The village of Shardlow, Derbyshire

Britain's most complete remaining example of a canal village, this South Derbyshire gem has preserved and adapted its watery heritage for 21st century living.

Shardlow is an unexpected delight for any unsuspecting visitor, whether emerging from the Derby conurbation in the north and finding quiet, spacious, sweeping greenery, or from the south where a signpost tells you you’re now in Derbyshire, although without the hills and dales you might have been expecting. As you spy the boats, locks and warehouses, you might even wonder if you’ve been transported to a corner of the Netherlands, an impression that would have been even more likely if Shardlow had hung on to its windmill.

More importantly, Shardlow has hung on to most of its history as a canal port. In its heyday it was referred to as ‘Rural Rotterdam’ and ‘Little Liverpool’. Today Shardlow is Britain’s most complete surviving example of a canal village, much of it snuggled safely in a conservation area, with over 50 Grade II listed buildings and an ample sufficiency of pubs, all of which makes Shardlow a busy, atmospheric and historic attraction for both car drivers and pleasure boaters.

One visiting narrowboater, Roger Carter from Arizona, declared that it was the ‘lovely rural ambience and rich sense of history’ that has drawn him to moor at Shardlow in what is his third successive tour of the Trent & Mersey Canal – that and his desire to escape the 110�+ heat of the Arizona summer.

Shardlow is an attractive place to reside, too. Angela Sheard, celebrating her tenth anniversary running a bed & breakfast business in the elegant, three-storey, late 18th century Holden House beside a quietly meandering Trent, says ‘life here makes work feel like a holiday.’ Word has it Angie’s breakfasts are legendary.

Aileen Webster, who four years ago moved in with her partner Peter to one of ten properties converted from a canal warehouse, clearly adores the place: ‘We’re in a beautiful, unique building with fantastic views of the canal and the boats passing by. We have great neighbours and there’s a good community spirit. It’s also a short trip into both Derby and Nottingham and it’s conveniently close to the M1 with an easy commute to both north and south, together with great access to the rail network. We also love to venture out on foot because the village is so picturesque. There are great canal walks teeming with wildlife and with all the visiting boaters you get to meet different people every day, and they’re such varied and interesting people, too.’

There are more than just canal walks. Sheila Cooke, a volunteer at the Shardlow Heritage Centre, reminded me that since 2003 Shardlow is officially in the final section of the Derwent Valley Heritage Way and there’s a proposed long distance bridleway set to come through the village.

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In spite of Shardlow’s growth as a dormitory village and the fact that it is well strung out along the A6, Sheila says ‘It’s a warm friendly place where I still know a quarter of the population.’ Residents Philip and Alicia Mitchell said that the Shardlow they moved to in the 1960s was ‘somewhat sleepy’ but new housing, and a general influx of younger residents since has helped galvanise the place. Alongside a well-used village hall, there are plenty of activities.

There was certainly sufficient clout in the community to ensure that Shardlow was free of pounding HGVs following the building of a bypass in 2002. The by-pass was a relief road in every sense. ‘For the first time in years I could cross the road in less than 20 minutes,’ said Sheila in all seriousness. There was a downside, though: a petrol station and newsagent closed.  Also, the Post Office-cum-store was rundown and doing negligible trade until, seven years ago, Harold and Julie Harris brought it back to life. What pleasingly sums up the supportive spirit in Shardlow, Harold told me, is that ‘many residents graciously buy a few things off us each week just to keep us going.’ They also sell local eggs and honey.

The Post Office sits at the socalled ‘upper end’ of Shardlow where pubs like the Dog & Duck and Shakespeare rely as much on locals as they do outside visitors. In spite of Shardlow’s noted canal heritage in the ‘lower end’, the Dog & Duck is thought to be the village’s oldest building, suggesting that this is where the first significant settlement in Shardlow grew up, though its proximity to St James’s church isn’t, as might be expected, further proof, as the church was, uncharacteristically, built late in 1837. St James’s was the first of many buildings designed by Derby architect H.I. Stevens who was said to have been so disappointed by his initial effort that he afterwards looked the other way when passing. Local worshippers were relieved, though, as previously their spiritual needs could only be met by boarding a ferry to the nearest church at Aston-on-Trent.

Water has been a pivotal part of Shardlow’s history even though the meaning of its Domesday name Serdelau – there have been up to 20 different spellings over the centuries – is connected with the earth: it tells us a settlement was situated near a ‘mound with a notch or indentation’.

A settlement here would have been established long ago owing to its proximity to the river. In 1999 a 12-ft long Bronze Age oak boat c.1300BC (on show in Derby Museum), was exposed by floods at Shardlow Quarry. Five years later, a JCB driver at the same quarry had an Excalibur moment when he unearthed a bronze sword imbedded in a vertical position in the gravel.

