Derbyshire  February 2020

Ashover All Saints  -  Open
Wirksworth St Mary   Open

A bitterly cold February day and a return visit to Derbyshire. It was to be a few weeks before covid 19 raised its ugly head and we lost the liberties that we can all too easily take for granted. We set off from Peterborough in what appeared to be the middle of the night; but what in reality was about half past six, and arrived at Ashover, the first point of call just after nine.

Ashover is a glorious little village, which lies in the valley of the river Amber, between Chesterfield and Matlock. The Saxons called the place ‘Essovre’, ‘beyond the Ash Trees’. There is some real history here. The village was mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. It is suggested that the arrows used in the battle of Agincourt were made here in 1415. There was an English Civil War battle fought close by. The roundheads were, according to legend, running short of ammunition and broke the church windows, using the lead frames to make bullets.

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I spent a few churchcrawling holidays in the area a few years before, and have fond memories of a bus journey between these two towns; the bus straining to get uphill and the thought being that we all going to have to get out and push! I visited the church of All Saints, Ashover, on a bright and sunny mid summer afternoon. The church was closed to at that time visitors due to a wedding being on, and I said that one day I would come back.

The church was open to visitors; never really a doubt in pre covid days, in this welcoming and friendly part of Derbyshire. The church here dates back mainly to the 15th century, but there are remains dating back to the 13th century.

The church consists of square west tower, with tall, elegant recessed spire; clerestoried nave with north and south aisles, south porch, chancel and north vestry.

It seemed strange considering the subsequent events of 2020 that I just opened the door and walked in! No hand sanitiser, no social distancing (not that there was anyone else in there) and no areas of the church cordoned off for health and safety. How quickly, this ‘new normal’ became second nature!

The sun was starting to come out and there was a beautiful light quality inside. There is much worth noting here. The eye is immediately caught by a beautiful font at the west end, made of lead and dating back to around 1200. This features intricately detailed carving of 20 men in semi circular arches. This was hard to photograph due to the dark colour of the lead.

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For me, of most interest was a fine monument, dating back to 1518, to one Thomas Babington, and his wife Edith. They founded a chantry chapel in the south aisle here at Ashover, and that is where their memorial stands, facing east.

The figures are recumbent, hands raised in prayer. The memorial is coloured, though this is not the original paint. An illustration of how brightly coloured our medieval churches would have been.  Around the sides are carvings of the couple’s fifteen children; with some of these figures holding hands; others at prayer or holding shields. I was particularly fond of a set of three figures; a young female standing in between two young males. Each of the males holds a banner with their right hand; whilst each holding the young girls hand with their left!

Interestingly, a depiction of Thomas and Edith is included, with both kneeling at prayer, facing towards St Katherine, who holds a sword and carries her traditional wheel.

There is plenty of stained glass here, but nothing of any great age, due no doubt to the damage inflicted during the English Civil War as mentioned earlier. The east window has three scenes from the life of Christ.  Beautifully crafted, and with vivid colours, the central panel depicts the crucifixion. To the left as we look at it, the woman suffering from bleeding touches Jesus’ cloak; Jesus turns around and heals her. To the right, Jesus raises synagogue leader Jairus’ daughter from the dead.

Close by, St Christopher carries the infant Jesus on his shoulder. This window depicts three saints and one dressed in bishop’s robes and wearing a mitre is of interest. He also carries three balls in one hand. These are all symbols of St Nicholas; with the three balls going on to become the symbol used on signs hanging outside pawnbroker’s shops.

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The church grounds are of great interest, with two medieval stone coffins, lidless and with cut out to fit the head, being some indicator as to the age of the place. A collection of 18th century table tombs have a Grade II listing, as does a set of four chest tombs, dating back to the mid 18th century, one of which has the skull and crossed bones.

A gravestone to one George Barker, the date of his death sunk in to the ground is, according to the script ‘Wateing in hopes of a joyful resurrection’. Love these old spellings! Another reminds the onlooker who takes the time to look ‘Time how short, eternity how long’.

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The church of St Mary, Wirksworth.

We moved on to Wirksworth, a fine market town, with a population of just over 5,000. This was another re visit; having been here briefly seven years previously.  It is a busy, bustling town, with a wide main street and interesting shops in small alleys. I immediately felt a great love for Wirksworth and it was good to be back here again.

 The church of St Mary is tucked in just off the main road and the structure that we see today dates back as far as the 13th century there was at least one earlier church built on this site, with the possibility that there was a church here as far back as the 8th century.

The building that we see today dates from between the 13th and 15th centuries, with restoration in 1870 by Sir Gilbert Scott. It consists of nave with imposing west end, north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch, north and south transepts; central tower with recessed spire and chancel.

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The church  is most famous for the Wirksworth stone. This stone was found buried two feet down, with carvings facing downwards, when the pavement in front of the alter was being removed in 1820. This was a grave slab, with a human skeleton being found underneath.  Due to the quality of the carving and the position of the grave, this was obviously a burial for someone of great importance. It s suggested that this grave slab could date back as far as 700AD.

