Saving Heage windmill

Back in the early 19th century around 10,000 windmills graced this green and pleasant land. These days they’re pretty thin on the ground, but luckily my home county of Derbyshire boasts one fine example: Heage Windmill. Just a couple of miles up the road from Platypus Towers, it is a sturdy, reassuring presence in the local landscape, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Sadly, however, looks can be deceiving, and not for the first time the mill is currently in danger. Major repairs are urgently needed, so it’s all hands on deck to raise the money needed to get it fixed.

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The village of Heage (pronounced heej) lies 13 miles (21km) north of Derby. The name is a corruption of ‘High Edge’ and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. It’s therefore an ideal spot to locate a windmill, a fact that did not go unnoticed by an enterprising businessman in the late 18th century.

Reports in the Derby Mercury imply that construction of Heage Windmill began in 1791, and was completed by 1797. It had four sails, and as such differed little from a host of other windmills scattered throughout Derbyshire at the time. The local population was expanding rapidly in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and with it the demand for flour. In the circumstances it seemed certain that the new mill would enjoy a long and busy working life.

But any structure that is deliberately located to catch the wind is inevitably vulnerable to being wrecked by it, so it should come as no surprise that in February 1894 the cap and four sails were blown off in a violent storm. Repairs were soon underway and Heage Windmill was reborn with its now familiar six sails, which would have provided more power to the millstones than the standard four sail configuration.

The repairs were doubtless well made, but the wind kept on blowing and in 1919 Heage Windmill was once again severely damaged by a howling gale. This time there were no repairs: the country was in a financial mess as it sought to recover from the horrors of World War 1, and wind power was in any case regarded as outdated technology.

The mill languished, unloved and unlovely, for some 15 years before being sold for £25 (USD 33). However, its milling days seemed to be over for good: the tower was used only for storage and fell into ever greater disrepair, a situation made even worse in 1961 when it was struck by lightning.

Heage Windmill’s fortunes began to change in 1966, when a legally-binding Building Preservation Order was placed on it. Two years later Derbyshire County Council stepped in to buy it for the princely sum of £350 (USD 456). Although this meant the mill was now in public ownership, finding the money to restore it to working order was – inevitably, I suppose – beyond the Council’s capabilities. The sails would only turn again a generation later, when the local community and a motley band of mill enthusiasts took up the challenge.

In 1996, with the Council’s support, the mill’s supporters formed a charitable trust with the aim of getting it going.  Hope at last! But just a year later, as Heage Windmill Society was finalising its plans, lightning struck the tower once more. The mill’s supporters were devastated, their dreams seemingly in tatters.

Luckily this time the damage done by the lightning strike was not serious, and work to restore the mill soon recommenced. It was an expensive project, but the Society rose heroically to the challenge, raising nearly £450,000 (USD 588,000) from various sources. Their efforts, together with the hard work of countless volunteers, prevailed and Heage Windmill finally opened to the public on 1 June, 2002.

Job well done, you might think. And it was, but of course nothing lasts forever. In 2015/16 severe rot set in, and a major fund-raising effort was needed to sort it. The money poured in and Heage Windmill was saved again. I guess the Society thought it could finally relax, but it was not to be. Earlier this year further structural defects were identified, and they need rectifying urgently. It feels like we’ve been here before!

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Heage Windmill officially opened for the 2022 season just a few days ago, and there was a good turn out to see local television personality and celebrity auctioneer Charles Hanson cut the ribbon. But although the weather was uncharacteristically balmy and a fine time was had by all, everyone “in the know” probably had just one thing on their mind: how do we, once again, raise a vast sum of money to save our precious windmill?

It sounds daunting, but this is no time to be downhearted. Like Lazarus, Heage Windmill has a track record of rising from the grave. It’s an iconic landmark hereabouts, and as the only working six-sailed stone tower windmill in England it is also a building of national significance. Losing it is unthinkable. This iconic mill has survived countless misfortunes in its 225 years of existence, and given the scale of support that was evident at the official opening I’m confident it will be saved again.

In a country churchyard

Mrs P’s father has set himself the challenge of photographing every Anglican church in our home county of Derbyshire. It’s a big ask – there are several hundred places of worship that meet his criteria – so we’re helping out when we can by snapping churches we come across during our travels.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton

Derbyshire churches come in all shapes and sizes, the good, the bad and the ugly. But the exterior view of any church is always improved by an interesting churchyard. When we drove up to the church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton in the north of the county a few weeks ago the daffodils were in full bloom. The earliest parts of the church date from the 12th century, although the current vista owes much to a major restoration carried out in 1868. With the churchyard paths lined with daffs, it looked full of character.

Some of Derbyshire’s churches might be described as being located “in the middle of nowhere”. All Saints church, Ballidon, for example, sits in a field several hundred metres from the tiny village whose name it bears, a village way too small to support a church of its size. Once the rural population here must have been much larger. Records of the church date back to the year 1205, when it was described as a chapel-of-ease (in other words, an outlier) of a church at Bradbourne, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) distant from Ballidon. The church is much altered from its 13th century form, having been restored in 1822 and again in 1882.

