The village of Winster - A charming and historic Peak District village

A National Trust treasure, Secret Gardens, a community shop and a friendly welcome are just a few things waiting for Ashley Franklin in this charming and historic Peak District village about 5 miles west of Matlock

It has taken me 30 years of living in Derbyshire to visit Winster. Proud locals will admonish me for not even experiencing its famous Winster Wakes. However, I can placate residents by declaring that Winster is one of the most agreeable villages I have encountered, in terms of both place and people.

As I turn off the Via Gellia to approach Winster from Wirksworth, the full force of the bleak beauty of the Peak proper with its singular stone barns and tentacular drystone walls strikes me before the road dips into a broad valley. The entry into Winster from the west is prosaic, with the stumpy grey tower of St John’s church looking down from its elevated ground, but then comes the poetic. Main Street with its picturesque stone buildings reposed in time has true charm and grandeur. Probably the most striking areWinster Hall with its grandiose Tuscan columns, Venetian windows and balustraded roof, and the utterly charming Market House which juts out into the street as if anxious to captivate. If you then climb either East or West Bank, you discover more delights in the clumps of cottages that are a legacy of the lead mining industry of which Winster was once the beating heart. As I explored the labyrinth of ginnels, I keenly felt one of the aspects that attracted resident Geoff Lester and his wife to the village in the 1970s when, he told me,  ‘the quaint cottages spreading up the bank made Winster feel more like a Cornish fishing port than a Peakland village.’

Like many other new residents, the Lesters were also taken with Winster’s sense of history and the surrounding views. Parish Council Chairman Brian Long adds that he was seduced by ‘the many buildings of architectural merit and the excellent walking in such pleasant countryside’. Roy Christian saw Winster as an ‘urban, urbane village still wearing the quietly distinguished air of the small market town it once was.’ Both Longs and Lesters saw the practical benefits, too, of a village with the essential facilities of school, shop, post office, pub, surgery, garage and hairdressers – all of which are still here today.

Once ensconced, incomers also warm to another aspect of  Winster: its strong community spirit. According to resident David Mitchell, much of the village togetherness springs from a literal closeness: ‘We tend to be sociable, integrated and inclusive and, if you look, all our houses are on top of each other and mostly on the roadside, so I don’t believe you choose to live in Winster if your main need is personal space and privacy.’

As David further affirmed: ‘Everyone is welcome here and we all help, support and care for each other, especially the elderly or those falling on hard times.’

Winster kindness extends to visiting Derbyshire Life contributors, too: I only called on Amy Slater to obtain access to the Market House yet she insisted I come in for a warm and a chat and, noting it was lunchtime, proceeded to present me with a round of sandwiches and date and walnut cake.

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‘Most of the people here seem happy to join in to help make their village a lively and interesting place, rather than just somewhere to live,’ remarks Geoff Lester. He suggests this may be due to the fact that Winster is some distance from the main cities, making the village less of a draw to dormitory dwellers, albeit more attractive to holiday home owners.

It wasn’t ever thus. In 1835, Pigot’s Directory of Derbyshire referred to the Main Street houses as ‘mean buildings’, with the 1870 Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales describing Winster as a ‘small decayed town’. However, it was the times that were mean: observers from both publications saw a Winster that was the result of long years of neglect due to unemployment and dire poverty. The lead mining boom had long gone, even though the last mine didn’t close until 1938.

It would appear that Winster didn’t become, in estate agentese, ‘sought after’ until the 1980s. As local historian Geoff Lester explains: ‘The old part of the village got quite run-down in the post-war years and a lot of folk moved into the new council houses in Winster. For some, it was the first time they had indoor toilets and their own water tap. Then the old houses started to get done-up, with sometimes two little cottages knocked into one; and eventually property prices became quite high.’ As a result, Winster now has a diverse population of ages, wealth and backgrounds where the newer affluent dwellers mix with the older incumbents whose bloodline traces as far back as the 18th century ‘Lead Rush’.

When Winster was recorded in Domesday (as Winsterne, derived from ‘Wyn’s thorn tree’, presumably after a local landmark), it was highly likely that lead had already been mined hereabouts by the Romans, though prosperity didn’t touch Winster for several centuries. An old village guide by John Merrill states that in the late 16th century, Winster had ‘no taverns, inns or alehouses’. However, by the mid-18th century, Winster’s population of 2,000 made it one of the largest towns in the county (current population is around 650), and there were 24 hostelries, bolstering the belief that copious amounts of ale was the best antidote to lead poisoning. As a 1951 Winster Festival brochure proclaimed, the seams of lead ore here were ‘recognised to be the finest in the world’. However, by the end of the 19th century, only six pubs had survived and many of the mines had been afflicted by flooding when the workings went deep, forcing them to shut down.

