Caldon Canal – Short on length, big on history!

It’s easy to underestimate the impact canals had on the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Today, if they are not drained of water or choked by vegetation, they’re mostly used for leisure purposes only. It is hard to believe that, 200 years ago, they were central to the industrial miracle that transformed society beyond all recognition.

Smart, colourful barges show that the canal is now used for recreational purposes. But hidden amongst the trees to the far left of this shot are remains of limekilns, a legacy from the canal’s industrial past.

The Caldon Canal is a mere 18 miles (29km) long, and runs from Froghall in Staffordshire to Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, where it joins the much larger Trent and Mersey Canal. Completed in 1779 it was built primarily to transport limestone, so it comes as no surprise that abandoned limekilns can still be found along its route.

Closer view of the remains of limekilns at Consall Forge

The kilns at Consall Forge, which stand 10m high and 50m long, are now clothed in vegetation. Back in the day, however, the view would have been very different. Raw limestone, quarried nearby, would be loaded at the top of the limekilns. Furnaces heated the rock and converted it into quicklime, an essential resource in the steelmaking process. The quicklime would then be removed at the bottom of the kiln and loaded onto barges for onward transportation to where it would be used.

“Bridge #50” across the Caldon Canal at Consall Forge, in the picturesque Churnet Valley. Built c1779.

The remains of more limekilns can still be seen at Froghall Wharf, and here too the serene surroundings make it difficult to fully appreciate how the place must have bustled with activity in its heyday. Froghall also boasts a handsome 19th century warehouse. This has been tastefully repurposed as a café catering for 21st century visitors who like nothing more than to replenish the calories they’ve burned off during their canal-side strolls with a hot drink and an enormous slab of cake!

Former canal-side warehouse at Froghall Wharf, now serving coffee and cake!

One of the undoubted highlights of the Caldon Canal, and perhaps more unexpected, is the Cheddleton Flint Mill Museum. There was a watermill on the site in 1253, and by the 1500s there were two, one to wash woollen cloth in a process known as fulling, and one to mill corn. When the canal was driven past the mills in late 18th century it opened up the possibility of new uses.

Limekilns at Froghall Wharf

The Caldon Canal passes through Etruria, which was – from 1769 – the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s ground-breaking pottery business. One of his highly successful products was “creamware”, which used ground, calcined flint to help achieve its distinctive light-coloured appearance. The mills at Cheddleton were converted to grind the flint Wedgwood needed, and the canal enabled its easy transportation to the potter’s Etruria factory.

Canal view next to Cheddleton Flint Mill

Now owned and run by the Cheddleton Flint Mill Preservation Trust, the site offers fascinating insights into a flint milling process that I was completely unaware of before our visit. It also preserves the miller’s cottage, which dates from the 1800s, shining light on a lifestyle so very different from our own.

Cheddleton Flint Mill

The cottage is dressed as a piece of living history. Recently washed laundry (sparkling white!) hangs drying in front of the range, which serves both as the cottage’s source of heat and a stove for cooking meals. Along the walls two dressers display cherished pieces of tableware, and the table in the middle of the room is laid ready for tea. The exhibit is totally convincing, and it’s easy to believe that the miller and his wife have just popped put for a few minutes, and will soon be back to carry on with their lives.

The miller’s cottage at Cheddleton Flint Mill

Cheddleton Flint Mill is just one of many fascinating points of interest along the 18 miles of the Caldon Canal which, although clearly short on length, is undoubtedly big on history. A visit (or two, or maybe even three) can be strongly recommended if you’re ever in the area!

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.

Three songs for Ukraine

Events in Ukraine continue to dominate the news, and my thoughts inevitably drift to the anti-war movement and the peace songs of my youth. I am, at heart, a child of the 60s, and the anthems of those heady days still resonate with me. In those far off times we were convinced that the world could be a better place, if only those in power would listen to our pleas and give peace a chance.

We were, of course, hopelessly naïve in the belief that our message would be heard by those in a position to make the necessary changes. Fifty years on the world is a very different place, but as recent events demonstrate, not a lot better.

Photo Credit: by Miha Rekar on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong, I believe absolutely that, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender or sexuality, the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people. But not everyone, and when bad people get into positions of power, bad things can still happen. The evidence is all around us right now.

Much of the anti-war sentiment that prevailed as I grew up in the 60s and early 70s came from the conflict in far-off Vietnam, but for many Brits memories of WW2 were also raw. I remember my father telling me of the occasion when his unit came under intense aerial bombardment and one of his terrified buddies completely lost his mind, leapt onto the bonnet of his jeep, shook a furious fist at the attacking planes and screamed “Death, where is thy sting?” The poor guy found out soon enough.

And I recall, too, my mother’s horrific account of how the family house was destroyed in one of the first air-raids of the war, and of how she and her parents were forced to flee across London to her auntie’s home with all the possessions they had left in the world bundled up in a single tattered bedsheet.

