Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

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Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.

Brave New World or Paradise Lost? – Our town’s new library

Our town has a new library. It’s been open since early August, but the UK’s National Libraries Week (5 -10 October) seems like a good time to check it out. For years – no, decades – we’ve wished to see the old library replaced. Hopefully it will prove to be worth the wait.

* * *

The old library was a converted stone-built domestic property – The Hollies – dating from the first half of the 19th century. Located within the Belper Town section of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, it had loads of character. But despite the best efforts of the staff it was a woefully inadequate public library, a hotchpotch of small, knocked-together rooms spread across two floors. “Compact” would be one way to describe it, but I prefer “cramped, uncomfortable and incapable of measuring up to 21st century expectations.”

The old library (photo taken 2005)

Ideally, Belper’s new library would have been purpose-built, but space for new-build projects is at a premium in the World Heritage Site area. And anyway, libraries aren’t seen as a priority these days, in a society which seems to believe that the Internet and mobile phones are the answer to everything. In the circumstances, I suppose we should be grateful that the project went ahead at all, albeit in another converted building.

The site of the new development is the former Thorntons factory, where yummy chocolates and other confectionery goodies once rolled off the production lines in vast quantities. Thorntons abandoned Belper many years ago, and a new use was required for their land and buildings.

The new library (ignore the frontage stretching into the far distance on the right!)

Cometh the hour, cometh the council. Parts of the factory were flattened, to be replaced by a relocated care home and a health centre. However the oldest factory building was retained, to be converted into the town’s new library.

* * *

As we approach the new library we take stock of its appearance and potential. Externally the architect has done a good job, broadly sympathetic to the building’s industrial past and in keeping with the spirit of the World Heritage Site. So far, so good. But what about inside?

A masked member of staff greets us as we enter, asking for our names and contact details as part of the government’s Covid-19 Test and Trace strategy. However there seems to be little chance of catching anything here. The place is almost deserted, just a couple more staff and one other member of the public who scuttles out soon after we arrive.

The timing of the new library’s opening is disastrous, and you’ve got to feel sorry for the management and local staff. This project has been in the pipeline for years, and nobody could have predicted it would come to fruition when the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

Computers wrapped in bin bags, and no chairs…not much chance of public internet access here today! Sexy curved shelving – but the “island” units interfere with sightlines.

Elsewhere in Derbyshire the county’s library service is working hard to extend and promote its digital offer – eBooks, online storytimes and the like. But here at Belper the team face a different challenge, to entice users to try out an unfamiliar library building which is currently unable to live up to its potential due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

It’s clearly not “business as usual” today. Covid-19 is still deterring many people from venturing into public spaces like this, the computers are wrapped up in what looks like bin-bags, and seating is limited. More disturbingly, all books returned to the library after being borrowed are set aside and quarantined for three days before they are put back on the open shelves.

Exposed rafters and beams, and bare brickwork, celebrate the building’s industrial past

So, through no fault of the staff our first visit here is not the relaxed, welcoming experience we’d hoped it would be. We have the place to ourselves as we start to explore the Brave New World of Belper Library

Although the positioning of the original windows tells us this was once a two-storey building, the first floor has been stripped out entirely. The roof soars high above us, revealing exposed rafters and beams. Combined with the bare brickwork, the underbelly of the roof pays due homage to the building’s industrial past.

White “island” shelving units, but wooden wall-mounted units. Why?

But, and it’s a big but, the place seems a bit small. In order to cram more books into the available space they’ve opted for head-high “island” shelving, which interferes with sightlines and counteracts the airy sense of space which should result from the soaring roofline. And where are the public meeting rooms, a vital resource for the modern public library, welcoming shared spaces where community groups can get together to explore culture, literature and learning?

But it’s the children’s section of the library that disappoints me the most. It’s not big enough, feels austere and clinical, and lacks both colour and character.

In my view the most important part of any public library is the children’s area. More than ever in this digital age we have a duty to encourage youngsters to explore and enjoy the written word, to develop their language skills, and to experience the power of story. I worry that the dazzling white shelves and uninspired furnishings will struggle to achieve this.

The children’s area: austere, clinical, lacking colour and character

Perhaps I’m being too harsh? The library is clearly an enormous improvement on what the town has had to put up with for the previous 80 years, and we’ve not seen it at its best. In the post-Covid environment (whenever that is!) I’m sure the staff will work hard to make it fly, and I wish them well in their endeavours.