Ballidon church, “in the middle of nowhere”

Today, although still consecrated, Ballidon church is no longer used on a regular basis. It is owned and managed by the charitable organisation Friends of Friendless Churches. The churchyard is a little overgrown, but the church itself appears in good condition, and is a dignified presence within the wider agricultural landscape.

Another place of worship to have been substantially remodelled in the latter half of the 19th century is Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water, which has its origins back in the 12th century. Ashford is a famously pretty, “chocolate box village” in the heart of an area of Derbyshire known as the White Peak, and is visited by many thousands of tourists every year. Although the Grade II Listed church is not the major attraction, the building and its ample churchyard definitely add to the village’s visual appeal.

Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water

Derbyshire’s most famous village, however, is Eyam, which is known the world over for the sacrifices its residents made to protect surrounding areas from the Great Plague of 1665/66. I summarised the main events of that tumultuous period in this post, written when our very own Covid pandemic was in its infancy.

When plague erupted within the village the local clergyman, William Mompesson, was instrumental in convincing his flock that they should isolate themselves from the outside world and confine the disease within its boundaries. To further suppress the spread of the infection Mompesson also abandoned religious services within the church, holding them instead in the open air.

Church of St Lawrence, Eyam. Services were held in the churchyard – and not in the church – during the Great Plague of 1665-66

Today the church of St Lawrence, Eyam is a bit of an architectural jumble, boasting a Saxon font, Norman pillars, a nave built around 1350, a 17th century tower and sundry additions and changes made during the 19th century. But it’s not unattractive – quite pretty, in fact – and the churchyard setting oozes tranquillity. It’s therefore difficult to imagine the fear and despair that must have gripped the congregation when the plague was at its height.

However, look closely in the churchyard and the clues are all around, in a series of “plague graves” dating from the terrible 17th century epidemic, when death stalked an otherwise green and pleasant land. Amongst the graves dating from this era is that of Catherine Mompesson. Neither her husband’s devotion to God nor his instinctive understanding of epidemiology were enough to save her, and she sadly succumbed to the plague in August 1666.

One of Eyam’s “plague graves”, a sombre reminder of the terrible 17th century epidemic

Another churchyard boasting a monument that tourists flock to see can be found in the north of Derbyshire. The church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage dates principally from the 14th and 15th centuries, and like so many Derbyshire churches was substantially restored in the mid-19th century.

St Michael and All Angels is not without architectural merit, which is reflected in its Grade I listing. However its main claim to fame is to be found in the churchyard, in the form of the alleged grave of Robin Hood’s ironically named sidekick Little John.

Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage

The evidence is somewhat scanty: in 1780 one James Shuttleworth claimed to have unearthed in the graveyard a thigh bone measuring 72.39 centimetres (28.50 inches). This would have made its former owner nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall, and as Hathersage lies fairly close to Sherwood Forest – the fabled hangout of Hood and his merry men – Shuttleworth concluded the giant outlaw’s mortal remains were buried here.

As theories go it sounds to me like utter rubbish – or, as the brilliant writer Douglas Adams would have put it, a load of dingo’s kidneys – but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And anyway, the grave is planted with lots of colourful flowers and does a good job of brightening up the churchyard, so maybe just this once we can all forgive a little bit of fake news!

Allegedly the grave of Little John (who may not even have really existed!) in Hathersage churchyard

Although views of the churches I’ve so far featured in this post are generally enhanced by the churchyards in which they sit, the buildings themselves have significant merit in their own right. The same cannot be said of St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton. However glorious its setting (and let’s be blunt, that’s nothing special either) the church building at Temple Normanton will always be an architectural eyesore.

It wasn’t always so. The current building is the fourth church on this site. The first originated in the 12th century, but was rebuilt in 1623. However this replacement was undermined by subsidence due to coal mining and was in turn replaced by a wooden church in 1922. Sadly, this incarnation was wrecked by severe winds in the 1980s, and this time – out of desperation, or maybe penury – Anglican decision makers opted in 1986 to erect a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity.

St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton – a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity, much admired by Mrs P

I can safely say I’ve never see another church like the one at Temple Normanton, and I rather hope I never do so again. Having said that, Mrs P likes it and spluttered indignantly when she proof-read the draft of this post, demonstrating once again that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder!

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And finally, while we’re on the subject of country churchyards, I invite you to listen to Chris de Burgh singing about that very subject. Chris de Burgh (b 1948) is a British-Irish singer-songwriter who found fame internationally with his 1986 #1 chart hit Lady in Red. However Mrs P and I have seen him perform live several times and know him to be a good deal more talented than might be suggested by that one song, which was much beloved by the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of York and much-derided by popular music critics of the day. In a Country Churchyard is a gentle, thoughtful love song that shows de Burgh’s talents as a lyricist at their best. Listen and enjoy!

Let your love shine on,
For we are the stars in the sky,
Let your love shine strong,
Until the day you fly...fly away ...

The Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the romance of steam

What is it about steam locomotives that so captures the imaginations of young and old alike, both here in the UK and across the globe? Like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor they seem like monsters from another age, ill-suited to the modern world, and yet they hold their legions of fans enthralled.