  There are eight separate carvings on the slab and there has been some conjecture over the years as to what the carvings represent. The informative church guide suggests the following.  (i) Christ washing the disciple’s feet. (ii) Christ crucified. The arms of the cross are all of equal length.  (iii) The body of the Blessed Virgin is carried out for burial.  (iv) The presentation in the temple. Simeon holds the Christ child in his arms with the Virgin Mary off to one side. The hand of God points down from above.  (V) Christ's descent in to hell. Off to one side we see Cain, Herod and Judas Iscariot burning in a brazier.  (vi) The ascension, Christ rises up to Heaven, attended by the four archangels.  (vii) The annunciation, a seated Mary greeted by an angel.  (viii) Mission. St Peter stands in a boat while the Virgin Mary holds the Christ child in her arms. Christ is pointing at St Peter whilst holding a scroll, indicating that St Peter will transmit God's word to the gentiles.

These days, the Wirksworth stone is mounted to the north wall of the nave. It was a delight to have been able to have seen it. On any  list of important pieces of church fabric seen over the years, this rates as possibly the most important item that I have seen anywhere!

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It was good to meet up with a friendly local, who gave me an unofficial tour, which I was grateful for; this being pre covid days when we could do this sort of thing. Hopefully, it will not be too long before we are able to do this again!

It is always good to be given a tour around by someone who knows his or her church, and one of the first things that this guide showed me was something that I would probably not have picked up on. The fine east window is very unusual in that it does not have what you would normally expect. You would normally expect scenes from the life of Christ; the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, any one or all of these. Here though we have five panels telling the story of the parable of the talents; which although an important piece of Jesus’ teachings, would not normally be associated with pride of place in the east window.  

    Two stained glass windows to the east and south of the south chapel looked beautiful as the sun streamed in. One of these windows depicts Jesus, lamb in arms, as the Good Shepherd. The window to the south is a three panel affair showing three scenes from the life of Jesus. The nativity is central with two scene post crucifixion on either side. To the right, Jesus' body is taken down from the cross and wrapped in a shroud prior to burial, to the left the tomb is empty and an angel points upwards to Heaven; Christ is risen!

It is amazing what one can see sometimes in a stained glass panel. Close inspection of an inconspicuous panel depicting one of the disciples shows him carrying a disembodied human hand. I can normally hazard a guess at what might be going on here but this one has me stumped. An internet article suggested that the Victorians had a strange thing about severed human hands! Having read about post mortem photography in the past; nothing that they did would surprise me to be honest.

As with at Ashover, there is a fine depiction of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead “the girls is not dead but asleep”. Jesus is also depicted cradling a lamb in His arms, the lamb looking tenderly upwards towards Jesus. The neighbouring panel shows the Good Samaritan; the Samaritan, the enemies of the Jews, helping out a stricken Jew, who had been attacked, whilst a priest walks past, ignoring what is going on but whilst reading scripture!

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 This is a church where it is well worthwhile carefully scanning the stonework! To be found built in to the stonework is the 'Owd Man Of Bonsall'. This is a carving of a lead miner, complete with pick and basket. This was originally from the church at Bonsall, a few miles away. It was removed from Bonsall church during restoration and never returned.

  Several Anglo Saxon carvings are also mounted in to the wall to the south of the nave, and are also of great interest. These are gathered together and the focal point would be a depiction of a king and queen. The queen stands to the left and holds a large heart. The king holds a blanket. Three bizarre long nosed creatures surround the royalty, with a depiction of a crown also to be seen.

  There was much restoration of this church in Victorian times and during the 20th century. Major restoration between 1870 and 1874 was undertaken by George Gilbert Scott, a leading designer and restorer of churches and cathedrals. Several of these Saxon carvings were found buried whilst work was ongoing, being mounted in to the walls at that time.

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   There are some notable tombs to be seen here. An alabaster monument to one Ralph Gell who died in 1564 is in the north aisle. Gell rests with his first and second wives, with three sons and five daughters on the north side of the monument, five daughters and one son to the south.

   Another alabaster chest tomb is to Anthony Gell, son of Ralph, who has a long flowing gown, ruff, moustache and pointed beard. He has hands raised, not in prayer but holding something. It is very badly damaged but is liable to be a Bible or prayer book.

  A 16th century brass commemorates Thomas and Maud Blackwell, dated at 1525, eight sons and five daughters depicted below, all with hands raised in prayer. A short distance away a fabulously carved human skull, with wings and wearing a laurel wreath, looks out at the onlooker from the base of a wall plaque. This symbolises the mortality of man, with the wings denoting that time flies. All men will die but the laurel wreath symbolises victory, the victory in this case being over death as the deceased moves on to eternal life in heaven.

The church grounds are spacious and lined with attractive old cottages. There are very few gravestones here. A few still stand and a few are laid flat against the ground. For the most part though, the grounds have been cleared. There is though the tomb of Matthew Peat of Alderwasley, who died in December 1751, at an alleged age of 109 years!

A stone medieval coffin stands upright against the wall of the church, showing a human outline with cut out for the head and central drainage hole.

Possibly my favourite church in Derbyshire; simply a delight to have been able to see this! I have just mentioned a couple of churches on this page. Both churches are of great interest and I wanted to do them some sort of justice.

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If you have enjoyed looking at this, please click on the photograph immediately above on the right to be directed to my churchcrawl of churches in the Hope Valley, starting off with Hathersage. This page will open in another window.