National Stone Centre

We have really enjoyed visiting the National Stone Centre ever since we moved to Derbyshire over 20 years ago. Over this period of time we have seen things develop and have joined in with a number of activities at the centre.

The National Stone Centre is a 40 acre Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), for its geological formations, offering both outdoor and indoor activities. The centre is set within six former limestone quarries located on the edge of the former mining/quarrying town of Wirksworth. Derbyshire is the largest quarrying area in the country, and in the 1990s, it produced twenty million tonnes of stone a year. The Stone Centre was opened to the public in October 1990.  

There is a large carpark, a visitor centre with a shop, café and “Building Britain” Exhibition. The cafe has an outside seating area with far reaching views and a children’s playground near by. There are outdoor fossil trails around the site with viewpoint panels which indicate where you are: the bottom of a lagoon, the side of a reef, or by the tropical Derbyshire coastline. Stone from this site was used to build the M1 motorway but quarrying stopped in the mid 1960s. 

Over a weekend in 2000 the Millennium Wall was built by members of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. The wall is a permanent exhibition composed of eighteen sections of wall, each six metres in length, and forms the most extensive known collection of dry stone walls in any one place. It is incredible to see all the different styles and wall designs. All the sections were constructed using stone local to the area the wall design came from so all this stone had to be transported to the Stone Centre from all over the country prior to the event. Dry stone walling courses are regularly held at the stone centre as well as stone carving and restoration courses. 

Dotted around the site are three striking stone towers designed by Denis O’Connor and built by Gordon Wilton and his son Jason, champion wallers from Biggin near Buxton.

In front of the visitor centre there are some striking Geosteps which show the amazing variety of stones to be found in the British Isles which have been arranged in order of age with the youngest at the bottom. The rises are British rocks, with the treads created from Hopton Wood Stone, which is so decorative.

Geo Steps on left, path back to carpark on the right under the railway bridge of the
High Peak Trail.

There are paths to follow and quarry areas to explore. Plenty of trees and wild flowers now grow in the area so it is a pleasure to visit at any time of year. It is open every day except Christmas day. 

A few photos taken on a lovely Autumn day in early November 2020 during Englands second lockdown.

Felley Priory

I love to visit the beautiful gardens of Felley Priory. Felley Priory like Dale Abbey was reputed to have been built on the site of a small hermitage. Unlike Dale Abbey no one is sure where the hermit’s dwelling had originally been. The Priory of Felley and the Priory Gardens are situated just half a mile from Junction 27 of the M1 and 16 miles from Dale Abbey. 

The front of Felley Priory House

Felley Priory was founded in 1156 dedicated to Our Lady. It consisted of twelve canons following the Rule of St Augustine. Like Dale Abbey the priory was not always managed well and in 1276 its prior was deposed for mismanagement and misbehaviour. He had permitted the priory buildings to fall into disrepair and, ‘the canons had erred and strayed to the scandal of the neighbourhood.’

At the time of the Dissolution in 1535, not all of the Priory was completely destroyed. Parts were used elsewhere in the construction of the house and garden, for example, on the west side of the house between the Tudor door and chimney. The pillars at the entrance to the garden were originally part of the Priory Church and date from the late 12th Century. The house was plundered during the Civil War and became an army garrison and Royalist stronghold.

Back of the house.

The house and its 2.5 acre garden are nestled in beautiful countryside of Nottinghamshire. The house is the private home of the Chaworth-Musters family who have owned it since 1822 and as a private house is not open to the public. Although you cannot see inside you can walk very close to both the front and back of the property which makes a very attractive backdrop to the beauty of the gardens.

The gardens have many rare and unusual plants and have been planted so that there is colour and interest all year round. The garden now covers the site of the Priory Church. The high garden wall to the south west is believed to be part of the priory boundary wall. The central part of the house was constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and there is a particularly fine example of a Tudor chimney on the west side of the house. 

Tudor chimney in the centre of the picture.

In Spring the orchard has a carpet of daffodils some of which are extremely rare and which were recently the subject of a detailed article in The English Garden Magazine. In late spring the nearby woods are full of bluebells.

A small apple tree in the orchard.

In Summer the walled rose garden is filled with old fashioned roses. Under the old Elizabethan wall are many agapanthus and some tender shrubs. The borders around the old walls have a mixture of trees, shrubs, geraniums, hostas, digitalis and meconopsis. In the centre of the garden there are pergolas covered with roses, vines, clematis and lonicera. There is a knot garden made up of architectural box and yew topiary birds. This area was one of the first parts of the garden to be established and was designed to reflect the age and brickwork of the priory itself.

There is still plenty to see in the Autumn. A collection of hydrangeas provide wonderful autumn colour and the flower borders are still full of many colourful flowers such as the white and purple asters.

Felley Priory has a fully stocked plant nursery, from which you can buy many of the plants seen in the garden. On this visit I resisted buying any but have done so on previous occasions. The Farmhouse Tea Room offers a delicious selection of snacks, meals and drinks. We enjoyed a cup of coffee with a cheese and onion roll followed by a piece of lemon cake.