Everyone loves a steam train, and Mrs P and I are no exception. We’ve experienced the romance of steam on several heritage railways (that’s railroads to you guys in North America!), but last year we decided to explore steam locomotives from a different angle when we took a trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse in the north of our home county of Derbyshire.

The turntable sits at the heart of the roundhouse, here in the process of turning a small diesel shunter

Railway roundhouses were constructed to house and service steam locomotives. At the heart of most roundhouses was a turntable, where locomotives and other rolling stock could be turned around for the return journey. Radiating out from this central turntable – and thereby dictating the circular shape of roundhouses – were spokes of track where the locomotives could be serviced and stored.

Once roundhouses, and the turntables associated with them, were familiar sights up and down the UK’s rail network. But when, in the middle of the last century, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel and electric alternatives that could run equally well in either direction without the need to be physically turned around, turntables became surplus to requirements and most roundhouses were razed to the ground.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 and finally ceased operation in 1991. It quickly fell victim to vandalism and neglect, at which point a group of amateur train enthusiasts, the Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society, stepped in with a proposal to save it from demolition. Their vision won the backing of influential backers and charitable funders, and today Barrow Hill is said to be the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. You can see the turntable in action, and soak up some of the atmosphere at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Visitors can see the turntable in action every day while also getting up close and personal with numerous steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a variety of other memorabilia in Barrow Hill’s impressive railway museum. The locomotives have been polished until they gleam, and standing next to them it’s easy to appreciate what magnificent, monstrous beasts they were.

Their time has passed and will never return – climate change and the need to control carbon emissions makes this a certainty – but they and their predecessors were at the heart of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Steam locomotives boosted the economy by enabling easy cross-country transportation of goods and materials, and changed society beyond recognition when they made swift, affordable long distance travel available to the masses. The display at Barrow Hill offers a pleasurable opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for few hours, and is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the romance of steam.

This is Derbyshire: magnificent mansions and hidden hermitages!

My home county of Derbyshire is famed for its stately homes, magnificent mansions built centuries ago by the idle rich to show ordinary folk how well-bred, wealthy and successful they were. Chatsworth House, for example, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, dates from the 18th century and is reckoned to be one of the finest of England’s great houses.

Chatsworth House (rear view) dates from the 18th century. In the foreground is the “Emperor Fountain” built for the anticipated visit of Tsar Nicholas II (he never actually came!)

Then there’s Hardwick Hall, built between 1590 and 1597 for relentless social climber Bess of Hardwick. It was the wonder of its day, celebrated in the phrase “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” for its unprecedented number of windows – glass was prohibitively expensive in the 16th century! It still looks spectacular today.

And let’s not forget Kedleston Hall, a mid-18th century neo-classical masterpiece which the National Trust describes as “a show palace built to impress,” noting that it “was built to wow guests with lavish details and luxurious surroundings.” I’ve previously written about Kedleston Hall and the park in which it sits in this post.

Hardwick Hall, “more glass than wall”, was built in the 1590s

But I wouldn’t wish to mislead you into thinking that Derbyshire is all about grand mansions. Last year we visited the remains of two very different, but equally fascinating dwellings, the largely forgotten, hidden homes of long-dead hermits.

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The Dale Abbey hermitage, hidden in woodland on the outskirts of the village of Dale Abbey, dates from the early 12th century. The story goes that one day around the year 1130, a baker called Cornelius living in the nearby town (now city) of Derby had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin told him to make his way some 7 miles (11km) to a place called Depedale, where he should devote the remainder of his life to God.

Dale Abbey hermitage dates from the 12th century

Upon arrival, Cornelius discovered Depedale to be uninhabited, simply an area of marshland in the bottom of the valley (dale). On its southern side was a steep sandstone bank, and here he excavated a cave in which he would live and worship in peaceful seclusion for around 20 years.

Nearly 900 years later, the results of the baker’s efforts are still plain to see. The simple cave has a sizeable interior, and boasts openings for a door and several large windows. Its construction by just one man using rudimentary 12th century tools must have required a huge amount of effort.

View from the inside of Dale Abbey hermitage

The interior walls of the cave-house are covered with countless graffiti etched into the rock. Amongst these, and now highlighted with a modern coat of fading yellow paint, is an engraved cross. Despite the thoughtless desecration by vandals, it feels as if the hermit Cornelius speaks to us across the centuries. Here, he seems to say, in a world unimaginably different from your own, lived a simple, holy man. Look around you, and see how I toiled to honour my God. Remember me!

Hidden amongst countless graffiti from across the ages, and highlighted with a modern coat of fading yellow paint, is an engraved cross

As stories of the hermit spread, Depedale became a place of growing religious significance. In the 13th century, perhaps attracted by accounts of Cornelius’s exploits, some Augustinian canons founded a monastery on land not far from his hermitage. This was Dale Abbey, which gave the surrounding area the name by which it is now known.

Once a grand and imposing building, Dale Abbey has now all but disappeared thanks to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. However the modest hermitage lovingly excavated by Cornelius the baker still survives, proof should anyone require it that big is not always best.

