What do the locals really think about the Erewash Valley?
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
A recent book has inspired Ashley Franklin to ask six local figures what they love about Long Eaton, Alfreton, Sandiacre, Ilkeston and Ripley
The beauties of the Peak District and the World Heritage Site in the Derwent Valley are well-known to all, so it’s pleasing to welcome a new publication which recognises the significance of another corner of the county, the Erewash Valley. Author Philip Dalling, who grew up and worked as a journalist in the area for six years, has entitled his book The Erewash Valley – The Landscape of D H Lawrence, though he is keen to show that this considerable tranche of our county, 48 square miles from Alfreton in the north to Long Eaton in the south, is not just the literary backcloth to Lawrence’s finest novels but also, like the Derwent Valley, an important cradle of the Industrial Revolution and, whilst not able to compete with the charms of the Peak, a place with its own distinctive rural attractions.
The relatively straight north to south flow of the River Erewash forms the border with Nottinghamshire, and on the Derbyshire side of the valley Philip highlights the rich history of the collieries, lace factories and foundries – linked to a network of canals and railways – to emphasise the area’s status as ‘an industrial powerhouse of the first rank’. This is exemplified by the Stanton Ironworks, Long Eaton’s lace factories and the Butterley Company in Ripley, which became a ‘byword for engineering innovation and manufacturing excellence’ and still employed around 10,000 people at its peak in the 1950s.
As well as exploring the Erewash Valley as a literary landscape through Lawrence’s prose, Philip spotlights Long Eaton author Eric Malpass whose very ‘English’ novels made him a household name in, strangely enough, Germany, and poetess Teresa Hooley whose lyrical, Hardyesque verse was widely published in the USA and the Commonwealth. As for appreciation of DH Lawrence today, ‘It runs in cycles,’ says Philip, ‘he can be critically acclaimed one moment, vilified or virtually ignored the next.’ Although Philip is pleased to note that ‘there is always plenty to see in Eastwood for Lawrence enthusiasts, and initiatives such as the Blue Trail, which guides visitors around the various sites associated with the writer, are a credit to the town.’ Less creditable, he points out, is the naming of a Wetherspoons pub in Eastwood as The Lady Chatterley.
In other chapters, Philip explores the valley’s politics, sport, religion and culture, and its status as a ‘vital artery of communication’ through the building of canals, railways and, later, the M1 motorway. As Philip points out: ‘The canals actually provide a microcosm of the Erewash Valley both as it was and as it is today. Much of the industrial feel remains, particularly when the banks are lined with tenement mills. On the other hand, the canals and the wetlands of the River Erewash itself have provided the foundation for the present-day greening of the valley, just as they provided the initial impetus for industrialisation.’
During Philip’s schooldays, the River Erewash was ‘grossly polluted, like an open sewer.’
Today, though, the valley is ‘a beacon of hope for environmentalists’ due to the conservation work carried out. During research for the book, Philip ‘walked the footpaths which now give access to the wetlands areas, particularly between Jacksdale and Aldecar, and I discovered really attractive parts of the valley that I had never previously known. Just look at amenities like Shipley Country Park and all the canal towpaths for walkers, cyclists and anglers. On the other hand, I was encouraged by the survival of a considerable amount of industry, occupying the old lace factories and other units.
With former industrial areas there is always the danger that they will become nothing but bland conglomerations of commuter housing and industrial estates/retail parks.
The Erewash Valley is retaining its traditional blend of industrial strength co-existing with rural beauty, but nowadays achieving this end without the squalor of previous times. Altogether, the Erewash Valley is a much pleasanter place in which to live, work and play.’
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What do people who currently live and work in the Erewash Valley think of the area?
Last spring Cllr Carol Hart, who has lived in the valley for 40 years, became Erewash Borough Council’s first female leader. ‘What excites me about the borough,’ says Carol, ‘is that having stagnated for a few years owing to the decline of certain industries, it has re-invented itself and opened up to new ideas, resulting in a wide variety of businesses. Today, the valley is not so much heavy industry as high tech – we even have a company producing equipment for Formula 1 cars – and look at Long Eaton: as the lace industry declined, so the upholstery industry grew and is world-renowned.’
Long Eaton was recently branded as as the ‘UK Centre of Quality Upholstery Manufacture.’ Long Eaton historian Keith Reedman, who has published books and articles on the town, welcomed this, declaring that ‘Long Eaton is probably the largest unknown town in the country.’ As he explains: ‘We all know of Nottingham lace yet most of it was made in Long Eaton. Also, the town was the main supplier of labour for the largest marshalling yard in Europe yet everyone knew it as Toton Sidings. Ironically, we have the same identity problem with the upholstery trade because furniture is advertised and sold by trade names. Thus, a Long Eaton settee is no better known than was Long Eaton lace, so the new branding can only help.’
