Brian Spencer takes a visit to Wirksworth Heritage Centre where amongst other things, he learns about his ancestors who lived in the town over five hundred years ago.
Tucked away almost hidden at the top of the Ecclesbourne Valley; Wirksworth is one of those places where a visit will open the eyes of even the most jaded visitor.
Here is a town where its houses speak of a history marked not by decades, but by centuries; Georgian coaching houses and imposing one-time commercial buildings alongside Jacobean gentlemen’s residences, or tiny cottages half hidden within a maze of narrow alleys tell us that Wirksworth is a place where time has marched onwards without being frozen. This is a town where the past is forever with us, but rather than being a museum piece, it is vibrantly living in the twenty-first century. Change has happened, industries have come and gone, but rather than look depressed, Wirksworth is a place where life is for today.
The main reason for this change and the way it links its past to today, is summarised in the new(ish) Heritage Centre on St John Street, just a few yards down the road from the market place. It tells in easy to follow displays within a modern setting, the story of what is once more a vibrant town. A short wander around its brightly lit rooms filling three floors brings to life in anecdote and reportage, the story of a place that fascinated HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. At a high level luncheon at the Royal Albert Hall in 1985 he trumpeted the success of a rejuvenated town to a meeting of bewildered town planners and journalists. Many of them had no idea where Wirksworth was and had to delve in gazetteers and timetables before rushing north to see what had excited the prince so much.
The exhibition at the Heritage Centre shows how industries have come and gone, but rather than be blighted by it, Wirksworth has picked itself up and literally shaken off the dust before moving on to the next stage in its life. For such a small place, it has seen many changes; Lead mining was the first and for centuries the main source of employment. As far back as Roman times, it’s yet to be found headquarters of Lutudarum, oversaw the production of pigs (ingots) of lead destined to be made into water pipes or to cover the rooftops of Rome’s imperial palaces. Ingots carelessly lost then found along the way are marked Lut. as coming from Lutudarum and Ex. Arg. to confirm that the lead’s silver content had been removed. Lead mining went on throughout the centuries, controlled by a Barmote Court, the oldest legal system in existence which still meets in April every year to settle mining disputes.
Although quarrying, which later became the major industry for the area, had an almost disastrous effect upon the town, Wirksworth had a number of smaller industries, ranging from the ubiquitous cotton spinning, to hosiery knitwear silk weaving, and the little known, but important production of tapes. It is said that Wirksworth every year produced enough red tape to go twice round the world. Alongside this symbol of the legal system, everything from decorative ribbons to laces for Edwardian ladies’ corsets, boot laces and the fuse-bindings of Mill’s bombs used in the Great War were also made here.
At least two authors had links with Wirksworth. Following a holiday here at the home of an aunt, Anne Elizabeth Evans, better known from her pen name George Eliot, used the town as the setting for Adam Bede. Haarlem Mill, one of the main tape producers where her uncle was manager became the prototype for Mill on the Floss – his tool chest is one of the Heritage Centre’s exhibits.
With prosperity came the need for banks. In 1780 John Toplis and later Richard Arkwright, founded a bank to handle the wealth of the town’s prominent citizens: the notorious Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was one of its early clients, but she was not over popular due to her uncontrollable gambling habits. The bank produced its own bank notes – quite a courageous act in its day; two printer’s plates for these notes are on display. The bank eventually became known as Lloyds Bank plc which flourishes to this day.
The other author to use Wirksworth as his home was D.H Lawrence. For several years he lived with his German-born wife at Mountain Cottage above the Via Gellia. During the Great War, xenophobia put anyone not British under suspicion, insisting they frequently report to the police. At one time Freda being German was considered a spy, especially when she and Lawrence were spotted enjoying a walk along a Cornish cliff-top. As a result they had to move back to the east Midlands, away from the sea and close to a police station.
It was quarrying that almost destroyed Wirksworth, yet at the same time it became the catalyst which helped preserve many of the ancient buildings. The massive beds of limestone surrounding the town provided stone for everything from building material, to the 120,000 war grave-markers that were made from a fine-grained stone found in Hopton Wood quarry between Middleton and Wirksworth.
What did almost destroy the lovely old market town, was a quarry a matter of yards from the town centre. Known locally as the ‘Big Hole’, daily it covered nearby houses with layers of dust, or worse by bombarding them with flying debris. As a result people began to abandon their homes, leaving historic houses to gradual decay.
It was only when the quarry became uneconomical that those with an eye to the potential of the semi-derelict buildings decided to bring them back to life. Part of the exhibition shows how once tumble-down Jacobean houses were rejuvenated. Shops around the market place regained their Victorian ambience; one in particular, Mason’s iron mongers is commemorated by an almost bewildering display of stock it once sold. Like all bygone ironmongers its stock ranged from shot-gun cartridges to a sit-bath that looks more like an instrument of torture, rather than a source of comfort.
The result of all the hard work and fore-sight saving Wirksworth, now known as the Wirksworth Project, was the award of the prestigious Europa Nostra Medal. Not only did the project prompt the approval of HRH Prince Charles, but it also became the blue-print for other similar schemes for small town conservation schemes throughout the country.
Children are well catered for at the Heritage Centre. Attractive hands on exhibits that include a jig-saw version of the woolly mammoth’s skeleton found by miners seeking lead in Dream Cave. Children can also imagine themselves scrambling through the same cave by following an indoor version winding its way inside the walls of the centre.
A side room is available for conference and study purposes. Our visit coincided with an exhibition and plans to restore Aqueduct Cottage, the ruined canal-keeper’s house at the junction of Cromford Canal and the Lea Bridge arm. Gradually over the years, this once lovely building has slowly fallen into ruin, but with care and enthusiasm, it can be brought back to life.
A hanging plaque showing the Saxon wall carving known as t’owd man, an ancient lead miner, invites visitors to Wirksworth’s Heritage Centre. The bright and airy centre is converted from a small shop near the Memorial Gardens on St John Street. On three floors it has a shop and café at ground level, then two upper lift accessible floors devoted to displays with easy to follow information about the town’s history. The section on local names particularly interested me. My family name is Spencer, one of the oldest Wirksworth families, first recorded in Wills dating from as far back as 1473. I knew I had links with the area, but not that far back in time!
Wirksworth Heritage Centre is open Tuesday to Sunday
10:30 am – 4:30 pm (open from 1:30 to 4:30 pm on Sunday)
Telephone: 01629 825225