The village of Higham shares the same parish with the more ancient neighbouring village of Shirland, and although the name Higham is Saxon in origin, Shirland is the older of the two settlements and is the only one of the two mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1087 when the manor belonged to William Peverel, the bastard son of William the Conqueror.
Originally one manor, the two neighbouring settlements have been a united parish for many centuries, although today they are as different as chalk and cheese in both character and appearance.
Higham is virtually a single-street linear village which sits astride the old Roman Road from Derby to Chesterfield, some fifteen miles north of the former and seven and a half miles south of the latter, and for most of the eight hundred years of its existence it has been essentially a farming community.
Modern motorists will be familiar with the major road which runs due south from Clay Cross following the route of the old Chesterfield – Derby turnpike across what is known locally as Stretton Top. The road runs along the crest of a sandstone ridge which virtually divides the county in half geographically, with the coal measures to the east and the rich verdant pastures of the Amber Valley, and the undulating landscape of the Derbyshire Dales to the west.
At Higham this modern road turns sharply left just past the Greyhound Inn and runs through Shirland towards Alfreton, whereas the old Roman road of Ryknield Street carried straight on along what is now Higham Main Street, then along Belper Road to Oakerthorpe and the Roman camp at Pentrich, which lies just three miles away to the south.
Higham has no place of worship, its former Methodist Chapel, built by John Smedley of Matlock Hydro fame in 1852 having been converted into a private dwelling, whilst the Anglican parish church of St. Leonard’s, whose foundations were laid in 1220 by Sir Henry de Grey, stands on the Shirland side of the boundary between the two villages. The church was built during the fourteenth century and completely restored in 1848. The Grey’s were Lords of the Manor for two hundred years from the mid thirteenth century, and Sir John de Grey built the church on land opposite the Manor House, which is thought to have stood on the site of the present Manor Farm.
The Higham market cross which stands by the roadside on Main Street is also a legacy of Sir Henry de Grey, who obtained a market and fair charter for Higham as early as 1243, one of the earliest in Derbyshire and nine years earlier than nearby rivals, Alfreton.
Higham market flourished with a market day held each Thursday for five hundred years, whilst the annual fair was fixed in the charter ‘for the eve, the day, and the morrow’ of the Feast of St. Peter, (August 1st).In 1785 the Higham market ceased trading, and its ancient market house was demolished. The current market cross had its plinth and steps rebuilt and moved slightly in the Georgian era, and the shaft was rebuilt in 1856.
The Greys were the last resident Lords of the Manor, and their successors, the powerful Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury acquired the manor in the late fifteenth century. Around this time the Revell family built a large house on the west bank of the River Amber just outside the parish, and when the estate was divided up amongst various members of the Shrewsbury family early in the seventeenth century, the Revells became the major landowners.
Remnants of the Revells fifteenth century house remain in the present Ogston Hall, which has been altered and added to in each successive century since, but the male line of the Revells died out and the entire estate passed by marriage to the Turbutts.
Throughout the eighteenth century Higham remained an agricultural community, with most of its dwellings and around twenty farms and smallholdings strung out along the narrow sandstone ridge, along which the Roman legions had marched two thousand years ago. A line of springs ran the length of the ridge and provided each dwelling with its own water supply, and a number of wells can still be seen in the gardens of the honey-coloured stone dwellings today, many of which date from early Tudor times.
The National Gazetteer of 1868 describes Higham as, ‘a large ancient village, situated on the Roman Icknield Street, formerly a market town, but has considerably decreased of late. Many of the inhabitants are employed in stocking-weaving. There is an old cross in the centre of the market-place, and a fair is held on the first Wednesday after New Years Day’.
The ‘fair’ referred to was an annual Cattle Fair which flourished for about a century, until the outbreak of the second world war, signifying that along with its twenty farms and its market, Higham was a centre for agriculture.
The long windows of the stocking-weavers premises can still be seen on the narrow medieval Strettea Lane, which runs from Higham Main Street to join the A61. With the advent of railways and collieries a long period of agricultural depression began, and by 1936 farm rents had reached their lowest for sixty years. With taxation and estate duties rising rapidly during the same period, cottage properties in Higham ceased to be economically viable, and most of the estate properties in the village were sold, mainly to the occupants.
The Higham of today is rightly designated a conservation area, and a walk along the old Roman road from Higham post-office at the junction of Chesterfield Road and Main Street, to Cliffe Farm at the other end of the village will reveal why.
A rich assortment of ancient honey-coloured stone cottages and farmhouses line the roadside, those on the west, like the splendid Ash Tree farm, enjoying breathtaking views across the Amber Valley to Crich Stand on the westerm horizon. Of the many, it is worth noting that Bull Farm is centuries older than its date stone of 1673 suggests; this was a rebuilding date, for its original fifteenth century cruck-timber frame has been covered by stone cladding.
In a previous incarnation it was the ‘Black Bull Inn’, for centuries the social centre of the village, and in this relatively quiet ‘conservation area’ of today, it is hard to believe that in the eighteenth century when the Derby to Sheffield coaches changed here, the Black Bull had its own ballroom – and a small theatre where touring companies regularly performed on market day!
The narrow sandstone ridge drops down into the picturesque Amber Valley towards Oakerthorpe, and gazing at the splendid views westward from here, one can perhaps readily speculate why the Romans chose this scenic route!