But this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something brilliant for culture and learning in Belper, to create a new, vibrant community venue, and it seems to have slightly missed the mark. I leave the library feeling a trifle underwhelmed, debating whether, when I write this post, I should somehow weave “Paradise Lost” into the title of the piece.

Sadly, I won’t be spending as much of my retirement in the library as I’d once imagined.

Renishaw Hall and Gardens

A few weeks ago the attractive gardens and grounds at Renishaw Hall provided a perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing some much needed colour to our lives.

Renishaw’s bluebell woods, May 2018

As the Covid-19 infection rate falls and the country starts to open up, we decide it’s time to make the most of summer before it morphs into autumn. One of our first day trips is to the gardens at Renishaw Hall, in the far north of our home county of Derbyshire. We’ve been here before, in spring when the bluebell woods are a magnificent sight, but it looks rather different in the height of summer.

Renishaw Hall: Big is not always beautiful

Renishaw Hall was built around 1625 by George Sitwell, who made his money from iron. By the end of the the 17th century the Sitwells were the largest producers of iron nails in the world and their furnaces were producing more than a tenth of England’s entire iron output. 

They made a fortune, which enabled one of George’s descendants to enlarge and extend the Hall between 1793 and 1808. The man commissioning the work was called Sitwell Sitwell. Yes, his father really was so obsessed by the family’s name that he forced his wretched son to endure it both as a forename and a surname. Poor bugger.

In the mid-19th century the Sitwells fell upon hard times. The residents deserted the Hall to live in Germany, where the cost of living was cheaper, and its contents were auctioned off. Renishaw might have suffered the fate of so many grand English homes and crumbled away into dust and obscurity, had it not been for the timely discovery of coal on the estate.

Weathered, classical-style statues, topiary trees and a distant view of the fountain

The north-east corner of Derbyshire is riddled with coal seams, so we should not be too surprised by the Sitwells’ good fortune. However they made the most of the geological generosity with which their estate was blessed: the family’s fortunes were restored, later enabling the development of Renishaw’s outstanding gardens.

Renishaw Hall is an imposing building, but the curtain of climbing plants clinging to its façade can’t disguise the fact- in my humble opinion, anyway – that externally it’s fairly unremarkable, despite its Grade I listing from Historic England. Big is not always beautiful.

The gardens, however, are rather special. Nearly 120 years ago Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), fourth baronet, created what is today regarded as one of the most important classical Italianate gardens in the UK.

Sir George could think of no good reason to be modest about his horticultural knowledge and skills, and therefore felt moved in 1909 to show them off by writing An essay on the making of gardens : being a study of old Italian gardens, of the nature of beauty, and the principles involved in garden design. Wouldn’t be my choice of bedtime reading, but what do I know?

Garden features at today’s Renishaw include well-trimmed lawns, immaculately clipped topiary, ornamental ponds, a spectacular fountain, a scattering of statues – both classical and quirky – and borders overflowing with blossoms. And beyond the formal gardens can be found handsome lakes and parkland.

Renishaw’s garden enjoys a II* (“two-star”) listing from Historic England, a non-departmental arm of the British Government funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Also, in May 2015, it received the UK Garden of the Year award. The award, organised by the Historic Houses Association and sponsored by Christie’s auctioneers, recognises the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens, gardens that have outstanding horticultural and public appeal.

After months of near-confinement at Platypus Towers, it’s great to get out and about at Renishaw. The flower-beds are ablaze, and a ballet of butterflies flits happily between the blossoms. The statues, including an unexpected elk (for anyone reading this in North America, a Eurasian elk’s just like your moose), look splendid in the warm sunshine, and down at the lake a swan paddles happily amongst the rushes and reeds.

Renishaw Lake

The Sitwell family still live at Renishaw. In the first half of the 20th century it was graced by the famous literary trio, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, who were all patrons of the arts and played a significant part in the artistic and literary world at that time. Today’s residents have a lower profile, but are pleased for us all to line the family’s pockets by visiting their gardens and, occasionally, the Hall itself. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Hen Harrier Day – community action to combat the persecution of raptors

The Hen Harrier is probably the most persecuted bird in the UK. To draw attention to its plight and encourage its conservation, campaigners at the charitable organisation Hen Harrier Action have declared a date in early August to be Hen Harrier Day. The timing is significant: on 12 August each year – the so-called Glorious 12th – the grouse shooting season begins, and it is this so-called “sport” that’s been at the heart of the Hen Harrier’s dreadful decline.