It was in 1738 that Shardlow first came out of history’s shadow with the construction of the earliest turnpike road in southern Derbyshire. In 1760 a bridge – the Cavendish – replaced the downstream ferry. It was a handsome edifice, designed by the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth architect James Paine, that was swept away by a river swollen by a rapid thaw at the end of the harsh winter of 1947. All that remains of it is a preserved pediment near the replacement bridge which has the toll charges engraved in stone – obviously the phrase ‘fluctuating pound’ was yet to enter our phraseology. The cost of crossing with a carriage was an astronomical 2s 6d (12�p). By contrast a foot passenger was charged a penny.

Even before the Cavendish was built Shardlow was a thriving inland river port where trading profits allowed industrialist Leonard Fosbrooke to build Shardlow Hall. The next notable name to change the face of Shardlow was James Brindley, a Derbyshire man who could neither read nor write with any confidence yet had a brilliant engineer’s mind. He was the first man to see the potential of canals linking the four great rivers of England: the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. He was responsible for the only other comparative canal port to Shardlow in the town of Stourport-on-Severn. Legend has it that he set his sights on Bewdley but the citizens did not want his ‘stinking ditch’. Apparently there were no objections to his ditch carving through Shardlow.

Soon after the Trent & Mersey Canal was completed in 1777, Shardlow’s prosperity soared. As Heritage Centre volunteer Jeff Clifton pointed out: ‘In 1780, three years after the canal was built, the �100 shares in the Trent & Mersey company had made 76 per cent interest. Shares were trading hands at �2,000.’

As buildings grew, so did the population: recorded as 200 in 1780, Shardlow peaked at 1,306 in 1841 when the railways started to compete. The memoirs of a local man, George Gilbert, evocatively tell of the sounds when Shardlow’s canal industry was at full throttle: ‘All the day through might be heard the creaking of cranes, the rattling of chains, the falling of timbers, the shouts of the boatmen and the wharfmen and all other noises associated with a busy little commercial port. In addition to this were the sound of hammer, axe and saws of the carpenters, the sound of the anvil and also the well known noise of the boat-builders.’

These recollections would have been noted before 1830 when Gilbert left Shardlow. He returned in 1886 to silence and disappointment. ‘All is decay and desolation,’ he wrote, and no one had thought to link railway lines to Shardlow.

As Gilbert perceived in later years, this moribund port was ‘an unconscionable time dying.’ In fact, the last grain boat delivered its cargo to Shardlow in the early 1950s. It’s pleasing that much of Canal Shardlow has been preserved, though as Roy Christian observed, the Shardlow of the late 50s ‘was almost intact but hardly anyone noticed until the crash of falling masonry belatedly awakened conservationists.’ In 1957 the stables which housed 100 towing horses were demolished, a boatman’s pub became a private house, a few warehouses disappeared and new houses sprang up. In the nick of time a newly formed Trent & Mersey Canal Society supported a campaign which ended in 1975 when the canal port and its environs became a conservation area.

My tour of the village was largely confined to the canal area, although in the old village I noted the splendidly imposing school built in 1850. Sadly, Shardlow Hall is empty and its future uncertain. Back near the canal, it was also sad to see the decrepitude of The Lady in Grey, a handsome building that last operated as a restaurant. The name seems quite apt as I imagined a Miss Havisham-like figure sitting inside amidst the cobwebs. The building, to quote Dickens, has ‘lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow’.

The name Lady in Grey is said to refer to a ghost searching for her mother’s jewels which were bequeathed to her but were buried by her jealous sisters. Staff and customers in its restaurant days reported an occasional feeling of someone pushing past them, and a former resident once stepped in to the walk-in freezer for a midnight snack and saw the door shut on him. Fortunately his desperate cries reached his wife upstairs. Both were convinced the door could not have moved on its own...

There have been other haunting sights in Shardlow including two headless men, one in the 1890s and a cavalier in the 1940s, which ties in with records of a Civil War skirmish in Shardlow. There were ghostly goings-on as recently as 2007 when the demolition of the Grove Hospital appeared to have stirred some former patients. Workmen spoke of a grey mist cloaking the building, icy blasts gusting from nowhere and circular lights floating through the empty corridors.

The Grove was originally the main workhouse for the area as in 1837 Shardlow was designated the head of a Poor Law Union of 47 parishes and townships in the East Midlands. The volunteers at Shardlow Heritage Centre told me they have the poignant duty of informing the many visitors bearing the name Shardlow that their family’s connection with the village might be traced back to the Union Workhouse, as it was the custom to give new-born babies left on the steps that surname.

Volunteer Sheila Cooke researched her family tree 15 years after moving to Shardlow. A keen boater who had bought a house she admired when coursing through the village waterways, Sheila then found that her mother’s family was from Shardlow and that the eldest son was a boatman. ‘I also found out that the house they lived in was still standing and five minutes’ walk from where I live,’ adds Sheila. ‘It made me feel I really belonged in this lovely place.’

Volunteer Jeff Clifton moved to Shardlow at the age of two in 1928. He spoke of his pre-school days when all the canal boats were horse drawn and how, once at school, he had to walk the mile home and then help out on his father’s 350-acre farm. ‘I used to dawdle home so there was less work to do when I arrived,’ recalls Jeff. ‘So my dad bought me a bicycle. It was amazing how many punctures I had.’

