Monumental Musings: The fascinating story behind Repton Cross

An integral part of Repton's village scene

An integral part of Repton's village scene - Credit: Archant

Peter Seddon takes on a challenge to prove that ‘roundabouts really can be interesting’

Around 100 years ago. Repton Cross replete with spike and not yet a roundabout - the only vehicle a horse and cart

Around 100 years ago. Repton Cross replete with spike and not yet a roundabout - the only vehicle a horse and cart - Credit: Archant

In the heart of Repton at a four-way crossroads is a mini-roundabout – not even grand enough to be called a traffic island. It is not adorned by a great statue of some famous worthy, nor is it lavished by an exotic planting scheme. At this busy junction thousands of motorists each day barely give it a second glance. If roundabouts were ranked for ‘interest’, then this might be in the lower leagues.

But perhaps there is more to it than meets the casual eye. Indeed Derbyshire Life village correspondent Ashley Franklin once dubbed it the ‘most attractive historic roundabout in the country’. That assertion cannot be taken lightly – a full enquiry beckons.

Visually the observation seems sound – to the historically-tuned eye the roundabout holds undoubted timeless charm. For at its centre is an ancient stone structure that has come to be known as ‘Repton Cross’ – in earlier times the ‘Market Cross’ – although no longer incorporating an actual cross.

This curious antiquity must be alluring – for few structures in Derbyshire have been the subject of more picture postcards and photographs. The old buildings around it lend added backdrop as a supporting cast – as such ‘Repton Cross’ has long enjoyed the central role in a picturesque saga of village life.

Repton from the air circa 1950s - the ancient Market Cross the hub of the village

Repton from the air circa 1950s - the ancient Market Cross the hub of the village - Credit: Archant

From an octagonal base eight flights of age-worn steps rise in conical form to a plinth surmounted by a circular column with ball finial top. At distance it might be a giant medieval chess piece. At close quarters wear to the steps suggests countless generations have sat upon them to watch the world go by. Or to ponder the stone ball – out of reach save for a climbing challenge that some have failed to resist… on occasion with unfortunate consequences.

So ‘Repton Cross’ begins to garner curiosity value. It is worth noting too that Ashley’s word ‘attractive’ has two dictionary definitions – ‘very pleasing to look at’ and ‘arousing interest’. What scenes might the cross have witnessed? What tales surround it? More than a mere roundabout – this is an antiquity with a life story, and well worth preservation.

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That was officially recognised 65 years ago when on 2nd September 1952 the village landmark was given Grade I listed status as a Historic Monument. The annotation gives no definite date for the cross, merely designating it ‘medieval, 17th and 19th century’ – indicative of centuries of repair and replacement.

That hasn’t stopped antiquarians trying to date it – or at least what might have preceded it. The most romantic suggestion is that an original cross was erected in AD 653. In that year Northumbrian missionaries visited Repton – then capital of the important Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia – to first preach Christianity in the Midlands. A cross might well have marked that historic spot – the original would be long-destroyed, but the theory does explain why today’s ‘Repton Cross’ is sometimes loosely described as ‘around 1,500 years old’.

2017 - Repton cross with the equally famous spire of St Wystan's and Repton School Arch (formerly part of Repton Priory)...

2017 - Repton cross with the equally famous spire of St Wystan's and Repton School Arch (formerly part of Repton Priory) in the background - Credit: Archant

More likely is that a Market Cross was erected in Repton around 1330, the year in which a regular Wednesday market was established there. The cross provided the focal point, the open space around it alive with traders and livestock. That would date the cross to almost 700 years ago – and today’s incarnation could easily incorporate fragments of the original stonework.

It certainly endured a hard life. As early as 1601 churchwardens recorded that ‘Thomas Parsons was payd for mendinge the Crosse’, and it was repaired again in 1678. More fundamental changes occurred in 1806 when ‘the graceful shaft of square section was replaced by an uninteresting round one’ – still in place.

Until the 1930s the stone ball was itself crowned by a metal spike – an enticing target for ‘boys of the village’. The epitome of shame occurred on 31st March 1931 when Repton schoolboys ‘engaging in a late-night rag’ scaled the column in order to ‘decorate it’ – both spike and ball were ‘accidentally knocked off’.

