This Is My England, 1950 – Part Two

Jerry F, Going Postal
This Is My England.
This Is My England,
© 2023

From Haddon Hall to Tideswell is only about ten miles. But to get from one to the other you have to travel across some of the bleakest, wildest, most God-forsaken country in England.

On these high, windswept roads — bare of a single signpost — you can lose yourself a dozen times in as many minutes.

And when you are not following a continuous ribbon of winding road, that never seems to get anywhere, you are descending, without any warning at all, into one of those sullen little valleys that look as if they had been hacked out impatiently, around the beginning of time, by some bad-tempered giant.

A hard country to live in, by all accounts, and a worse one to die in. (They tell stories in the desolate farms up here of the dead lying for a week in the coffin until a track can be cut through the snow to carry it down to the churchyard below.)

Yet they take an affectionate pride in the very dourness of the place.

“When God made Derbyshire ‘E made it all into loomps and boomps and wouldn’t leave well alone, until ‘E coom to Yarkshire — an’ see what ‘E done to that,” explained one old farmer years ago, putting the whole thing into a neat little nutshell.

But that inveterate traveller Daniel Defoe, who had little or no eye for scenery and had to follow this meandering route a couple of hundred years ago on packhorse, dismissed it all angrily as:

“Perhaps the most desolate, wild, and abandoned country in all England.”

And he got out of it as quickly as his stubborn Derbyshire cob would carry him.

There have been improvements, of course, since Defoe’s day. In recent years the Bakewell Rural District Council — a progressive local authority — has struggled hard to bring decent amenities to the 54 villages and hamlets that come within its territory.

Between the two wars, for instance, it erected 259 new houses in a district where a hundred-year-old farmhouse is regarded as a modern convenience.

By the end of this year it hopes to have another hundred or more either under construction or already completed.

It has spent thousands of pounds on schemes for sewage disposal. But, as the official town guide has to regretfully agree, there is still much to be done.

Shortly after we had been lost for the second time, and put back on the right road again, we ran into an example of one of those headaches that make local government such a problem in the remoter parts of rural England.

In the pleasant little village of Monyash we found a man running water from a standpipe into a huge container mounted on a coal cart.

His name is Herbert Boam. And he must be one of the few water-carriers still left in England.

But this is no picturesque, decaying village craft. Mr. Boam represents a vital necessity. Something like thirty farms between here and Flagg rely on him for water.

It seems that years ago every large farm in these parts had its own self-contained water supply. The farmer drove his cattle down to his private mere — a natural reservoir which drew in its water from the draining land.

But to hold the water in times of drought the bottom of the mere had to be regularly relined with layers of clay and stone. This highly skilled work was done by local masons known as “mere-makers.”

But the last mere-maker in the district died years ago. So now the mere bottoms are broken and choked with weeds. The precious water drains away as quickly as it flows in.

And so, from time to time, an urgent SOS comes over the telephone to Mr. Boam — who is a coalman by rights. Mr. Boam drives one of his three lorries down to the standpipe in either Flagg or Monyash, fills his 800-gallon tank, and starts the long haul up to the hills.

“It can be pretty tough going in winter,” he told us.

Having just come over those hills in mist and rain myself I can well believe him.

The water he draws off comes from a derelict lead mine a mile or two away. This provides a constant supply of ice-cold water.

The mine, I gather, is flooded to a depth of 60 feet. Even during the worst droughts in living memory there has never been less than 50 feet of water to draw on.

And it’s an ironic thought that that very mine which once destroyed somebody’s wildcat dreams of sudden riches now brings wealth of a very different kind to a few thousand men and beasts who would die without it.

Then we were up among the hills again and picking our way past dumps of rusting shells and bombs and “block-busters,” stored up there for heaven knows what ghastly emergency (I suppose if this evidence of man’s folly has got to be displayed then it is right that it should be nakedly on view up here, where Nature herself shows no mercy to man or beast).

