We first visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) a few months after I retired, and have returned several times since I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but the place seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. I’ll write more about some of these conservation projects later in the year.
To help raise the money needed to care for its animals YWP is always looking for new ways to encourage visitors. Last year we’d planned to visit the Park’s Light and Lantern Festival held around Christmas, but Covid restrictions got in the way. This year the restrictions have been, well, less restrictive…but the weather was miserable throughout December, so we gave it a miss.
Finally, last week, conditions improved and we made the decision to hot-foot it 45 miles (72km) up the M1 to the outskirts of Doncaster to catch the Festival before it ends in mid-January. It was definitely worth the trip, as Mrs P’s photos show. With the exception of one hyena, which was racing madly around its spacious enclosure like Usain Bolt in his prime, living animals were notable by their absence. I suspect they were all sleeping peacefully in their dens and nests, blissfully unaware of the numerous visitors trekking round the Park, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the spectacular illuminations.
The lanterns celebrate many of the animals living at the Park – including lions, leopards and okapi – and some that don’t. A T-Rex and sundry other dinosaurs paid homage to animals that none of us will ever see in the flesh. Let’s hope that the conservation initiatives supported by YWP, and similar bodies throughout the UK and beyond, mean that the species currently living there won’t suffer a similar fate to that of the dearly departed dinos.
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.
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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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 a 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.
Popular culture tells us that horseshoes bring good luck. If this is so, then Rutland should be the luckiest county in all of England. A tradition dating back hundreds of years requires nobles visiting Oakham, Rutland’s biggest town, to present the local Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe. All horseshoes thus gifted to the Lord are displayed on the wall of his Great Hall at Oakham castle. As we discovered when we visited Oakham earlier this year, the horseshoe collection numbers over 200 and continues to grow.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Rutland’s horseshoes may not be lucky after all. Traditionally, British people believe that horseshoes can only be lucky if they are hung with the closed cup at the bottom, and the two open ends pointing skyward. But in Rutland they do it the other way round. Are these people crazy, or have they got a point? Read on, and I’ll tell you more.
Why are horseshoes considered lucky?
To begin, however, let’s explore why horseshoes are considered to be lucky. In times past the blacksmith was regarded as something of a benevolent magician. Here was a man who could, with only fire and brute strength to assist him, conjure from useless rock a valuable metal with a thousand useful applications. If blacksmiths were magicians, then iron and the wares they fashioned from it, such as horseshoes, must be imbued with good fortune too.
Added to this was the fact that horseshoes were traditionally secured with seven nails. Within our culture seven is regarded as the luckiest number, and this – combined with the good fortune attached to blacksmith magicians – confirmed the association between horseshoes and good luck.
There’s also a religious dimension, dating from the 10th century. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Dunstan worked as a blacksmith. One day the Devil appeared before him and asked the future Archbishop to shoe his horse. Although recognising his visitor, blacksmith Dunstan said nothing, while secretly hatching a cunning plan.
Instead of fixing the shoe to the horse’s hoof he nailed it to the Devil’s own foot. The Devil howled with pain and rage. He probably swore a bit too, and demanded to be released. However Dunstan stood firm, and only agreed to remove the shoe after receiving Satan’s solemn promise that he would never enter a dwelling with a horseshoe nailed to the door. And so, according to the story, horseshoes are so imbued with good fortune they can even keep the Devil at bay.
The traditional British way of hanging horseshoes, with the cup nearest the floor, is said to ensure that the good luck will be safely stored there, and will not spill out to be wasted. Rutland folk, however, believe that nailing a horseshoe to the wall with the open end at the bottom will ensure that good luck falls onto those passing beneath it. This way of hanging it is also said to prevent the Devil hiding in the cup of the horseshoe, from where he might otherwise orchestrate mischief and mayhem.
So which way of hanging up a horseshoe is correct? Who knows?…I certainly don’t, but anyone of a superstitious disposition may be wise to have two horseshoes, one hanging with the cup at the bottom and the other with it at the top. It’s called risk management, guys!