IMAGE CREDIT: Isle of Man Government / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Hen Harriers are ground-nesting birds of upland moors. In winter they relocate further south to coastal areas, heathland and farmland. Males are blue-grey with a white rump, pale underside and black wing tips. Females are brown above and streaky below, with a white rump and a banded tail. The bird is almost identical to the Northern Harrier that’s found widely over the US and Canada – scientists are divided over whether they are essentially the same species, or just very close cousins.

To attract a mate the male Hen Harrier puts on a breath-taking display of aerial gymnastics, soaring, twisting, spiralling and plummeting above heather-clad moorland to catch the attention of the local ladies. It’s called sky-dancing, and is mesmerising to watch.

Later, after mating, the male will seek to strengthen the pair-bond and show off his spectacular agility by passing prey to his mate in mid-air, enabling the much less conspicuous female to return to the nest without attracting the attention of predators. The RSPB have posted a brilliant video on YouTube which perfectly captures both behaviours. It’s nearly five minutes long, but definitely worth a look:

From an international perspective, the Hen Harrier is not endangered: it’s spread very widely across northern Eurasia, and Birdlife International categorises it as a species of “Least Concern.” However, the picture is very different in the UK, where its classification is “Red.” Here, the species is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

The root cause of the Hen Harrier’s problems in the UK is its feeding preferences. Although its diet consists primarily of small mammals, it also takes some birds. It is this, and particularly its appetite for Red Grouse, that has brought it into conflict with gamekeepers.

The role of the gamekeeper is to serve his employers by ensuring that grouse shooters have sufficient quarry available to satisfy their vile blood-lust. Grouse moors are big business: a day spent blasting Red Grouse out of the sky can cost upwards of £1,500 (around $US 2,000), and fewer birds means reduced income for the moors’ owners. For this reason the pressure’s on gamekeepers – implicitly, if not explicitly – to eliminate any natural predators of the quarry species.

Lobbyists for the shooting industry protest their innocence: “it ain’t us guv’nor,” they plead, “we’d never hurt those cute harriers. We love the UK’s conservation laws. Honest!” But evidence to the contrary is overwhelming:

A 2019 government-commissioned study has shown that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed on or next to grouse moors. Hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or near a grouse moor than in any other habitat.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

The case for the prosecution is clear, and although the shooting lobby comes up with a wealth of arguments in its defence these arguments are – to quote the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams – a load of dingo’s kidneys. The Hen Harrier Day website provides more details of the disinformation spread by those seeking to defend the status quo: you can read them by clicking here and turning to the section headed “six myths about driven grouse shooting.”

It’s reckoned that the UK as a whole has habitat to support 2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers, but in the last national survey (2016) there were only 545 territorial pairs. These are mostly in Scotland, where Mrs P and I have enjoyed watching them on numerous occasions swooping over the moors of the Orkney Islands. The views have invariably been at a distance, making successful photography an almost impossible challenge, but it always feels like a privilege simply to watch this rare and spectacular bird going about its business.

20193320190706

IMAGE CREDIT: “20193320190706” by richardrichard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientists calculate that England alone has the potential to support over 300 pairs of breeding Hen Harriers. However in 2019 there were only 12 successful nests, and the fact that this is a record high for recent years reflects the seriousness of the situation. These dire numbers were the context in which annual Hen Harrier Days began in 2014:

Hen Harrier Days are community days of action, an opportunity for all of us to press for an end to wildlife crime and the wider abuse of our uplands…[They] are fun events for all the family and take many forms: in the countryside, in town, online, celebrity speakers, gigs, walks, picnics and more. Hen Harrier Days are normally organised locally by local people.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

Sadly, although unsurprisingly, this year Covid-19 rendered impossible the type of event that had previously taken place. So in 2020 Hen Harrier Day moved online, hosted by popular broadcaster and campaigning naturalist Chris Packham, and up-and-coming young presenter Megan McCubbin. It worked well; key species information and hard-hitting conservation messages being mixed in with a variety of relevant music, art and literature, and the promotion of some fund-raising initiatives that will support Hen Harriers.