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Derbyshire’s second hermitage can trace its origins back even further back, and may have royal connections.

The Anchor Church cave in South Derbyshire, around 14 miles (22km) from Dale Abbey, is hollowed out of a sandstone outcrop close to the River Trent. Although the hermitage may have started life as a small cave carved out naturally by the action of the river, human intervention has made it what it is today. It comprises a series of impressive internal spaces (“rooms”?) and pillars, all accessed by a large doorway and lit by several substantial window openings.

The Anchor Church cave dates from the 9th century, and is one of the oldest intact domestic structures ever found in the UK

Astonishingly, research published in 2021 indicates that the cave-house can be dated back to the Saxon period, making it one of the oldest intact domestic interiors ever found in the UK. More intriguing still are suggestions that it may have been the home of Eardwulf, who was deposed as king of Northumbria in AD806 and died in exile around AD830.

Eardwulf, however, may not have lived in the cave voluntarily. Rather, it appears he was kept there by his enemies under some Saxon form of house arrest. His cave-dwelling lifestyle and spirituality set him apart from his fellows, and in due course he became known to history as Saint Hardulph.

In the 18th century the Anchor Church cave was re-purposed as a summerhouse, when its openings were widened to allow well-dressed ladies to pass through more easily!

The cave-house continued to be used long after Eardwulf’s death, and in the 18th century was re-purposed as a summerhouse by the Burdett family, the owners of the land in which it sits.

The Burdetts are also thought to have widened openings into and within the cave to allow well-dressed ladies to pass through more easily. They seem to have had scant regard for the cave’s history but, fortunately, their overall impact on the structure was slight, and with a little bit of imagination the visitor can still detect Eardwulf’s presence.

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Neither the Anchor Church cave nor Dale Abbey hermitage are obvious 21st century visitor attractions. Neither is classically beautiful, or even quaintly pretty. Neither has a tea-room, or a gift shop, or even a car park – both must be reached via a short hike through the countryside.

Both, however, offer fascinating insights into lives that are totally alien to our own, comfortable 21st century existence. Magnificent mansions are an important part of Derbyshire’s “visitor offer”, but there’s so much more to our county’s history than the gilded mansions of the idle rich, if we only care to look.

Rear view of Kedleston Hall, a mid-18th century neo-classical masterpiece. Beautiful, but intrinsically no more interesting than Derbyshire’s hidden and largely forgotten hermitages.

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

The third Monday of January is known to some in the UK as Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The theory was first espoused in 2005 by a “life coach,” which immediately raises a vitally important question: what the hell is a life coach? Stage coaches – definitely! Football coaches – maybe. But a life coach – really? Surely life’s complicated enough already without total strangers waltzing up to tell us how to do it better. Dear god, why do we insist on doing stuff like this to ourselves?

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

But I digress! According to believers in Blue Monday, on this particular day we’re likely to be regretting the impact of Christmas excesses on waistline and wallet, and will already have miserably failed to stick to our New Year Resolutions. Daylight hours will be short, the weather inclement and television schedules probably packed with unwatchable rubbish and unwanted repeats. And Mondays are, of course, loathed by anyone with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work pattern.

“Most of the usual suspects were there, including…Mute Swans”

It’s nonsense, of course, total bunkum. Even the guy who first came up with the notion is reported to have subsequently disavowed it, describing Blue Monday as a self-fulfilling prophecy that “is not particularly helpful”. But, just to be on the safe side, this year Mrs P and I decided to banish the Blue Monday blues from our lives by doing a spot of birdwatching.

The weather, as it turned out, was perfect, one of those crisp, cold and gloriously sunny midwinter days that make you feel glad to be alive. So we quickly got togged up in our thermals, grabbed cameras and binoculars, and headed off up the M1 to Hardwick ponds.

A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of our home county’s most significant stately homes, and its impressive parkland includes several large bodies of water that are a haven for a variety of wildfowl. We try to visit Hardwick ponds several times each year, and are never disappointed.

On this occasion both of the larger ponds were partially frozen. Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice contemplating this unexpected turn of events. The ducks and geese, however, were having none of it and instead sought out those areas of the ponds that remained ice-free.

Female goosanders are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wings

Most of the usual suspects were there, including Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe. A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain. Nothing remarkable in any of this, of course, but what really caught our eye was a gang of good-looking Goosanders.

Goosanders are streamlined diving ducks, fish-eaters that use their long, serrated bills to catch and hold on to their slippery prey. They are members of the sawbill family, which also includes the similar-looking Red-Breasted Merganser. To add to the confusion Goosanders can also be seen in the USA, but there they are known as Common Mergansers!

Male goosanders have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. They have a black back, and a grey rump and tail.

Whereas the Red-Breasted Merganser is most commonly seen around the UK’s coastline in winter, Goosanders favour freshwater. Their summer habitat is the fast-flowing upland rivers of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, where they nest in holes in riverbank trees. In winter they move to gravel pits and reservoirs, as well as lakes or large ponds such as those at Hardwick.

In common with most species of duck, the Goosander displays a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Adult males have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. The have a black back, and a grey rump and tail. Females are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wing.