Philip Dalling believes that Long Eaton’s growth as an upholstery town typifies the resilience of the Erewash Valley communities, a view confirmed by long-time Alfreton Town councillor Marlene Bennett, who has been Town Mayor eight times, Mayor of Amber Valley once and awarded an MBE for services to the community: ‘Here too, we’ve weathered the storm of all sorts of economic downturns. It’s been a remarkable re-invention because I remember vividly that the culture of the town related to the coal mining industry. However, after the pit closures, Alfreton Urban District Council had the foresight to create some of the first industrial estates in the region, supplying replacement work to the redundant colliery workers. They still do today, with some nationally known employers on our doorstep.’
There’s more than just resilience amidst Alfreton’s community, says Marlene: ‘From the moment I arrived here over 50 years ago, I loved the friendliness of the people. Alfreton folk are also down to earth and considerate and caring, constantly raising money for good causes – the annual Party in the Park being a great demonstration of this – as well as visibly caring for people with disabilities and special needs. It’s a close-knit, warm-hearted community. It’s a community I’m proud of which is why I’ve spent over three decades on the Town Council. I feel privileged to serve.’
As Marlene pointed out, the mining culture in Alfreton is still reflected in the vast number of allotments and its thriving sports clubs and excellent sporting facilities, including an award-winning leisure centre and a beautiful park bestowed by the Palmer Morewood family, the ‘squires of Alfreton.’ Furthermore, the Town Council recently took over a five acre open space which is one of the last official ‘village greens’ in the country.
As Keith Reedman points out, Long Eaton people never had to doff their caps to the squire, as they never had one: ‘As a town built on manufacturing, it’s always been egalitarian – at one time there were 47 Co-op stores in this district – so it became very community-spirited. In the 50s, the Co-op had a big hall in the town – the People’s Hall – where there were dances, shows and plays. Today, we have the Chatsworth Arts Centre with its Duchess Theatre. The West Park Leisure Centre has a fine swimming pool and there’s West Park itself which is huge – 130 acres. We still have a Long Eaton Carnival which shows the community spirit is still alive.’
‘We are very proud of our Green Spaces teams in Erewash,’ says Council Leader Carol. ‘You only have to look at our excellent record in recent East Midlands in Bloom competitions, with both Long Eaton and Ilkeston attaining and maintaining Gold status for their floral displays and community-minded projects. Victoria Park in Ilkeston has been returned to its former glory with a new bandstand, gates and pergola. We’re proud of our nature reserves, too, and a noticeable sign of our success in greening the valley is our three-day Festival of Water at Ilkeston’s Gallows Inn where in 2017 we had over 100 narrowboats.’
I spent a pleasant half hour walking the Sandiacre towpath of the Erewash Canal with Cllr Wayne Major, currently Deputy Leader of Erewash Borough Council. Wayne pointed to a hillside known as Stoney Clouds which helped bring Wayne to settle in Sandiacre with his wife and two young children. As he explained: ‘My Dad’s family was connected to Sandiacre and whenever we passed through, he would always point to Stoney Clouds, referring to it as Cardboard Hill as he used to slide down it on cardboard boxes when he was a child.’
When Wayne graduated from the University of Derby, he rented an apartment in Sandiacre’s newly refurbished Springfield Mill, built in 1888 as a lace factory and an iconic part of the town’s industrial heritage. The building is an impressive sight, one of the most handsome factory conversions I’ve ever seen. It also overlooks Erewash Canal which Wayne walks along as often as he can. ‘The towpath and trail have some beautiful sights and plentiful wildlife,’ says Wayne, ‘and I’m delighted to be involved with the waterways as a trustee of the Derby to Sandiacre Canal, which we are aiming to restore to a navigable waterway. It would be fantastic for the area. Next year we are hoping to complete the restoration of the old lock.’
As well as the canal, Wayne points to a short walk west towards Derby: ‘This takes you into the Erewash green belt – which we will always cherish and protect – so we have the best of both worlds in Sandiacre: the M1 is on our doorstep yet we’re also close to countryside. Also, although Sandiacre has grown as a town, it still has a village feel in the sense that people know each other and pull together as a community. The residents are extremely proud and care deeply about the area and how it looks.’
Wayne also mentions the ‘excellent cricket and football clubs and facilities as well as some lovely restaurants and excellent venues’ and he’s looking to help improve and grow various community events in Sandiacre. ‘It was only a few years ago that we brought back the village Christmas tree,’ says Wayne, ‘and with the parish investing in new Christmas lights, I think we’ve just had our best ever Christmas display. Sandiacre is forever evolving, changing and growing, bringing renewal and energy yet, at the same time, so much stays the same which is just as important for preserving the great character and charm of this area.’
One advocate of living in Ilkeston is Chairman of Ilkeston Chamber of Trade, Sharon Flint, a podiatrist who opened her first clinic in Ilkeston when she returned to the town in 1999. She runs The Camomile Feet Company on South Street. My previous visits to Ilkeston have been on Market Day but the day I met Sharon I was able to position myself on the market place where a stall would have been and view properly the splendid buildings that surround the town’s centre.