Rutland’s historic obsession with horseshoes
Anyway, moving swiftly on to Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes, which dates back many hundreds of years. At the time of the Norman Conquest, one Henry de Ferrers was Master of Horse to the man who became known to history as William the Conqueror. Henry’s coat of arms featured six black horseshoes (with the closed, or cup, end at the top!) on a silver background. Later, as a token of his gratitude, William rewarded Henry with many grants of land, including the manor of Oakham, where the de Ferrers family later built a castle with a Great Hall.
The de Ferrers family name is a corruption of the word French word ferrier (farrier – a person who shoes horses – in English), and therefore hints at the family’s long association with the iron industry. So at some time in past, probably after too much ale had been consumed, some bright spark in the family came up with the crazy notion of demanding that all noble visitors be required, on their first trip to Oakham, to acknowledge their host’s heritage by presenting the Lord of the Manor with a horseshoe.
It tells us something about the power of the de Ferrers family that visitors went along with this daft demand. But typical of the aristocracy, before long they’d turned it into a contest, visitors trying to outdo one another with the size and extravagance of the horseshoes they presented.
The oldest horseshoe remaining in the castle collection was given by King Edward IV in the late 15th century, and is decorated with the royal coat of arms. From the late 18th century onwards the practice emerged of donors decorating their horseshoes with coronets to signify their rank within the British peerage system. In a stroke, therefore, the horseshoes were turned into status symbols, showing off how wealthy and “well-bred” the donors were.
Although there are approaching 250 horseshoes on display in Oakham castle’s Great Hall, this is only a fraction of the number that have been presented over the centuries. In the early days of the tradition, horseshoes were displayed on the castle gates rather than the inside wall of the Great Hall, making them vulnerable to theft. Also, over the years, some of the less impressive donations have been quietly “mislaid” and forgotten. And in the early 20th century great numbers of horseshoes were melted down as scrap metal to help the war effort during the First World War.
Despite all of the losses, the collection remains mightily impressive. The internal walls of the Great Hall are festooned with the good, the bad and the ugly of the horseshoe world. And yet it’s still possible to find room for a new one when a member of the Royal Family comes calling: in 2003 Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, presented a horseshoe. Eleven years later his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, followed suit.
Rutland’s obsession with horseshoes is quintessential British quirkiness. You couldn’t make it up. But it’s also strangely endearing, a bit of harmless fun. I just wish they’d hang their horseshoes the correct way up. In these troubled days of pandemics and wars, climate crises and mass extinctions, mankind needs all the good luck it can muster. Carelessly allowing good fortune to leak out and blow away by hanging your horseshoes upside down just isn’t good enough, Rutland!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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For further information on the reintroduction of beavers in the UK see the following links
The Beaver Trust “is a nature restoration charity run by a small team of environmentalists and supported by a growing network of beaver believers, working to bring beavers back home to Britain and make space for nature in this time of ecological and climate crisis.”
We really enjoyed our visit to Ford Green Hall, a fine example of a timber-framed farmhouse built in 1624 on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire. Who wouldn’t appreciate such an iconic building, positively dripping with atmosphere, creaking at the seams with nearly 400 years of history? Such places are strangely comforting, aren’t they, islands of calm and stability amidst a raging ocean of rapid change. They seem timeless, as perfect and wonderful as the day they were first conceived all those centuries ago.
But look a bit closer and you’ll quickly realise that it ain’t necessarily so.
When approaching Ford Green Hall the visitor’s attention is drawn to the picturesque timber-framed parts, which are plainly very old. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it, to see some old stuff. We conveniently block out from our minds the fact that to either side of the building’s black-and-white core are two rather more modern and less attractive brick-built extensions.
The plain fact is that by the early 18th century Ford Green Hall wasn’t meeting its owner’s needs, so around 1734 he added two new wings. To our modern eyes these wings are somewhat unsightly – perhaps even a little ugly – and serve only to disfigure the majesty of the half-timbered building to which they’ve been attached. Back in the day, however, the owner will have felt very pleased with himself for modernising an inadequate building that appeared to be stuck in the past.
Worse was to follow – from our modern, sentimental perspective – in the years that followed. Half-timbered buildings fell out of fashion to such a degree that the external timbers were covered up altogether, coated in stucco to disguise the hall’s 17th century origins. The name of the game was modernisation: out with the old and in with the new, and if you can’t get rid of the old altogether at least do the decent thing and hide it from view.
