Nestling in a bowl of hills at the northern end of the beautiful Ecclesbourne Valley about six miles south of Matlock and bisected by the Cromford to Ashbourne road, Wirksworth is one of the oldest settlements in the county, having been almost continuously occupied for at least two thousand years.
It has a long and fluctuating history, recorded from early Saxon times. The Romans mined lead here, but when they arrived around 55 – 60 AD, the Iron Age Celts already had an established local economy, with two ancient trading routes, later used by the Anglo-Saxon’s as `Portwegs’ or Portways, intersecting at a place occupied today by Wirksworth’s enchanting, crazily- tilted Market Place.
The Saxons gave it it’s name, `Woerc’s -worth’ – an enclosure belonging to Woerc – and built it’s first church, on the site of the present parish church of St. Mary. The pagan Danes tore part of it down when they sacked the nearby Mercian capital at Repton in 873 AD, and the rule of Danelaw created the Soke & Wapentake of Wirksworth, or `Werchesvorde’ , as it was later referred to in the Domesday Book of 1086.
The Normans mined both lead and silver here during the 11th and 12th centuries, and commenced the rebuilding of the church in 1272. Lead mining continued to provide prosperity to Wirksworth, which reached it’s peak of prominence in Tudor times, being the second largest town (next to Derby) in the whole of the county.
Much of it’s delightful early Georgian architecture is a product of the prosperous lead-mining years of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when it was a veritable boom town of the Industrial Revolution.
The coming of the railways and the corresponding rise in the manufacture of goods for the commercial market offset the demise of lead mining from the mid-nineteenth century. But when the lead mining all but ceased in the late Victorian era, and small scale limestone quarrying began, there was a mass exodus as Wirksworth’s population plumetted, along with it’s importance and social status.
By 1901 it had fallen from being the 2nd most populous place to 33rd on the list, and throughout the 20th century, modern quarrying methods made hundreds of local men redundant. When the railway finally closed it’s passenger service in 1947, it signalled a decline which, by the end of the 1950’s had rendered Wirksworth a virtual ghost town.
As Frank Priestley says in his excellent book, `The Wirksworth Saga‘, “As quarrying intensified, noise and dust invaded the very heart of the town. Not surprisingly, those who were able to do so, left the town. As businesses moved away, jobs were lost. Fine old houses were either left empty or they were occupied by people who could not afford to keep them in good repair.
The town, which over many centuries had been one of the finest in Derbyshire, was sinking fast. Many of it’s building were now literally falling down. However, in 1978 the town was selected by the Monument Trust for regeneration and the Wirksworth Project, administered by the Civic Trust, was born”?.
Nowadays a revitalised Wirksworth is fast becoming an important tourist centre, and rewards it’s visitors with much of interest and fascination, from the enchanting narrow streets and alleyways, with views of surrounding roof-scapes and distant green hills, to the rich architectural heritage of it’s restored Georgian splendour.
The magnificent cruciform parish church of St. Mary, founded in 653 AD by an Anglo-Saxon monk named Betti, stands sedately in the centre of a charming cathedral-type circular close, and is itself encircled by the paved and cobbled Church Walk, with entrances leading from it through a variety of alleyways into the surrounding town streets.
The ancient ceremony of `Clypping the Church‘ – which is thought to pre-date the Christian era – takes place annually on the Sunday following the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th, when the congregation encircle the church and link hands, thus symbolically and literally `embracing’ the church.
St.Mary’s has been much restored over the centuries and successive restorations have unearthed many ancient relics, including fragments of the early Saxon church and one of Britain’s most important pieces of Anglo-Saxon sculpture – an elaborately carved coffin lid known as the Wirksworth Stone, believed to be from the grave of the church’s founder, the Saxon Monk Betti.
Outside the church stand two open medieval stone coffins, whilst inside is a rare Geneva Bible from 1602, and some fine alabaster tombs of the Gell family, including the significant tomb chest of Anthony Gell (d1583), who founded the Free Grammar School in 1576 and endowed the quaint Almshouses on Church Walk.
