The historic market town of Ashbourne, lies in an attractive valley divided by the Henmore Brook and is frequently referred to as the ‘Gateway to Dovedale’. But it is much more than that with its many fine buildings, good shopping facilities and attractive layout. Most of which has been protected since 1968, by Conservation Area status.
Originally, the town lay only to the north of the Henmore, with the tiny hamlet of Compton to the south. However, by the 13th century trade prospered in Compton as taxes could be avoided by trading on that side of the Henmore. Ashbourne itself being Crown Property had to pay dues to the King. Both are now joined together, though the old village street retains the name of Compton.
A further most important distinction remains in that those who live north of the Henmore Brook are referred to as the ‘Up’ards’, and those to the south as the ‘Down’ards’. This decides the sides for the famous Royal Shrovetide football games, which take place on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. The goals are three miles apart and traditionally the game is played without rules, although one ancient rule is that you must not murder your opponent, to which one or two others have been added.
The game starts at 2 pm at Shaw Croft, after the singing of the National Anthem. The ball is ‘turned up’, usually by some well known celebrity who throws the ball to the assembled crowd. In 1928, HRH the Prince of Wales turned up the ball and ever since then the title of the game has had the ‘Royal’ prefix. The game used to start in the market place, but was moved to try to avoid unnecessary damage from the roughhouse that follows. If a goal is not scored by nightfall, the game is ended.
Almost certainly the game has been played since medieval times by rival villages. There are even claims that it has pagan origins when a human head was substituted for the ball. And although several attempts have been made to stop it, because of the trouble it has created, it still survives in Ashbourne.
The town grew as a market centre at the junction of a number of roads, the most important the old main road linking London and Manchester. This passes through Macclesfield and Leek before reaching Ashbourne and heading off to Derby. Stagecoaches regularly used the route in the 18th century and Ashbourne was an important stopping off place. Now the town is bypassed from the west, but the streets are still busy with traffic and the pavements with shoppers.
Ashbourne has managed over the centuries to preserve much of its architectural character. The medieval layout with a long straight main street and a large triangular market place has remained intact. The market place, though, has been encroached by buildings, and is now much smaller than the original design.
When horse drawn transport began to be replaced by the railway, Ashbourne failed to get main line status, only being allowed a branch line to Uttoxeter. This restricted the development of the town as a major industrial centre, but did have the effect of enabling it to preserve its identity.
St Oswald’s Church is one of the most beautiful churches in the county with a lovely slender spire, 212 feet in height. Inside there is a large collection of impressive statues, the sculpture of Penelope Boothby, in pure white carrara, being nationally famous. The present church stands on the site of the church mentioned in the Domesday Book and largely re-built in the 13th century.
The Old Grammar School was founded in 1585 by the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth. Four hundred years later, another Queen Elizabeth, the Second this time, visited Ashbourne to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the school. Over the years the school had become too small to meet the needs of the 20th century and a new school was built on Green Road. The old school continued in use for many years after that, but in 1997, the decision to sell the Grade I listed building was taken.
Opposite the Old Grammar School is the Mansion House, the former home of Dr John Taylor a livelong friend of Dr Samuel Johnson, who he regularly entertained, along with James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer. In 1764, Dr Taylor engaged Robert Adam, who was working on Kedleston Hall, to re-design his house. The work was actually completed by the Derby architect, James Pickford, who turned the house into a miniature mansion. Amongst the many notable features is an octagonal drawing room beneath a copper dome. Looking back across the road at the Grey House, you will notice that it is built in a similar style to the Mansion House. This is not an uncommon occurrence and there are other similar instances in the town.
Ashbourne for a small town is fortunate to have so many almshouses. Roger Owlfield founded the oldest early in the 17th century, to which a second floor was added in 1848. He was a local man who became a fishmonger in London. Next-door Pegge’s almshouses are at right angles to the street.
