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Looking Around Duffield

Looking Around Duffield

Leafy side roads lined with pleasant houses, home for many Derby commuters, fill a sheltered hollow where the Ecclesbourne meets the River Derwent.  Regular flooding by the latter meant that development was kept well above the water meadows lining both sides of the meandering river.  After the Norman Conquest, the village became a kind of administration centre controlling Duffield Frith, a royal hunting forest, but the only reference to its earlier Saxon occupation was in the Domesday Book when Duvelle was part of the Wapentake of Morleyside. It was in this time that foundations of the parish church were laid close to the river crossing at the opposite end of the to, and closer to the river.  Dedicated to the eighth century martyred Northumbian prince St Alkmund, the church is one of only six in the country.  Its position, well away from the town and close to the flood plain is explained by its original purpose, as a place of refuge for travellers crossing the hazardous River Derwent.  

The scant remains of a castle that once had one of the tallest keeps in Britain, stand above the north end of the village.  In medieval times Duffield’s purpose in life was serving the needs of royal huntsmen who came to enjoy the chase across the Chevin and beyond.  Until the 13th century wolves abounded in the area and one of the jobs of the steward in charge was to prevent them killing off the fallow deer.  Duffield Frith extended from Wirksworth and the then tiny hamlet of Belper in the north, through Heage, Mackeney and Hazelwood and across to Windley. Hardly anything remains of the castle built by Henry de Ferrers.  Standing on a high earthen mound above what is now the A6 before it crosses the railway line near Chevin Golf Club, there are only a few stones left plus the top of a deep well to indicate the position of the motte and its outer bailey.  

Originally the settlement’s main occupation was farming.  Flaxholme, the area a little to the south of the main village was where flax was grown, providing textile fibres before the advent of cotton.  Many of the farm houses still standing in and around the village date from at least the seventeenth century. Ashtree Farm on Duffield’s main street occasionally has cattle that seem to hark back to older times.  These are English Longhorn Cattle, a beef breed whose long curling horns seem to hint of a certain wildness; wild they may look but they are remarkably docile, even if not exactly disposed to being photographed.

Derbyshire Building Society once used Duffield Hall as its headquarters

Nearby textile magnates like Richard Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt provided cotton thread for the framework knitters who comprised the non-agricultural workers and Duffield’s gradual expansion took place in three stages.  The first was when the Derby to Chesterfield turnpike replaced the old coach road on the far side of the valley in the 18th century. Several of the older buildings in and around the centre of the village date from this time and at least one of them, Archway House looks very much as though it was originally a coaching inn.  The second phase was when the railway came to Duffield, offering communications into and out of Derby.  This eventually led to the third and currently the greatest spread of residential properties.

Starting at the north end of the village where the A6 crosses the main line, the first feature is the Chevin Golf Club and its carefully manicured greens.  Next come the castle remains, the stronghold of Henry de Ferrers, steward of the royal hunting grounds.  It is reached by a short flight of steps through dense undergrowth currently being cut back by the National Trust.  A nearby descriptive poster shows that the scant remains look as though the castle was  composed of an outer wall surrounding a palisaded tower on top of a man-made earth mound; a stone beehive structure now protects the top of the castle’s well.

The main road leads through the village centre where an attractive line of shops and pleasant cafes provide for both residents and visitors alike.  Just before the road swings left to cross a railway bridge, there is a side road off to the left.  This goes down to Duffield’s two railway stations, but main line trains do not stop here. The Derby to Matlock trains do however, and are well used by commuters and shoppers travelling to and from Derby.  The second station is adjacent, but no longer connected to the mainline.  This is the southern terminus of the Ecclesbourne Valley Line from Wirksworth. Unlike many post-Beeching closures, the line was abandoned piecemeal, first to passenger services in 1947 and then to freight in 1964, but even then the line was kept open for occasional goods traffic until 1989.  In 1992 a group of enthusiastic volunteers got together to found Wyvern Rail; keeping the history of the line alive by using the original logo of what became the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.  Gradually and with thousands of voluntary man-hours’ labour, by 2011 the ten-miles of track was finally reopened from Wirksworth to Duffield. Running to an advertised timetable of five return trains each way, it is now possible to enjoy the unspoilt scenery of the little known Ecclesbourne Valley.  For train times and running days together with details of special events throughout the year, check the web site – www.e-v-r.com

Known only to narrow gauge railway enthusiasts, from 1874 until 1916 there was a fifteen-inch mile long narrow gauge track on the far side of the valley directly opposite Duffield’s twin stations.  This was the brain child of Sir Arthur Heywood who lived at Duffieldbank.  Something of an experimenter he not only used the line to link nearby quarries as well as running passenger services, he also saw the military advantages of the quickly laid track and lightweight rolling stock. Despite the ‘blimpish’ attitude of the military, narrow gauge railways systems were used extensively to transport men and materials through the mud and carnage of the Western Front in the Great War of 1914-18.  Sir Arthur died in 1916 and his rolling stock was sold to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in the Lake District.

Returning to the village.  A section of the water meadows on the flood plain beyond the main line’s embankment has been dedicated as a nature reserve.  Known as the Millennium Meadow, unspoilt by modern farming methods it is full of wild flowers and the haunt of both visiting and local birds.

 Passing the cafes and shops and then Ash Tree Farm and its English Long Horn Cattle, the Derbyshire Building Society once used Duffield Hall as its headquarters until general belt-tightening by banks led to its closure. Almost opposite at the corner of a side road, the cube-like building is the local Baptist Chapel.  This is where the old road ran along the valley before the turnpike from Derby was opened in the 18th century.  There is also some thought about a side roadwhich came this way from the Roman Rykneild Street in the east, in order to serve the lead mines around Wirksworth.  If this is correct then it probably crossed the river by a ford below Duffieldbank. Until the imposing 13th century bridge was built, travellers between Ashbourne and Nottingham were regularly drowned as they tried to cross the river at this point.  As a result a small oratory was built by monks who offered prayers and succour for those attempting the perilous crossing.  With an inn on the east bank and a church to the west, travellers were well cared for and as a result the church, later dedicated to St Alkmund, came to serve as the parish of Duffield Frith.  Like most ancient churches, St Alkmund’s has been added to across the centuries.  Sturdy Norman columns support the nave roof and tiles of rare Derbyshire Red Marble pattern the floor.  Many old churches have, if you search, some curious and often amusing memorials or relics.  In St Alkmund’s the thing to look for stands in the north chapel.  Dating from the 1600s it is a memorial to Anthony Bradshaw, his two wives and eighteen children.  Each figure is formally shown clothed in the Tudor fashion; but no allowance is given for their age and each is only identified by the letter ‘B’ for Bradshaw plus a single initial for their first name.  Anthony Bradshaw was the Deputy Steward of Duffield Frith and great uncle of John Bradshaw who sat in judgement over Charles 1st.

So the next time you drive up or down the A6, pause a while in Duffield and maybe find more about its long history.  Along with a smattering of cafes, there are pubs, shops and an art gallery just waiting to divert your attention.


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