In the circumstances it is no surprise that, when I first heard Edwin Star‘s rendition of War I immediately felt a connection with his words, including:

 War, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh (good God, y'all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing...
War can't give life
It can only take it away

In fact, the song wasn’t written by Starr himself, but was penned instead for the Motown label by Norman Whitfield and Barret Strong. Although first recorded by The Temptations in March 1970, it was Edwin Starr’s powerful version three months later that took the anti-war movement by storm, reaching #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #3 on the equivalent UK chart (see note #1 below).

Sadly, War’s lyrics seem just as relevant today as they did when I first heard them half a century ago.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind other anti-war songs from the same era. Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War, for example, an angry attack on those who seek to profit from conflict without any concern for the suffering of those caught up in it (see note #2 below). Can you spot the connection with recent events in Ukraine? No? Then look harder!

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly...

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

And finally, my mind turns to John Lennon, who told the world in 1969 that we should Give Peace a Chance. A couple of nights ago we changed television channels a little early to watch the evening news, and caught some tail end coverage of a Rugby Union match. The game itself was over and the studio pundits were raking over the embers, as they always do. And in the background was John Lennon with his Plastic Ono Band, belting out his anthem for peace across the stadium’s sound system.

It can’t have been a coincidence: whoever chose to play that track at the end of that rugby match must have had Ukraine on his mind. And my overwhelming reaction was one of immense sadness, sadness that, nearly 50 years after Lennon laid the track down, we still feel the need to play it.

All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"

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Note #1: Other notable covers of War include recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984: YouTube link here) and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1986: YouTube link here). YouTube also boasts compelling amateur footage of the Boss performing the song live alongside Edwin Starr: enjoy it here).

Note #2: Notable covers of Masters of War include a recording by The Flying Pickets (1984: YouTube link here) and this acoustic YouTube version by Ed Sheeran (c.2013).

Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.

And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.

And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

The rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the House’s owners and royal guests.

The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.

The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.

But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.

Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.

But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.

In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite:

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

Folk song favourites: Wayfaring Stranger

My interest in folk music was inherited from my father. He was no great expert (and no great singer either!), but he knew just what he liked. Two of his favourite performers of folk and traditional songs were Joan Baez and Burl Ives. My last post touched briefly on a memorable track by Baez, so today I’ll say a few words about one of my favourite Burl Ives ballads.

The Wayfaring Stranger is a well-known American folk song, probably dating from the early 19th century. The lyrics were first set down in Joseph Bever’s Christian Songster, published in 1858. They tell the story of a man’s arduous journey through life, and his belief that his lot will improve after death when he will leave his troubles behind him and be reunited with his loved ones.

Folk song lyrics are like the Covid virus, constantly mutating, forever evading capture and control. So what follows isn’t a definitive version, but is nevertheless a reliable guide to The Wayfaring Stranger’s tone and major themes:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan*
I'm only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep
But golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep

I'm going home to see my mother
And all my loved ones who've gone on
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
I'm travelling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm only going over Jordan
I'm only going over home

Beautiful, and deeply moving! One day – but not any time soon, I hope – a recording of The Wayfaring Stranger will be played at my funeral, as I embark upon my own final journey.

Burl Ives (1909-95) had a long association with this song. Having stormed out of his Illinois teacher training college in a fit of pique in 1929, Ives became an itinerant singer and musician who travelled across the US scratching a living by performing at small venues and doing odd jobs on the side.

Ives’s success and reputation grew, until in 1942 he was given his own radio show on CBS, playing traditional folk ballads. But the rootless, wandering lifestyle that characterised his early career obviously made a deep impression on the young man, and in memory of those times his show was titled The Wayfaring Stranger. Two years later he released a recording of the song on his album of the same name.

Countless artists have since recorded The Wayfaring Stranger, including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ed Sheeran and Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Jack White, whose character Georgie sings it in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. You can track down all of these covers on YouTube

Perhaps the most surprising interpretation I’ve come across was recorded by a bunch of Norwegians, the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. Scandinavia is not a part of the world that anyone might reasonably expect to spawn a memorable version of a classic American folk ballad, but their recording proves beyond doubt that musical talent is blind to national boundaries.

While Hayde’s rendition balances perfectly Rebekka Nilsson’s plaintive vocals with some superbly atmospheric Appalachian instrumentation, Jos Slovick demonstrates that The Wayfaring Stranger works just as well when sung unaccompanied. His a cappella version, recorded for the 2019 movie 1917 is mournful, and gut-wrenchingly haunting. Definitely one of my favourites.

Great folk songs are capable of endless reinterpretation, each new version adding subtly different dimensions to the core narrative and melody. The Wayfaring Stranger is, in my mind anyway, one of the greatest of them all.

* note: “going over Jordan” = dying and going to heaven / paradise

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!

* * *

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.