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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Posted Sunday, May 13, 2007

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Shirley - Birthplace of John Cowper & T.F. Powys:

The ancient Derbyshire village of Shirley is situated about five miles north of the County’s southern boundary with Staffordshire, and ten miles west of the County town of Derby.

The village lies a mile to the west of the A52 Derby to Ashbourne road and is approached along either of two high-hedged narrow winding lanes which undulate through the rich pastureland until suddenly arriving in the centre of the village four miles east of Ashbourne.

Derbyshire is noted for the amazing diversity of it’s landscape and agriculture; life is hard for the hill-farmers further north on the spartan limestone plateau where sheep graze on the sparse upland grasses amidst miles of white dry-stone walls.

But the countryside around Shirley is in sharp contrast, with the deep arable pasture and rich rolling meadows that typify the southern approaches to the Peak District as it rises gently from the Midland Plain north of Burton-upon-Trent and the richly alluvial Trent Valley.

Shirley has a number of large farms, significant of a long established and essentially agricultural community first mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086.

The area was forested during Saxon times and `Sirelie’ ( a small clearing) was held by a Saxon thane named Siwallis under Saxon overlords. After the Norman conquest the manor was granted to Henry de Ferrers and in the reign of Henry 1st Siwallis’s son Fulcher adopted the surname `de Shirley’. Later the `de’ was dropped and thus the family name of Shirley has been evident throughout the history of the village for at least 800 years.

The square tower of St.Michael’s Parish Church dominates the village from it’s vantage point atop the hill which marks the highest point of the parish. There has been a church on this site since early in the 11th century, which is probably when the massively girthed yew tree at the churchyard entrance began it’s life, - although the first substantial church building dates from the early 14th century and the current church was almost entirely restructured by Rev.Walter Shirley in 1842, when the box pews and west gallery were added.

The Roll of Ministers displayed inside the church confirms that James de Shirley was the first Rector appointed under the patronage of the Abbot of Darley in 1260. The church was nurtured beneath the sheltering and benevolent wings and administration of Darley Abbey until the Reformation, and then following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry the Eighth it enjoyed the royal patronage of Elizabeth 1st. In 1662 the patronage passed to the Shirley family in the shape of Katherine Shirley, and when Robert Shirley was created Baronet in 1674 it is first recorded in the name of Earl Ferrers, and continues to the present day under the thirteenth Earl Ferrers.

In the 800 years of it’s history the church has had no less than four vicars provided by the Shirley family. The present vicarage is about 4 miles away in Brailsford and the vicar also has Shirley, and the neighbouring parishes of Osmaston and Edleston in his charge.

Close by the church in the centre of Shirley stands the 18th century Saracen’s Head which takes it’s name from the crest on the Shirley family arms, incorporated after the Battle of Acre in 1190 when a Siwallis ancestor fell during a Crusade against the Saracens. This village inn has a warm and friendly atmosphere and serves excellent food seven days a week.

The old moated manor house of the Shirleys is nowadays known as Shirley Hall Farm, but the lines of the old moat can still be clearly seen, as can the Ferrers arms carved on the old overmantel above the fireplace inside. Shirley Hall was built in early Tudor times and the timber structure and 16th century panelling of the interior are both well preserved. Even older is The Old Rectory which dates from around 1550 and stands on the south side of the churchyard.

Perhaps the most visually noticeable structure is the white painted Georgian Vicarage built in 1824 by Rev.Walter Shirley, and now the family home of the current Viscount Tamworth. The Vicarage stands amidst splendid lawns, with shrubberies bounded by ornamental trees alongside the lane towards Ashbourne, and about half a mile across the meadows from St.Michaels.

This was the birthplace of Shirleys most famous son, the distinguished author John Cowper Powys who was born here on October 8th 1872. His father, Rev. Charles Francis Powys, a cousin of the Shirleys, was vicar here from 1872 until 1879, when he left for Dorchester. In literary circles John Cowper Powys has been hailed a genius, and it is remarkable to note that no less than seven of this Derbyshire born writer’s ten brothers and sisters also became published authors. In his Autobiography John Cowper Powys recalls the Shirley of his early childhood and describes the village, `as far removed from any influence of town or city as if it had been amongst the furthest Hebrides’, - and over a century later it still seems untouched by time, save for one or two modern additions.

But much has changed since Victorian times; then the village had it’s own smithy, sweet shop, and a post office on the corner of Derby Lane, with a bakery next door. The end cottage of the terrace of three which stand opposite the Saracen’s Head was once the village reading room. All are gone, and along the lanes leading away from the village centre and half hidden by the landscaped gardens in their sylvan surroundings are the mock Tudor mansions belonging to the gradually increasing number of incomers with executive salaries.

There are one or two noteable buildings outside the village, including the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel of 1855 and Shirley Mill Farm with the ruins of the old flour mill in a field behind the house, both can be seen off Mill Lane which runs southward towards Rodsley. There is a charming Swiss style mill in a picturesque setting off Park Lane. This is accessible only by footpath and is part of the Osmaston Estate but within Shirley Parish, and at the junction of Hall Lane a very pretty 19th century estate cottage called `The Outlook’.

Much may have changed within the village itself but the Parish of Shirley remains as Powys described it, it still slumbers peacefully on as it has done for centuries in it’s `pastoral and undulating landscape’, and remains `as far removed from any influence of town or city as if it had been amongst the furthest Hebrides'.

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