It is hard to imagine that the picturesque village of Winster with its 700 or so inhabitants was once a small town providing a home base for around 2000 souls, many of whom relied on lead mining for their livelihood. This brought considerable prosperity to the place, something that is evident in the quality of several of the grand houses lining Winster’s Main Street. However, it is the backwaters and narrow lanes climbing the nearby hillsides that reveal the real flavour of this picturesque village.
Occupying an upland location 700 to 900 feet above sea level in the south-east of the Peak District National Park, Winster can trace its roots as far back as the Domesday Book (1086). In this compilation it is recorded by its Saxon name of ‘Winsterne’. The name possibly meant ‘Wyn’s thorn tree’ after a prominent local landmark; the title ‘Wyn’s Tor’ given to a group of limestone rocks above the village is quite recent, dating from around 1840 when they were still being recorded as ‘Wildmister Tor’. The village sits on the north facing slopes of a broad valley draining the junction between limestone in the south and shales and gritstone further north. It is the geology of the region which gives Winster and its neighbour Birchover on the opposite side of the valley their individually distinctive character. Where the houses and boundary walls in Birchover are made from gritstone, Winster’s are mainly limestone.
It is possible that Roman lead miners were the first settlers to make their home in this idyllic spot, delving for the metal, first close to the surface then gradually going deeper. The boom in lead mining came in the late seventeenth century during which what had once been a tiny hamlet grew in size to a prosperous town, one of the largest in Derbyshire, there were even mines a matter of yards away from miners’ homes. Due to flooding when the mines deepened, those around the village were gradually abandoned, with only nearby Millclose employing local men until it too eventually closed in 1938. Several artefacts discovered by mine explorers are on display in the Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, with pride of place being given to the huge pump dating from 1819. This was discovered in Will’s Founder Mine near the Elton road.
As well as being an important centre for lead mining, since pre-historic times Winster sat astride major trading routes – the Portway from the Trent valley to Mam Tor passes close to the village as well as salt routes from Cheshire and the eighteenth-century turnpike from Nottingham to Newhaven (on the A515 Ashbourne to Buxton road), actually passed through Winster.
The only way to explore Winster is on foot and we began by parking in the small car park at the head of the common outside the village. The road away from the common is known as East Bank and it runs steeply downhill to join Main Street at the Market House, but we were to take a more complex route through the maze of narrow passages called gennels or jitties in the Peak District. In the middle of cottages surrounding a field over to our left were three heavy concrete slabs covering the top of a 265 feet deep shaft leading to Wesson Mine, last worked for lead in the 1850s. Like most mine shafts in the Peak great care must be taken by anyone wanting to view them – there is another shaft, not so well capped, in nearby bushes; this and Orchard Mine. Further down the village streets were two more mines, handy for miners living close by.
The first house on the right as we walked downhill along East Bank is Pinfold Cottage, behind which are the remains of a small pen or ‘Pinfold’. This is where stray animals were kept until claimed by their owners. Almost opposite the cottage we came on the left, to the first of Winster’s village criss-crossing gennels, this one leads past one-time miners’ cottages and their attractive gardens (Winster holds its ‘Secret Gardens’ on open days in June), to a rarity for Winster, the aptly name ‘Flat’ where a polite sign lets it be known that it was only wide enough to park Minis. Bearing right we came to a gate through which we could see the spoil heap of Orchard Mine; the size of the mine is indicated by the grassed over spoil heap spilling down towards Woolley’s Yard.
We then re-joined East Bank near the Bowling Green Inn where a regular cattle market used to be held. The pub along with the Miners’ Standard was once just one of twenty inns and ale houses that slaked the thirsts of miners in the mistaken view that it was a cure for lead poisoning. The bowling green which gave the pub its name is now buried beneath its car park, but an ancient wood can be seen behind the bar. A cruck beam gives some hint of the pub’s age and many of the houses opposite were once small shops serving the needs of farmers on market days.
Standing on the corner of East Bank and Main Street is the Market House, the first Derbyshire building owned by the National Trust. It dates from 1711 when Winster was granted the right to hold Saturday markets and was built around that time, although the lower part may be older. The uniqueness of its construction is that the upper story and gables are not stone but brick-built, probably to save weight, with the bricks being made locally in a temporary kiln. Exhibitions of a local interest are frequently held in the upper room. Cobbles at the back of the market make an attractive setting for the Italianate frontage of Lansdowne House and Newholme, then a little further on along the road to Wensley is The Manor, where a mounting block outside the gate indicates that it was surely a place of some importance.
Before continuing our tour of the village we continued a little way along the Wensley road to Cottage Garden Plants nursery which is set in the garden of a modern semi. Moving back into the old part of Winster we came to the Village Shop and Post Office which is run as a kind of village co-operative. We called in to buy a few odds and ends and were delighted to find it well stocked with every day essentials. Further along the street are the remains of an array of shops and businesses ranging from dairies, butchers, milliners, shoe makers, a chip shop and saddlers. The house opposite the village co-op still has the fading remains of a sign offering clogs and other dry goods. Winster Hall dates from the early 18th Century and was built for the Moore family, local mine owners and lawyers. Since then it has had many uses, from a fire-iron factory, to a pub and home for displaced persons in World War 2, but is now a private house.
Winster’s main street is closed in the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday when Pancake Races take place, then again in June for the village carnival. The Dower House, Winster’s original manor house, stands at the junction of Main Street and West Bank. Dating from the late 17th Century with later additions in the 18th and 19th, it is private, but the gate posts featuring a Green Man motif are worth finding. A left turn at the house follows the steep road up West Bank, past the almost hidden entrance to the 18th-19th Century parish church where there is a window by the pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. Over on the left is the chapel-like Burton Institute donated in 1902 by the Nottingham shop owner Joseph Burton a native of Winster. Now used as the village hall it houses the Winster Millennium Tapestry that was made by almost everyone in the village. On the right a little way above the sharp bend is Bank House where in 1821 William Cuddie the village doctor was shot and killed in a duel with William Brittlebank over a matter of love and honour. Brittlebank managed to escape the clutches of the law by disappearing abroad for a few years.
At the top of the hill opposite the point where East and West Bank roads join, stands the Old Poor House last refuge of many penniless and infirm Winster residents during the Victorian era. More cheerful is the Miners’ Standard beside the B5056 Grangemill to Bakewell road. The ‘Standard’ referred to is the standard measuring dish for lead ore, one of which is preserved in Wirksworth’s Moot Hall. As a final link with Winster’s lead mining history, the long narrow field next to the road diagonally to the right opposite the pub was a rope walk; then back across the road and beyond the Newhaven road, is a strange solid-looking windowless building that was once a night-store for lead ore. Finally once more across the road is Mosey Mere. Now more or less a rush-filled swamp, it once provided drinking water and when frozen acted as a skating rink.