What the locals really think of Wirksworth
- Credit: Ashley Franklin, unless otherwise stated
Interesting architecture, characterful places to shop, drink and dine and a hub of arts, heritage and history are some of the reasons to plan a visit to the town.
As I enter Wirksworth, nestled snugly in Derbyshire’s Middle West, the welcome sign proudly describes the town as the ‘Gem of the Peak.’
In many ways, it’s still a hidden gem. Various townsfolk I meet point out unique aspects of Wirksworth that you may not have discovered even if you’ve visited the town several times, including: the Stardisc, a stone circle and celestial amphitheatre overlooking the Ecclesbourne Valley; the Northern Lights, Wirksworth’s own cosy, delightful independent cinema; the Puzzle Gardens, set amongst a maze of steep narrow passages on the town’s hillside; and St Mary’s churchyard, an enclave that feels more like a cathedral close and where the church’s curiously short spire resembles a dunce’s cap.
Fascinatingly, several residents spoke of Wirksworth as an ‘up and coming’ town as if the place has the potential to become even more attractive. As the town’s website Go Wirksworth declares, this is a market town that ‘mixes a rich and vital industrial past with an exciting, forward-looking, innovative future.’ This is encapsulated in the opening of a large heritage centre in the near future.
Go Wirksworth also points out that the town’s modest size – its population is less than 6,000 – ‘belies the weight it pulls culturally.’ Yes, if there is an aspect of Wirksworth that needs little introduction, it’s the annual Art & Architecture Trail, which is part of Wirksworth Festival, arguably Britain’s largest rural arts festival.
Over 4,000 people will take to the Trail. If you take the trail to Wirksworth, what does the Festival offer and what else can you take in while you’re there?
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TAKE THE TRAIN
With parking at a premium on the Trail weekend, why not park at Duffield Station and travel to Wirksworth by heritage diesel on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway? Remarkably, from a volunteer team of eight who began clearing a nine-mile jungle of brambles and trees in the early 1990s – ripping out and restoring rotted sleepers and laying out new track – there are now 160 volunteers and ten paid staff working at a station that attracts 20,000 passengers a year.
More volunteers are welcome. As Commercial Manager Leigh Gration points out: ‘You could do anything from watering the flowers and painting a fence to actually driving an engine. We even have an apprentice scheme in mechanical engineering.’
As well as arriving at Wirksworth Station on a diesel (or steam on special days) you can take off again on one of the steam trains that chugs up the fearsome 1 in 27 incline to Ravenstor, where you can then explore the National Stone Centre or walk the High Peak Trail.
As Leigh affirms: ‘We’re here to give older people a chance for nostalgia and younger people a passion for how we feel about the railways. We’re also good for the local economy – 60 per cent of our customers are on holiday, and for every £10 spent here, there’s another £7 spent in Wirksworth.’
TAKE IN THE TOWN
A casual wander around Wirksworth will reveal much of its architectural charm but a hearty climb up the streets beyond the town centre offers even more. The quaint, higgledy-piggledy collection of cottages with twisting twichells led Prince Charles, on a Royal Visit, to refer to Wirksworth as ‘Quirksworth’.‘Quirky’ is a word often applied to Wirksworth. For instance, a Harry Potter Day in the town on 20th October was partly inspired by the resemblance of some of the shop buildings to the wizards’ shopping street in Hogsmeade. There will even be a Platform 9¾ down at the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, plus a Quidditch tournament and, handily, a broomstick-making workshop by Mount Cook Adventure Centre in the nearby not-so-forbidden-forest of Stoney Wood..
The pop-up shop of official Harry Potter merchandise is, appropriately, a magical gift shop on a normal day. Marsden’s Gifts, originally an 18th century ironmongers, is bursting with toys, cards, clocks, jewellery, homeware and many gifts. A few doors away, I made a purchase at one of the few independent bookshops left in Derbyshire and just around the corner is Seymour Interiors, run by mother and son Christine and Duncan Maclean. Their stylish shop is bursting with colourful fabrics, wallpaper and home accessories, with a whole room devoted to designer paints like Farrow & Ball and Little Greene – heritage paints that are ideal for Wirksworth’s many listed buildings.
I smile at the name of the town’s pharmacy – Payne – which was originally an 18th century apothecary. Just as traditionally, Wirksworth has a Gun Room and even though the town houses only two antique shops – Folk & Country Antiques and the delightfully-named Old Rummage Shop – community enterprise has seen the creation of an annual Antiques in the Street event in July. Another recent addition is the Wirksworth Book Festival – next April’s will be the fourth – the town’s long-established annual Carnival is thriving and the accompanying Well Dressings are amongst the finest in the county.
Thanks to the Town Council, the 700-year-old tradition of a market has been revitalised by its new site next to the Memorial Hall. Amidst the 20 bustling stalls, I met the town’s mayor Chris Whittle. ‘The Market Place is such a steep area,’ Chris points out, ‘that townsfolk were always standing on an uncomfortable incline and thus didn’t spend much time conversing. Here, it’s more central, the ground is more level and thus safer, and any visitors to the market can, ironically, now park on the Market Place!’
