The People's Friend
Neil Mcallister enjoys a day out in historic Derby
Neil Mcallister shares the highlights of England’s most central city . . .
BACK in the Sixties, when we were all wearing “Backing Britain” badges, I first became aware of Derby’s textile industry when one of my dyer father’s work friends took a position in the Midlands.
His move witnessed the last days of an industry which saw this once-modest market town become the hub of the Industrial Revolution.
This settlement beside the River Derwent was where a trading route passed northwards past the edge of what we now call the Peak District, taking the Norse name for “Village of Deer”.
One newcomer to the city told us how at first they weren’t that impressed by the city centre, which suffered at the hands of 1960s planners, but a short riverbank walk revealed Derby’s green heart.
“I was very quickly into what appeared to be an idyllic Dales village,” he told us, pointing towards the Derwent Valley Heritage Way, where the boundaries between city and countryside blur, leading to glorious green spaces.
Derby has many famous sons and daughters, but a well-known character improved the city.
Percy Thrower of “Blue Peter” fame, who started his horticultural career in local parks, helped turn Darley Abbey’s grounds from a private estate into the wildlife haven of Darley Abbey Park.
After an inspiring early morning ride through Derbyshire countryside, our visit started in the marginally less picturesque Meteor Centre retail park, where we were able to park the car and enjoy bus travel into the city and back again.
The outskirts host many attractive properties, such as Kedleston Park, but we chose to concentrate on the city’s historic centre, where Derby Cathedral’s tower is rarely out of sight.
Alighting beside the river, after picking up a town map from the TIC, we paused to enjoy the view along the river where a waterside path leads towards the Holmes.
A short walk brought us to the Intu shopping centre, where huge rings framed the ancient trading trackway.
Drovers no longer take their livestock through the centre, but when they did, many would pause to pray at St Peter’s Church.
We began talking to local chap Ronald Ellis as we waited for the sunshine to illuminate the church. Ronald grew up in Calcutta, but is now based in Derby.
“If you follow this road beyond the cathedral, look out for the clock with a blue plaque below to Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed.
“The famous artist Joseph Wright lived in the house in the late 1700s,” he informed us.
Opposite the church is a remarkable building, once a Boots chemist, but now a Costa coffee shop, where we paused to admire the decorated front, which features statues of famous Derby folk like Florence Nightingale.
Although Florence Nightingale was born in the Italian town that gave her her name, her family were Derbyshire people with strong local connections.
Another statue remembers silk manufacturer John Lombe who met a mysterious end in 1822 – supposedly poisoned for stealing trade secrets from Piedmont when he smuggled out drawings explaining the technology to create fine silk.
As if to prove that business has its ups and downs, in 1971 the city’s most famous employer caused a run on the local building society.
Rolls Royce started car manufacture in the town in the early 1900s and before long started making aero engines, including the famous Merlin Spitfire engine.
Today it has a worldwide reputation for building the finest passenger jet engines, but development of the RB211 engine in the late 1960s caused the company to collapse.
Panicked locals queued at the door of the Derbyshire Building Society when a rumour spread that it had invested in Rolls Royce.
The little café in Derby Market Hall serves good value lunches, but also enjoys a colourful view of the market from its elevated balcony position.
“It reminds me of Cardiff,” Hazel noted, remembering my home city’s fine indoor market, creating a pang of nostalgia as I photographed the striped awnings.
Emerging on to Market Place, the tall Guildhall tower is a reminder of past glory, whilst anyone who remembers the old Assembly Rooms will have a surprise.
You will need a telescope to see the old building, as following a 1963 fire, the façade was dismantled and rebuilt at the National Tramway Museum in Crich.
Its replacement, which contains the town’s TIC, may have excited Sir Hugh Casson who designed it in the 1960s, but has a face only he would love!
To get a glimpse of the more charming aspects of the Cathedral Quarter, as this part of town is known, we strolled to the Strand, an elegant curve of upmarket shops.
Fortunately these were spared development and give the area an established classic appeal.
The Strand Arcade was built here to rival London’s Burlington Arcade.
Even though it is a bit out of the main commercial centre, it provided one of the highlights of our visit as we gazed up at the splendid glazed roof, then out to Sadler Gate which retains a few characterful remnants of Old Derby.
At one end of the street, George Yard is a narrow cobbled lane, hinting at how the area looked a century or so ago.
Further down Old Blacksmith’s Yard is an attractive space, which illustrated how developers in the past were only concerned with building more modern façades.
Pass under the Old Bell Hotel’s ornately carved gate lintel to discover a much smaller yard, which recent renovations have converted into an intimate alfresco dining space.
This old coaching inn stands near the junction of Iron Gate, from where there is a wonderful view dominated by England’s second highest church tower.
If you have legs like a mountain goat and no fear of narrow winding spiral stairs, arrange to meet on the one day a month when the cathedral tower tours take place.
One hundred and eightynine steps scale the 212-feet-high tower, with breather stops partway up to peek at the bell-ringers’ room, and a little further up the carillon mechanism which plays different tunes every day.
The ring of 10 bells is the world’s oldest, the first being hung in 1678.
We were fortunate that our tour coincided with midday, when we enjoyed watching a huge music-boxlike machine ring the tune via a spider’s web of levers and wires.
The cathedral’s resident peregrine falcons mustn’t mind the noise, as their nest is just below the louvres from which the
bells sound out over the city.
The view from the roof is breathtaking, which even Mrs Wobbly-legs enjoyed thanks to the sturdy stone wall.
Whilst the tower is ancient, the church interior is unmistakably Georgian, where the architecture cleverly draws the eye to the altar, below an unusual baldacchino – a temple-like canopy which was once suspended from the ceiling.
Many visitors come to see the Cavendish Family tombs, including the ornate effigy of Bess of Hardwick – one of Britain’s most powerful women.
But we aimed our gaze at the stunning metal rood screen, created by local craftsman Robert Bakewell, which despite its material displays a wonderful visual lightness.
After a brief visit to the Silk Mill, which is in the process of becoming the city’s Museum of Making – celebrating the city’s many industries – we had almost run out of time.
We recovered our car, parked up at Pickford’s House on Friar Gate – another road lined with historic homes.
Joseph Pickford built the house 250 years ago to impress his clients, and cleverly incorporated a signature of tools of his trade above the front door.
Inside, the rooms have been dressed to recreate all areas of the house from below stairs, through the formal ground floor reception rooms right up to the rather spartan servants’ quarters.
Our brief visit was our first to the town but won’t be
the last, as Hazel spotted a programme of local craft workshops in Pickford’s House.
“Oh, I fancy doing some of these,” she enthused as we drove towards Ashbourne and home, ringing dates on the leaflet to plan our next visit. n