Life in Willington and Findern south of Derby combines a caring community, convenience and the charm of a watery neighbour

Great British Life: Willington MarinaWillington Marina (Image: Ashley Franklin Photography)

my previous feature on Willington five years ago may have ruffled a few local feathers by emphasising its proximity to a ‘grander, more historic neighbour’ the other side of the Trent: Repton. However, long-time resident Alan Gifford stated that ‘Willington has never felt overshadowed by Repton. The important thing is that we are proud of this community; it’s amiable, sociable and supportive.’

Great British Life: Findern's village green with All Saints ChurchFindern's village green with All Saints Church (Image: Ashley Franklin Photography)

Alan said I could print the same quote today, and also the words of another long-time resident, John Orme, who declared that ‘Willington is a village in robust health; it fits me and my family like a well-loved coat, wrapping around us well.’ John – and many other villagers – love Willington’s rurality, shops, pubs, post office, excellent schools, amenities and activities, access to road, rail and air networks and, even closer, canal waterway.

Great British Life: Staff and children at The Old Forge Day NurseryStaff and children at The Old Forge Day Nursery (Image: Ashley Franklin Photography)

Alan sent me on the fascinating History Trail published by the Willington History Group where, amongst other gems, I came upon thatched 15th century Trentside Cottage, which has a bread oven that projects onto the roadside – a possible predecessor of the roadside café.

Alan took me to the site of the old cheese warehouse, telling the tale of a watch dog – ‘a known biter’ – being brought in to guard against theft of its valued commodity... that is until the dog itself was stolen. Sadly, the old warehouse is being demolished to make way for new housing. Developers, though, have to be wary of Willington. Alan says there is a fighting spirit amongst villagers. They are not afraid to stand up to authority and have already won a few victories. They are vigilant, too: I found the canal towpath to be disappointingly muddy. Lo and behold, I soon discovered that John Orme had already emailed the County Council Rights of Way Team about it.

I might not have mentioned Repton at all in that previous feature had I realised that Willington has a closer neighbour, spiritually at least: since 1917, Willington has shared a vicar with Findern. The distance between the two villages is less than two miles and, in a sense, Willington and Findern have become closer still since 2008 through the development of Mercia Marina between the two.

Pleasingly, both villages have remained rural in spite of housing developments. In fact, what housing there has been helpfully brought an influx of younger residents. Before the 1960s’ developments in Findern, for instance, it was thought that every resident was related.

With its proximity to Littleover, Findern is especially vulnerable to Derby’s southward conurbation spread. Village historian John Hawkins proudly points out that, remarkably, Findern’s ancient parish boundary is ‘largely intact and recognisable.’ A more tangible source of pride is the old centre of the village, a microcosm of Merrie Olde England through its proper village green, complete with traditional white posts and chains, overlooked by a handsome church, white, painterly cottages and a smattering of shops, including a post office and store which has been rejuvenated recently. ‘I don’t know a prettier village green in Derbyshire,’ says John. ‘It’s also a lovely focal point, with activities, too, including our annual fête in June.’

Furthermore, The Green has probably never looked better. Village elders would have to remove their rose-tinted glasses and acknowledge that by the end of World War II the Green had degenerated into patches of grass strewn with roads and tracks. Post war, the Parish Council resolved to restore it, although this took nearly 20 years, mainly because no-one could establish who owned it. Eventually, it was found to be the Crown. As John Hawkins’ 2013 book A History of Findern reveals, a Crown representative arrived to discuss the cost of handing The Green over but ‘confessed that he had never sold a village green before.’ At this point, the Parish Council Chairman asked if £50 would do it. The deal was struck and the bureaucrat departed, unaware that the Council had been prepared to go up to £100.

John’s book reveals a fascinating history, not least that Findern played a small but vital role in the Industrial Revolution. In 1740, a 14-year-old Jedidiah Strutt was apprenticed to a Findern wheelwright but, even more crucially, was lodged with the Woollatt family, who were hosiers. The son of the house, William, became his first business partner and together they strove to secure funding for Strutt’s patent stocking rib machine. Jedidiah also married William’s sister Elizabeth.

Findern was also the birthplace of Ben Spilsbury who in 1884 scored Derby County’s first ever league goal, played for the Rams for five years and was capped three times for England. Another local sportsman who recorded a first was Reg Parnell. A successful motor racing driver before and after the War, Parnell competed in the inaugural Formula One World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, and in 1959 won both Le Mans and the World Sports Car Championship. He eventually came to live – and farm – at Wallfield House in Findern, now a residential home where a blue plaque in his memory was recently unveiled.