To be honest, some of it was difficult to take, particularly when Mark Thomas, head of the RSPB’s Investigations Team, spoke about the persecution of raptors – including Hen Harriers – in the Peak District. It was shocking and heart-breaking to hear details of the carnage taking place there, and as we live just a few miles from the Peak District National Park it feels personal.

Having heard from Mark Thomas and others on the day, it would be easy to give up in despair, to conclude that this is a battle conservationists cannot win. But Mark’s not giving up, and neither should we.

Hen Harrier Day helps raise the profile of the bird, draws attention to the criminal activity perpetrated by those who see the harrier as an obstacle to driven grouse shooting, and builds momentum in the political arena. As the experts pointed out on the day, we can all do something to help the cause, even if it’s just giving a bit of cash to practising conservationists who are working hard on the ground to combat raptor persecution.

Speaking of which, one of the initiatives linked to Hen Harrier Day 2020 has been an art auction run in conjunction with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Derbyshire is our county, and as Mark Thomas has pointed out its Peak District moors are a hotbed of raptor persecution. The Peak District should be home to several pairs of Hen Harriers, but sadly Mrs P and I have never seen one here on our “home turf.”

We are life members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, and Mrs P decided to do her bit by getting creative to support the auction. Using her favourite papercraft technique – iris folding – she designed an image of two Hen Harriers sky-dancing, and sent it off for auction. You can see her creation below:

At the time of writing the bid for Mrs P’s iris-fold picture stands at £60 (around $US 80). In all, total bids for the 73 lots stand at over £3,000 (around US$ 4,000). Isn’t it great to see so many people – both the artists who produced the images for sale, and the bidders who are prepared to stump up some cash for them – getting involved to support the conservation of a bird that needs all the help it can muster?

The battle to save the UK’s population of Hen Harriers is far from lost. Well done to Hen Harrier Action for leading the campaign to protect them, for spreading the message, and for inspiring me to hope that – one day – I may see a Hen Harrier here in Derbyshire.

A 17th century experiment in social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

Bubonic plague was transmitted via the bite of infected Black Rat fleas, and in summer 1665 a consignment of cloth infested with those fleas brought the disease some 160 miles north of London, to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District. The cloth was ordered by tailor Alexander Hadfield, but it was his assistant George Viccars who was the first to succumb to the disease it brought with it, on 7 September 1665.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam, and as time passed more villagers took ill and died. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancé. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

*

Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancé saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?

Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

10-P2183459

PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

Getting stuffed: the King of Rome and superfluous penguins

He spends his days, and nights too, with all the other dead things in the natural history gallery. In a desperate attempt to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear Derby Museum’s curators call it the “Notice Nature Feel Joy Gallery”, but there’s precious little joy for me in display cabinets full of sad, stuffed things. It’s a bizarre collection, an unholy mixture of long dead creatures that certainly lived here or hereabouts – foxes, badgers and the like – and others that most definitely did not.

Hands up anyone who knows why Derby Museum finds it desirable or expedient to display a pair of stuffed penguins.

But don’t mock and be sure to behave yourselves, after all we’re in the presence of royalty. Over there, in that unassuming showcase on the back wall, sits the King of Rome. And here’s the thing, he really does belong in the heart of the English East Midlands: the King of Rome lived out his days in Derby.

Before you think I’ve completely lost my marbles, or conclude that Derby folk make a habit of inflicting taxidermy upon exiled European monarchs, let me reassure you that the King of Rome is a racing pigeon. Deceased, obviously, otherwise the RSPCA would have something to say regarding his incarceration in a museum showcase.

And not just any racing pigeon. I mean, this guy’s a record breaker who found his most famous exploit celebrated in song.

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Even setting aside matters of gastronomy, man and pigeon have been in a longstanding relationship. A record exists from around 1200BC of messenger pigeons being used in ancient Egypt to enable cities to communicate with one another about Nile River floodwaters. More than a millennium later they were passing messages through the Greek and Roman worlds, and pigeon racing is known to have taken place as long ago as the third century AD.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Derby Museum and Art Gallery [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Picture by & © Andy Mabbett, CC by-sa 3.0

Modern European pigeon racing began in Belgium in the 1850s, from where it spread to Britain. The first formal pigeon race in the UK took place in 1881, and five years later King Leopold II of the Belgians presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. To this day the monarch retains a royal pigeon loft at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

In the early 20th century poor working men in some areas of the UK took up pigeon racing. For them the sport became a means of escape, personal exploration and self-expression at a time when working class lives were hard. Selectively breeding pigeons to increase their chances, then rearing and caring for them to ensure they were in top condition on race days, became an all-consuming passion for the sport’s devotees.

