Even though prehistoric travellers following the Portway from the Trent to Mam Tor would have passed through the area, modern Elton can be overlooked. Being off all the through roads crossing the limestone uplands of the Peak, it is easy to ignore, but as a Michelin Guide might say, ‘it is well worth the diversion’. The village lies about half a mile in any direction from the B5056 Cromford to Bakewell or the Winster to Newhaven roads and a turn off either leads down to Elton village.
Home for many years for the lead miners who sought the scant riches from beneath local fields, Elton has existed in one form or another for at least 5,000 years, but its first official record was in the Domesday Book when 18 families made their living from farming the upland pastures. The village took its name from the first recorded farmer Aelfwine, better known as Ella who developed his ‘tun’ or small farm here around the 8th or 9th century. Over years, Ella’s tun became Elton. The first settlers who followed Ella built farmsteads along Well Street where there was a small spring. This joined what became Main Street connecting Winster road, where a church was set up on the north side and a pub, the Duke of York to provide refreshment diagonally opposite. Of course all this took time, but gradually a village of pleasant stone cottages spread along Main Street and Back Lane to its south. Most of these properties became farm labourers’ homes, many of whom combined farming with part-time mining.
The best place to start any exploration of Elton is from its church. The present church dedicated to All Saints dates from the early 1800s, replacing a much older medieval chapel whose spire collapsed in a storm. It is thought that it had been weakened by miners illegally digging too close to its foundations when following a potentially rich vein of lead.
A curious story links Elton church to Youlgreave’s, or at least its font. Dating from Saxon times, Elton’s font with its attached stoup to hold Holy Oil was dumped outside the church by workmen when the place was being renovated. Once the new church was ready, no one thought about taking the font back inside and it slowly began to disappear beneath the weeds. In the next part of the tale Youlgreave’s curate happened to spot the font lying there un-appreciated. Youlgreave must have been in need of a new font for without due ceremony it was moved from Elton and to this day holds pride of place near Youlgreave’s door. Elton folk then realised their loss and asked for their font to be returned, only to be told ‘sorry, it’s ours now’, or words to that effect. All that Elton could now do was to have a copy made by local masons.
Lead miners held the belief that beer cured lead poisoning, if they were around today they might have to give the Duke of York inn a call. The pub, standing across the road from the church once had some rather odd opening times, but nowadays it is open most evenings and lunchtime on Sunday. The pub, a Grade 2 listed building, has kept its name and character for over 200 years and is a perfect example of a rural English hostelry. At one time there were two more pubs in Elton to slake miners’ thirsts. These were Nelson’s Arms and the Red Lion, but only the Duke of York has stood the test of time.
Before setting off to explore the main part of Elton, it is recommended that visitors start at West End part of Main Street and walk downhill as far as Gratton, Elton’s next door neighbour. Before Elton’s fields were enclosed, allowing stock to wander at will, a small field on the right was called the pinfold. Here strays were held until their owners paid an appropriate fine.
Elton’s major farm, Oddo, fills most of the land to the south of West End. Today, following the gradual amalgamation of most of the farms in the district, there are now only five, mostly concentrating on milk production. Dairy farming has always been an important part of the local economy and at one time there was a cheese factory producing light, crumbly white cheese. No longer is Derbyshire cheese made at Gratton, but the building has been tastefully converted into a private house and holiday let. Anyone remembering the ITV series The Mallan Streak, will have seen the cheese factory prior to its conversion. The then abandoned building masqueraded as a wayside inn and for several years its sign tantalised unwary passers-by in need of a drink.
Back uphill to the church, the main part of the village is roughly triangular in shape, spreading east on both sides of Main Street. Two short lanes, Stone Foot and Ivy Lane connect with Back Lane to the south overlooking nearby grazing. More houses surround the church, running north along Well Street and Joule’s Croft. A few modern houses are built on both sides of Main Street at its eastern end overlooking the village sports and recreation ground.
Most of the houses in and around the centre of Elton date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and are probably built on older foundations. The following notes cover just a fraction of the oldest and most interesting buildings squashed in cheek by jowl in a delightful mix of styles, but most have been built with locally found stone, mainly gritstone from Birchover Quarry across the valley.
From the top of West End, the steep road up from Gratton passes a mix of older type properties along with a scattering of bungalows owned by Dales Housing. Moving up into West End, the substantial double-fronted Lawson Cottage was a privately run dame’s school dating from the 1870s.
Turning left into Well Street, the Old Rectory was built in 1838 and was the birthplace of Rhoda Garrett (1841-1882), a suffragist. Hawthorn Cottage at the bottom of Well Street is thought to stand on the site of the medieval manor house and if so, could be one of the oldest houses in Elton. The well that gives the street its name stands outside Hawthorn Cottage. Heavily polluted, at one time it was the only source of drinking water for the village, until it was declared unfit and replaced by piped water. Well Street Farm was once an inn until it became a Quaker Meeting House for many years.
Crossing West End opposite the Duke of York, a left turn along Main Street reaches the village school. Dating from 1862, children are taught in two classrooms, with an overflow into a room in the attached former schoolmaster’s house next door. That is except on Thursdays when it is a post office.
Before continuing along Main Street, a couple of interesting buildings vie for attention. The first, on the left when walking up Moor Lane past the back of the Duke of York, is Elton Guest House, the current use of a 17th century farm house that has seen service in recent years as the village shop and post office, a café and now a guest house. Facing it is Holmedene Farm. Dating from at least the 17th century, it had a fashionable façade added in the 18th century.
Elton’s first water supply dates from 1877 when William Ashmore Sheldon linked a spring near Spout House Cottage in Gratton. A simple memorial to his kindness is carved on a stone at Elton House Farm on the right. It is thought to be the oldest still standing building in Elton. From there if you cross over and begin to walk along Back Lane, the boundary between village and fields, you will pass two side lanes and a cul-de-sac. Ivy Lane is the first through road, it runs past a group of terraced cottages. Despite being comparatively modern, they are unique due to the fact that they were built during World War II to house agricultural workers, essential parts of the war effort. Across Main Street is eighteenth century Homestead Farm, once the home of William Joule, a relative of James Prescott Joule, the physicist whose laws determined the relationship between heat and electrical energy.
Regaining Main Street, the building on the corner of it with Stone Foot, is Elton Old Hall dating from 1668. For many years it was a popular Youth Hostel run by a delightful motherly lady known countrywide as Mrs Marshall, the lady who always had a friendly welcome.