In John’s book, published only last year, you can discover the legend of the ‘Findern Flower’ – a narcissus brought from the Holy Land – and why Nonconformism has been prominent here for 400 years. John also reveals how he restored a rusty Victorian floral tribute he found propped against a wall in the church. His extensive research has shown that it’s an extremely rare artefact. As he explains, ‘Most of these floral tributes were left on the grave to suffer the ravages of time, but few Victorian families could afford one anyway and it’s also a fragile construction of glass, porcelain and wired foliage.’

The village forge by The Green may not have survived but the handsome house named The Old Forge – a former farm built behind the forge – is now a thriving 55-place nursery with a well-equipped outdoor play area that is run by Abby Litting and husband Marcus. Abby bubbles with pride for a nursery where ‘it’s such a privilege to be part of young children’s development’, offering a service that ‘far exceeds parents’ expectations.’

‘We’re a family-run business with a homely atmosphere and dedicated, highly qualified staff,’ adds Abby, ‘and the location is perfect. We’re easily accessible off both the A38 and A50 yet we’re also sheltered within a quiet, safe and idyllic little village where we can take the children on daily walks down country lanes and nature trails or just onto The Green.’

In 2012 The Old Forge won £20,000 in a national Dora the Explorer competition which was invested in a large log cabin housing a library, sensory room and dance studio for the children to enjoy daily.

A frequent daily walk for the children is to a different kind of nursery: Findern Garden Centre. What started off 60 years ago as a family nursery growing vegetables for roadside sales is now a vast, well-stocked centre bursting with plant colour. There is also a large accessory and gift store plus a restaurant, and plant experts on hand. You’ll also find expert fish keepers there, running Maidenhead Aquatics, whose 130 stores nationally make it the country’s largest specialist aquatics retailer. ‘Our fish keepers are as passionate about the hobby as our customers are,’ states the business’s partner Tony Dearden, ‘and we give hobbyists superb customer care at point of sale and, importantly, afterwards. It’s an easy, pleasurable and rewarding hobby I would recommend, too.’

A different type of watery hobby thrives at Willington. Canal boaters, walkers and cyclists are all drawn to the Trent & Mersey towpath, and there is brisk trade for the village’s three pubs and Kay’s Tea Room. A significant upturn since my 2009 visit is that The Dragon is roaring again. Alan Shepherd and Heidi Taylor saw the potential in the pub’s canalside setting, which has now been realised through a new 120-seat beer garden next to the towpath. The Dragon also satisfies local drinkers as a community pub – with dogs welcome – and visiting diners as a destination pub offering ‘traditional, quality, locally sourced British food with a twist.’ They have recently enhanced the dining experience with a new kitchen and restaurant extension; and a micro brewery is imminent. It’s also received two major awards recently: Derbyshire’s Best Out of Town Pub/Restaurant in the Derby Food & Drink Awards and Best Traditional Pub of the Year at the Derbyshire Food & Drink Awards.

The village is fortunate to have two other pubs: The Green Man, which Peter Norman took over only a few months ago with improvements planned; and The Rising Sun, which includes a highly regarded Thai restaurant. Also, just outside the village beside the A38 is The Cherry Tree.

The pull of tourists is one reason Kirsty Platt-Chadwick set up shop here only three months ago as Pretty Vintage. ‘Willington appealed to me because it’s like a seaside town,’ says Kirsty. Her cosy store, next to the post office/store, offers bespoke clothing and home accessories, either made by Kirsty or sourced locally. She hopes to satisfy the current demand for vintage clothing and accessories: ‘People really do value the quality and workmanship that goes into up-cycling and hand-making goods and I hope both villagers and visitors come to see my shop as a treasure that belongs to them.’

Three established and well-supported shops in the centre of Willington are the lovely-named Cottage Garden Florist, run by Diane Stevenson, which offers traditional and modern floristry from wedding to funeral flowers along with giftware. Next door is the appealingly-named Indulge, a beauty and chiropody studio set up 12 years ago by Deb Morgan and Jan Brockley. Both Deb and Jan ‘wanted to be part of a friendly community we knew rather than a bustling town,’ and it’s clearly worked. As well as chiropody they offer a wide range of beauty treatments, and the studio has been enhanced by the addition of Calla Aesthetics run by Cheryl Pullen. The third is Village Conservatories, a family-run business that opened in February 2005. Managing director Steve Frost and his family have lived in Willington for 25 years and the FENSA registered company provides conservatories, doors and windows, garage conversions, fascias and soffits, and porches.

On my last visit, I heard an old local saying: ‘Repton for culture. Willington for agriculture.’ Those were the days when Willington had only 70 cottages and nine farms. ‘Willington has retained some of its agricultural village atmosphere but there is plenty of culture here, too.’ So says Sue Gent, who in 2007, became a part of a drive in the village to showcase its ‘wealth of creative talent.’ The result was an annual festival, now rebranded Arts in Willington, taking place on the weekend of 17th and 18th May.

