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 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.

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.