The Heritage Centre fittingly occupies the oldest canal building in Shardlow, the salt warehouse, sitting across from the giant Clock Warehouse, now a thriving pub with 119 covers. Over 2,000 visitors a year come to the Heritage Centre to behold a well-stocked and wideranging collection of artefacts, and a volunteer team buzzing with enthusiasm and insight into Shardlow’s richly textured past.

I left the volunteers to go on the Heritage Trust Village Trail. This starts at the bridge over the canal, a replacement for the old Idle Bridge – so-called because boat and port workers would wait beside it for offers of casual work. The trail brochure directs us to view Broughton House across the road. This belonged to a rich merchant, James Sutton, who never lived there but had the house built to spoil the view of his business rivals who lived at The Lodge, now the Lady in Grey.

Across the road is The Navigation, where a visiting German pastor in 1789 complained of his encounters with ‘a wilder, coarser type of man... blaspheming, brawling and cursing.’ The only wildness I encountered walking in to today’s Navigation was the hair of chef/proprietor Ian Pascoe who I found chatting away with his regulars. According to Ian, they love the fact that although the inn serves food – ‘good, honest, quality homemade British grub’ – they can also ‘enjoy a pint without feeling they’re in a restaurant.’

Jeff Clifton told me of one pub no longer around, The Crown, run before the war by Polly Coleman who struck up a relationship with George Brough, the maker of the f�ted Brough Superior, the ‘Rolls-Royce of motorbikes’. This resulted in an even more famous visitor to Shardlow, Brough’s friend T.E. Lawrence, who according to Jeff roared into Shardlow on one of the seven Brough, bikes he owned.

Walking back to the canal I came across a former grain store and a fine example of a large warehouse finding fresh use. The store Zing – ‘We wanted a name that was happy, modern and fresh’ says owner Pauline Gill – is able to display a vast dizzying array of furniture and accessories, much of it bespoke, including their own impressive Wildwood range of contemporary designs using reclaimed timber.

Some canal warehouses turned into mills, like the one operated by F.E. Stevens’ corn merchant empire. Now refurbished and called No. 1 Mill, it’s home to over 15 businesses. One looks at its attractive setting in The Wharf and can perceive that Shardlow must be a harmonious and prestigious base for any business.

A former stables in the British Waterways Yard is now Shardlow Brewery. Among the beers it brews are Narrowboat Ale and Reverend Eaton’s Ale, named after the scion of the Eaton brewing family who was Shardlow’s rector for 40 years.

It’s especially pleasing to find a number of canal-based businesses, such as Millar Marine, being run with efficiency and enthusiasm by Norman and Christine Millar. Their 200-year-old warehouse space is stuffed with inland waterways chandlery of every conceivable kind from toilets to TVs, fenders to fire extinguishers, plus sinks, cookers, batteries, marine paints, life jackets and gifts. It’s a busy and at times demanding business as ‘no two boats are ever the same,’ says Norman. One of the pleasures of their job, they tell me, are the customers: ‘Boating people are warm, friendly and so easy-going. Let’s face it, when your maximum speed on the canal is four miles per hour, which is equivalent to a brisk walking pace, you are bound to slow down and take life at a more relaxed pace.’

Close to Millar Marine I met Irene Shepherd on her boat ‘Nutbrook’. This was the first boat built by JD Narrowboats when the company arrived in 2003. ‘We do a complete bespoke package,’ says Darren Howell of JD, ‘expertly hand-built and hand-machined boats with no MDF – it’s all solid wood and fitted out by proper cabinet makers.’ I noted the craftsmanship in Irene’s boat and on expressing my surprise at seeing central heating, Darren told me they’d recently installed underfloor heating on one.

JD manufacture about ten boats a year and business is set to expand. With narrowboat prices ranging from �70,000 to �120,000, Darren has found people are increasingly selling their houses and taking to the water. Irene and her husband have rented their house to their children. ‘We love this life away from the hustle and bustle,’ she told me enthusiastically. ‘We thought it might be lonely but we meet other boaters, cyclists and walkers, and we have Sunday lunch in a different pub every week. It’s like being on permanent holiday. I miss my garden, but that’s all.’

Philip Mitchell, who worked at the highly renowned boat builders Dobsons for 36 years until his retirement in 2000, says that the huge increase in pleasure boating has ‘put further pressures on the village.’ That said, he’s delighted to see all the warehouses and other buildings associated with the canal continuing to be an important part of the landscape, though he and his wife Alicia have concerns as to how this could shape the future of the village: ‘The retention of these striking examples of industrial England place Shardlow high in the list of villages to have seen the opportunities for creating modern uses for elderly property without distorting the original concept. Maintaining this attitude, though, will be a tough test for Shardlow because it could lead to more housing and, heaven forbid, the urbanisation of this rural area.

‘All villages should develop and not stagnate but it’s very difficult to develop a village such as Shardlow without destroying its “heart.” It is a working village and all the elements that make it so – its agriculture, light industry, historical heritage, rural aspect and amenities – should be protected. Let’s hope property developers understand and acknowledge this and that our village heart continues beating.’

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