A graphic lesson in sexual dimorphism: male on the left, female on the right, but both the same species!

The Goosander is a relatively new arrival in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Its numbers slowly built up there for a century, until in 1970 the species crossed the border to begin colonising England and Wales. There are now thought to be close to 4,000 breeding pairs across the UK as a whole, with the wintering population numbering around 12,000 birds.

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

At least a dozen members of that wintering population were present at Hardwick ponds on 15 January, many more than we’ve ever encountered before at a single viewing. It was a delight to see them, and all the other birds that were strutting their stuff that morning. You can catch a glimpse of the Goosanders – and some of Hardwick’s other avian residents too – by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Blue Monday may have come calling for us last week, but I’m pleased to report that we were very much not at home!

“Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice”. See also one female and two male Goosanders in the open water to the rear of the gulls.

Call of the wild – starlings fly home to roost over our house

I hear them long before they become visible. Starlings are gathering over the hills to the south of the estate where we live. It begins as an avian whisper, barely audible above the ambient sounds of wind and distant traffic. And then it starts to build, unseen birds chattering excitedly with one another, shouting, squawking, screaming joyously. A wall of sound, the call of the wild.

The cacophony echoes all around me. I scan the sky in the direction from which I know they will appear. Still nothing. But it’s only a matter of time. They will be here. At this time of year they fly over our estate every day at around 4pm, heading towards their roosting site. Today will be no different.

At last they start to arrive. First a lone outrider, silent and determined, appears from behind the house at the rear of our garden. It passes over me and disappears into the distance. Then two others, calling to one another as they fly.

Seconds later the main flock arrives, hundreds of birds in close formation. A deafening, spellbinding squadron of starlings, known to science as a murmuration, fills the sky.

Although the birds clearly have a destination in mind, they briefly break off from their journey to swoop and swirl above my head, like a bunch of boastful aviators flaunting their skills at an air show. The murmuration takes on a life of its own, sketching ever more complex and beautiful patterns on the canvas of the evening sky. The noise is louder than ever, drowning out everything else.

And then, as suddenly as they arrived, they take their leave. The flock heads off to who-knows-where, and the sound of their relentless chitter-chatter fades. A few laggards appear from the south, flying swiftly in pursuit of the main flock, keen to catch up with their buddies before they roost for the night.

Seconds later they too have gone and I’m left alone with my thoughts, marvelling at the extraordinary event I have just witnessed.

* * * * *

In some parts of the country murmurations at this time of year can number several hundred thousand birds, occasionally more than a million. By these standards, the aerial display that takes place above our garden every winter’s afternoon is tiny. But to me it is far from insignificant.

What a privilege it is, to stand in our modest back garden on our boring suburban housing estate in the unremarkable, overpopulated East Midlands of England, and experience the call of the wild. It is a moving, mesmerising experience, and the wonder of it fills me with joy. Long may it continue.

The Festival of Christmas Trees at Chesterfield parish church

The Christmas season seems to have been with us forever. Pubs and restaurants have been promoting their festive menus for months. For several weeks shops have been cluttered with seasonal promotions. And Christmas trees are springing up all over the place, in public spaces, shops and windows all over town.

The tree on the far right is sponsored by a bridalwear business: brilliantly inventive!

The link between evergreen plants, including fir trees, and mid-winter festivals pre-dates Christianity. It reflects our ancestors’ conviction that, even on the darkest of days, better times and the green shoots of spring are just around the corner.

The Christmas tradition of bringing fir trees into the home and decorating them appears to have developed in the 16th century, in the area of Europe we now know as Germany. However it didn’t catch on in the UK until the middle of the 19th century.

The sudden rise in the popularity of Christmas trees here was down to the royal family, which had historic links with Germany. These were boosted in 1841 when Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert, who had fond memories of Christmas trees from his childhood.

In the centre a tree decorated by a local mortgage broker featuring “baubles” in the shape of houses, and a silver key (presumably the key to the home you might buy with the help of their services!)

In 1848 the Illustrated London News reported enthusiastically on the Christmas trees Victoria and Albert had put up at Windsor Castle. It also featured on its front cover an illustration of a cluster of happy royals admiring their biggest and best tree. The paper was widely read in well-to-do circles in and around London, and other newspapers also picked up on its story.

It soon became widely known just what the royals were up to, and at a time when it was fashionable amongst the wealthier classes to copy the lifestyle and habits of royalty, Christmas trees became all the rage. But only, of course, amongst those sections of the population with money to acquire them and the space to display them.

Centre left is a tree by a business selling intruder alarms (the “baubles” are actually Passive Infra-Red [PIR] detectors!) The centre right tree is from a local jeweller.

In time the fashion trickled down through the social hierarchy until just about everyone in the country aspired to celebrate Our Lord’s birthday by chopping down a poor, defenceless little fir tree and disfiguring it with gaudily tasteless decorations. Bah, humbug!