Next day the enraged Repton Headmaster assured the Derby Daily Telegraph that ‘the culprits have been suitably punished and some have been sent back to their homes’. Blessedly the archaeological value of the cross was quickly acknowledged by Mrs Godfrey Mosley of Calke Abbey, who as Lady of the Manor was then considered nominal owner of the cross. She promised to ‘spare no expense’ in effecting repairs – good to her word, ‘Repton Cross’ lived on.

American airman Reade Tilley - in 1941 his crashed RAF Hurricane narrowly missed Repton Cross

American airman Reade Tilley - in 1941 his crashed RAF Hurricane narrowly missed Repton Cross - Credit: Archant

Over the years it suffered periodic indignities – chamber pots were once the preferred adornment, latterly traffic cones. But far more serious threats came from traffic itself. Even in 1930 the Derbyshire Advertiser highlighted the ‘danger to “Repton Cross” by the vibration of heavy motor traffic passing close by it’. The structure then had no surrounding kerb and there had been the odd direct hit – in consequence a more formal roundabout was soon created.

But 1930s’ traffic was nothing to today. Now thousands of vehicles can pass in a single day – including mammoth trucks and agricultural machinery. The Cross endures – but cracks have begun to appear, with repairs estimated at £30,000.

This is considered ‘desirable’ rather than ‘essential’ at present – but either way no official body has been prepared to allocate the money. Are there any private benefactors out there with a penchant for historic roundabouts?

Arguably it is a blessing that the Cross remains at all – for it once survived a chilling near-miss which might otherwise have obliterated it. On 2nd October 1941 an RAF Hurricane on a routine exercise got into difficulty. The American pilot Reade Tilley parachuted out over Repton, breaking his leg on landing – Tilley later enjoyed a distinguished military career. His abandoned plane nose-dived into a garden behind what later became National Westminster Bank – merely a cricket-ball’s throw from ‘Repton Cross’. The scene is now more tranquil, and the former bank again a private residence, 5 Willington Road.

That is surely the most dramatic event the Cross has witnessed – but maybe not the strangest. In 1848 a labourer led his wife from Burton to Repton with a halter around her waist. After drinking in the Mitre Inn – which later became a house for Repton boarders – he stood her on the Cross steps and announced that she was for sale. Bidding was not brisk – the ‘lot’ sold for a mere shilling to another labourer. Business done, the parties returned to the Mitre for more ale.

For centuries ‘Repton Cross’ also witnessed the ‘Statutes’ or ‘Hiring Fairs’ when labourers and servants were hired to ‘live in’ for the ensuing year. Those taken on were paid a shilling down and allowed the next day off as a final fling. Stalls and sideshows were set out around the Cross and much merriment and general rowdiness ensued. The hiring custom died out in the late 19th century but fairs were still set up at ‘Repton Cross’ until the First World War.

Well into the 20th century the steps of ‘Repton Cross’ were the scene of open-air hustings at election time. The hunt and cycling clubs also gathered there ahead of their day’s activity. Countless Repton scholars who went on to great things in sport, politics, business and religious affairs routinely passed the Cross en route to lessons. So as roundabouts go it does have a certain reflected cachet.

All of which is worth pondering should ever you pass by. For the unconvinced here is one final morsel of evidence – it concerns the revered Repton Headmaster Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972), later Archbishop of Canterbury.

In a broadcast recorded for posterity the tale was told of the shameful night soon after the First World War when Fisher, on late night patrol, espied a chamber pot atop the Cross. His waters achingly suggested that his ‘boys’ were culpable. So not wishing it to be discovered by villagers the next day he stealthily scaled the Cross to remove the damning evidence. Just as he grasped the offending article the new local ‘bobby’ passed by and apprehended him, believing the hapless Headmaster had been putting the porcelain ‘up’ not taking it down.

The evidence suggests that ‘Repton Cross’ is the only roundabout in the entire world where a Public School head and future Archbishop has been caught red-handed at dead of night sheepishly clutching a potty. That would appear to close the case in Mr Franklin’s favour – ‘Repton Cross’ really is ‘the most attractive historic roundabout in the country’.