If Sir Nikolaus Pevsner had included scenery as well as buildings, the hamlets of the Hope Valley might have taken up as much room in his Buildings of England volume on Derbyshire as Chatsworth but, of course, it’s buildings that he is attempting to record and they are a little sparse in these places, but what charm they have!
Aston (one of three Astons in Derbyshire) and Thornhill lie in the lee of Win Hill just east of Hope. All three are what historians call discrete settlements, in that they have no real nuclei, but consist of scattered farms and cottages. In this, they are a legacy of the kind of rural settlement which existed prior to the evolution of the modern village, mainly after the Norman conquest; such settlements were the Norm in the Iron Age, under the Roman Empire and subsequently. They are far more common in Wales and Cornwall, where the cultural impact of Saxon expansion had little effect, nor indeed that of the Norman, who imposed castles but few new settlements.
Anglo-Saxon control of the Peak came late – probably from the middle of the seventh century – the Pecsaetan, much later called the Peakrells, were a distinct element in the make-up of early Mercia. Eventually, the whole tract of the Dark Peak was absorbed at the Norman conquest and became under the direct jurisdiction of the King. Parishes were enormous, those of Hope and Hathersage particularly so. Hope, in which Aston and Thornhill still lie, still contained ten townships (essentially scattered settlements retaining little more than an identity) and nine formal hamlets, even in the 19th century, when the majority of the land was part of the Eyres’ vast Hassop Hall estate, later inherited by the Leslies of Balquhain and broken up by sale in 1919.
Aston is best visited from the A6187 (Station Road) just east of the Netherhall Bridge over the Noe. It contains a couple of fine farmhouses, of which Kilncroft on your left as you ascend Aston Lane is the most architecturally formal, being two storeyed, three bays and stuccoed, work carried out in the 19th century for one Scott Wells. The name implies some kind of industrial activity on site at some distant time in the past, but unlikely to have been pottery, for the area is devoid of suitable clay. It is more likely to have been connected to lead smelting.
To the NW lies a virtually invisible gem, one of the township’s two seriously impressive buildings, Birchfield Lodge. This was built as a shooting box for Sheffield steel magnate Mark Firth in 1875. It is a very plain house, the very palest reflection of Jacobean revival, but of three blocks, two ranges at right angles joined by a three-storey castellated octagonal tower containing the hall, and with a third, later, Arts-and Crafts block to the NW, very tall; the main façade is plentifully gabled and the whole once sat in a glorious park, now somewhat truncated but still identifiable on the ground.
Firth embellished the interior of his occasional residence to a high quality, despite mixing Classical with Gothic elements. He also embellished the house with that rare thing, a Blue John window in the porch, which we saw during a visit during renovations in 1981 when my colleague Mick Stanley (then assistant director of the long defunct Derbyshire Museum Service) suggested it be removed for safe keeping to Buxton Museum, where it arrived in 1983. This move was simplified by the fact that the house was then, and is still, unlisted: no consents required!
By 1914 it had been let as Win Hill Holiday Home but in 1932 was sold as an hotel, but in the war became an hostel for Sheffield steelworkers. From the 1950s to 1981 it belonged to the Wood St. Mission, Manchester, later the Greater Manchester Youth Association, these uses being facilitated by the proximity of Hope Station (never, as so often today, ‘train station’ an egregious Americanism) – actually also in Aston. It is now divided as three luxurious private homes, and is not really visitable.
If one continues along Aston Lane, which turns to the east, one reaches the core of the settlement, lying in a picturesque declivity, with a former stone clapper stile allowing access to a footpath to Hope. Proceeding up the hill, the lane meets at the summit Parson’s Lane, which also rises thence from the valley. Here, at the junction, stands Aston’s gem, Aston Hall farm, its centrepiece a small Elizabethan manor house, set behind a low wall amidst its later outbuildings. Despite its remoteness from the latest metropolitan trends in the architecture of the era, its builder miraculously managed to embrace the basic Classical dispositions of the symmetrical façade, decorating it with a top pediment centered by a three light mullioned window beneath a subsidiary pediment, parapet with ball finials and a delightful front door set under a broken pediment supported on fluted and stop-fluted Doric columns – absolutely charming. Above the top central window stands the little carved figure of a naked man (the builder? a lead miner? a Classical deity?) and below, amidst chunky strapwork, appear the arms of its builder – or three lozenges azure, a roundel for difference – the opulent lead trader Thomas Balguy (the ‘L’ is silent and the ‘A’ long as ’aw’) and the date 1578.