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Please forgive the previous paragraph… I jest, of course. In fact, Mrs P and I do rather like Christmas trees, although at Platypus Towers we make do with an artificial one to avoid the carpet being knee-deep in pine needles before Twelfth Night. So to get into the Christmas spirit, a couple of weeks ago we took a trip to the north of our home county of Derbyshire to visit the Festival of Christmas Trees at the parish church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield.

Not all trees are from businesses. Second from the left is a tree presented by BANA (British Acoustic Neuroma Association) and second from the right is one from Chesterfield Panthers Rugby Club.

We discovered that the church was playing host to around 120 Christmas trees donated and decorated by local businesses, community organisations, service providers and sports clubs. Of course, the motivation of those providing the trees wasn’t entirely selfless: promotion of their products, services and causes appeared to be the name of the game in most cases.

But it doesn’t pay to be churlish. Plenty of folk just like us were also wandering happily through the church that Thursday morning, admiring the imagination and inventiveness of the people behind the various Christmas tree creations. It’s been a difficult year for most of us, although perhaps not quite as grim as 2020, and the Festival of Christmas Trees felt like a good attempt to raise community spirits, to bring people together and to encourage everyone to look forward to more cheerful times ahead. I’m pleased we made the effort to attend.

A local timber merchant celebrates the crooked spire of St Mary and All Saints church

Andy Warhol, the Devil and unexpected virgins: the story of Chesterfield’s crooked spire

Andy Warhol is said to have observed that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become well-known for something, albeit in most cases something rather insignificant. Chesterfield, for example, is famous for the crooked spire that graces its medieval church, but for little else.

Chesterfield, for the uninitiated, is a town in the north of my home county of Derbyshire. Home to around 100,000 people, for the most part it’s pleasant though unremarkable place. The coal industry that once dominated the landscape and economy of this part of Derbyshire is all gone now, and today Chesterfield’s role is primarily as a service centre for the surrounding area.

Bizarrely, just as I was about to start writing this post, a news report popped up in my inbox declaring that, according to a recent survey, Chesterfield is the happiest place to live in the whole of the English East Midlands. Really? I worked there for a couple of years in the late 1980s and don’t recall it being unusually joyful. But maybe the outbreak of local happiness coincided with my departure? Sounds plausible!

Reading the newspaper report more closely, I see that even some of the local residents query the accuracy of this accolade. Objectively, I suspect most unbiased observers would regard Chesterfield as memorably unmemorable, were it not for the iconic architectural imperfection otherwise known as the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.

Completed around the year 1360, St Mary’s and All Saints is Derbyshire’s largest church. It’s famed for its unusual crooked spire, which leans 9 feet 5 inches (nearly 3 metres) from true.  To be clear, this is not an eccentrically flamboyant design statement…the spire is meant to point straight up, like every other church spire in the known universe.

So what went wrong? The traditional explanation is that it was built with green, unseasoned timbers, which warped over time. But that can’t be it. Builders in the Middle Ages were accustomed to using used green timber, and would have made allowances to cope with it.

A more convincing explanation is that the spire’s 32 tonnes of lead tiles were simply too heavy. According to this theory the sheer weight of the tiles, combined with the failure to use cross-bracing, caused the spire to twist and lean alarmingly.

The omission of cross-bracing has been blamed on the Black Death, a plague that swept through the country between 1348 and 1350. If the experienced craftsmen working on the new Chesterfield church were killed by the disease, the spire may have been finished by unskilled builders to whom the concept of cross-bracing was totally unknown.

Accurate though this explanation may be, it’s disappointingly boring. Unsurprisingly, local folklore offers some more entertaining possibilities. One of these tells that the Devil was resting on the spire, where he was able to keep his balance only by wrapping his tail around it. However the smell of holy incense from inside the church offended him so much that he sneezed violently, jerking his tail in the process and causing the spire to twist.

A second explanation also blames the Devil. Old Nick was resting up on the church spire, his tail tightly wrapped around it while planning mischief and mayhem. In fear for the souls of his fellow townsfolk, one brave man rushed to the church, determined to warn everyone by ringing the church bells. The din was cacophonous. Taken totally by surprise, a shocked Devil lost his balance and toppled from the spire, twisting it as he plunged to the ground.

A third local legend once again points the finger of suspicion at the Devil According to this story, Satan was resting on the spire, tail wrapped round it in the now familiar manner. Looking below, he noticed a wedding about to take place in the church. On closer inspection he realised that the bride was a virgin, an occurrence so surprising in Chesterfield that he fainted from shock. As the unconscious Devil hurtled towards the ground his tail, still wrapped around the spire, twisted it into its current shape.

The fourth theory lets the Devil off the hook, and instead puts the blame squarely on the healthy sexual appetite of Chesterfield residents. According to this version, a virgin got married in St Mary’s, and the church itself was so surprised that its spire turned around to get a better look at such a rare specimen. The legend continues that if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. Don’t hold your breath, folks!

Further explanations for the origin of Chesterfield’s crooked spire are available if you care to look, most of them involving the Devil or unexpected virgins. A definitive, agreed version, doesn’t seem likely to emerge any time soon. However, one thing is beyond dispute: the locals have taken this quirky architectural blunder to their hearts.