Sharon said: ‘We still have a thriving market – and a historic annual Charter Fair – and if you look up at the buildings around this market square, you will see a varied, eclectic and handsome architectural landscape – St Mary’s Church, the Town Hall, Carnegie Library, the John Warren and King’s Head pubs and the Scala Cinema; and, further down the street, the striking art deco cinema that is now a bingo hall. We are also proud of Erewash Museum.’
Sharon got involved with the Chamber of Trade because, ‘I wanted my town back.’ She remembers when she came shopping in Ilkeston in the late 70s and ‘the town had everything you needed.’ Now, Ilkeston has even lost its cherished Co-op. However, she points towards the huge, empty Co-op building as evidence of one of the town’s green shoots of recovery. ‘I know we won’t get the Co-op back but it’s exciting to know that the upper floors are to become 69 apartments which will hopefully help fill the retail spaces below. That’s going to give the town great confidence. We now have our railway station back which is more than an extra means of travel – that, too, is a confidence boost.
‘I believe Ilkeston is improving. For example, we have new street furniture and better floral displays; and it’s getting busier – the one hour’s free parking in all of the town’s major car parks has helped – and there are more businesses and shoppers, with a lovely community of independent businesses here on South Street. ‘There are still many people who perceive Ilkeston as being rather down-at-heel which is untrue. The more perceptive folk are realising that they have a little gem on their doorstep, a prosperous and enterprising place to live and work. I’m still involved with the Chamber of Trade as I don’t think we’ve got our town back yet but, little by little, we are getting there.’
Ripley, too, is an excellent place to shop, according to Cllr Steve Freeborn, who moved to the town 30 years ago and is currently leader of the Town Council: ‘As one local trader says, Ripley is “full of surprises” and, believe it or not, demand for town centre premises remains high.’
One surprise is that Ripley has the highest proportion of independent traders in the East Midlands. As Steve points out, ‘It’s been a best kept secret that Ripley can boast of a wide range of shops over and above the charity and betting shops seen in every town centre these days. Admittedly, out-of-town shopping and the internet has meant that Ripley, like all market towns, has had its ups and downs and there have been changes in the occupancy of many shops. But despite this churn, our footfall is still good.’
For Steve and his wife, Ripley ‘felt like home straight away.’ He points to ‘the people and the sense of belonging to the community.’ Steve also enjoys the fact that ‘the Market Place is just a five-minute walk whilst a five-minute walk in the other direction takes you into the countryside.’
As a founder, in 2001, of the popular Ripley Music Festival, which is held annually in July, Steve is more aware than most of a vital facility that Ripley lacks: a multi-function community hall. ‘Unfortunately, suitable sites are very hard to find these days,’ he points out, ‘but I know the Town Council is looking hard.’
An obvious local landmark to photograph Steve against was Ripley’s handsome chateau-like Town Hall frontage, but he opted for Butterley Works, of which he’s rightly proud: ‘I do feel Ripley’s role in history has been passed over by most people when you consider that through the establishment of what became Butterley Engineering in 1790 by Benjamin Outram, Ripley can claim to be the birthplace of industrial engineering. Thus, Ripley’s importance in the Industrial Revolution is generally not appreciated or even known about. I really hope that the recently established Butterley Ironworks Trust can put an end to that and that our industrial heritage can be preserved and given the significant recognition it deserves. I can see Ripley becoming a lively hub for tourism.’
Marlene Bennett feels the same about Alfreton: ‘For me this is a special town but then I’m aware of its rich history. Just see what Robert Watchorn bestowed to Alfreton, for example the Abraham Lincoln Library and the Watchorn Church. I’ve always felt we have the potential for historical tours.’
There’s even more of a case for Long Eaton. In fact, as Keith Reedman points out, its history is what kept him in the town: ‘I was fascinated by industrial archaeology and as this is a relatively modern town – it was a quiet village up to the mid-to-late 19th century – everything about it is so well documented. There’s not much buried in the mists of time so it makes the history both rich and tangible.’
It might seem curious that another reason Keith stayed is because of Long Eaton’s flatness. ‘I love the fact that it’s flat because I cycle a lot and I cherish the canal as I own a narrowboat.’
What Keith doesn’t love about the town is the congestion – ‘traffic is almost stationary during rush hour.’ This is a concerning issue given the coming of HS2 which will regenerate the nearby derelict Toton yards but may also bring with it a welter of traffic problems. As Carol Hart admits, HS2 is a ‘divisive subject’ and ‘a challenge ahead.’ There are big housing plans, too: over 2,000 homes will come to occupy the site of the old Stanton works and nearly 1,000 new homes are proposed for Alfreton. ‘We used to be a small, unrecognised borough but I now believe we are punching above our weight,’ adds Carol, ‘and we must constantly look to improve so that we can continue to feel proud of Erewash Valley.’
As Philip Dalling concludes: ‘D H Lawrence understood that the Erewash Valley was well-defined not only geographically but also culturally and socially and I still found that awareness all over the valley, binding together all of the communities. I hope that continues and that the valley communities retain their truly distinctive flavour.’
The Erewash Valley – The Landscape of D H Lawrence is published by Coppice Books, in softback at £17.99.