The pointed Gothic stone arches of the Market House were originally open but were filled in as the Market – along with lead profits – declined�. In 1906, the building earned thedistinction of being the first of the National Trust’s acquisitions in the Peak District. It’s in good hands: a few months ago, the Trust completed repairs to the weathered stone and grand oak doors.

However, even though Main Street is beautifully preserved – most of its buildings are Grade II listed along with dozens elsewhere – it’s a shame that one’s view of the street is constantly interrupted by parked cars. A resident, though, put a positive spin on this impediment, remarking that when both sides of the street are lined with vehicles, it does at least slow down the busy through traffic.

It was all very different when residents Mavis Corker and Amy Slater were growing up on Main Street, where they still live. Both recall playing hopscotch and spinning tops in the middle of the street while the lads would scoop a hole out of the road to play marbles. The youngsters were more likely to be interrupted by cattle than cars, with farmers both herding their cows through the village centre and allowing them to wander after being milked. One resident, Bill Slaney, says this went on as recently as the late 1980s.

There is a wealth of reminiscences in a Millennium publication Winster – A Peak District Village Remembers, a time capsule every village should compile. Overall, it’s a tale of hard but happy times: of villagers walking and cycling to work through sun, rain and snow, adding to the already long hours of toil at the mill or mine; of tin baths filled every Friday night – ‘you had to have one bath a week, whether you wanted it or not,’ recalls Dot Fearn; of family shops that sold everything, like Evelyn Webster’s where you could buy silks and dishes as well as boots and books, and Gilding’s which sold hardware and ironmongery but so many other goods that Anne Walters got most of her wedding presents from there; and of characters like Stanley Boam who could whip the wick off a candle with his bull lash without cutting the candle; and another Boam – Herbert – who was so strong he could pick up a donkey and put it over a wall.

One character not so fondly remembered was the village vicar, the Revd Britton, who was found to have sold the village hall piano to a Matlock pub to earn himself a few bob. Dot Fearn also recalls the disreputable characters who used to frequent the Manor, a private hotel called ‘The Rendezvous’ but dubbed ‘The Den of Iniquity’ by the knowing villagers. As Dot points out: ‘It was used by Sheffield businessmen, who brought their wives (or someone else’s)... The police raided it once. People ran in all different directions.’

Dot also heard about bear-baiting in Winster and how the bear used to sleep in a family’s kitchen by the fire. Mavis Corker tells of fires being in every room and that people used to clean their own chimneys to cut costs. As Mavis recounts: ‘Nowadays if you get a chimney on fire there’s fire brigades and everything but then no-one used to bother... There was always someone’s chimney on fire, and then it didn’t need sweeping.’ However, it did create a village regularly swathed in fog.

As a youngster, Amy Slater remembers cigarette smoke regularly curling up through the window of the school toilets. Although the headmaster, Mr Bell, administered the stick to offenders, he presumably accepted that most of his pupils would end up as smokers as he only objected to them smoking on school premises. He told the children they could smoke at home with their parents’ consent.

My favourite story in the book is the one about Ben Clay who was ‘always looking for a bargain’. One such bargain was a coffin, so he bought it. According to Dot Fearn, it stood in his front room for about 20 years, ‘waiting for him to die’.

When I called on 88-year-old Mavis Corker, who lives in the cottage where she was born, she told me that while her joiner father made coffins on one side of the premises – servicing the old – her mother ran a sweet shop on the other side of the house – serving the young.

Above the porch of the house where 79-year-old Amy Slater lives the name of licensed hawker and patten and clog maker Henry Tomkins is inscribed. Just over a century ago Winster had nearly 30 retail premises, and Amy can recall four butchers and two bicycle shops in her time.

Opposite Amy’s house is the village’s one remaining store, Winster Village Shop. It epitomises this close-knit village. A ‘community shop’, it is one of only 15 in the country owned and managed by residents. Manager Steve Flitter explained that five years ago the former shop was due to be sold by its owner, so the villagers organised a meeting and created an association. This vital amenity was saved and is now a viable enterprise, with added worth as a social hub. It’s also worth a lot to any Winster folk considering putting their own house up for sale: according to the brochure How to Create a Community Shop, ‘a good village store can boost the value of your property by 25 per cent’.