For example the local professional soccer team, Chesterfield Town FC, are known to fans as the Spireites, while over the years various local businesses have referred to the crooked spire in their branding and promotions. And who can blame them? Chesterfield’s crooked spire is a spectacular sight, and ensures that an otherwise rather unexceptional town enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol would be impressed.

After a gap of 800 years…there are beavers in Derbyshire again!

The UK has one of the worst records of any country in the world for protecting its historic biodiversity. This should come as no surprise to those of us who live on this crazy, crowded island where caring for the natural world has traditionally played second fiddle to making a quick buck. But the tide is beginning to turn: up and down the country many of us are fighting back, seeking to look after what we still have and, where possible, to reintroduce what we have lost. Which brings me to the inspiring story of Derbyshire’s beavers.

If the experts are to be believed, beavers were wiped out in my home county around 800 years ago. Now I’m not sure quite how they know that, I can’t quite believe that one of the local lords recorded the event for posterity in his diary, writing something like “Great news, just exterminated the last beaver in Derbyshire, so now our trees will be safe forever…until, that is, we want to chop them down for firewood, or to make floorboards or beer barrels or whatever.

To be honest, the exact date doesn’t really matter. The incontestable fact is that, following the end of the last Ice Age, beavers were common hereabouts for many thousand of years, before becoming extinct in the Middle Ages.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Film of the first beaver being released at Willington Wetland Nature Reserve on a blustery day in late September 2021

On one level, the extinction of the beaver can be seen simply as the regrettable loss of one of this island’s few cuddly mammals, a mammal guaranteed to elicit sighs of “Ah, so cute” from ordinary folk encountering them going about their daily business in the wild. But there’s more to it than that. Beavers are landscape engineers, a keystone species that shapes environmental conditions in a manner beneficial to countless other species.

By digging canal systems and damming water courses, beavers create diverse wetland areas, places where fish can safely spawn and other animals such as otters, water voles and water shrews can make their homes. Insects thrive in the waterways constructed and maintained by beavers, and these in turn nourish a range of bird species. In creating suitable habitats for themselves, therefore, beavers help create robust ecosystems in which a whole range of species can flourish.

But it’s not just wildlife that benefits from these hefty rodents beavering away in the countryside – there’s a payoff for humans too. It is argued that beaver dams improve water-quality by acting as filters which trap soil and other pollutants washed into rivers from surrounding farmland.  The ponds created by beaver dams also impact on the flow of rivers, and can help mitigate downstream flooding after periods of heavy rain.

VIDEO CREDIT: (c) Helen Birkinshaw via Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. On Friday 8th October, the day after the second pair of beavers were released, the male was spotted swimming near the release site

Given these credentials it’s no surprise that environmental organisations have long been keen to see beavers reintroduced to the UK. Scotland led the way, and there are spots there where animals reintroduced from continental Europe are already thriving. In England the first major reintroduction initiative was in Devon, led by Devon Wildlife Trust in partnership with a range of other interested parties.

Having watched for several years the success of beaver reintroductions in other parts of the country, Mrs P and I were thrilled when our local conservation organisation – Derbyshire Wildlife Trust – announced its own plans for a project at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve in the south of the county. When the Trust appealed for donations to help fund the initiative we were pleased to help.

Progress stalled for a while due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. But at last, a few weeks ago, we got an email from the Trust inviting us to sign up to attend an online event at which a pair of beavers would be released into their new Derbyshire home. The animals had been captured on the River Tay in Scotland, where the species is now doing very well. After a period of quarantine and some health checks the beavers were transported to Derbyshire in special wooden crates on the back of a pick up truck.

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Camera trap footage of one of the beavers snacking on a branch. Plainly the beavers have already begun to modify the local landscape!

The release of the two animals went perfectly. We’d feared they would dash for the water the second the doors of their crates were opened, and immediately dive to disappear from view. Instead they took their time, seemingly untroubled by the stress of their long road journey, and put on a bit of a show for their adoring online fans. Huddled around our laptop at home, it was a privilege to watch the images of history being made just a few short miles away. At last, after an absence of some 800 years, beavers were back in Derbyshire!

A couple of weeks later the Trust released a second pair of beavers into their enclosure at the Willington Wetlands Nature Reserve, The enclosure is surrounded by a specially designed beaver-proof fence and large enough at 40 hectares, or just shy of 100 acres, to allow the animals to live entirely natural lives. The brook flowing through the enclosure guarantees a suitable wetland habitat, and a wide range of native plants and trees will offer the beavers all the food they need to live long and happy lives.

With a bit of luck, next year we will be celebrating the first beavers to be born in Derbyshire since the Middle Ages!

VIDEO CREDIT: Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. More camera trap footage. The Willington Reserve’s newest residents seem relaxed, and are making themselves at home!

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For further information on the reintroduction of beavers in the UK see the following links

King Cotton’s legacy: Exploring the Torrs Riverside Park in New Mills

My home county of Derbyshire is famed for its catalytic role in the Industrial Revolution. The world’s first factory – Derby’s Silk Mill – was constructed here in 1721, on the banks of the River Derwent. The scale of this enterprise, in terms of its output and the size of the workforce, was unprecedented. But silk was never going to be more than a niche product targeted at the super-rich. The big money was to be made through the mass production of cotton.

