Bonsall is tucked away in an upland bowl, high above the Derwent Valley and seems a place where time has passed it by. Nevertheless it has been home to a proud group of villagers since long before William the Conqueror’s scribes listed it as Bonteshall in the Domesday Survey. Its early prosperity was based on lead mining and the ore’s by-products, and also calamine (zinc carbonate) which when amalgamated with copper makes brass. Textile manufacturing followed the development of Richard Arkwright’s spinning mills at nearby Cromford, but before that came about, manually operated knitting frames were busy producing stockings in little barn-like sheds still recognisable up and down the village.
Farming was Bonsall’s oldest activity, an occupation that took place as it still does on the rolling acres of limestone moors just beyond the village centre. Probably it is Bonsall’s remoteness that has preserved many of its old buildings and traces of the now dead industries.
Access to the village is along the steep side road leading into Yeoman Street and the village centre before the road divides at Fountain Square, and then climbs to aptly named Uppertown by way of a winding tricky byway. The road up into the main part of the village is known locally as ‘Clatterway’, no doubt from the sound of mill workers’ clogs as they made their way down to Arkwright’s Via Gellia Mill. Now split into small industrial units, it was the unlikely birthplace of ‘Viyella’ fabric, the name a variant of Via Gellia, was invented by Hollins & Co, the firm which took over the mill. Red tape so loved by bureaucrats was briefly made in Bonsall.
Standing on the corner directly opposite Via Gellia Mill is a house where the name above the door ‘The Pig of Lead’, recognises that it was until fairly recently a pub where miners could slake their thirsts before climbing back up Clatterway. The ‘pig’ has nothing to do with porkers but comes from the word for a lead ingot.
A short diversion beyond the mill leads to another link with by-gone industry. A high wall separates what was once a lead smelting mill, but is now a storage depot for a skip-hire company from the busy road. This was latterly the site of a colour works where limestone-based powders were mixed with coloured sands for industrial use. It ceased production in the 1960s, but its sister company in Matlock Bath continued for a few more decades.
At points along the Via Gellia road, occasional free-standing walls are all that is left of lime kilns where stone from nearby quarries was burnt to create valuable lime destined to sweeten farm fields far and wide.
Turning up the Clatterway, the road passes groups of attractive cottages, once the base of no fewer than five separate industries. Within the space of around a quarter of a mile there was a blacksmith, a colour works (later moving into the Via Gellia site), a carpenter and finally a water-powered corn mill. There was even a small workshop making once fashionable combs from tortoiseshell. A ropewalk in a long narrow field made essential safety lines for lead miners.
Bonsall Brook flows along a deep ravine to the side of Clatterway, its waters enhancing the attractive cottage gardens. Bonsall Brook seems to flow from below the lorry park next to the village recreation ground, but it starts life beyond the top of the village at Town Head and until it was culverted openly flowed down the side of Yeoman Street where every house had its own little limestone slab, which the locals proudly referred to as marble bridges. Traffic demands led to culverting the brook in order to widen the street; the nearby recreation ground is on the site of an in-filled dam made redundant with the reduced demand for water to power mills in Cromford.
A fountain that once trapped the unwary by creating an ice rink every winter marks the turning into The Dale. Standing above it is a small café that was the ‘New Inn’, later it became known as the ‘Fountain’ until it closed in the 1980s. Next door is the village hall which took over the building from the local school when it was moved to larger premises next to the parish church, across the valley. To the left of the fountain and that increasing rarity these days, a well-cared for public toilet, a garage stands on the site of a private gas works; it belonged to the now completely demolished grand house called ‘The Study’, home of the Prince family.
Yeoman Street and its continuation High Street can be said to mark the true centre of Bonsall. Although there are few indications of their former use, many of the houses lining both sides of the street were once shops. Due to its slightly isolated situation, the village was more or less self-supporting, with grocers, butchers, milliners, tobacconists, sweet shops and a corn chandler all serving the village’s needs. There were two Co-op shops, a post office and at least three fish and chip shops! The post office and co-op stood opposite the King’s Head public house and the premises have been so well converted it is hard to tell that the 19th century terraced house was once a shop. The mounting block outside the King’s Head is a sure indication of its 17th century origins. Its Jacobean links are continued by the low beams and totally unspoilt interior; all the past landlords are listed on a notice hanging behind the bar. The house next door known as the Queen’s Arms is of equal age and was also a pub that became a café and guest house.
Facing both buildings is Bonsall’s stepped market cross which if local information is correct is built around a wooden framework, but nowadays rarely used as either a preaching cross or where produce was sold. Taking a right turn at the cross the narrow street first known as Horsegate then Church Street leads past the bottom of Ember Lane, a bridleway over to Matlock. At Town End the handsome Italianate house known as Herbert Lodge was the home of the influential Sellers family in Victorian times.
Back at the cross, a raised sitting area on the site of what was once a greengrocer’s shop has the framed copy of an excellent pictorial map of the village alongside a replica of a carving of the Saxon miner that is now in Wirksworth church. The original was ‘acquired’ from Bonsall, its true owners when its church was being ‘restored’ in Victorian times.
Dobb Lane another bridleway over Masson Hill into Matlock, climbs steeply to the right of the cross and at its foot is an abandoned stone building well lit by a row of windows. This was another of Bonsall’s frame knitting workshops; purpose-built in the early 19th century it housed six foot and hand operated frames. Surprisingly this industry which pre-dated mechanisation continued until the 20th century and the workshop was last used to do specialised out-work for a Matlock hosier. Frame knitting was a major industry in Bonsall and a further five ‘shops’ produced fine woollen stockings and fabrics. Two frame-knitting workshops can still be traced in The Dale, but the rest are within a stone’s throw of Bonsall Cross.
Moving into High Street, the Manor House stands on the left with the Dower House and its venerable studded front door opposite, then further along is The Mount, it was built not of local stone but from imported bricks for a doctor who worked at Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock. Passing a row of more modern housing, a roadside well marks Town Head, a once important feature in the dry limestone uplands. Below it is Townhead Farm which once had a six-seater privy and was briefly the first youth hostel in the Peak District, but is now a four-star B&B.
A sharp left turn leads to Uppertown. It spreads haphazardly around steeply angled Bankside where the service bus begins its return journey. The lane to the left of the cross roads soon narrows into an asphalted path made by German P.O.Ws to create a way back into the centre of Bonsall; it also carries part of the Limestone Way linking Matlock and Castleton. Where the road after a sharp left-hand turn into The Dale, makes a fork into delightfully named Puddle Hill, there stands on the right, an old stone barn-like building reached by a flight of stone steps. Purpose built as the plaque on its wall states, in 1737, it is another of Bonsall’s frame knitting workshops nearby; a further but undated workshop stands in the garden of an old house which also had adjoining workshops and a store in Victorian times.
The car park of the Barley Mow public house lower down the dale was once the site of a calamine (zinc carbonate) mill where the product was dried and then finely ground before being carried by pack-horses to join Ecton-mined copper in order to make brass at the Churnet Valley copper and brass foundry near Stoke on Trent. The first Saturday in every August sees the car park bizarrely taken over for chicken racing, a sport which is steadily building up a world following. Maybe with the ending of the Covid-19 pandemic, hopefully it can take place once again this year.