Holbrook’s where the heart is
Community spirit is alive and well in this charming, characterful village five miles north of Derby where residents pulled together to rescue their 400-year-old inn
If village community spirit could be bottled, that bottle should have Holbrook on the label. I caught that spirit when writing about the village over ten years ago and on hearing recently that one of its pubs, The Spotted Cow, had re-opened as a community pub with community-run café next door – The Spotted Calf – realised it must be as strong.
As long-time resident Julie Marshall points out: ‘How many villages with a modest population (around 1,500) can boast three pubs, two schools, two churches, two football clubs, a café, post office, village store, village hall and a miners’ welfare? We’ve even got our own flag now.’
‘All of us on the Parish Council think Holbrook is a special place,’ says Chairman Richard Massey. ‘We have a fantastic community spirit here, great facilities, a wide variety of activities including a magnificent village fête, a thriving school, fascinating history and a great rural location offering wonderful walks and beautiful countryside. It’s a lovely village to live in and bring children up in.’
Such is the number and variety of goings-on in Holbrook that last year the Parish Council hit upon the idea of holding an open day for local clubs and groups to showcase what they did. Over 40 groups, clubs and businesses were listed at the event. Although, as Richard adds: ‘There is a lot going on and plenty to take part in but one of Holbrook’s other fine qualities is that it’s a peaceful village.’
The growing list of events now includes Damson Sunday, which Stephanie Limb – one of the leading lights behind the purchase of the Spotted Cow and a member of the committee that runs the café – was inspired to revive after reading my 2007 article. The tradition is linked to Holbrook’s history as a centre of framework knitting: the local trees are a special variety brought from abroad because its large, juicy fruit was perfect for purple and blue dyes for the cloth.
So, a special visit was in order to raise a glass of damson gin, of course, to Holbrook on Damson Sunday, the first Sunday after St Michael’s Day, and admire the competition entries of bakes, beverages and preserves, all made with damsons. Lisa Pilley, Kevan Tomlinson and family were even persuaded to pose for a photograph, proudly holding a plate of damson scones in the midst of their own orchard. Kevan could even point to one of the wash houses used for dyeing.
The long windows that allowed in more light for those working on the large knitting frames are also still in evidence in some houses. In fact, by the mid-19th century nearly a third of Holbrook’s
1,000 population was involved in making cotton stockings, silk gloves, underwear and ties of a quality that brought orders from royalty, including Queen Victoria and the King of Siam.
Holbrook’s history can be traced even further back: in
1962 evidence was unearthed of a Roman settlement through the excavation of two kilns, one capable of baking 200-250 jars at one firing, making it the largest kiln ever discovered in the British Isles.
With work at local quarries and nearby mines, Holbrook evolved into an industrial, working class village, followed at the turn of the 20th century by a growth of large ‘dormitory’ houses, leading one resident to state that today, ‘Holbrook is like a microcosm of England in that we’ve a broad church of people in a wide spectrum of properties.’
With its impressive facilities and robust community spirit, Holbrook is not so much a microcosm, more a model that other English villages should aspire to. For example, there is an excellent C of E Primary School. In 2007, I declared that the school was run ‘with evident passion’ by headteacher Andrew Davies. He’s still at the helm and steering the school onward with that same ardour.
In the intervening years, Holbrook Primary has opened a new kitchen and a hall that is extensively used by the wider
the Poets is The Wheel, run for the last 18 months by young landlady Dee Ainsworth. She knew she wanted to run the pub as soon as she walked in: ‘It was quaint, quirky, with different rooms, lots of space, a cosy bar, two open fires, a welcoming atmosphere and, best of all, a superb pub garden.’
Dee has clearly given The Wheel fresh life, introducing traditional pub food, a quiz, a pool team and – soon – a skittles team. There are six ales available and plenty of regulars to enjoy them, one telling me that The Wheel had returned to being ‘a proper pub.’ It’s also dog-friendly, has a talking parrot, and a resident ghost – a little red-haired girl whose presence was noted by a paranormal investigator.
