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

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Wensley - a True Taste of Derbyshire:

Wensleydale cheese is famous the world over for it`s unique rich flavour and is heralded as `The True Taste of Yorkshire`; indeed this most picturesque of Yorkshire Dales is also renowned for it`s natural scenic beauty. But there is another Wensley Dale in the Parish of South Darley nestling between the hamlets of Snitterton and Oaker, with the village of Wensley standing high on the plateau at the western head of the dale.

`pastoral scene of rural tranquility'

Derbyshires own Wensley Dale is a true taste of Derbyshire with it`s limestone outcrops rising stately amidst the lush green of it`s gently wooded slopes and the pastoral scene of rural tranquility which welcomes the traveller from any direction is breathtaking.

Oaker Hill with Will Shore`s famous Sycamore tree, immortalised in a sonnet by Wordsworth, marks the northern boundary of the dale, with the dwellings of Oaker village scattered along the south facing slope, whilst the south west of the valley nestles beneath the bulky height of Masson Hill and Bonsall Moor, where our stone-age ancestors left evidence of their passing in the deep underground caverns known as Jug Holes.

An underground spring once used by the Romans bubbles up from the ground at the western end of the Dale beneath the village plateau and slowly winds its way down the valley towards Snitterton Hall which Pevsner called `A gem of an Elizabethan Manor House`, built around 1630 and a former home of the Bagshawe Family.

Wensley is rather unique and is one of only a handful of Derbyshire villages whose names have Pagan origins. The village takes its name from Woden, the Norse God of War and there has been a settlement here since pre-Anglo-Saxon times. This `Sacred Grove of Wodan` is described in the Domesday Book of 1086 as `Wodnesleie`. It was known as `Weddenesley` in 1240, `Wedunsleye` in 1330, and finally recorded as Wensley in 1446.

The modern village of closely huddled together stone-built dwellings clings precariously to the steep hillside with the road from Matlock and Darley meeting at Cross Green before winding upwards in a series of switchback bends westward toward the limestone uplands of Winster.

At the crest of the hill stands the village`s only remaining pub, owned and run by a recently retired local farmer, - and until Mr.Bellfield retired The Red Lion was known to serve the thirsty traveller Derbyshire`s best hand-pulled pint........of milk!

The village`s main feature is the north-east sloping Square around which the houses are huddled together and linked by a maze of ancient alleyways. The nineteenth century reading rooms are a prominent feature, as is the school which stands further down the hill opposite the neo-Norman style picturesque St Mary`s Church, built in 1841-3.

Wensley, along with Snitterton, Darley Bridge (formerly Bridgetown) and Oaker (once known as Oakerside) now form the Parish of South Darley and St.Mary`s is the Parish Church, - although ecclesiastically Wensley now shares an incumbent with Winster and Elton.

Wensley Hall is the oldest building in the village. A medieval manor house built by the de Wednesley family stood just behind the present hall until it was replaced in Tudor times.

In 1591 the de Wednesleys sold Wensley Hall to Ralph Blackwall, who in turn sold it in 1603 to Richard Senior. The hall was extensively reduced in size between 1603 and 1664, when it was sold to John Wall. The present block, with its unusual flat roof which constitutes the main body of the hall was built between 1687 and 1715 by Anthony Wall. The east wing burned down in a fire in 1962 and was removed completely, but a new east wing has recently been completed (1997) by the current owner and goes some way to restoring the hall`s former glory. Next to the hall stands Thorntree House another fine example of 17th century local architecture.

The lead-mining industry brought some small prosperity to Wensley and when the Nottingham to Newhaven turnpike road was opened in 1759 the village became a popular roadside halt for travellers. It boasted a number of small hostelries, some which doubled as small farms, such as Trogues Farm where the Victorian wayfarer could buy a pint of ale and find a lodging for the night. The Crown, an old coaching inn which stood just off The Square finally closed its doors in the late 1980`s, much to the regret of its regular visitors who claimed that its public bar had the finest views of any pub in Derbyshire!

There was a Bull Ring set in The Square, and along with the one at nearby Snitterton, it was one of only four remaining in the whole County, but sadly this was covered with tarmac some years ago. Rightly regarded as barbaric, bull-baiting was a favourite pastime of the lead miners in days of yore!

Mill Close mine was the largest producer of lead ore in Europe in its hey-day, and until it finally closed in 1939 it provided employment for most of the area`s male population for over two centuries. The `Miner`s Path` winds over the moor from Bonsall and comes over the hills from Wirksworth and Middleton. After crossing the rim of Masson it descends into Wensley Dale and then up to the village square. Being employed on shift workings the miners came over the hill day and night, their way illuminated by the lamps they carried. For more than two hundred years the flickering lamps of the lead miners could be seen by the villagers slowly winding their way up the dale and over the hill from Bonsall Moor towards the Mill Close Mine and Wensley folk could set their clocks by the tiny flickering lights.

It is said that there was hardly a family within ten miles of the mine who at one time did not have a member or a relative employed there.

Wakes Week was an annual attraction and always began on the 4th Sunday in August and ended a week later on `Hospital Sunday`. This was a major event when absent Wensley folk returned to their families for the day and everyone assembled at The Crown and marched behind the Oddfellows banner, embroidered with the royal arms and the words `Wensley Jubilee Friendly Society, established January 1st 1763`. Birchover Band always led the procession and a collection was held en route for local hospitals. The annual march left The Crown and went through The Square and up the hill to the Red Lion, from whence it wound its way back down the hill and took the gated road around Oaker Hill to the Square & Compass at Darley Bridge.

From there it marched to the Three Stags Heads before making the steep climb to St.Mary`s Church for an annual service, and finally, back to The Square where an evenings entertainment took place with `much merrymaking`! But Wensley Wakes Week was traditionally noted for more than just its marching bands, and an old rhyme tells the tale of local `Wakes Weeks` thus:-

At Winster Wakes there`s ale and cakes,

At Elton Wakes there`s `quenchers`,

At Bircher Wakes there`s knives and forks,

At Wensley Wakes there`s wenches!

The lead miners have long since departed, and there are no more annual gatherings at The Crown, which finally closed its doors a decade ago. But Wensley remains little changed by the twentieth century and retains it`s `olde world` character and quaint charm, redolent with an atmosphere filled with memories from the bygone days of it`s former glory.It may well be `off the beaten track` and you won`t find it in any of the tourist guide books, but `the other Wensleydale` set on the fringes of Derbyshire`s White Peak is well worth a visit by those who appreciate the scenic tranquility of this limestone land at the `heart of England`. Perhaps the last word should be left to local Elton based poet Neil Lee, who recently described Wensley as:- `a little gem of a hidden hamlet, a `sacred grove of Woden, nestling in the fold of a beautiful green valley among the limestone hills of home`.

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