After which it was almost a pleasure to start going downstairs again and to see, straddling the road between us and Miller’s Dale what must surely be the most hideous railway viaduct in the world.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Miller’s Dale Viaduct.
Miller’s Dale viaducts,
David Stowell
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

But mercifully the road takes a twist and a turn hereabouts: that horror in cast iron is hidden from view, and almost before you know it you are coasting down into Tideswell.

Tideswell men have always been clever with their hands. If you doubt it go and look at their parish church of St. John the Baptist.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Church of St. John the Baptist, Tideswell.
Tideswell – church and village rooftops,
Dave Bevis
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

I wish it hadn’t been so glibly christened “the Cathedral of the Peak.” But the fact remains that in any other Christian country but England it would have been made a cathedral in its own right long ago.

For one thing, it can boast five types of decorated windows, including the rare “flamboyant” and “square-headed” types.

And most of the stonework — much of which dates from 1400 — as well as the superb wood carving inside is the work of Tideswell masons and carpenters.

Incidentally, the fabric itself, after standing up stoutly to six centuries of Derbyshire weather, is in a pretty tottery condition.

And if the £3,000 needed to strengthen the tower and mend the roof isn’t forthcoming pretty quickly the weather may still win.

Only a century ago Tideswell could still show you some of the finest craftsmen in England — workers in stone and wood and every kind of metal.

Nowadays — apart from one or two elderly wheelwrights and joiners — the tradition rests almost entirely in the wonderful hands of two middle-aged brothers, Mr. William Ernest and Mr. Advent Hunstone.

For three generations — and, thank goodness for Tideswell’s sake, there is a fourth ready to carry on — the Hunstones of Tideswell have fashioned English oak into marvellous pulpits and rood screens.

There is hardly a church in the North of England which cannot show some evidence of their work.

They are a direct — probably the only direct — link with the mediaeval woodcarvers whose patient day labour in York and Canterbury and elsewhere is still one of the glories of the world.

The Hunstones can go into an ancient cathedral, study the design of some dilapidated choir stalls carved five centuries ago and match it so well that the original craftsmen,
were they called in to judge, could not tell where their work ended the new began.

Ironically, today the Hunstone brothers are faced with a shortage of the very thing which is the lifeblood of their craft – seasoned English oak.

So much of it was wantonly torn down and destroyed for war material that it may be a hundred years before the savage gaps are filled. For an oak tree, like England, is a long time growing.

And ironically, too, much of their meagre ration of oak, instead of decorating screens, is being carved into memorial tablets to honour those who, like the oak trees, have gone down before the mad frolic wind of war.

Of course, if Tideswell, by some freak of geography, had been picked up in one piece and transplanted to the Austrian Tyrol or to South Germany it would long ago have come under the protection of the state.

Local craftsmen would have been honoured and subsidised. They would have worked – in national costume – at their cottage doors. And tourists would come from all over the world to buy their handiwork at fantastic prices.

Instead, Tideswell is down to its last generation.

But the state is not wholly to blame. There is a long-standing feud going on here between the local authority and a Manchester man, who came here just after the war and sank his Army gratuity into a small furniture-making business.

Apart from local prejudice he had everything against him. But he was — what so many artistic craftsmen are not — adaptable.

When the Government refused to allow him a timber permit he bought up old ammunition boxes and made do with them. Lacking a proper workshop he built himself a glorified lean-to.

There he makes low-price three-piece suites and an ingenious kind of baby chair.

One school of thought in Tideswell wants to get rid of him because the things he makes and the place where he makes them are “unaesthetic.”

He is a cheerful, philosophical soul. But he does point out, rather bitterly, that his baby chairs and settees give work to 13 young Tideswell men in embryo and by instinct who would otherwise be making wireless sets or cutting hair in Manchester.

And, surely, in these dreary days of utility, half a loaf is still better than no bread at all…

Reproduced with permission

© 2023

Jerry F 2023