Derbyshire: Backward and Quaint, Like a Charming Old Goat
Reader! If you were, by chance, to stumble upon a description of the English county of Derbyshire, I guarantee you would learn of the bucolic countryside that adorns the area, picturesque rural landscapes of the quintessential English variety, characteristic, handsome towns, and a wealth of interesting things to see and do. How could you not be impressed? But instead of such a generic, run of-the-mill depiction (Derbyshire is full of running mills), now your eye has been successfully caught, wouldn’t you rather read a more personal account of the place; learn how an ordinary, run-of-the-mill local feels about the rolling hills (they roll right down into the ground!), the quaint, even backward towns and villages, the backward, even quaint local traditions, and the hybrid mix of cultures old and new (mostly old) that make up this classic English county?!…You do? Lucky I’m here.
In accordance with a guidebook depiction of the county, the Derbyshire Dales do offer an array of attractions that provide the visitor with a sense of the ‘true’ English countryside. Verdant dales extend scenic peaks with clear rivers and heather covered moorland, with contrasting panoramic views often draped across the sky. The Dales are extremely accessible, and therefore ideal for walking, rambling, cycling, fishing, and people who do all four, and the varied landscape and gritstone cliffs also make the region popular with climbers and potholers. Derbyshire’s Peak District was the first designated national park in the country, and celebrates timeless rural scenery at all times. The Dales encompass a host of attractive places, all with their own quirks and charms, and considerable heritage in an area that once held industrial significance. Indeed, the town of Cromford hosts the world’s first water-powered spinning mill, built by none other than Richard Arkwright; the architect of the Industrial Revolution (he built industrial revolutions as well…). Derbyshire is also famous for its grandiose stately homes and gardens, most notably Chatsworth â€” The Palace of the Peak â€” of Pride and Prejudice fame, and its range of peculiar traditions.
‘But where do you fit in, which special place has cultivated your own concept of home?’ I hear you ask. Well, good question. I live in Wirksworth, a small, almost historic market town at the heart of the Dales. Wirksworth was once a prosperous lead-mining post of some importance, and its handsome old buildings, ancient church, and maze of interesting alleyways reflect this past glory; it once reached the lofty status of third largest town in the county! It’s fascinating history like this that makes my hometown what it is today. Wirksworth is surrounded by picturesque hills and landscapes characteristic of the area, and offers fantastic views of the local countryside. It has a close-knit community that integrates the working-class background of the area with the middle-class liberal resurgence that has attempted to redefine the town of late. The climatic event of the Wirksworth summer is without doubt the Festival. Wirksworth Festival is an eruption of local culture, and, might I say, a renowned event in the region, with people coming from miles around to rejoice in indigenous art and architecture, and enjoy the visual and performing arts on display. The most popular feature of this event is undoubtedly the Art and Architecture Trail, where numerous local residents open up their houses for exhibitions and the odd exhibitionist. In reality, regardless of the finely honed artefacts on offer, the trail is really an excuse for the locals to have a nosey around each other’s homes!
The most beautiful of local traditions is undoubtedly the well-dressing. Every Easter residents ‘dress the wells’ by decorating a wooden frame with a mosaic created out of flower petals and other natural materials. The mosaic image is pressed onto a base of puddled clay; as a child I can vividly recall puddling clay at school; trampling around unassumingly in a huge tub of muddy sediment in the same way that you would trample grapes in a vineyard. According to many sources, this tradition stems from an ancient pagan celebration of water, and we have lots of that round here. During the well-dressing season, towns across Derbyshire partake in this elegant custom; it is always a joy to see all of the people milling around Wirksworth, ambling from well to well to see the beautiful montages on show.
Another rather obscure local tradition is that of Shrovetide football. Now I understand the word ‘football’ conjures different images on this side of the Atlantic (where it was invented) than is does to an American audience, so to confuse you further, Shrovetide football is actually more like rugby. You don’t know what that is either, do you?! Bugger. Well, anyway, the basic concept is that the townsfolk of Ashbourne, and basically anyone else who turns up, get together on Shrove Tuesday and Wednesday, divide into two teams â€” the ‘Uppard’s and the Down’ards’ â€” (there is a geographical regulation to deduce which side villagers play on, but I’ll spare you the details) and try to score a goal by smuggling the ball through the goalposts, 3 miles apart. There are few rules to this game; murder and manslaughter are barred, as is the transportation of the ball by vehicle and play after midnight. It’s fundamentally one big scrum; locals board up the windows to their houses and the town inhabits a state of temporary pandemonium. It’s crazy. It is extremely popular though; in 2003 the ball was ‘turned up’ by Prince Charles, who just happened to be walking his corgi in the area at the time. Not really.
So there we have it. Derbyshire; a place of beauty, a place of history. Derbyshire: a place of bizarre traditions, a place of fields. A place of bizarre fields. I’ll leave you with the inspiring words of Derbyshire’s Poet Laureate, Cathy Grindrod; ‘The future’s bright in Derbyshire, where past and present meet’. Thanks Cathy. If you don’t believe me, (and Cathy) feel free to come and explore it yourself.