A Weekend to Remember

Just returned home from a long lovely weekend based at hillside village of Middleton-by-Wirksworth Derbyshire, where we were catching up with family and friends. The White Peak’s highlands and steep valleys are characterised by large quarries, many disused and self seeded with ash, hazel, birch and scrub. The abandoned rusted sheds and stores are being slowly absorbed into the landscape, becoming near invisible to the naked eye, as noted here, from the path above.

Middleton’s limestone quarries once supplied the stone for thousands of war memorials erected in the wake of WW1. The limestone produced here was of the highest quality, akin to marble, ideal for carving and polishing. We were told by the owners of our rented cottage that in 2018, to mark the centenary of the end of WW1, on Remembrance Sunday a hearse drawn by horses with black plumes transported a dressed block from one end of main street to the other, stopping off at the church for a blessing, before installing it on the hill top green as a permanent memorial.

Took a walk with the family one afternoon up on to Middleton Top, the plateau above the village, which afforded us extensive views over the Derwent River valley down to Derby and the Midland plains beyond, and in the opposite direction northwards to the Dark Peak ridges. The circumference and depth of the worked out quarries becomes more obvious seen from above. Nearby, 21st technology presented itself as wind turbines on quarry company owned land, generating the industrial power to meet the industry’s current energy needs.

Sycamores and sizeable berry laden hawthorns dot the farmland hereabouts. The imposing mature trees of the sheltered valley woodlands are still sporting leaves of flame, russet and gold but these hardy exposed trees have been stripped of their remaining foliage by autumn gales. The grey dry stone field walls at their feet are nearly all tumbledown and serve no purpose other than to mark former boundaries where now cattle and sheep range at will.

Fascinated by a ventilation shaft in the middle of one of these old fields, recently re-capped with a sturdy cattle grid style cover. The grandchildren, aged 4 and 8, delight in dropping small stones down the rock lined ovoid shaped gaping hole, counting the seconds as the pebbles descend, bouncing off the walls as they disappear from sight before landing in a tunnel far  below. Apparently there are some 25 miles of road tunnels on three different levels down there, linking Middleton and Hopton Wood, effectively making them more like mines than quarries. Now largely unworked, sections have collapsed, radon gas is present and access is strictly controlled or barred entirely..

Another walk, but this time we’re strolling in the opposite direction with clear weather views of fells and yet another quarry, hillside fields and patchwork of valley woods. The lane’s tarmac gives way to rock and mud then rutted grass track between maintained stone walls. I smile at the sight of a washed out lilac coloured scabious flowers (lover of limestone soils) holding on in the narrow grass verge.

Either side are a clutch of smallholdings, with sheds, caravans, piles of gear under cover, with 4x4s or a lorry or two wedged in where space allows. We stop to chat to a friendly local couple on their patch. There’s a Jacob ram – with a prize set of horns, ready to go off to do his duty by a neighbour’s flock – while they continue to the needs of their fine looking Jacob ewes. Learning we’re down from Northumberland there’s further chat about their small flock of Cheviots, kept on pasture elsewhere. We all agree the price of wool is abysmal and this wonderful natural rich resource is both underrated and underused.

Sunday night spent in the Old Bowling Green pub in the postcard pretty, former lead mining village of Winster, in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales. We’re guests of old friends & creative colleagues David and Pat for supper and catch up at their home before marking this particular Remembrance Sunday with a words and music commemoration down at their local. I’d last performed in and around the village back in 2008, playing English folk dance & song revivalist Cecil Sharp, in a special lottery funded weekend of community celebrations marking the musicologist’s 1908 visit.

David, a long standing local resident, had thoroughly researched his subject and one of the most touching moments of the evening was when audience members read out the names and stories of those men from the village who were killed in action during WW1. (Approximately a quarter of the 125 who enlisted). David opened with a powerful selection of famous and lesser known contemporary poetry from both world wars, and told us how they came to be written. Meanwhile Pat read Buxton born Vera Brittain’s account of the wartime loss of her fiancé Roland, as related in her 1933 biography Testament of Youth.

It was a pleasure, and indeed a privilege, to read passages from the biography of local man, Horace Johnston, written in the 1970’s. He was a private fighting in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign against the Turks in August 1915. The old soldier’s artless and harrowing account was cleverly counterpointed to maximum emotional effect by David’s reading of contemporary verse by Sassoon, Owen & other soldier poets at key points in the narrative. The programme’s different sections were evocatively opened and closed through the close harmony rendition of wartime songs performed by Winster based folk music stalwarts Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham.

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