When this branch of the Balguys died out (the other branch built Derwent Hall four miles to the north – see Country Images July 2016) the estate came to the Bournes of Ashover, from whom it descended to another Sheffield family the Nodders. They let the house and its modest estate to the Walkers, also Sheffield ironmasters. Later it was for several generation farmed by the Daltons local farm biliffs to the Hassop estate, but was later sold to the Shuttleworths of Hathersage who sold to Miss H. Cuthbert who entertained us to tea and cake there in 1981.
Whilst Aston Hall is listed (grade II), Birchfield was missed, but how Pevsner came to miss either building is a mystery. He also missed seventeenth century Highfield Farm to the NE in Thornhill civil parish as well, but it is so sequestered on its hillside that one can hardly blame him.
From Aston Hall one can motor east along Thornhill Lane, which is barely the width of a car and has no passing places. Thornhill announces itself as a cluster of stone-built cottages, again in a slight declivity, and then, almost a surprise, a substantial, stone-built Wesleyan Chapel appears round a corner on the right. It has a fine pair of cast iron gates and a wrought iron overthrow, doubtless the work of the local blacksmith and an oculus window containing trefoil tracery. This, however, seems in effect a cuckoo in the nest, for although built around the 1870s in typical Gothic stye, with a small burial ground behind, in fact squats on the frontage of an earlier, plainer, chapel, built in 1849 as Mount Zion for the Primitive Methodists, who obviously managed to rustle up a congregation with a local farmer as patron, to afford the stone building, only to have the Wesleyans build their own, much grander chapel in front a couple of decades later. The move cannot have made for harmonious relations, especially if these Wesleyans were, in fact, an offshoot of the local Prims (dissenters, like communist sects, were ever highly fissiparous).
Yet the pair of chapels, with a farm behind the Prims’ building, and another alongside the Wesleyans’, which is listed grade II, make a delightful ensemble, with views SW to die for from the lane. Further along appear a pair of Regency cottages. Rescued from dereliction some 30 years ago, one is called The Moot, with an upstairs room reached via an external staircase and the pillar box in the wall below: was this ever a miniscule post office? Thornhill also once had a pub, the Rising Run, which was still going between the wars but which is long closed; unfortunately, we could not discover which building it once occupied. Ryecroft Farm (the name being a locational one lying between the two settlements) opposite has an older barn to its north also listed grade II.
Beyond again, a large house of uncertain date bears the odd name of Nicholas Hall (not named after the BBC Bargain Hunt antiques expert, presumably!) It looks thoroughly 20th century, and in 1936 was home to George H Smith, who certainly appears to have extended it from an older core. The gardens stetch south down the hillside: a delightful spot.
Opposite the gate is Carr Lane, which curves right and left to run off north alongside the Derwent to Yorkshire Bridge, whilst Thornhill Lane turns south, back toward the main road, revealing little else to arrest either us or, indeed, Pevsner. Yet, as the north side of the main road also lies within these two settlements, one can hardly omit mention of the Travellers’ Rest, a two storey stone built inn on the main road opposite the turn to Bradwell. This is eighteenth century, but expanded by a bay at either end almost seamlessly and then has had two further, rather different additions added much later. It, too, is listed (grade II) and we seemed to recall a time when it seemed almost derelict, but is now is restored and flourishing.
The old guides to Thornhill tell us that it once had a capital mansion, seat of the Thornhill family, but that they sold to the Eyres around 1400, who seem not to have lived there, being happily settled at Hope Hall (now also an agreeable hotel) and allowed a branch of the Thornhills to remain as tenants. In 1602 they sold to Adam Slack of Slack (near Chapel-en-le-Frith) but he sold it on eleven years later to the Eyres of Hassop, hence their ownership and that of the Leslies until 1919. As for the Thornhills, they go back to Philip de Thornhill living in 1220, and of whom one, Roger Thornhill, served under Sir Nicholas Eyre as an archer at Agincourt, at which time the family were still living at Thornhill, but as the sub-tenants of the Hope Eyres. A descendant, Thomas, was the last to live in the township but we find his son, Nicholas, landlord of The Angel at Bakewell after the Restoration and his son married Anne Bache, heiress of the Stanton-in-Peak estate and thus ancestors of the family that still live there today.
All in all, there’s more to Aston and Thornhill than meets the eye, and certainly a clutch of buildings worthy of Pevsner’s attention. As for the views, they are terrific, but we thought that trying to negotiate Thornhill Lane in deepest winter might prove be a daunting prospect!
Maxwell & Carole Craven