The old and the new in Torrs Riverside Park: Torr Vale Mill on the left, Millennium Walkway on the right.

Exactly 50 years later, in 1771, entrepreneur Richard Arkwright constructed a large-scale water-powered spinning mill at Cromford, also on the Derwent, some 16 miles (25km) north of Derby. Starting in 1772 with some 200 workers, Arkwright’s Mills operated 24 hours a day, in two twelve-hour shifts.

Torr Vale Mill. A cotton mill for over 200 years, it has now being re-purposed.

Soon a number of other cotton mills sprang up along the Derwent Valley, and with them the factory age was born. To celebrate these seismic developments the area, including parts of my home town of Belper, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. History is all around us here in the Derwent Valley, but the cotton industry quickly established itself in other areas of Derbyshire too as budding entrepreneurs set out to make their fortunes.

A second part of Derbyshire into which Arkwright’s factory system was to be swiftly introduced was the small town of New Mills, located on the Goyt River around 32 miles (51km) north-west of Cromford. The town takes its name from a corn mill built there in the late 14th century, but 400 years later King Cotton ruled the roost.

Millennium Walkway passing next to one of weirs built to control water that once powered Torr Vale Mill

The climate, local availability of good construction stone and the raw power of the fast-flowing River Goyt made this an ideal spot for large-scale cotton spinning. By 1810, New Mills boasted nine spinning mills, as well as three mills weaving cotton and three factories producing dyed and printed calico.

Two hundred years ago the town was a hub of righteous industrial endeavour, buzzing and throbbing energetically to the relentless clatter of the cotton mills. Those days are now long gone, but it’s still possible to catch glimpses of the past preserved in the Torrs Riverside Park.

Union Bridge, 1884

Looming over the Park is an imposing complex of buildings that once housed Torr Vale Mill. When it closed in 2000, having operated continuously for more than 200 years, it had been in business longer than any other mill in the country. After laying abandoned and falling victim to vandalism for ten years, the site is being re-purposed. Torr Vale Mill’s 21st century offer now includes an exclusive wedding venue, offices, retail spaces, holiday accommodation and a “dog friendly boutique bar.” It remains a hugely impressive structure, dominating the gritstone gorge in which it stands.

The River Goyt was a boon to the mill owners who needed the power of its waters to drive their machinery, but for ordinary folk its gorge – which is seriously deep and steep – was a big inconvenience, impeding the movement of people and goods between the communities living on either side. However, as the local population grew the need for efficient communications between the two sides became more acute. Solutions were demanded, and in due course sturdy bridges were built.

Here the Millennium Walkway clings precariously to a massive railway embankment above the tumbling River Goyt. Torr Vale Mill to the left.

Today Queens Bridge (1835) and the Union Road Bridge (1884) are picturesque reminders of a time when textile industries dominated New Mills, and were at the heart of its development and prosperity. The town was thriving then, and it must have seemed that King Cotton would reign forever.

But all things pass in the fullness of time, and New Mills’ cotton industry is now no more. Were it not for Torr Vale Mill, and the scattered archaeological remains of other mills that perished before it, today it would scarcely be remembered at all.

Queens Bridge (1835)

However, time moves on, and it’s good to see New Mills looking forward as well as back. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Riverside Park is the spectacular Torrs Millennium Walkway, built in 1999. This long, shining sweep of steel stands on stilts high above the River Goyt, in parts cantilevered from a sheer stone railway embankment. It offers great views of Torr Vale Mill, and of a weir built two centuries ago to enable the mill owner to harness the power of the Goyt.

A second unexpected feature of the Riverside Park is Torrs Hydro, the UK’s first community owned and funded hydro-electric scheme. Here some of the water flowing down the River Goyt is directed through a huge Reverse Archimedes Screw, nicknamed Archie by the locals. It drives a turbine generating electricity. It’s not a pretty sight but, peering through the protective wire that encases the mechanism, the giant metal screw – which spins relentlessly, powered by the rushing, roaring water – is strangely hypnotic.

Torrs Hydro in the foreground (Archimedes Screw hidden beneath protective wire screen), with the Queens Bridge behind. Not a pretty sight, but strangely hypnotic!

OK, this tiny initiative isn’t going to end our reliance on fossil fuels, let alone solve the global climate crisis, but what a brilliant way to showcase how communities can respond creatively to the biggest problem the world faces today. And profits from selling the power Torrs Hydro generates are used to fund local projects, thus helping to ensure ongoing community buy-in to this ground-breaking venture

To be honest, before our visit to New Mills last month my expectations were quite limited. New Mills has had its day, I thought, and it wasn’t much of a day even at its best. Give me the world-beating Derwent Valley any day, I said to myself. Which just goes to show how wrong I was! The natural beauty of the gorge and the scattered relics of New Mills’ industrial past, as well as other more recent projects, make Torrs Riverside Park a fascinating place in which to spend a couple of hours. I thoroughly recommend a visit if ever you’re in the area.