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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Hopton & Carsington

Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007

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Hopton & Carsington:

Sheltered from the north wind by the wooded slopes of Carsington Pasture, the twin settlements of Hopton and Carsington have nestled quietly side by side along the northern fringes of the Henmore Valley, about two and a half miles south west of Wirksworth, for over a thousand years of recorded history – until recently! No, of course they haven’t moved – but during the final decade of the twentieth century their aspect and designation has been changed irrevocably - along with the surrounding landscape.

Prehistoric man left his mark hereabouts; the Romans mined lead here and built a substantial villa and settlement complex; the Anglo-Saxons settled the twin villages of Ghersintune (Carsington) and Opitune (Hopton), both recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086.

But although Carsington Pasture - a plateau riddled with ancient lead-mine workings which rises to 1000 feet above sea-level - has sheltered the twin settlements in the valley since the dawn of time, it now presides over a landscape which would be completely unrecogniseable to Roman, Saxon, or indeed, to anyone familiar with the area at any time before the 1980’s. This is when construction work began on Britains ninth largest fresh water reservoir, and transformed Hopton & Carsington forever from twin ancient lead-mining and agricultural communities to modern, desirable lakeside holiday resorts!

Carsington Water is a dual purpose reservoir which supplies water to three million people in three surrounding counties; it is owned and operated by Severn Trent Water Authority, and holds almost 8 billion gallons of water, mainly siphoned from the River Derwent.

Of course, the construction of the reservoir wasn’t all plain sailing, (no pun intended!), but was fraught with controversy and disaster.

The Henmore Valley Preservation Society valiantly fought Severn Trent’s proposals, but unlike the Ladybower and Derwent reservoirs which swallowed up the whole communities of Ashopton and Derwent, Carsington only submerged two farm-house buildings, and with disruption regarded as minimal, the Government backed project went ahead in 1979. Disaster followed when the almost completed dam collapsed in 1984, and the whole structure had to be levelled to it’s foundations, before work to a new design began in 1989. The reservoir was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1992, and has since attracted millions of visitors and won numerous awards for its show-case visitor centre and ultra-modern leisure facilities.

Carsington Water is rightly regarded as a Mecca for water sports enthusiasts, with sailing, canoing, sail-boarding and other purpose built facilities on the site – local yachtswoman Ellen McArthur learned to sail here, and both equipment and instructors are available for hire to budding sailors. There’s even excellent fly fishing for brown trout!

There are book and gift shops, tea-rooms, a café and restaurant, wildlife centre, cycle-hire, and an adventure playground for the younger generation. For the naturalist and the more adventurous, there are a number of specially created bird sanctuaries and reed-bed water gardens, and many rambles and trails accessible from the shoreline pathway, which also doubles as a cycle route that circumnavigates the reservoir. The whole lakeside has been sympathetically landscaped, and thousands of newly planted trees have matured to add depth and colour to the backcloth of the green Derbyshire hills, and there is little wonder that Carsington Water has become one of the East Midlands top tourist attractions.

The vast expanse of water to the south has not so much impacted on the villages themselves, rather it seems to have presaged a general and sympathetic rebuilding of the surrounding infrastructure, without detracting from their essential olde worlde charm and character. A new mile and a half long by-pass takes the main Wirksworth to Ashbourne road out of both villages, leaving them traffic-free backwaters, which have mostly remained unchanged for at least two centuries.

The dwellings forming the nucleus of Carsington village cluster together at Townend, and huddle around the tiny triangular village green, directly opposite the hillside church of St. Margaret’s at the foot of Ivet Low.

The church is shared by both villages and has a rare sundial on the south wall, with the inscription, `Reedified 1648 W I’ – which, after momentary bafflement I realised actually meant re-edified, and indeed, the church was re-edified, or restored, in 1648!

The quaint hillside graveyard slopes upward from the church, and on its tree-lined slopes, surmounted by a Saxon cross, lies the nettle-embowered tomb of `Sir Philip Littleton Gell, 1852-1926, President of the Chartered Company, and Lord of the manor of Hopton, Carsington and Middleton’.

An old Saxon preaching cross on the village green stands opposite the mullioned windowed, seventeenth century Glebe House, one of several of similar date, including the former Rectory, Swiers Farm and the village’s only pub, the early eighteenth century Miner’s Arms, which is noted for its excellent fare.

Of similar vintage is the village school which stands below the Miner’s Arms. A stone plaque above the entrance reads, `This School was Built & Given by Mrs. Temperance Gell of Hopton. For Twenty poor Children of Hopton and Carson: To Learn to Read, Write, and other proper work. Anno Dom: 1726.’

The school is just one of the many legacies endowed by the remarkable Gell family, Lords of the manor of Hopton since the fifteenth century, and owner occupiers long before that.

The Gells claimed descent from the Romans who mined lead here, and indeed, in 1792 workmen dug up a funerary urn bearing a Latin inscription, which translated read, `Gellius, Prefect of the Third Cohort of the Sixth Legion Victorius in Britain’.

The family seat of Hopton Hall, which lies along the road between the two villages is basically Elizabethan and was built by Anthony Gell, who also famously endowed the grammar school at Wirksworth which still bears his name in 1576. The hall was `Georganised’ by his great grandson Philip Gell around 1780, who added the Venetian windows, central pediment, and was also responsible for the elegant brick crinkle-crankle wall which runs alongside the main road, completely obscuring the hall from view.

The Gells were rich lead and stone merchants, and it was this same Philip Gell who famously constructed the `via Gellia’ road between his quarries at Hopton and the canal wharf at Cromford. His father was responsible for the almshouses which flank the roadside beyond the hall; originally built as a hospital, as the legend carved in the stone lintel indicates:

`This hospital was begun in 1719 by Philip Gell in his lifetime and by him endowed for the use of 2 poor men and two poor women of Hopton & Carson. 1722’.

Another ancestor, Sir John Gell, successfully commanded Parliamentary troops during the Civil War, and astonishingly, if the Roman ancestry is true, the Gell family residency in Derbyshire stretches back for almost two thousand years, and must rank as one of the longest in the land. Sadly, there have been no Gells at Hopton Hall since 1989, the last of the long line was Mrs. Aileen Gell, widow of Lt.Col. P.V.W.Gell, former High Sheriff of Derbyshire.

Amongst other noteable dwellings in the designated Conservation Area embraceing both villages is the Grade Two listed Townend House, with its gargoyles and curiously weathered stone carving, said to represent either the Gell Greyhound crest, or a Saxon dragon. Next to the Gell Almshouses is the pretty Tudor Cottage, whilst nearby Hopton House stands proudly in splendid gardens, opposite the Old Forge.

Manor Barn is one of several B & B’s, which include the excellent Henmore Grange complex, with full en-suite facilities, whilst further east, the unusually shaped Woodbank, with its many leaded windows and conical roof stands half hidden behind mature yew hedges.

The blending of ancient and modern, of the artificial with the natural, seems to work remarkably well in the Henmore Valley, rejuvenating the infrastructure and enhancing the ambience of the twin villages, whilst maintaining their essential charm and character.Severn Trent have attempted to turn the area into a flagship attraction for recreation and leisure, and despite the valiant rearguard action fought by the Henmore Valley Preservation Society, it must be conceded that they have succeeded. In so doing, they have created a thing of great beauty – which hopefully, along with the villages of Hopton & Carsington - will remain a joy forever.

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