“Chester nil, Chesterfield nil. So no goals there in the local derby..”
Des Lynam, Grandstand Final Score
“It’s a real b*ll ache to get to”
Unnamed taxi driver, Barnsley
I consider myself a good deal more au fait – an indeed au courant – with the lands and people of the north and midlands than the suave Brightonian Des Lynam, he of once TV ubiquity. But even I am never very sure where Chesterfield is. North? Midlands? East Midlands? Derbyshire? Certainly it is the latter. I know or rather I feel that on the morning I leave Sheffield in another blaze of autumn sunshine, and cross over the high ground to Chesterfield, that I am moving away from the England I know reasonably well and headed for towns and places that I really know only as names. I know the North East a little: I have travelled in Yorkshire extensively, often making incursions by night over the Pennine passes of Oldham and Halifax, crawling through the moor grass by night, face bootblacked, a dagger between my teeth and with false papers in my rucksack that claim I’m from Heckmondwike.
But to paraphrase Charlene’s ghastly number one of 1982, I’ve been to everywhere but I’ve never been to Chesterfield. And pace that Barnsley cabbie, getting there’s not that much of a pain, down there in the old unmentionables or otherwise. There’s a very quick and convenient train, there’s the luxurious X17 bus, or if you’re on shank’s pony, there’s the unerring if dull waymarker of the A61 and the Chesterfield Rd. It leaves the city, wends down Bramall Lane in sight of Sheffield United Blades football ground (scene of high excitement the day before when ‘the Blades’ won four nil and had four more goals disallowed) then up and along one of Sheffield’s many edges where a sudden and sublime view opens across the city and to the green Pennines beyond. It’s the kind of place local lad Richard Hawley had in mind when he wrote this dreamy urban pastorale
Somewhere around Dronfield, something curious happens to the vowels. On arrival in Chesterfield, where it’s market day, the lady hawking mushrooms and plums sounds very different from her South Yorkshire counterparts like the ‘dee-dars’ of Sheffield. The stalls and tables spread across the square, a broad piazza with an almost Italianate feel this afternoon, which is appropriate since Chesterfield is home to what is, acocridng to the council, ‘the most famous architectural distortion in the world, after the leaning tower of Pisa” You could, I think, pretty confidently substitute the words ‘most famous’ with ‘only’ that sentence. But then again, I may have overlooked the Tilted Chapel Of Bratislava or similar. In any event, the Church of Saint Mary and All Saints, Chesterfield has a spire which It twists through 45 degrees and leans 9½ feet from plumb.
Naturally there’s some unfeasible if entertaining old guff about how this occurred: a blacksmith from Bolsover did such a botched job of shoeing the devil’s hoof that Satan jumped up enraged and kicked the spire bandy. The truth is that they just used crap wood and it warped. Also the Black Death had made it even harder to get a decent tradesman out of Ye Olde Thomfons Local Directory than it is now. But it’s the facts of how they built it that proves the old adage that the truth is invariably more interesting than fiction
Go into the museum and there it is, a bloody great wooden wheel tall as a house called a windlass that men (and sometimes donkeys) would walk in, hamster in wheel style, which morion would be used to pull building materials up the construction to be built. It took sixty years to build St Mary’s and thus the windlass must have been dismantled and re-assembled many times, being raised story by storey as the tower grew higher – you can see the carved instructions on the wheel, Ikea flatpack furniture style – until eventually when it was completed, the huge wheel lay forgotten on the top story for 700 years until they re-discovered it after the second world war. And the wood used was a thousand years old and probably came from Sherwood Forest! Who needs the devil losing his rag at some incompetent Derbyshire blacksmithery? The truth is more interesting and almost as incredible
Veda, Peter and Amanda at the museum will tell you all about it if you drop by, and you should. It’s a fabulous object; just standing by it is a powerful experience and a terrific human story. History is not just about kings and queens and stately homes, it’s about work, workers and engineering. Which leads me to Holy Trinity Church, just five minutes up the Newbold Rd. This is where the then rector put the Jarrow men back in 1936. The caretaker was so good to them that they bought him a pipe in gratitude. I walked up in the chilly dusk, took a pic and found the grave there of one George Stephenson. Like the Jarrow marchers, he came down here for work from the North East; in his case, to build the railway to London. He liked Chesterfield so much that he never left. He died here and his body lies in the vault
“Yes…It’s not a bad old place” said Peter at the museum. And it certainly isn’t