That said, I hardly saw any homes for sale, though as Bill Slaney told me: ‘Once you come to Winster, you don’t want to leave.’ Bill has been here since marrying a local girl in 1939 when Winster must have felt like entry into Eden: he moved into his in-laws’ home, the local Crown pub. Meeting this sprightly, tough 95 year-old reminded me of the aforementioned local brochure of nearly 60 years ago which remarked that ‘the imprint of the lead mining industry is still to be found upon thecharacters of its inhabitants who are noted for their rugged strength and sturdy independence.’ Bill was a regular runner in the annual Shrovetide Pancake Race right up to his early 80s though, as he pointed out, living in an uphill village naturally made one hardier, and the harsh life of the male working population made for men who ‘worked hard and played hard’. The latter would include hard drinking. Bill recalled that the Crown’s exterior was painted white so that when the men staggered from the pub into the dark of night, they didn’t bump into the walls.

There are two food and drink pubs in Winster, both thriving rather than merely surviving. the Miner’s Standard, a free house built in 1653, has been run by Kevin and Doreen Markham for 13 years. ‘Our regulars like the fact that we have retained most of the traditional pub feel and brought a lot of fun and laughter to the place,’ claims Doreen. Those regulars include caravanners and campers in an adjacent site as well as locals and outsiders.

The Old Bowling Green in the heart of the village is also fortunate to be both a local and a destination pub. Run by David and Marilyn Bentley for 20 years, this tavern is thought to date back to 1472. Interestingly, all the walls are exactly three feet, three inches thick, leading the Bentleys to wonder if they occupy Britain’s first ‘metric’ building. It was originally known as the Bowling Green: ‘Old’ was added by David after visitors frequently called expecting to play bowls. If any come now, they can at least play boules. The pub is also a magnet for drinkers encouraged by its CAMRA awards, which include Pub of the Year, and David believes their kitchen is ‘equipped to a better standard than a lot of hotels and restaurants.’ This time of year is always a good one for a visit, adds David: ‘It’s like a Dickensian pub in winter with one of the biggest open fires in Derbyshire crackling away in the grate.’ It’s also reckoned to be the pub with the poshest ladies lavatory in Derbyshire.

Winster has much more than the pub as a hub of activity: the village hall, known as the Burton Institute, is now a busy multi-purpose venue which, when developed in 1998, won a national award for sympathetic modernisation of a historic building. It’s a versatile venue, too. It’s recently been used for badminton, a guitar recital, play performance, medieval banquet and yoga sessions. There is also a small room known as The Morgue which, instead of storing bodies, now houses an internet computer and photocopier. Vital funding help for the Institute comes in the form of Secret Gardens, a July weekend which sees up to two dozen gardens revealing their secrets to anyone who cares to visit.

The previous month sees the Winster Wakes, enlivened by the nationally-renowned Winster Morris who date back to the mid-19th century. In spite of several lapses, Winster Morris is going strong, thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm of their 76-year-old captain Roy Witham, who was born in the village, assisted by long-standing member and musician Ian Russell, who directed many of the team’s recent dances. All their dances are unique and, according to Ian, ‘Winster Morris is the only link in this part of the world to the original Morris tradition of the 19th century.’ Indeed, he points out that the Winster Processional, which evolved the need to move as a team through the village streets, is copied throughout the world; and the Winster Gallop has been widely developed as a country dance in America. The dances are noted for being ‘lively but gentle, not noisy and boisterous as you often see,’ says Ian. Also, the dancers dress individually (unlike most other teams) and there is ‘pride in the tradition and, hopefully, enjoyment in the spectacle.’

‘We also raise money,’ adds Ian. They also raise the profiles of Morris Dance and Winster abroad: visits have been made to nearby Darley Dale’s twin village in France and Tansley’s twin town in Romania respectively and, above all, to Winster’s own twin, the medieval hilltop Italian town of Monterubbiano, whence visitors will come to Winster this year for Carnival week.

So, Winster appears to be in rude health but can it remain a quintessential Peakland village? ‘Just as long as we maintain our community spirit and retain our core amenities,’ states Parish Council Chairman Brian Long. David Mitchell has concerns: ‘We are a conservation village but it’s important that the law makers and planners recognise the need for commercial and social development. Sometimes you get the feeling they are trying to sustain a museum here. Yes, we need to retain our wonderful heritage but to also thrive as a community in the 21st century.’

Thanks to Brian Long for his invaluable assistance with this article. Winster – A Peak Village Remembers, compiled by Winster Local History Group, is available from the Village Store, price �10.