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Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007
“I turned in the direction of the sound, and there amongst the romantic hills, whose changes and aspect I had ceased to note an hour ago, I saw a hamlet and a spire. All the valley at my right hand was full of pasture fields, and corn fields, and woods, and a glittering stream ran zig-zag through the varying shades of green.”
This is the heroine’s introduction to Hathersage - or ‘Morton’ as it is called in Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th century novel ‘Jane Eyre’, and the sound that attracted Jane was the chiming of the church clock.
It was a chime that Charlotte Bronte knew well, for the 30 year-old Yorkshire lass from Haworth had stayed with her former school-friend Ellen Nussey at the Vicarage for three weeks in the summer of 1845, where Ellen’s brother Henry was from 1845 to 1847 the vicar of St. Michael and All Angels Parish Church.
Charlotte Bronte wrote `Jane Eyre’ the year after her visit and it was published in 1847 to great acclaim.
It is widely accepted that Miss.Bronte based the setting of her novel in and around Hathersage – where the prominent Eyre family had been Lords of the Manor for 800 years - and the village has become a place of literary pilgrimage for Bronte lovers the world over.
These ‘romantic hills’ also echo with the legend of Robin Hood who was reputedly born eight miles away at Loxley - and his faithful leiutenant Little John, for Hathersage is said to be Little John’s home village.
His giant-sized grave measuring ten feet in length lies between two yew trees opposite the church porch in the graveyard on the hill overlooking the village, and in the very shadow of St. Michael’s octagonal spire.
Local squire Captain James Shuttleworth of Hathersage Hall together with his cousin Walter Spencer Stanhope of Cannon Hall, Barnsley opened the grave in 1784 and at a depth of two metres discovered a human thigh bone thirty two inches long! Spencer Stanhope had earlier removed the longbow, ancient green foresters cap and a portion of chain mail, all of which had been hanging for centuries in Hathersage church and which had reputedly belonged to Little John, to Cannon Hall.
Little wonder then that Hathersage is one of Derbyshire’s most popular tourist villages, but it has far more to commend it than just ancient legend and literary fiction, for it is an attractive, prosperous and busy gritstone hill village of charm and character, perched rather picturesquely on a hillside between the soaring Stanage Edge which fills the horizon to the east, and the Derwent Valley far below to the south and west. It lies equidistant between Buxton and Sheffield on the main A625 within the Peak National Park and is part of the so-called Sheffield Commuter Belt which includes Grindleford, Calver, Froggat, and others along the Derwent Valley.
At Domesday the Manor of ‘Hereseige’, meaning ‘ridge settlement’, was held by ‘Lavenot and Levric with two carucates of land’ and was built around an ancient stronghold and sacred pagan site on the hill now occupied by St. Michael’s Church.
The commanding views from the superbly kept churchyard add a natural majesty and a magical peace and tranquility to an atmosphere redolent with age and romance.
The church itself is a beautiful example of the ‘Decorated’ period of architecture from the mid-fourteenth century.
The earliest mention of a church here occurs in the reign of Henry 1 in the year 1130 when Richard Basset and his wife Maud founded the Priory of Launde in Leicestershire and endowed it with seventeen churches, including one at Hathersage. The list of parish priests begins in 1281 but much of the present church dates from 1381 and it was extensively re-built by Sir Robert Eyre following his return from the Battle of Agincourt where he and his father Sir Nicholas Eyre and a company of local men had distinguished themselves on the famous field of St.Crispin’s Day in 1415.
The porch was added around 1500 by Robert Eyre’s son and there are some excellent memorial brasses to the Eyre family inside the church.
Robert Eyre is said to have built seven houses in and around Hathersage, one for each of his seven sons and all within sight of each other, and all within sight of his own home, North Lees Hall, which Charlotte Bronte used as her model for `Thornfield’ in her ‘Jane Eyre’ novel.
Agriculture has been the main employement here down the centuries but major changes occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries when Hathersage became a flourishing industrial centre for the manufacture of buttons, needles, pins and metal drawn wire.
Manchester industrialist Henry Crocker converted the two water powered mills that already existed and built three more so that by the early nineteenth century five steam powered mills dominated the economy and changed the sleepy country village into an industrial suburb of Sheffield, with black smoke polluting the atmosphere.
Thankfully the industry declined and by the end of the nineteenth century the mills stood idle. Today they exist as a reminder of a bygone age, now converted into either workshops or luxury flats.
Hathersage was also a centre for the production of millstones, and a number of them, long since abandoned, can be found amongst the surrounding hills.
The railway came to Hathersage in 1894 when the Midland opened the Manchester to Sheffield line through the Hope Valley, and new bridges and a station was built some distance to the south. In the intervening years of the twentieth century both housing and modern industry have eaten up the space between the station and the old village.
Hathersage boasts a superb outdoor swimming pool, open to the public during the summer months, and there are several good hostelries including the sixteenth century George Hotel with its Bronte connections, the cosy Hathersage Inn, with the inevitable Little John Inn a short distance away.
Modern Hathersage is a socially active thriving community with facilities normally found in small provincial towns; banks, a post office, craft shops and galleries, cafes and restaurants, good schools and shops, and no discernible blots on the landscape. It has facilities for all sports, and hockey, soccer, and cricket teams all represent the village in local leagues. There is excellent rock climbing to be had up on Stanage Edge and some spectacular walking in the hills surrounding the village. Or like countless feet have done down the centuries, make the pilgrimage down School Lane and up the steep Church Bank to the peaceful and romantic churchyard setting, and there beside Little John’s grave, look around in wonder at the surrounding Derbyshire countryside, and give thanks for all that you see.