BRUNCH LUNCH DINNER DRINKS
The catchy words ‘Brunch Lunch Dinner Drinks’ adorn the frontage of restaurant/wine bar Mercia which opened two years ago on the Market Place, offering ‘a variety of high quality, nourishing home-cooked food’ whilst also ‘championing local food producers.’ TripAdvisor customers applaud the ‘stylish and atmospheric’ interior, the continental-style ambience of the place and the ‘imaginative food.’ Across the road, Le Mistral has a reputation for its French-inspired dishes. Here TripAdvisor customers coo about the Beef Bourguignon and Moules marinière as well as the cosy ambience of its cellar restaurant and the welcoming staff – ‘I have never had better service in the UK,’ acclaimed one diner. Le Mistral is also a café and wine bar, open all day and every day. ‘Wirksworth needs to address Sunday opening if it wants to prosper,’ advises manager Lauren Tunnicliffe.
The Hope & Anchor by the Market Place is prospering after a refit by new owners. Manager Jack Davey says, ‘We pride ourselves on our good beer, friendly staff and honest pub food.’ As for the décor, Jack explains that ‘it’s contemporary but also rustic so we honour the roots of this 17th century inn.’ Jack had a satisfied smile when I told him the snug felt like someone’s stylish front room. Even snugger is the Feather Star on St John’s Street, a micropub in size as well as name. There are just three tables downstairs, so conversation is definitely encouraged. This tiny, characterful local must be the only place in the UK trading as both a pub and vinyl record shop, featuring a Vinyl Thursday when you can bring and play your own records. ‘Quirksworth’ indeed.
There are several other pubs in Wirksworth, including the Black’s Head, a ‘proper pub’ tucked away in the Market Place and noted for its ‘diverse selection of well-kept ales’ and ‘the best pork pies anywhere.’
If you like proper, old fashioned cafés, there’s May’s Traditional Tea Rooms or The Coffee Drop while two more recent additions seem like polar opposites: the speciality at the Sizzling Pig is a Yorkshire Pudding Wrap with pulled pork, stuffing, apple sauce, veg, potatoes and gravy with a side helping of crackling; the Sour Cow is so-called because of its own frozen yoghurt and it has extensive vegetarian options on the menu. Their speciality is a Bento Box, a complete meal in a lunch box with a variety of carefully-arranged tastes, textures and food groups, which always includes both a fruit and vegetable salad.
On the outskirts of the town is Haarlem Mill – one of two that remain from six local mills which manufactured tape. Long-disused, it is being regenerated and is now home to Artspace – the result of so many artists gravitating to Wirksworth over the years. Two such artists, Olivia Punnett and Geoff Litherland, found themselves having to travel to the city to rent studio space so, in spring 2017, they decided to create a rural setting for local creatives. They already have full occupancy – 12 artists and co-workers – on one floor and are extending to a further floor to host exhibitions and residencies.
The location and history of Haarlem Mill is inspiring for the artists, says Olivia, and some of them have started collaborating and working together. ‘Our aim,’ she declares, ‘is to support and develop the amazing work the Wirksworth Festival has done and create a permanent, thriving artistic hub for contemporary art in the community.’
There is also commercial artistry in Haarlem Mill. Here, Esther Patterson can be found designing hand-blown glass lighting. Her company Curiousa & Curiousa – a nod to the magic and mystery spun by Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories – produces unique, bespoke pieces ranging from single pendants to large scale chandeliers, with a choice of 22 colours. ‘This is a great place to work as it’s a real creative hub and this traditional old mill is the perfect complement to our hand-blown crafted glass products,’ says Esther.
Another part of Haarlem Mill is a wedding venue, and it’s also home to Haarlem Bridal – creating wedding dresses that are ‘a little bit different, with personality, flair and a creative edge’ – and award-winning florists Tineke who specialise in creating luxury wedding flowers.
Wirksworth’s past is about to form a vital part of its future with the opening of a new £1.6m Lottery-funded heritage centre. Impressive as I found the old heritage centre when I visited it in 2009, it was rather tucked away in a quiet courtyard and its displays had begun to show wear and tear. So, when its trustees were bequeathed a three storey townhouse in St John’s Street, they decided to re-invent the heritage centre as a ‘thriving and more visible and accessible operation.’
The centre’s general manager Roger Shelley is very excited at bringing the story of Wirksworth to life, especially as the town has been ‘overlooked by historians in the past,’ given that it was once the second largest town in Derbyshire.
Along with four ‘heritage rooms’, there will be a studio space for small-scale events, performances and workshops, along with a modern café. As Roger explains: ‘This will be a centre that locals and visitors should be really proud of. It will act as the focus for wider exploration of the town and a base for a rich variety of activities.’