The ancient village of Bonsall sits handsomely amidst the limestone hills two miles south west of Matlock and about the same distance from the A6 at Cromford, from where it is best approached along the A5012 which winds steadily up the Via Gellia valley on its way to Grangemill, and eventually to Buxton. The road to Bonsall climbs northward from beside the Via Gellia Mill and up the steep Clatterway before levelling out at the Victorian gothic Fountain beside the village recreation area, currently part of a village regeneration scheme.
The Dale branches to the left whilst the main road continues up Yeoman Street to the Market Cross in the centre of the village, and then twists and turns up High Street towards Uppertown before winding it’s way over Bonsall Moor towards Winster.
Bonsall owes it’s name to an Anglian settler named Bunt, and `Bunteshalle’ ,- a `nook of land belonging to Bunt’ was a thriving community long before it was mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1087.
The village owes its size and relative prosperity almost exclusively to the numerous industries which once flourished beside the Bonsall Brook, and to the now defunct lead mining industry which two centuries ago provided the area’s main employment.
Indeed, the Bonsall Brook is responsible for the shape of the village which follows every twist of the stream from it’s rising at the highest point above Uppertown to it’s cascading plunge down the Clatterway. Though these days the brook is culverted and runs beneath High Street and Yeoman Street before emerging beside the Clatterway, it was once a major feature of the village with a series of picturesque stone bridges allowing access to the cottages from the street.
The Bonsall Brook established the village’s industrial connection with Cromford and when the lead mining industry in the area declined during the late 18th century many of the inhabitants found alternative work in the textile mills established by Arkwright at Cromford and Via Gellia, for in fact it was the Bonsall Brook,- and NOT the River Derwent whose power was harnessed by Arkwright to drive the wheels and shuttles of his first factory at Cromford in 1771.
The brook also powered a corn mill, a joinery mill, a mill where Blue John stone was shaped and polished, and a colour mill at the bottom of the Clatterway. These mill industries are long since gone but the Via Gellia Mill which gave its name to the famous Viyella brand of textiles produced there was converted and refurbished in 1986 and now provides a working environment for 26 small businesses.
With the advent of Arkwright’s factories Bonsall became an important centre for frame-knitting and the pioneering `cottage industry’ was born with around 400 frame knitters, mostly manufacturing hosiery, setting up in their homes.The characteristic long windows of the frame-knitters can still be seen beneath the eaves of a number of cottages today.
Like most of Derbyshire’s White Peak villages Bonsall is best explored on foot and this delightfully intriguing hill-village which seems to grow out of the limestone has hidden surprises around many corners.
Spectacular cliff top paths climb the surrounding hills linking the originally separate settlements of Nether Bonsall and Upper Bonsall together and forming a network which both encloses and criss-crosses the entire parish. The jewel in Bonsall’s crown is the Parish Church of St.James whose battlemented tower rises proudly on the hillside high above Yeoman Street. Built originally about 1230, it was extensively restored by Ewan Christian in 1863.
John Wesley preached from atop the thirteen circular steps of the stone cross in the Market Place, and his followers quenched their thirst in the King’s Head close by where they would have seen the initials of the first landlord, Anthony Abell alongside the date 1677 carved above the entrance.
At the height of it’s lead mining prosperity Bonsall had more than a dozen pubs, but today only two remain, the aforementioned King’s Head and The Barley Mow, a very pleasant and cosy hostelry nestling snugly at the end of The Dale. Landlord Alan Webster conducts guided walks from here at weekends, whilst wife Anne provides superb home cooking for hungry visitors. Beyond the Barley Mow the narrow road leads to Uppertown, whilst an ancient lane leads off to Slaley and another winds gently through Horsedale.
Just before the second world war there were 26 shops in Bonsall and you could buy anything from a bag of fish & chips to a new bicycle. Sadly they have all gone, butchers, bakers, and candle makers, along with the two tea-rooms and several grocers shops. These days there is just Hollies Farm at Uppertown, which is not only a renowned plant nursery and garden lovers paradise, but also a village general store which sells everything, including fresh fruit and veg, – and doubles as a Post Office, replacing the one at The Cross which closed in 1995.
The oldest dwelling must be the charming Elizabethan Manor House in High Street, whilst perhaps the most imposing and mysterious is the high-walled Rectory standing beyond St. James’ and at the upper end of Church Street, where the old road to Cromford is now just a rough track. Opposite the churchyard entrance Ember Lane with its row of typical Derbyshire limestone cottages begins its journey over Masson to join Salter Lane on its way to Matlock.
From the yew-tree guarded terraced churchyard there are magnificent views of the surrounding hills, and down into the village where directly below can be seen the Victorian Gothic Fountain, dedicated to Henry Ford of Manchester and restored by the Parish Council in 1993.
Further along The Dale is the Wesleyan Reform Chapel of 1893, and nearby stands the Village Hall, built originally as a school by Robert Ferne in 1718, whilst the present primary school stands high above beside St.Martins on Church Street.
There are a number of wells in and around the village and these are dressed annually during the Wakes festivities when a village carnival marks the Feast of St.James, usually on the Saturday before the first Monday in August.
Over the centuries Bonsall has presented an ever changing face to the world; it’s rugged countenance is both pock-marked by the scars of it’s industrial past and handsomely sculptured by successive generations of it’s skilful artisans, in whose capable and competent hands the landscape of this `nook of land belonging to Bunt’ is now being shaped into the Bonsall of tomorrow.