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.

Rise and fall, and rise again: Chesterfield Canal

Exploring places within a reasonable driving distance of home has become the norm in the year of Covid, so a few weeks ago we decided to take a walk along part of the Chesterfield Canal. It delivered exactly what we were looking for: a gentle, peaceful stroll in the countryside, with minimal risk of encountering someone bent on sharing their viral load with us

There was almost nobody else out of the towpath that morning and it was difficult to imagine that this waterway was once a bustling hive of activity, a superhighway of barges and narrowboats hauled by long-suffering workhorses.

Oneslide lock

Designed by the so-called “father of English canals” James Brindley, the canal was built in the 1770s between Chesterfield and the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, a distance of around 74 km (46 miles). The aim was to link the Derbyshire town and its hinterland with a growing network of canals and navigable rivers that criss-crossed a country in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The Chesterfield Canal was an ambitious project. It had 65 locks, including some of the earliest staircase locks ever built, and two tunnels. The canal was a lifeline for the coal and steel industry in North Derbyshire, but also carried ale, pottery, lime and timber.

However the most impressive cargo carried on the the Chesterfield Canal was stone for the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. Between 1841-44 an average of 4,877 tonnes (4,800 tons) or 5,663 cubic metres (200,000 cubic feet) per annum made the journey.

Thorpe Low treble lock

Quarried at North Anston in Yorkshire, the stone was dragged overland two miles to Dog Kennels wharf, where it was loaded onto narrowboats for a journey along the canal to the River Trent. From here it was taken downriver to the sea, then south along the English coast before being moved up the River Thames. The average time from the stone leaving the quarry in Yorkshire to reaching the London building site was two weeks.

Coincidentally, we ended our walk along the canal at Dog Kennels, so named because the grand old Duke of Leeds once kept his hunting hounds there. Today, it’s difficult to imagine the connection between this unremarkable part of Nottinghamshire and the Houses of Parliament, one of the UK’s most iconic and instantly recognisable buildings.

Turnerwood, a “picture-perfect hamlet” on the canalside

In fact, at the time of the Houses of Parliament project the UK’s Canal Age was already drawing to a close. By the 1850s the country was in the grip of a railway fever. Canal transport was inevitably slow, constrained by the speed at which horses could haul their loads. Moreover canals were prone to freeze in winter and dry out in summer. Railways did not suffer these problems, and canal transport declined steadily in the face of their upstart competitor.

By the early 1900s the Chesterfield Canal had lost most trade in manufactured goods and sundries, and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates, timber and grain. In 1908 the Norwood tunnel collapsed, preventing traffic between Chesterfield and Shireoaks. After World War 1 other stretches became increasingly overgrown and neglected, and all traffic on the canal finally ceased in 1955.

Brown’s Lock, with Thorpe Low treble locks beyond

This might have been the end of the Chesterfield Canal, but times were changing. Post-war Britain could see the attraction of a revitalised canal network that offered opportunities for leisure and acted as a haven for beleaguered wildlife. Reflecting this new attitude, in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration.

After several decades of fund raising and countless thousand hours of back-breaking work, many miles of the canal have been reinstated. Today there are less than nine miles left to restore. The Chesterfield Canal Trust (successor to the Chesterfield Canal Society) has set itself a target 2027 for the completion of the restoration, as this would be a fitting way to mark the 250th Anniversary of the opening of the canal.

PHOTO CREDIT: Chesterfield Canal Trust website

Meanwhile, all 46 miles of the towpath are accessible to walkers on what is known as the Cuckoo Way. Although that’s good news for the fit and healthy it sounds a bit too much like hard work to me, so it’s encouraging to know that recreational cruises can be taken on several sections of the canal. Maybe, when things have settled down after Covid, we’ll give it a try!