It’s a true community festival, says Sue, as it’s very interactive: ‘It encourages people to get hands-on in a friendly informal atmosphere. There are activities for all ages, such as willow weaving, pottery, drumming workshops, community painting and an Arts Trail.’ Sue, who runs Tangent Treasures, is also opening her home studio, where she runs over 25 workshops in crochet, knitting, spinning, weaving and beading.

Ironically, Willington has increased not only its cultural but also agricultural presence: through the opening two years ago of Betty’s Farm, a farm shop which also houses a commercial flock of 24,000 free range laying hens and a small flock of sheep. Emma Ruff and husband Simon had been managing this farm for three years before making a ‘life-changing decision’ to rent it. Interestingly, Emma points out that a place like Betty’s is unusual in being a farm shop on an actual farm, where they also live – ‘Very handy as chickens are very temperamental,’ says Emma; it also means the public see exactly what we do and how we do it.’

They also feel their Willington location is perfect – ‘far enough out to feel rural but close enough in to be in touch with the community, which is important as 80 per cent of our customers are local. We also help local charities and support the Willington Junior Football Team.’

As well as a relatively new butchery service – with plans also for a small café with a play area – they can give their hens ‘a home for life.’ Supermarket rules prevent the selling of eggs from chickens over 72 weeks of age and last year they re-homed over 2,000 hens. As Emma points out: ‘We also sell chicken feed, drinkers and feeders, allowing people who are starting up to buy the whole package. I ought to mention that the hens will carry on laying but will stop over the winter when days are less than 14 hours long.’

My final ‘port of call’ was the area’s two marinas. At Willington Marina, I soon fell into conversation with canal ‘liveaboards.’ The way of life for Keith and Sheila Tite is perfectly encapsulated in their boat’s name ‘Tootling By Gently’. Their friends Pip Harrison and John and Trudy Fowler all chimed in their belief that narrowboat life is relaxing and ‘beautifully quiet, apart from the birdsong.’ For Trudy, ‘it’s like being on a permanent holiday.’

Don’t they miss anything, perhaps not having a garden? ‘On the contrary,’ says Keith, ‘the whole world is our garden.’ Pip chipped in with the point that, ‘You see all walks of life on the waterways; it makes the canal a great leveller,’ to which Keith quipped: ‘Yes, you could say we’re all in the same boat.’

John pointed out that he and Trudy previously lived in a four bedroom house: ‘The thing is, we only ever used two chairs, one cooker ring, a bed and bathroom. We’ve got all that in one tidy row.’

If you buy a narrowboat from Aqua Narrowboats at Mercia Marina – and go for a 60 footer for just over £125,000 – you can have, according to owners Justin and Jane Hudson-Oldroyd, ‘double-glazed windows, solid oak flooring, king-size beds with memory foam mattresses, purpose-built dining room, 900m Quadrant shower cubicle, granite work surfaces and quiet running diesel engines. We can also change the 12v battery power into 240v mains power, which means appliances, TVs and laptops work when you’re cruising. We often fit solar panels, too.’

Aqua has certainly come a long way after starting ten years ago with one hire boat and a home study as an office. Now they employ 11 staff, build four bespoke boats a year, operate up to five hire boats – ‘We have one of the best quality fleets on the canal system’ says Justin – and provide a repairs centre.

Business can surely only get better in being based at Mercia Marina which, five years on, is expanding in September with the opening of The Boardwalk with six shops, four offices and a two-storey bar bistro. Once a private fishery – Willington Lake – Mercia is now the largest inland marina in Europe, accommodating over 630 boats. The water space covers 24 acres, with 50 acres of landscape grounds teeming with wildlife. As the Marina’s General Manager Robert Neff points out, the design of Mercia was revolutionary: ‘Rather than digging a big hole and filling it with boats, the natural contours of Willington Lake were retained, and islands as well as promontories added. This created a much more natural waterscape for the benefit of both visitors and wildlife.’

Robert also pointed out that planning permission was obtained recently for 180 residential boats – ‘which will really enhance the strong sense of community we have here.’

In a sense, the vicar of Willington and Findern, Sue Starkey, has gained a third parish, and is already doing chaplaincy at the Marina with a plan for the four churches locally to together offer outreach there. Sue has loved every moment of her ten years in the parish and thanks God for bringing her here: ‘When in Derby waiting for an interview for the vicar’s post in Willington, I asked for God’s guidance. “Tell me if Willington is right,” I prayed. I opened my eyes and immediately saw a bus with a Willington destination sign. God was right.

‘Our congregations are not greatly increasing in number, but they are spiritually and, although it’s a balancing act dealing with two parishes and we always need funds for the two churches, this is a great place to live; and until God calls me somewhere else, I remain here within the villages I have come to love.’