into town, parking is free, and this is a fantastic community where our clients are loyal.’ That loyalty extends to her fellow retailers. ‘I love the fact that they all know each other – and they and their families have their hair done here,’ she adds. One smart initiative of Hayley’s is a package that allows bridal parties to take over the entire salon for the morning.
Next door to Hayley, it’s refreshing to see Jacqueline Stimpson’s friendly little IT shop The Cartridge Cellar thriving in a suburb. ‘We make a difference by offering a competitive, comprehensive and personal service,’ affirms Jackie.
Allestree’s bigger shopping parade, Park Farm, was described by the aforementioned George Rackham as ‘probably the best laid out arcade I have seen in any local area in this country.’ However, as Park Farm’s new manager Darren Pickering reveals, the centre has seen a regular turnover of owners who didn’t oversee long enough to improve the centre before selling up at a profit and moving on. Ironically, the recession has helped regenerate Park Farm, the economic downturn effectively forcing the current owners to stay and, in doing so, look to upgrade the site.
‘This is a family-orientated centre with a loyal customer base,’ Darren points out, ‘so we want to get Park Farm up to date whilst preserving its reputation and homely atmosphere. The goal is to make this the heart of Allestree’. Out of 56 units, only five are currently vacant with hopes to bring in a video store and retailers of furniture, clothes and electrical goods. Potential renters might take note that Park Farm has a catchment of 60,000 shoppers within a ten minute drive.
There are also plans to make Park Farm more than just a shopping centre. I noticed that empty units had been turned into exhibition space for university students and Darren told me of an impending arts and crafts fair with stalls snaking through the precinct.
Paul Marshall has run the Marshall Elliott shoe shop for 25 years and commends the ‘free parking, personal service and community feel’. Ken Hague at The Kitchen Range speaks of a ‘pleasant and relaxing shopping experience’ which draws in customers from afar for their bespoke kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. Greedy Pig the butchers, run by Latimer Higham and award-winning sausage maker George Kent, has experienced phenomenal business since opening only six weeks ago. In the first week, they drew over 700 customers – ‘most of them telling us how pleased they were to see a butcher back in the place,’ smiles Higham. ‘There should always be a butcher here,’ he adds. ‘It is Park Farm after all.’
As Paul Marshall astutely remarks, Park Farm satisfies the vogue for outof- town shopping experiences. ‘Think of us as an open air hypermarket,’ he adds. The other retailer I met doesn’t have a shop front but is one of many blooming home-based businesses. Fashion designer Ann Stewart set up shop in her Duffield Road house after a mid-life career change which brought her a degree in Fashion Studies and an MA in Fashion Knitwear Design. She showed me her stunning tango dress creations along with some extraordinary dresswear based on Victorian undergarments. Ann is versatile, too, revealing photos of a man in a huge, military-style coat which would keep out even the Siberian cold.
Ironically, I left Ann to photograph men in cricket whites under a blazing sun, namely Allestree Cricket Club, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary. Player and archivist Phil Deane has recorded 1,374 players in those years, the most notable, or at least noble, being Lionel Gisbourne of Allestree Hall who played for the club from 1892 to 1907 and donated the Recreation Ground on which the club has played ever since.
I also met a proud Chairman Robert Butcher who became a member when he was ‘kidnapped while enjoying a Sunday pint’. He’s especially proud that 60 per cent of the players are from Allestree and his pride will no doubt be swelled later this month when the club hosts a 150th anniversary game with the MCC. Let’s hope it lasts longer than the one in 1965 when Allestree played Sandiacre. The Allestree opener Ben Hall suffered a Golden Duck with his trudge back to the pavilion turning into a sprint as the rain poured down. Match abandoned after one ball. One of the most memorable mishaps to afflict Allestree Theatre Group which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year was when a forgetful cast member was found baby-sitting for a neighbour when he should have been on stage. Member David Paling covered for the amnesiacal actor up to the interval. David, one of two founding members still active – the other is Bob Wilcock – recalls that the group’s first production was Happy Days, following which they have staged over 100 plays with various honours gained at the Derby Eagle Awards and Chesterfield and Tamworth Festivals.
David recalls many outstanding productions at their St Nicholas Church Hall venue including Stepping Out, The Heiress, Rebecca and 84 Charing Cross Road. Audience support has been large and loyal, even if the tension of a scene was once broken by someone yelling ‘He’s here!’ when an actor sought a hiding place in the centre of the aisle.
David has celebrated more than 50 years of family life in Allestree, describing it as ‘an exciting and rewarding area in which to live as it developed to include excellent schools, a shopping precinct and access to the Park and wonderful countryside.’
ALLESTREE PARK – ITS FRIENDS AND ITS FUTURE
As the Friends of Allestree Park website states, Allestree Park is ‘a valuable “lung” of the city’, providing visitors with ‘space to “breathe”, interact and relax from the pressures of modern life.’ Indeed, losing myself one sunny afternoon in its 260 acres of open greenery, woodlands and meadows, I could have been in the heart of rural England rather than within a city conurbation.
Working tirelessly and passionately to improve, promote and preserve the Park are FOAP – Friends of Allestree Park. FOAP member Peter Grundy chose Allestree when he moved to Derby in 1982 purely because of the Park. ‘Even the house we live in now didn’t meet our expectations at the time,’ recalls Peter, ‘but the Park sold it to us and we use it on an almost daily basis. Unlike many Derby parks, Allestree has wide open spaces and little commercialisation.’
For co-founder Bill Grange, former Keeper of Natural History at Derby Museum, Allestree Park is ‘the most scenic park in Derby with its hilly topography, views to the Peak, extensive woodland and lake.’ As for flora and fauna this is a park for all seasons, according to Bill: ‘The spring brings a beautiful carpet of bluebells, the summer has butterflies and dragonflies, there’s a wonderful show of autumn colour and in winter there’s grebe, moorhen, coot, mallard and tufted duck on the lake.’
The FOAP has just published a comprehensive Five Year Plan which focuses on multifarious aims and needs, everything from the provision of nest boxes and better signage to education packs and even a visitor centre. That centre could be incorporated, says FOAP, as part of the restoration of Allestree Hall which has sadly deteriorated. Only a small part of this grand building is used – by the golf club.
What of the future of Allestree overall? Bill Grange believes Allestree is ‘a safe, pleasant and very green place to live’, though he is concerned that much of its green character has been lost in the last 20 years, not helped says Bill by householders paving their front gardens. ‘This must be reversed or Allestree will soon become like anywhere else,’ warns Bill.
It’s good to see the recently formed Allestree Preservation Group vowing, on its website, to ‘take up the mantel of preserving the Allestree that we love’, and Peter Grundy believes the Friends of Allestree Park can have a positive effect on Allestree as a whole. ‘Our splendid park is the one feature that I feel will bring the community of Allestree together, and the Friends hope to tap into and use this to promote and protect this wonderful area.’
To know more about the FOAP and its Five Year Plan, visit www.friendsofallestreepark.org.uk