The sight of a re-opened
Spotted Cow can almost be seen as a miraculous manifestation. In 2016, faced with an application from a property developer to convert the 400-year-old pub and car park into residential properties, a few residents came together and dared to dream, not just of opposing this move but of clubbing together to raise the £¼ million plus needed to buy it. The villagers found they could list the Cow as an
Asset of Community Value and their campaign began. There were leaflet drops, meetings, a Facebook page, a film appeal, and a life-size plastic cow displayed in a succession of front gardens for passers-by to wonder at.
As leading campaigner Stephanie Limb recounts: ‘We saw the Spotted Cow as emblematic of this community and we couldn’t face Holbrook’s heart being ripped apart.’
Happily, much of the local community felt the same and so, after asking for a minimum investment of £250, 260 people – mainly residents – chipped in to raise the necessary £296,000.
Then came a further rush of community spirit as residents volunteered their skills – decorating, carpentry, gardening etc – to help with the renovation, with all the investors having a say in the finished pub.
One of the volunteer labourers, Brian Singleton, says: ‘It’s been a labour of love where I’ve gained skills – and friends, too. It’s brought Holbrook closer together.’
Elizabeth Swift, a café volunteer who also works in the Post Office which has now been installed in the café, was house-hunting in Holbrook when the campaign started and she was so taken by the appeal that she bought shares before she bought a house. Now a resident, she says that living in Holbrook ‘feels like one long holiday.’
Astutely, the Spotted Cow committee brought in two experienced publicans – the aptly named Paul and Cheryl Brew – to run the pub which opened in July of last year. ‘It’s a joy to work in a gem of a pub and village,’ says Cheryl. Paul’s attention to the beer – there are six ales on every three or four days, all sourced from local microbreweries – has already earnt the pub a place in the Good Beer Guide. Once a foodled pub with a Sunday carvery, the Spotted Cow offers hearty, traditional pub food. The Spotted Calf café is also winning plaudits for its delicious fare.
There is so much more that needs to be highlighted in Holbrook, including the School
for Autism which has grown in reputation and size from the time it opened in 1997 with ten pupils – there are now over 120. A little further up the road is St Michael’s Church, a striking looking building described by worshipper David Mellor as ‘a hidden architectural gem.’
Another individual building is the quaint house bearing the title Gaslight Gallery where Linda Forster keeps alive the legacy of her late husband Charles who between 1976 and his death in 2004, sold 11,500 pieces of his sculpted period figures, buildings and vehicles, pottery of a humorous and idiosyncratic nature that should have seen Charles heralded as the LS Lowry of ceramics. Further up the road is artist Julie Marshall who has contributed to many local art projects, though her latest is an initiative called The Green Team, ‘a platform to survey, discuss and protect the village environment.’ For example, Julie aims to put up bird boxes, cultivate wild flowers along the verges and record wildlife – already a pink grasshopper and common lizard have been monitored. Julie is keen to involve the schools and ‘create enthusiasm for nature so that we begin to care about and take responsibility for our environment.’
Given the zest for village life I’ve seen in Holbrook, something tells me Julie’s project will be warmly embraced!
View of Kilburn from Moorside Road
Holbrook Primary School headteacher Andrew Davies with senior teacher Jean Matthews and pupils from each of the school classes
Craig and Tracey Barker and daughter Holly of the Holbrook Village Store
Stephanie and Christian Limb of the Spotted Calf café
Holbrook’s School for Autism
Paul and Cheryl Brew of The Spotted Cow
Dee Ainsworth, landlady of The Wheel
Pottery figures by Charles Forster
Houses on Church Street
Holbrook Parish Council flag with framework loom, damsons and a woodcock for Coxbench, part of which is in Holbrook’s parish
Jason Holmes, Landlord of the Dead Poets pub with cook and ‘chief bottle washer’ Chris Brown
The Spotted Cow sign