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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Oaker & Snitterton

Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007

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Oaker (or `Oker') & Snitterton:

Derbyshire, with its richly varied and diverse landscape, is host to many small picturesque villages, each set against a backcloth of the magnificent surrounding countryside. However, there are others, more obscure but equally picturesque `hidden gems’ – tiny hamlets, haunted by artists and poets which both the tourist industry and the general public pass by, unaware of either their existence or their unique charm and beauty.

Two such `hidden gems’, Oaker (or Oker) and Snitterton, sit side by side in the Derwent Valley between Matlock and Darley Dale, far enough away from the beaten track to remain almost unnoticed, and unspoilt by the urban sprawl of either town, yet only a mile or so from both.

The pretty little hillside village of Oaker, which on some old Victorian maps is shown as `Oakerside’, straggles along the southern slopes of Oaker Hill, overlooking the lower, and broader pastoral meadows of Wensley Dale, with it’s babbling brook running gently down to meet the River Derwent at the adjoining hamlet of Snitterton. At this point, the appropriately named Brookvale House, home and studio of well known local artist Pollyanna Pickering, sits by the roadside between the two hamlets.

Oaker gets its name from the Romans, who mined lead hereabouts, and had a small encampment and sentry post atop what they named `the hill of Occurus’. Even today, Oaker Hill and its famous Sycamore tree is a familiar landmark to thousands of motorists and rail passengers who acknowledge it daily as they pass by on either the A6 or the railway line along the Derwent Valley between Matlock and Bakewell.

One of England’s favourite poets, William Wordsworth, immortalised the Sycamore tree on Oaker Hill in an early 19th century sonnet.

The poet had been on a visit to Dovedale, and local legend has it that on his return journey he spent the night at a cottage in Snitterton, whose single north facing window looked directly toward the Sycamore tree on the nearby hilltop, and here he composed his sonnet. It tells the tale of two local brothers, Will and Tom Shore, who each planted a Sycamore tree atop the hill. The brothers quarrelled and went their separate ways; Will who stayed, flourished and prospered, whilst Tom who left, fell into penury and perished, and appropriately his tree withered and died. Hence for almost two hundred years, there has been a single Sycamore tree standing proud and alone on the summit of Oaker Hill.

At the foot of the hill, almost directly beneath the tree, `Will Shore’s Lane’ climbs upward from the Wensley road, beside the former Methodist Chapel.

Village and hamlet are both bisected by a minor road which runs between Matlock Bridge and Cross Green, near Wensley on the B5057.

This is an ancient pack-horse route which was in existence for many centuries prior to the Nottingham to Newhaven turnpike following the same route in 1759.

By the time of Wordsworth’s first visit to the area thirty two years later, a twice daily passenger mail-coach between Matlock and Buxton ran along this road, and it remained the best route westward from Matlock until the A6 was built early the following century.

These days the road through Snitterton and Oaker carries perhaps slightly more importance than it does traffic, for significantly it marks the boundary of the Peak National Park.

Wordsworth, on his second, sonnet-writing visit in the 1820’s, would have found Snitterton a very different place than it is today.

Though scant record remains, it is said by locals to have had three pubs, and boasted such attractions as cock fighting and bull-baiting, indeed the old Bull Ring where the unfortunate bulls were tethered and set upon by dogs, still remains in testimony to a bygone, and more barbaric age.

Evidence of Roman activity in the area includes the discovery of a Roman anular brooch and pin near the well-head in upper Wensley Dale, and the finding of Roman coins on Oaker Hill. After the Romans, the Vikings and Danes settled Wensley and populated and farmed the area around Oaker and Snitterton.

Following the Norman Conquest, the Domesday book recorded `Sinetretone’ as being the `King’s Land’, but the earliest reference after that comes from ecclesiastic records which show that a domestic chapel existed here in the 14th century during the reign of Richard 2nd. Although the site is unknown, it is thought that the chapel must have been attached to the 14th century Manor House, which once stood surrounded by a moat, in a field at the back of the present-day Manor farm. The moat ditch can still be seen, although the old Manor House fell into disuse following the construction of the nearby Elizabethan Snitterton Hall in 1590, and was eventually demolished sometime during the eighteenth century.

The Manor of Snitterton was in the hands of the Sacheverrell family from the early fifteenth century. Two hundred years later, just after the Civil War and following the building of Snitterton Hall, it was purchased by Col. John Milward. Following his death it was purchased in 1695 by Henry Ferne, Receiver General of Customs, who lived at Snitteron Hall and attended the parish church at Bonsall, where his memorial can still be seen.

The Turnor family were Lords of the Manor during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and eventually Snitterton Hall came into the possession of the Bagshawe Family. Col.F.E.G.and Lady Bagshawe occupied the Hall during the second half of the last century, and today it is owned, and has been lovingly and lavishly restored, by businessman Mr.Paul Caplan.

As the narrow Snitterton Road snakes through the heart of the hamlet, a group of noteable dwellings line the roadside. The pretty limestone cottages were built originally for lead miners in the 1720’s, whilst the early Georgian Yew Tree Cottage in its triangle of land at the crown of the bend is of the same period. Bullring Cottage is a magnificent example of late Georgian style, whilst the largely 17th century Manor Farm next door is the oldest, probably incorporating material from it’s long demolished, and moated 15th century predecessor.

Though lead mining prospered hereabouts during the 17th to early 19th centuries, this pastoral area at the foot of Masson and Bonsall Moor and along the lower slopes of Wensley Dale has, since its early settlement been the domain of the farmer.

Evidence of medieval ridge and furrow ploughing can be seen on the sloping meadows behind Snitterton Hall, and the even earler `lynchets’ – a form of terracing - are evident higher up the hillside.

There are still half a dozen working farms today, although the area is more a well-heeled residential community, with some splendid dwellings set in wonderful surroundings.

Aston Lane leads around the eastern base of Oaker Hill and twists downhill along a gated bridal road beside the river Derwent to Darley Bridge.

There are some spacious and spectacular riverside properties with colourful waterfront gardens, and the whole area is a `hidden gem’, criss-crossed by footpaths leading to a rich variety of pleasant locations, from valley to riverside to hillside and hilltop, all of which are pleasing to the eye and well worth a visit.

The view through the window above the magical garden of Magpie Cottage (1720), not only inspired William Wordsworth, but seemingly, inspired yours truly, who attempted to capture the essence of the place in the poem,

`Country Cottage Garden’

I’m sitting here with twilight closing ‘round me

And sweet honeysuckle fragrance in the air.

The Sycamore in silhouette stands stark on Oker Hill

Surrounded by the lights that twinkle there.

The gently scented perfume of the lilac

Fills this country cottage garden with delight

And ‘neath the ivy covered walls I listen to the calls

Of the fell-side sheep who mourn the fading light;

In solitude and silence, except for nature’s sounds,

In reverence beneath these evening skies -

In this country cottage garden, contentment have I found -

- And a fleeting touch of earthly Paradise.

*written in the garden at Magpie Cottage, Snitterton in 1985:Tom Bates

 
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