Across St John’s Street hangs one of only a small number of gallows signs that remain. It came about through the amalgamation of two former coaching inns, which were re-named, as the ‘Green Man and Black’s Head Royal Hotel’. Above the sign, the Blackamoor’s Head smiles as you arrive and frowns as you depart.
Pretty Victoria Square was once known as Butcher’s Row because of the number of butcher’s shops and before that ‘The Shambles’. It was originally part of the market place before the Victorian buildings were erected across the top of the square.
Bull bating at one time took place in Ashbourne’s handsome, cobbled market place and just in front of the Wright Memorial was the ring to which the unfortunate beast was tethered. The memorial was erected in memory of Francis Wright a benefactor to the town, but not universally popular. His action in putting a stop to the annual fair, of which he disapproved, and his efforts to stop Shrovetide football did not go down well with many of the inhabitants.
George Brittlebank, a lawyer, lived at Monument House. When in 1864 the police banned Shrovetide football he threw the ball to the angry crowd, after it had been smuggled to him across the market place in a shopping basket carried by a local woman. He promised to defend, at no cost, anyone arrested playing the game.
In December 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie proclaimed his father as King James III, in Ashbourne Market Place. He stayed the night at Ashbourne Hall; the little that remains forms part of the town’s library. He did not get much further. Without the expected support of the English Jacobites and the French, he turned back after reaching Derby. Although a small advance party did reach Swarkestone Bridge.
In the War Memorial Gardens is a bust of Catherine Mumford, who was born in 1829, in a small terraced house in Ashbourne. She married William Booth and helped him found the Salvation Army.
Across the road from the park is Madge House on the site of the Old Nag’s Head. In the late 18th century, Erasmus Darwin’s two daughters set it up as a school.
Compton did not come under the jurisdiction of Ashbourne until 1873 and a market was held at the head of the street. Joseph Pickford, the Derby architect, designed the bank house, a fine 18th century town house. It was the home of the Beresford’s, descendants of the Fenny Bentley family.
The town has a number of small businesses and a busy industrial estate. Nestlé, at their nearby factory, bottles Ashbourne Water. The Ashbourne Highland Gathering is probably the most popular highland gathering south of the Scottish border, with an average attendance of 10,000 visitors each year. Between 25 to 40 pipe bands compete in three separate categories. There is also a wide range of supporting entertainment. Ashbourne Show normally takes place during August, at the Polo Ground Osmaston.
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PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
Kedleston Hall (Tel. 0870 458 4000) is one of the best surviving examples anywhere of the work of Robert Adam. Lavishly decorated with fine collections of paintings, furniture and sculptures. For further information website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Alton Towers (Tel. 08705 204060) the leading Theme Park in the United Kingdom where you can experience a host of ‘white knuckle rides’, or content yourself with more peaceful pursuits, visiting the shows on site and the more gentle rides. For Further information website: www.altontowers.com
Okeover Arms (Tel. 01335 350305) At one time this Grade One listed building dating from about 1700 was a Temperance Hotel. Bar meals served daily lunchtime and evenings during the summer, check winter availability. Beer Garden. Accommodation.
The Gingerbread Shop Tea Rooms (Tel. 01335 346753) It is said that in Napoleonic times, when French prisoners were held at Ashbourne, the recipe for gingerbread was given to an Ashbourne baker and has been used ever since. A unique example of a late 15th century timber built building which has been in continuous use as a bakery since 1805. Open Monday to Saturday.
THE DISCOVER DERBYSHIRE AND THE PEAK DISTRICT GUIDE
Provides a wide range of features with heritage trails and detailed countryside walks, through some of the most scenically attractive countryside in the UK.
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Starting on the Tissington Trail, the walk visits the pretty village of Mapleton (also spelt Mappleton) before crossing the River Dove into lovely Okeover Park. After leaving the park it climbs gently up in stages towards Upper Mayfield and then descends to cross Hanging Bridge and returns alongside Bentley Brook.
A road with open fields crosses Okeover Park, inhabited by a large flock of sheep who sometimes decide to have a sleep on the road! The hall, well over 200 years old, stands well away from the road through the park.
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