Stoney Middleton is a village of astounding contrasts set on the north eastern fringes of the White Peak. The village sits astride the main A623 Chesterfield to Chapel-en-le-Frith road at the foot of Middleton Dale, it`s dwellings rising steeply on either side of the dale as if stacked one on top of the other, – and lining the sunless valley bottom road which winds its way upward beneath towering limestone cliffs, towards Foolow and Eyam.
The face that the village presents to the motorist on the A623 is scarred by industry, powdered by the dust from resident mines and quarries, shadowed by deep-cut cliffs and shrouded by trees and dense vegetation. It is an industrial face, pock-marked by mining, mostly for lead, which is what brought the Romans here two thousand years ago, – and which also accounted for the village`s relative prosperity during the 18th and 19th centuries, when at one time it had up to twelve public houses! Today it has two, The Moon and the Royal Oak, and most of the mining is done by Laporte Industries who have a massive complex less than a mile away to the south west.
However, the face presented to the walker away from the heavy traffic of the noisy main road has a very pleasing aspect, and in complete contrast, is a haven of rural tranquility and filled with pretty features.
A large stone cross dated 1846 and commemorating the repeal of the corn laws stands sentinel alongside the main road at it`s junction with one of the steepest High Streets in the land!
The Royal Oak stands almost opposite the octagonal Toll House which was built late in 1840 to collect dues from travellers on the new turnpike road, – it still collects dues, but these days it offers arguably the best fish and chips in the county in return!
There was no road up through Middleton Dale until the present route was blasted through and opened in 1840. Prior to this the old coach road climbed up from The Moon, a posting house at which the daily London to Manchester mail coach called, – and on up past Highfields, and over the moor to Tideswell. Today this route climbs steeply from John Hancock’s butcher’s shop, past the school from where there are panoramic views eastward to Curbar Edge, up past the Peak Caravan Park on Middleton Lane, and eventually to the Laporte site at around 900ft.
Directly beneath the high limestone cliffs alongside the main road, and in-between the Post Office which doubles as the Maid Marian Store, and the premises of G.& D. Mason, Carpenter and Joiner, is the famous `Lovers Leap’ Cafe, haunt of walkers and rock climbers for generations. This marks the place where in 1762 a jilted local girl, Hannah Baddeley, leapt from the eighty foot cliff, – and was miraculously saved by her billowing petticoats as she landed among brambles and suffered only cuts and bruises. Sadly, as parish records show, she died just two years later, aged 26.
Opposite the cafe stands the ancient Rock View with the stream running through the garden of Len Marsh and his wife who came here from Grindleford 40 years ago. Len recalls the days during the sixties when the main road was frequently closed to traffic while blasting took place in the nearby Goddards Quarry, currently the property of R.M.C.Roadstone Ltd. More recently he recalls the perils of last October when the stream became a raging torrent during heavy rains and flooded the village to a depth of three feet. “But it was a blessing in disguise”? chuckles 72 year old Len, explaining
the mineral deposits washed down with the flood did wonders for the garden,- and this year I’ve grown the biggest marrows I’ve ever had“?!
The pagan Brigante tribe who worshipped the local `spirits of the place’ are thought to have venerated the spot where a number of thermal springs met, hence the Celtic named `Nook’ on the north side of the dale. Close by stands Spa Cottage, and round a sharp bend in the narrow and aptly named Blind Lane near Nook House Farm, are the recently restored `Roman Baths‘ – still fed by a thermal spring which rises on the daleside beyond.
The natural rocky promontary which rises above the village is known as Castle Hill and historians believe this to be the site of a Norman `motte’, evidenced by the surrounding ditch. It is also reputedly the site of a Roman beacon. The Romans are traditionally thought to have had a small camp here, and a hoard of Roman coins was found in the vicinity in 1814.
Perhaps the most surprising and intriguing feature of the village is the unusual and possibly unique octagonal Parish Church of St. Martin, (the Patron Saint of cripples) standing in sylvan surroundings with it`s original 15th century tower rising amidst the trees. The tower is all that remains of the original church built by Joan Eyre.
Robert Eyre was the son of Sir Nicholas Eyre of Highlow Hall, and his wife Joan was Heiress to the Manor of Padley, which included Stoney Middleton. Local legend has it that their betrothal was linked to meetings at the Well of St. Martin, and local history asserts that this was the spot where Joan Eyre built the first church of St.Martin in thanksgiving for her husbands safe return from Agincourt in 1415. The octagonal nave was added in 1759 after a disastrous fire two years earlier had destroyed all but the tower. The small churchyard has a war memorial dedicated to the men of the village who fell in both world wars.
Hidden away behind the church at Stoney Middleton is a village of astounding contrasts set on the north eastern fringes of the White Peak. is the architectural twin-gabled gem of Middleton Hall, built in Elizabethan times around 1600, but much altered by Lord Denman in the 19th century when the tall gritstone chimney stacks were added. The Denmans, along with the Dukes of Devonshire were the principal landowners at that time, and the most renowned Denman of them all was a lawyer who became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1832. His predecessor was Master of the Rolls until his recent death.
A culverted stream runs the length of the village and surfaces here beside the Old Corn Mill, now home to William Lennon & Son, footwear manufacturers, and one of the oldest buildings in the village, – and the tallest at five stories high!
The manufacture of footwear is a village tradition which began in the late 18th century and was supplied by a tannery at Grindleford. By 1835 there were four factories in Stoney Middleton, and though the buildings remain, they are put to other uses, and so Lennon’s can truly be said to be the `sole’ survivors of this village tradition!
The Bank climbs steeply from The Nook with quaint cottages on either side and twists it`s way up to the Wesleyan Reform Chapel, which with its adjacent corner Chapel Gardens, overlooks the main road through the village. Higher still is the footpath to Eyam which leads past the famous Riley Graves, a legacy of the Great Plague, and the old coach road to Eyam which boasts wonderful views down the Derwent Valley.
The character of the village is enhanced by the recent addition of a landscaped garden area and seating beside the toll-house, with a wooden footbridge across the brook nearby. The surrounding environment has also had a welcome face-lift with the thinning out of the dense woodland and vegetation which flanks the roadside further up the dale beyond the petrol station, and the right turn to Eyam.
Despite this cosmetic surgery Stoney Middleton remains an industrial village, though one would be hard pressed to find another `industrial’ village so full of such individual charm and character.
This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writerTom Bates