It’s now that our hero, and his owner – one Charlie Hudson – steps on to the stage. Charlie lived on Brook Street, in a poor area of Derby known as the West End. His interest in pigeon racing is said to have begun in 1904, and in 1913 he showed the world that he’d produced a champion.

In 1913 Charlie entered his best bird into a race from Rome to Derby, a colossal distance of 1,611km (1,001 miles). It won, and in so doing set a new long-distance record for an English racing pigeon, while over one thousand other birds competing in the race perished on the journey home.

The winning bird became famous in pigeon racing circles. When it died in 1946 after a long and celebrated life, Charlie presented the corpse to Derby Museum to be stuffed for posterity and the common good.

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Charlie Hudson died in 1958. Three decades later the story of this simple working class hero and his indomitable bird caught the imagination of Derbyshire folk singer-songwriter Dave Sudbury. “The King of Rome” tells the story of the race, and, more importantly perhaps, shows how pigeon racing allowed Charlie to escape the confines of his birth and upbringing. Through the medium of Dave Sudbury’s song, Charlie says:

… “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Excerpt from The King of Rome, © Dave Sudbury

The song, which has since become a classic in the folk world, was initially made famous by the brilliant June Tabor on her 1988 album Aqaba. You can hear her version on YouTube by clicking here. The complete lyrics are here.

Countless others have recorded the King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s original version of the song is also available on YouTube: raw, authentic and very moving.

However my favourite of them all is sung by the incomparable Lucy Ward. Lucy’s a Derby girl, so it seems only appropriate that she should sing about another great character from that city. Click here to listen and watch her singing the song live and unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon, England in 2012.

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In 2013 the 100th anniversary of the great race was celebrated in a 45 minutes-long radio drama, demonstrating that the story continues to capture imaginations. Dreams really can come true.

What a pity, therefore, that Derby Museum makes so little out of this heart-warming tale. True, it displays the stuffed King in a neat little showcase, while a small adjacent card describes the bird’s achievement and mentions the folk song in a few meagre sentences.

But the story, as Dave Sudbury so ably captures, is much bigger than that. It offers a way into the social history of Derby, in particular the inadequately told history of working class leisure pursuits in the 20th century. Surely these are the stories that English regional museums should be telling, rather than cluttering up their galleries with superfluous penguins?

The Knife Angel comes to Derby

A few days before setting off on our epic journey around New Zealand, Mrs P and I took a trip to the nearby city of Derby to take a look at the Knife Angel. Also known as the National Monument Against Violence and Aggression, the Knife Angel is a public art installation that is currently touring the country to draw attention to the issue of knife crime. The sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres (27 feet) high, has been created from around 100,000 blades surrendered to police during knife amnesties.

The Knife Angel is the brainchild of the British Ironwork Centre, working with sculptor Alfie Bradley. The Centre provided police forces with 200 secure knife banks, free of charge, to support and encourage them to run more knife amnesties.

The knives and other weapons that were surrendered during the amnesties prompted by the knife banks were sent to the Centre’s workshops, where they were disinfected and blunted. Bradley created a basic angel shape from steel, and then proceeded to weld knives to it. The wings were made from knife blades only, to produce a feathery appearance.

The Centre invited families who had lost loved ones due to knife crime and violence to engrave an everlasting message on a blade, which would then be integrated within the monument. Its website explains that “messages of love and remembrance feature on the angel’s wings, messages not only from families but also perpetrators who have seen the error of their ways and now fight knife crime and violence in a bid to stop it happening on our streets.”

We were surprised and pleased that so many people had turned out on a wet morning to view the Knife Angel. According to the Derby Telegraph, by the time the sculpture moved on to the next city on its itinerary more than 90,000 people had been to see it, from within and beyond the city’s boundaries.

It would be fanciful to expect that pieces of public art like this can have a material impact on the current high levels of knife crime in the UK. However, as a vehicle for community solidarity and a catalyst for reflection on what we have become as a society, the Knife Angel is very powerful indeed. It’s also a damned fine piece of public art, and deserves to be appreciated on those terms as well as for the positive messages it promotes.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.