[dropcaps]The road sign on entering Ashbourne tells us that it is the ‘Gateway to Dovedale’, an accurate description for this busy market town. But there is more to Ashbourne than being simply a ‘gateway’. The town centres around the cobbled market place, together with St John’s Street and Compton, and is lined with pleasant three-storied Georgian town houses mostly converted into modern shops.[/dropcaps]
However many are still fulfilling their original purpose, especially where St John’s Street merges into Church Street. Here you will find some excellent antique shops and art dealers, alongside small independents, booksellers and restaurants. St Oswald’s, the parish church, is at the far end of Church Street on the western outskirts of the town, an indication that Ashbourne moved eastwards following a disastrous fire in 1252. One of the finest examples of the Early English style in the North Midlands, St Oswald’s is dominated by a 212 foot high tower and spire.
Inside are memorials to the rich and famous of the district; one of the most touching memorials is the white Carrara marble representation of six year old Penelope Booth who died in 1793. A painting of her by Sir Joshua Reynolds is supposed to have inspired the famous Pears Soap advert called ‘Bubbles’. In spring the church yard is a mass of naturalised bright yellow daffodils. The Old Grammar School with its long row of mullioned windows and steep gables was founded by the Cockaynes, a local landowning family, in 1585.
It stands diagonally across the road from the church, next to the imposing edifice of Grey House. Almost opposite and back across the road is a group of venerable alms houses, while next to them is the 17th-century Mansion House where the lexicographer and traveller Dr Johnson frequently stayed when visiting his friend Dr Taylor.
Dr Johnson and his amanuensis James Boswell also stayed at the Green Man near the market place, where Boswell found it a ‘very good inn’ and its landlady ‘a mighty civil gentlewoman’. Currently being restored and now known as the Green Man Royal Hotel since Princess later Queen Victoria made a comfort stop there on her tour of the north; its link with its now disappeared neighbour the Black’s Head is the rare ‘gallows’ sign, commemorating the amalgamation of the two coaching inns in 1825.
A little further along the street is a shop selling Ashbourne gingerbread; the recipe, so they say, was left by French prisoners held captive during the Napoleonic Wars. Like many shops in the town centre, the Gingerbread Shop was originally two smaller half-timbered buildings. To its rear is a yard or ‘jitty’ originally filled with workshops, but now a convenient cut-through from the main car park at Shaw Croft. More or less opposite is Bennets, a well stocked department store filling three stories, another rarity for such a small town.
Thursdays and Saturdays are market days. This is when the gently sloping market square is filled with colourful stalls satisfying the needs of local shoppers. Coming into the town from the suburbs and surrounding villages, their inner needs are sated by still functioning pubs and small cafés, together with one of the oldest and best fish and chip shops in the district.
It is certainly one of only a few to operate from a listed building – in this case dating from 1420. The butcher and baker ply their trade, but no longer will you find a candle-stick maker, the nearest to it will be a stall selling everyday household goods. Propping up the middle of this row of shops and pubs is Bear Patch where teddy bears of all sizes and colours wait for their new owners. Compton, the old way to Derby has changed little over the years. It still has numerous independents alongside the recent town centre development of a medium sized supermarket.
Here you will find grouped together a flower shop, bakery, butcher and unexpectedly a shop selling Panama hats: it is called Pachcuti after the first Inca emperor in the fifteenth century, whose name meant ‘Over-turner of Worlds’. A larger development beside Clifton Road to the south-west of the town centre manages to fill the old Nestlé site without dominating the older part. Alongside the warehouses a new swimming pool and sports centre sits conveniently near the central bus station. In amongst the antique shops on Church Street where one of them, run by Spurrier Smith sells vintage motor cycles alongside old oil paintings and furniture, a short flight of elegant steps lead to the rooms used by Ashbourne Heritage Society. Inside this small but comprehensive exhibition you can find all that you need to know about Ashbourne’s history and its past visitors.
A plaque on the side of a small terraced cottage on Sturston Street round the corner above Compton marks the birthplace of Catherine Booth, wife of General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Ashbourne has attracted the great and famous over the years, especially those with a literary bent. Along with Doctor Johnson and Boswell, the ‘compleat’ angler Izaak Walton spent time here when visiting his impecunious friend Charles Cotton; the novelist George Eliot based many of her places and characters in the locality. Before her came Congreve the dramatist then, astoundingly the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who hid here during the excesses of the French Revolution.
Even Mark Twain spent time exploring the delights of Dovedale while holidaying at Ashbourne: all of them mentioning the town and surrounding countryside favourably in their subsequent writings. Amongst the great and famous visitors, the one whose story quickens the heart fastest is Bonnie Prince Charlie, Prince Charles Edward Stuart. He and his Jacobite followers came south on their long march from Scotland. Travelling with high hopes of regaining the crown for the Stuart cause, while certainly putting the fear of God into the Hanoverian incumbent, all came to a rapid end when he and his army reached Derby. Accepting the rather spurious reports of an alleged army waiting at Swarkestone Bridge, the Prince turned tail back to Scotland.
The culmination of this error and with it the hopes of a Stuart once more on the throne ended in the bloodbath of Culloden. Ashbourne Hall where he spent the night is a mere remnant of its former glory; the building stands at the corner of Cokayne Avenue and Hall Lane, used as a sub-office by the county council. The town now celebrates the links with this part of its history when it hosts a Highland Gathering each summer. Shrovetide is the time when the shopkeepers board up their windows. After 2pm and until 10pm on both Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday mayhem takes over the town.
Two loosely organised teams called Up’ards and Down’ards from sides of the Henmore Brook that flows through the town, attempt to carry a cork-filled ball to plinths representing mills at either end of the town. Up’ards aim is Sturston Mill upstream and Down’ards is Clifton Mill. The ball is ‘turned up’ as the locals call it, by a visiting dignitary, following which the only rule is that nobody can murder another.
The goal is scored when the ball is tapped three times on a plinth representing the site of the now demolished mills. HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales had the honour of turning up the ball; it features in the Ashbourne Heritage Society building alongside several other notable balls. Like others before him, he was carried shoulder high from the Green Man Royal Hotel to the turning up plinth on the edge of Shawcroft car park. Fortunately for Prince Charles unlike his predecessor Prince of Wales the future Edward VIII, he escaped without a bloody nose!