The village of Wessington
Mike Smith finds much to admire and great promise for the future in this community between Matlock and Alfreton
In the mind’s eye of most people, the quintessential English village is located in beautiful countryside and has a village green at its heart. There is a church, a pub, a primary school, a village hall, a post office and at least one shop. Local organisations cater for people of all ages and there is a parish council to respond to local needs. Various events take place annually; the village is festooned with flowers and kept neat and tidy. Few places in today’s world match up to this ideal vision, but the Derbyshire village of Wessington comes much closer than most, even though it has lost some of its assets in recent years. Now, thanks to a substantial windfall, there is a golden opportunity to redress some of those losses.
Wessington is located in fine open countryside, on high land between Matlock and Alfreton, and it has one of the largest village greens to be found anywhere in the country. Although split in two by a main road, the green is a vast swathe of land with ample opportunities for strolling, dog-walking and kick-about fun. There is a football pitch and one area is designated as a nature reserve. Seats offer expansive views towards the heights of Riber and a large monument on the green holds a time capsule, which was buried in 1977 and is not to be opened until 2027.
Since 2004, volunteers have worked hard to maintain the nature reserve area of the green. David Browning, who chairs the Nature Reserve Management Committee, told me that his group had been given several prestigious accolades, including a special prize for wildlife conservation from English Nature and a Green Flag Community Status award.
David’s group works on behalf of the parish council, which is unusual in having a young chairman – Alex Fisher was elected when he was just 29 years of age. In the two years since his appointment, Alex has led a number of initiatives, including the installation of street planters, some of which he has made, the launch of a parish website, which he runs, the erection of new notice boards and the inauguration of a competition to devise a parish logo.
Alex works near Buxton as a railway signalman and attributes his commitment to public service to the example set by his grandfather, who served for many years as a councillor in another parish, and to a tradition of signalmen-councillors. He lives with his wife Amy, who is a teacher, and their two young children in a cottage adjacent to the site where Ben Bailey is currently building 33 new homes. As Alex explained, this development and plans for another smaller scheme for new housing by J J Cummins hold the key to Wessington’s future.
He said: ‘A condition attached to planning permissions for the developments is the provision of community grants, comprising £60,000 for a village hall and shop, £20,000 for new play equipment and £60,000 for other local projects. We are currently engaged in a consultation with all the villagers on the best way to use the £60,000 that has not yet been earmarked. This is a golden opportunity to improve Wessington, both now and for future generations.’
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The Village Hall group is now chaired by Paul Emmerson, who lives on Coronation Street, adjacent to the play area which is about to be improved. As Paul explained, the committee’s long-running effort to obtain a village hall has become Wessington’s own version of a soap opera. He said: ‘The campaign group has been meeting for 25 years without a hall materialising. At one stage, there was a plan to erect one on the village green, but this was rejected in a referendum. Now, at long last, people’s hopes are about to be realised, because the plan for the J J Cummins’ development includes provision for a village hall and a condition that the new houses should not be occupied until the hall is handed over to the villagers. I’m hoping that the building will also contain a shop run by volunteers.’
As Wessington has lost its post office and its Co-op in recent years, the opening of a new shop would be very welcome. Currently, the only shop in the village is a fish and chip shop, which is based in a delightful little building but only opens on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in the summer and Thursday and Friday evenings in the winter. The times may be limited, but the long queues on those evenings indicate that the shop is much valued, as is the nearby car repair and servicing business run by Howard Parkin and Simon Prebble.
In addition to a new shop, Paul’s ambition for the village hall includes a youth club, which he hopes to run with other volunteers. Paul works for an organisation that helps children withbehavioural difficulties and he is always seeking ways of helping young people generally, not least those in Wessington. Last October, he organised equipment for a successful Fun Day, which included a 30 feet-high climbing wall and a ‘half pipe’ for scooters and skateboards.
Less strenuous games are on offer at the Horse and Jockey, where pool and darts are played and where the pub’s boules team has gained promotion in every season of its five-year existence. Friday night is quiz night and the food menu includes regular Thai nights, thanks to Sunan Pell, who works alongside head chef Justin Willmer. Wessington did have two pubs, but the Three Horse Shoes closed a couple of years ago, at which point its licensees, Steve and Andrea Morgan, moved up the road to take over the Horse and Jockey.
Christ Church is another hub of social activity in the village. In fact, a new meeting room has been added to the Victorian building to provide space for a variety of activities. Kidzone, an after-school club for children, is held every Monday and the church members were busily preparing for a Christmas fair at the time of my visit. The creative flair and enthusiasm of members is evident in the design of the twin stained glass windows at the entrance to the new meeting room and in the church’s contribution to the village’s annual well dressing.
To find out more about the well dressings, I spoke to Peggy Leatherland, who has been heavily involved in various community groups since she moved to the village 14 years ago. Peggy is a member of the committee that comes up each year with a common theme for Wessington’s well pictures. Last year, there were six dressings, comprising two from the well-dressing committee, plus flower pictures from the WI, the school, the church and one by nine-year-old Izzy Land, whose keenness augurs well for the future of this ancient custom.
As Marjorie Ashford explained, well dressing is just one of the many activities of the Brackenfield and Wessington WI. Alongside a busy programme of talks and visits, the members have a book club and have even produced their own cookery books; they also raise considerable sums for Ashgate Hospice. There are 21 members at present, but Marjorie is looking forward to an influx of additional members from the new housing estate.
Vicki Cousins, the headteacher of Wessington Primary School, is also expecting additions to her school’s roll, which currently stands at only 59, including nine in the nursery. However, Vicki believes that the school’s small size brings enormous advantages, because the teachers have a detailed knowledge of the needs and aspirations of every child. In the last Ofsted report, Vicki was described as having ‘an excellent sense of purpose and direction’, but she is equally praising of the excellence of her staff and the great support she receives from the governing body and her long-serving chair of governors, Cath Pilsbury.
On the day of my visit, the normal curriculum had been suspended for a special enhancement day and the children and staff were dressed as pixies and elves. The school’s everyday curriculum is just as exciting because it is driven by the children, who are encouraged to come up with questions to which they would like an answer. Their knowledge of the wider world is also enriched by the school’s links with a school in Tanzania and by a regular exchange with a school in Camden, whose visiting pupils are given an eye-opening experience of life in a country village whose qualities are about to be enhanced for the benefit of future generations, thanks to that wonderful windfall.