In the nineteenth century the long term owners of the hall – the Ford family – moved away, prompting a further decline in its fortunes. Divided first into three and later four cottages, which housed local coal miners, the building’s glory days appeared over until the local council stepped in.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council purchased the hall in 1946 and, following a major restoration – including removal of all the hideous stucco – opened it as a museum in 1952. They furnished is sumptuously, in the style of a 17th-century yeoman farmer’s house.
When the Council ran into financial difficulties (don’t they all, sooner or later?) in 2011, the museum faced closure. At this point the voluntary sector came to the rescue, with a charitable trust taking over its running. And they’ve done a good job: as far as we could see, when we visited a few weeks ago. Ford Green Hall is thriving once again despite the best efforts of local government and the Covid virus to throw spanners into the works.
This restoration project has done a great job of preserving a historic structure that would otherwise have perished. However it’s important to remember that what exists today doesn’t reflect the vision of the man who commissioned the building in the early 17th century, and gives few hints as to its varied history.
When we visit Ford Green Hall, or any other historic building that has been restored for its heritage value, we are simply being treated to a snapshot in time. The true history of such places is always much more dynamic and complex than is apparent to the casual observer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although famed in the 19th and 20th centuries for its coal industry, Derbyshire’s association with mining goes back much further. Lead has been mined in areas of the county since at least Roman times, and extraction continued until the 1950s. Last to close – in 1954 – was Magpie Mine, located on the edge of the lead-bearing limestone plateau near the Peak District village of Sheldon. Maybe it would still be producing lead today, were it not for the notorious Widows’ Curse!
These days it can be difficult to appreciate the importance of lead to our ancestors. By the 17th century it was widely used on the roofs of churches, other public buildings and the grand mansions of the wealthy, to help make them watertight. It was also commonly used for the manufacture of window frames and glazing bars. And, in the days before the risks of lead poisoning had been recognised, this metal was the preferred solution for water storage and piping. Lead mining was therefore big business, and it’s reckoned that between 1750 and 1850 the UK brought more lead ore to the surface than any other nation.
Magpie Mine started up around 1740. Several other lead mines were also working in the same area, and bitter disputes erupted between them over the right to mine particular veins of ore. Shafts belonging to Magpie Mine and the nearby Maypitt Mine intersected in places, tempting miners to light underground fires in order to smoke out their opponents and claim sole ownership of the vein they were working.
Tragedy struck in 1833, when three Maypitt miners were suffocated by fumes from fires lit by workers from Magpie Mine. No fewer than 24 Magpie miners were put on trial for murder, and could have been hanged if found guilty. However, conflicting evidence, inability to prove fore-knowledge or intent amongst those who lit the fire, and a failure to prove who actually started it, meant that all were ultimately acquitted.
The widows of the Maypitt Three were, inevitably, distraught at the verdict. Their response was to place a curse on Magpie Mine and all who worked there. Magpie Mine closed just two years later, and I guess the widows congratulated themselves on a job well done.
However, the opportunity to make a profit proved too tempting for Magpie Mine’s owners to resist. So, in 1839, they brought in famous Cornish mining engineer John Taylor to re-open it. Within months Magpie Mine was back in business.
However, despite Taylor’s undoubted expertise, the mine closed again in 1846. From that time onwards production of lead at the site was sporadic, spells of mining activity being interspersed with periods of closure. It never managed to make a sustained profit again, and locals muttered darkly about the Widows’ Curse when confronted with Magpie Mine’s chequered performance and the series of fatal accidents that befell the unfortunate miners.
Dwindling reserves of ore, combined with the challenges of keeping a shaft over 680 feet (208 metres) deep free from floodwater, ultimately proved to be Magpie Mine’s undoing. When it closed for the last time in 1954 the Maypitt Three could finally rest in peace, but according to legend the Widows’ Curse remains in place to this day.
