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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Ashbourne - The `Gateway to Dovedale'

Posted Sunday, June 3, 2007

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Tom Bates `Picture of Ashbourne'

The `Pride of the Peak’ & the `Gateway to Dovedale’

The pleasant market town of Ashbourne is known as the Gateway to Dovedale, one of Derbyshire’s picturesque and most visited beautiful dales.

The town is also generally regarded as the southern entrance to the wonderful and varied landscape of Derbyshire’s White Peak area and lies about ten miles to the south of the Peak District National Park.

Author James Croston writing in 1868 described Ashbourne as;

`One of the most agreeable country towns in the Kingdom'

“One of the most agreeable country towns in the kingdom” - and went on to wax lyrical about the attractions of the place:

“There is such an air of staid, old fashioned comfort and respectability about it; at the first glance you would imagine it to be an ancient ecclesiastical city, and this idea is strengthened on beholding its magnificent Gothic church which is quite cathedral-like in its proportions. The buildings too have a venerable and stately appearance that well accords with the dignity of such a place and ever and anon as you pass along your eye is caught by some quaintly mullioned window, or old projecting gable”.

Today Ashbourne is little changed and remains one of the most `agreeable country towns in the kingdom’, and it still gives an impression to the visitor of a rather venerable, stately, and very respectable market town with an interesting history and excellent recreational and shopping facilities.

The Town's History

First mentioned in the Domesday Book as `Esseburne’, there was a church on the site of the present St. Oswald’s Parish Church in early Saxon times, the present fabric being mainly 13th century. Building commenced in 1271 during the reign of Henry 3rd and was completed during the reign of his son and successor Edward 1st.

St. Oswald’s parish Church, which novelist George Eliot described as `the finest mere parish church in the entire kingdom’ is a magnificent cruciform structure with a wonderful spire which climbs to a height of 212 feet, and is known as `the Pride of the Peak’.

The chancel is the oldest part and was built in 1220 and contains twelve superb lancet windows and the excellent canopied tomb of Robert de Kniveton, who died in 1471.

The church is noted for its fabulous stained glass windows and a wealth of fine monuments which include a Knight in armour and his lady in 15th century costume, - and one of the finest marble monuments in the land – to five year old Penelope Boothby, which was modelled in Carrara Marble by Thomas Banks RA. in 1791. Also on display in St. Oswald’s Chapel are three cannon balls which were fired at the church during the civil war by Parliamentary troops!

The town is noted for its ancient cobbled market, its fine architecture and its literary connections, and has that rare combination of medieval street layout with some excellent Georgian buildings, especially around the town centre which is designated as a Conservation Area.

St. John Street, which runs into Church Street and has one of the last remaining cross-street gallows signs in Britain has been described as `architecturally the best street in Derbyshire’.

Literary Connections and Famous Folk!

The towns literary and religious connections are many and varied:

John Wesley preached here, and Thomas Moore and Rousseau both lived in Ashbourne, whilst the famous man-of-letters, Dr. Johnson stayed regularly at the Green Man Inn along with his friend James Boswell.

The town was also famously frequented by Izaak Walton, author of the `Complete Angler’ who, along with his close friend Charles Cotton famously fished the River Dove.

Novelist George Eliot, who once lived at nearby Wirksworth was a well-known figure about town two centuries ago and based the fictional town of `Oakbourne’ in the novel Adam Bede, on Ashbourne.

The magnificent Tudor building near the church was once the home of the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, founded in 1585 by Sir Thomas Cockayne, whose monument can be found in St. Oswalds Church.

Standing beside the old school in Church Street is the Grey House, a wonderful example of the architectural work of Joseph Pickford of Derby, whilst standing directly opposite is The Mansion, another early 18th century house also by Pickford which was once the home of Dr. John Taylor who was visited frequently here by Dr. Johnson between 1734 and 1784.

Ashbourne Hall, once the family home of the Cockaynes is now used as the Public Library; Prince Charles Edward Stuart or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was known, stayed here in 1745 on his way to and from Derby at the head of his six-thousand strong `rabble army’ during the Jacobite Rebellion.

Antiques & Architecture

Ashbourne has an excellent reputation for its abundance of antique shops, and boasts first-class recreational and shopping facilities, with beautifully landscaped parks and gardens, and a fine modern leisure centre complete with swimming pool, squash courts ansd gymnasium.

The town’s ameneties include a number of wonderful walks through the verdant parks and memorial gardens, and playing fields with facilities for tennis, bowls, cricket, hockey, football, swimming – and fishing.

The cobbled and sloping Market Place is the venue for a twice-weekly vibrant and colourful country market, which brings in many visitors from outlying rural villages and farms, and specialises in local produce with many bargains for visitors and residents alike!

Ashbourne has plenty of other attractions too, one is its speciality for making the famous Ashbourne Gingerbread, manufactured and sold from the mock Tudor `Gingerbread House’ on St. Johns Street in the town centre – and Ashbourne Water, extracted and bottled from springs near the town and sold commercially all over Europe.

Annual events which bring crowds of thousands to Ashbourne include the Highland Gathering every July, which brings hordes of visitors from north of the border, including many from the Charles Edward Stuart Society – and the annual Royal Shrovetide Football Game, which is worth a special mention here:-

The Royal Shrovetide Football Game

This extaordinary and somewhat barbaric `sporting event’ began in medieval times and is held annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, drawing crowds of thousands to Ashbourne every year. The so-called teams consist of those who live north of Henmore Brook which runs through the town, who are known as the `Uppards’ and those who live to the south, known as the `Downards’.

To start the game the ball, which is made of leather filled with tightly packed cork shavings, is `turned up’ or thrown into the crowd by a celebrity and the two teams have to fight for it and try to score a goal. The respective `goals’ are at Sturton Mill and Clifton Mill, which ensures that players must inevitably plunge into the brook!

In the unlikely event of a goal being scored before 5pm a new ball is `turned up’ and play continues until dark. Scoring is so rare that anyone who scores is allowed to keep the ball as a trophy, thus new ones are made every year. In 1928 the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward V111 turned up the ball, which gave the annual fixture its `Royal’ title, and our current Prince of Wales, Charles, repeated the royal duty three years ago in 2003 in front of record crowds.

But whether you visit Ashbourne for the `Royal Game’ in April or the Highland Gathering in July or at any other time of the year, you will find that it has something for everyone in a welcoming and fascinating historical town, which, as James Croston wrote a hundred and fifty years ago, is one of the most agreeable country towns in the kingdom!

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