For information on opening times of the gardens and tea room please visit the Felley Priory website www.felleypriory.co.uk

Darley Abbey Hydrangeas

Yesterday we had a lovely walk in Darley Park. The sun was shining and the trees were changing colour. We took the opportunity to visit the walled Hydrangea Garden before it shuts to the public on November 3rd. The garden is looked after by a team of volunteers and it was obvious that since our last visit in 2019 a huge amount of work had been done. The garden houses the National Collection of Hydrangea Paniculata.

Hydrangea Derby, (the name of the voluntary group) was set up in 2010 to look after the Hydrangea Garden and in the last 10 years they have become the National Collection, the only such collection in the world. They also have a wide variety of other hydrangea species. The garden now holds 890 different cultivars.

Hydrangea Paniculata is a large deciduous plant with cone shaped flower heads. These can be dense with infertile showy florets or lacey and open. The flowers have different ratios of fertile and infertile florets. These hydrangeas are becoming more popular and are hardy throughout Britain, they put on a vigorous display of amazing flowers from August to November.

A little bit of history about Darley Park which is one of Derby’s most beautiful parks. It was in fact once home to the county’s most important monastic institutions, a house of Augustinian Canons established in 1137 and dedicated to St Helena. By the early 14th century, the abbey had fallen into poverty and the last remaining two canons had to be sent to other monasteries as they could not be sustained at Darley. The Abbey was surrendered for dissolution on 22 October 1538. 

Pub in the old Travellers rest building of a former Augustinian Abbey 

Over the centuries the land passed through many hands, reaching the local mill owners – the Evans family by the early nineteenth century. Under Walter Evans a red brick mansion was constructed on the site, Darley House was surrounded by gardens and plantations. During the second world war this became a school but it was demolished in the 1960s as it was was in such a poor state of repair. 

A traveller in 1829 wrote favourably of the village of Darley, “I passed through Darley, interesting as the seat of the extensive cotton and paper mills of the Messrs, Evans, and also as an exhibition of their unwearied philanthropy to their numerous work-people. The whole forms a neat town, displaying general comfort, with institutions of all kinds, for the improvement of the physical and moral condition of some hundred families.” 

The river Derwent flows through the park and it is an easy walk along the river into the centre of Derby. In the park, the walled garden is closed during the winter, although the rest of the park remains open throughout the year. Darley Park also has a Tree Trail that you can follow, which takes you past thirty different varieties of trees originating from all over the world, from the Purple Japanese Maple to the Tibetan Cherry.

Although the walled garden closes in the winter there are wildlife gardens to explore and many beautiful views.

Dale Abbey, Derbyshire

Dale Abbey is less than three miles from the suburbs of Derby to the west, and close to Industrial areas on the Eastern side. Originally known as Depedale it is a most intriguing and beautiful area. The story of Dale Abbey begins when a Derby baker had a dream in which the Virgin Mary appeared and told him to go to Depedale, to live a life of solitude and prayer. At that time it was a wild and marshy place and the hermit carved out a home and chapel in a sandstone cliff. There is a path beside the church and farm which goes through the woods and from this are several ways up to the caves using steps.

Here the hermit continued to worship until one day the smoke from his fire was seen by Ralph Fitz Geremund the owner of the land. He rode over to the place where he saw the smoke, intending to drive the intruder away. On hearing the hermit’s story he was filled with compassion and allowed him to remain. He also gave the hermit the tithe money from Borrowash Mill. This enabled the hermit to build a small chapel and home on the site of the present church.

After the hermit’s death, word spread of the religious significance of the place and Dale Abbey was founded in about 1200 by the White Canons. The abbey remained until 1538, when it was dissolved and the majority demolished by the command of Henry VIII.

Remains of Dale Abbey

The stone from the abbey was eagerly seized upon by local builders. Only the great 13th century east window remains, which probably has much to do with the ancient belief that if the arch fell the villagers would have to pay tithes. Today the abbey ruins are designated as an ancient monument.

Stone from the Abbey was used to build part of this house.

Parts of All Saints Church date back to 1150, when the hermit started to build his chapel and house on the site. The church is the only one in England to share its roof with a farm. At one time it shared it with the abbey infirmary and later with the Bluebell Inn, when the connecting door from the church was said to lead from ‘salvation to damnation’. 

The church is very unusual and nothing seems to quite fit, it has reputedly the largest chalice in England. The pulpit leans at a sharp angle and it is possible to sit in one of the box pews with your back to the minister.

Dale Abbey Church and Farm.

Hermit’s Wood is an ancient woodland and probably formed part of the original forest that once covered this area. It contains many fine beech and oak trees. Abundant wildlife and over 60 species of flowering plants have been recorded. The Hermit’s Cave is now designated as another Scheduled Ancient Monument, and it is worth taking a good look at the view from this point.