Today the site is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings in various states of disrepair. Magpie Mine is now a peaceful spot, disturbed only by the song of skylarks and an occasional click of a camera shutter. It’s difficult to picture this place as a hive of industrial activity, or to imagine the hardships and suffering of those who once toiled – and died – here. Seemingly still more improbable is the notion that aggrieved widows would have felt driven to place a curse on what is now such a tranquil, isolated and inoffensive corner of my home county.
Although its industrial archaeology and associated human history is fascinating, today Magpie Mine site is also a notable natural habitat. The landscape is managed to prevent it returning to scrubland. Cattle are used to keep invasive species at bay, allowing a rich variety of wildflowers to flourish on the unimproved grassland. Some of the species (including Spring Sandwort, also known as leadwort) found here are particularly well adapted to the local conditions, being able to tolerate high quantities of lead in the soil.
If truth be told I’d rather remember our visit to Magpie Mine for the glory of its wildflower meadow and the song of the skylark, both so rare in today’s intensively farmed countryside, than for the dubious legend of the Widows’ Curse!
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If the storyof the Widows’ Curse has caught your imagination you might want to take a look at this video on YouTube, which I came across during research for this post. In a mixture of commentary and verse local poet Simon Unwin tells more about the history and traditions of lead mining in Derbyshire, before launching into the story of the Widows’ Curse. It runs for nearly 40 minutes and so requires some investment in time to see it through to the end. But I enjoyed listening to it, and you might too. So why not give it a try?
One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is that it has encouraged us to spend more time exploring our local area, rather than hot-footing it across the rest of the UK and the wider world. Who knew, for example, that the Bugsworth Basin, in our own home county of Derbyshire, was once was the largest and busiest inland port on Britain’s canal system? Not me, and I’ve lived here over 40 years. Nor Mrs P either, and she’s lived in Derbyshire her entire life.
The Bugsworth Basin was the terminus of the 14 mile long Peak Forest Canal. Built between 1794 and 1804, the canal linked Bugsworth Basin with Manchester and the trans-Pennine canal network.
The basin was also the end-point of the Peak Forest Tramway. Completed in 1795, the tramway was used to move stone from some of Derbyshire’s biggest quarries to the canal basin. Together, the tramway and canal made it possible for stone extracted in Derbyshire to be transported throughout the North-West and the Midlands.
Although some gritstone was moved by canal, most of the freight loaded at Bugsworth Basin was limestone. When converted into calcium oxide (otherwise known as burnt lime or quicklime), limestone plays a pivotal role in the manufacture of steel. Demand for steel grew rapidly after the Industrial Revolution took hold in the late 18th century, driving in turn a huge growth in demand for limestone. As a result, the Peak Forest Canal and Bugsworth Basin flourished.
At its height in the 1880s, around 600 tons (544 tonne) of limestone per day was being shipped from Bugsworth Basin. Some calcium oxide was also prepared on-site at the basin, before being shipped out to customers via the canal network. It must have seemed that the good days would last forever. But they didn’t, of course, courtesy of the changing industrial landscape and competition from railways. All traffic ceased in 1921, and by 1923 the basin had closed and was falling into disrepair.
But, as Bob Dylan was so fond of telling us, the times they are a-changing. The basin and canal may have no role to play in modern freight transport, but there are opportunities aplenty in the recreation and leisure industries. Restoration began in the 1960s and took more than 40 years. Bugsworth Basin and the Peak Forest Canal have been reborn.
Although there are a few structures dating from the heyday of the industrial period, including the remains of a lime kiln where limestone was roasted to make calcium oxide, Bugsworth Basin wears its history lightly. Today, as Mrs P and I witnessed when we visited in August, the basin is thronged with colourful barges piloted by recreational waterways enthusiasts.
Meanwhile the towpath echoes to the footsteps of dog walkers and casual visitors keen to soak up the relaxed atmosphere. Cyclists whizz merrily along, grateful for somewhere flat to pursue their hobby in our notoriously hilly county, while birdwatchers keep an eye open for kingfishers.
Bugsworth Basin is now a scheduled Ancient Monument, and before Covid struck was attracting 50,000 visitors a year. It’s a real asset for Derbyshire’s tourist industry, and for ordinary folk like us who just want to escape into a different world for a few hours. What a pity that it took a global pandemic for Mrs P and I to finally discover this hidden gem on our doorstep.