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St Mary's Church is believed to be on the site of one of the earliest centres of Christian worship in Britain © John David Photography, Shutterstock
Revived market town filled with characterful shops and cafés; mining cottages and quirky alleyways.
At first glance the old mining settlement of Wirksworth, northeast of Carsington Water, looks like any other English market town, with its handsome town houses, square and bustling main street. The town’s prosperity was built on lead mining, a local industry that extends back to Roman times, and possibly even earlier. The King’s Field south of the town was opened up to anyone wishing to make their fortune in lead. As is often the case, the good times came to an end. While the lead mines closed down with the demise of the industry, the mining cottages have survived, connected by an extraordinary warren of narrow paths – known as jitties or ginnels – that criss-cross the hillside. You can explore many of these routes between The Dale, West End and Green Hill roads above Market Place.
In contrast to the jitties, St Mary the Virgin, tucked behind St John Street on the east side of the main street, is a picture of ecclesiastical normality, enfolded by a lawned churchyard – the meeting point of at least five ancient pathways. Circling the graveyard of St Mary’s is a footpath lined with historical buildings that reverently cluster around the church.
What to see and do
St Mary the Virgin Church
Still heading south along the main shopping street, turn left down St Mary’s Gate and aim for the spire. The Norman church, with Victorian improvements, is believed to be on the site of one of Britain’s earliest Christian centres of worship. While the original church no longer exists, there are plenty of relics remaining. In the north entrance, you’ll find the first of the whimsical Anglo-Saxon stone carvings. Among them is a large staring face and a tiny legless man above it, looking like a halfeaten gingerbread man.
In the north transept are two impressive alabaster chest tombs. The bas-relief of the distinguished gentleman sporting a moustache and pointed beard, and a long gown with ruff, suggests a person of great importance. And so he was: Anthony Gell, Wirksworth’s most famous son, was the founder of the Free Grammar School (the local secondary school still bears his name) and the almshouses – both found on the circular path outside the church. The other is of his father, Ralph. In the chancel, there’s another impressive painted gritstone tomb belonging to Anthony Lowe, his feet resting on a skull. Anthony Lowe was Standard Bearer (see the script below the Royal Arms) not only to Henry VII and Henry VIII, but also to Edward VI and Queen Mary. Not a bad list of names to drop on to your curriculum vitae.
In the south transept, you’ll find some quizzical Romanesque carvings. There’s a pair of legs on the run – the other half of the gingerbread man perhaps? Here you’ll find the original T’Owd Man of Bonsall, a miner with pick and kibble (a metal bucket), representing Derbyshire miners.
But it’s in the nave you’ll find St Mary’s pièce de résistance – the AngloSaxon carved coffin lid, or Wirksworth Stone, from around ad800. In 1820, there was great excitement when the stone was uncovered, 2ft below the pavement in front of the altar, a perfectly preserved human skeleton beneath. No-one knows who was buried here, but the coffin lid is one of the finest Anglo-Saxon carvings in the country, with its basrelief pictorial retelling of the gospels in comic-strip style.
Wirksworth Heritage Centre
This lovely new centre – combining one of Wirksworth’s historical buildings on the main street with a stylish newbuild to the back – has finally come to fruition. Inside, a maze of rooms, upstairs and down, include a shop, tea room (with pleasant courtyard seating), local history exhibitions (both permanent and temporary) and venue rooms. The organisers are full of ideas for events – watch out for their guided walks and local history talks.
The liveliest time to visit Wirksworth is in September when the town hosts a programme of music, theatre, art and street entertainment during its festival. It is fast becoming one of the best rural arts festivals in the UK and is centred round a revived ancient celebration that takes place at St Mary’s Church called the Clypping (or Clipping) of the Church. In accordance with this ancient tradition, the parishioners (and anyone else who cares to join in) link hands to encircle the church while singing a hymn before continuing their procession through the town.
The other main event of the festival is the Art and Architecture Trail. Over the opening weekend, Wirksworth throws open its doors to visitors to display the work of local, national and even international artists. Many of the festival volunteers offer tea and cakes in their living rooms and kitchens, and it really does feel as if you’ve been invited into the very heart of the community.