Embedded in the wall of the south transept is the Saxon carving of a lead miner, complete with pick and kibble which was brought from nearby Bonsall in 1876. Affectionately known as `t’owd man’, it has become synonymous with Wirksworth and is regarded by most as an emblem of the town, which has been called `the Lead-Mining Capital of England’.
The Barmote Court, the oldest industrial court in the world with much of its terminology and regulations dating from Saxon times, still meets twice annually at the Moot Hall in Chapel Lane as it is known to have done since 1266, and probably for much longer. A standard bronze measuring dish holding 14 pints of ore and presented by Henry V111 in 1512 hangs on the wall. By tradition the twelve jurymen are provided with bread, cheese and beer, and afterwards long clay pipes are smoked, and have become greatly prized collector’s items.
The ancient custom of well dressing takes place here with nine wells being dressed annually on late spring bank holiday Saturday, which is also the time of the town’s annual carnival, and modern Wirksworth also boasts an annual Arts Festival in September.
The town has several literary connections, being the `Snowfield’ in the novel, `Adam Bede’ by George Eliot and the home of Eliot’s aunt, Elizabeth Evans, whose cottage home still stands on the Derby Road.
Baroness Orczy (1865-1947), author of `The Scarlet Pimpernel’ featured the Crown Inn, a former coaching inn which overlooks the market place, in her novel, `Beau Brocade’, and D H Lawrence’s mother’s family, the Beardsall’s were natives of the town. Lawrence and his German born wife Freida lived at nearby Mountain Cottage from May 1918 for a year, and were frequently seen in the town.
Wirksworth’s fascinating history is wonderfully well documented and displayed at the excellent Heritage Centre, a converted former silk and velvet mill in Crown Yard just off the market place. Here visitors will find visual displays telling the Wirksworth Story, lots of interesting local literature and souvineers, and an excellent cafÃ© serving food and refreshments.
Another valuable resource is the National Stone Centre situated alongside the High Peak Trail, just off Porter Lane, which has a permanent indoor exhibition, `The Story of Stone’, and mineral specimens from around the world can be purchased at The Rock Shop. Outside there are trails over ancient fossil reefs, including one of the finest examples in England of a coral reef from the carboniferous period.
Daniel Defoe, visiting in 1725, wrote, “The town of Wirksworth is a kind of Market for Lead, the like not known anywhere else that I know of.”?. He described the lead miners as, ” a rude, boorish kind of people…they are a bold, daring and even desparate kind of fellows in their search into the bowels of the earth; for no people in the world outdo them?”.
Defoe, Eliot, Lawrence, the Arkwrights, the Gells – and the lead miners, are long since gone and remain only as memories, along with the cotton, silk and velvet mills, the hat factory, china works, the railway and many other vestiges of Wirksworth’s long and colourful history. But the legacy left behind is perhaps best described by Frank Priestley in the conclusion to his Wirksworth Saga:
“During the past two millennia Wirksworth has been swept by waves of invaders. It has seen great industries rise and fall. Some of its inhabitants have gained wealth, many have known poverty. Fine houses have been built, and the town has been almost brought to its knees. But it has survived. Not only survived, but prospered. How did this happen?
It was not because of lead, limestone, or Arwright’s mills, nor was it due to those who left the town.
Wirksworth is what it is today because of the character of those who stayed and lived in the town and demonstrated such qualities as perseverance. Adaptability and ambition. Surely these were the qualities recognised by defoe when he said `No people in the world out-do them”?.
The Wirksworth Project has literally worked wonders for Wirksworth, and in recent years it has risen magnificently like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of it’s own decline. The project’s success was recognised in 1983 by the European Community when the town was awarded the prestigious Europa Nostra Medal. Its wealth of architectural and historical heritage having been saved by a well coordinated series of restoration projects incorporating the Civic Trust, Sainsbury’s Wirksworth Project and the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust – who together with the townspeople, have restored Wirksworth’s civic pride.