Tattle Hill in Dale Abbey is said to have got its name from neighbourly ‘tittle tattle’ amongst the householders. On this road is a thatched barn once the up-market residence of four cows.

Friar’s House in the village dates from about 1450 and is open on Sundays and Mondays trading as a cafe during normal times. To check their opening times please look at their website. Friar’s House Dale Abbey.

Friar’s House Dale Abbey

Lastly a few more photographs from our visit.

Dukes Quarries, Whatstandwell

I love walking along the Cromford Canal and this year have also started to explore woodland near the canal. It is possible to park near the Cromford Canal at Whatstandwell or in a couple of small parking places along Robin Hood Road. This area has a cluster of old stone quarries which started to be worked over 200 years ago. Most are now overgrown with trees and other vegetation, one however, Middle Hole Quarry is still working.

Yesterday we started our walk from Robin Hood Road, walking through a gate and down towards the canal. At this point there is a bridge over the canal named Sims Bridge. There is also an open area which has been tidied up I think by the Wildlife Trust. On the right is a small wall and behind it what looks like an old rubbish dump. I didn’t see any plastic but old Denby pottery, meat bones, thick glass bottles and leather shoes etc.

We carried on walking straight ahead on a path that started to climb gently uphill and then crossed Robin Hood Road following a footpath signposted Wakebridge. The weather was sunny but the way through the woods felt pleasantly cool. To the right of the path was plenty of evidence of previous quarrying.

There is something magical about a wood on a sunny day and lovely to see shafts of sunlight through the branches.

Continuing to walk upwards we passed a stream, the trees cleared and the path continued on to Wakebridge. At this point we turned around but it is a walk we will enjoy doing again.

There is much more information about this area on the Derwent Valley Mills website.

Spending time in the natural world is so good for both physical and mental health.

Nature during Lockdown

Lockdown because of the Coronavirus started in the UK in the middle of March 2020. This has been a very strange time for all of us and has affected people in so many different ways. At the start we were asked by the government to basically stay at home, if that was possible and only leave the house for one hour a day for some outside exercise. Obviously the possibility of this varied because of our different circumstances. I have been very lucky to have time to learn new skills, more time to garden and observe wildlife. I realise that for many life became more stressful and do hope that the natural world has helped them cope.

Some of the immediate effects were better air quality, less noise and those who went outside started to notice the wildlife and wild plants near to their homes. As someone who has always loved the natural world it has been most interesting to continuously walk the same fields and really notice the progression of flowering plants in the fields and hedgerows. I have written about this in a previous blog Wildflowers during Lockdown. I am more aware of all the small creatures we share the world with and now watch continuously for a slight movement that means I am not alone.

When Chris Packham was asked if there had been more birdsong during lockdown. He explained that the reduced road traffic might have led to the sounds of birds being more noticeable. “It’s that extra five minutes when people are in natural spaces, they are taking time to think, Oh what birdsong is that? People are looking at flowers they’ve walked past for years.”

My Grandchildren have done some research to try to find out if nature has helped people cope during lockdown and would like to thank everyone who spent the time to answer their questions. The survey is now closed and once they have studied the results I will publish here.

A Walk Along the Cromford Canal

I like to walk along the Cromford Canal and enjoy the wildlife, industrial heritage and numerous wildflowers. One of my favourite walks starts in the village of Lee where Florence Nightingale and John Smedley came from. Parking near to the Smedley factory the walk starts along the Nightingale arm of the canal. John Smedley Knitwear was founded in 1784 at Lea Mills, Matlock, Derbyshire by Mr. John Smedley and Mr. Peter Nightingale (Florence’s great-great Uncle). The Lea Mills factory is still John Smedley’s home, making it the world’s oldest manufacturing factory in continuous operation.

John Smedley, Lee Mills, Lee, Derbyshire.

The construction of the Cromford Canal was completed in late 1794, to improve the movement of heavy goods in and out of Cromford. The canal soon became very busy moving thousands of tonnes of stone all over the country from Cromford Wharf. Lead was taken the much shorter distance to the smelter at Lea, using the Nightingale Arm of the canal. One of the most unusual of shipments was two stone lions, sculpted in Darley Dale  and then taken by canal to Liverpool, where they can still be seen standing by the entrance to St George’s Hall.

The Nightingale arm of the canal joins the main canal at the site of Aqueduct Cottage.

Aqueduct Cottage where Nightingale and Cromford Canal meet.

Aqueduct Cottage was originally built as a lengths-man’s and lock-keeper’s accommodation in 1802 by Peter Nightingale. It was necessary to have a stop-lock at the entrance to this arm of the canal and the operation of the lock needed to be supervised by a lock keeper. This is most likely the reason for the construction of the cottage in this location. The cottage was occupied until the 1970s but then gradually fell into disrepair. It is currently being repaired by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust with the help of many volunteers. It will become a visitor interpretation centre, to tell the story of its history, the former people who lived there, and how these aspects related to a Derwent Valley landscape.

Once I have walked the short distance from Lee to the main canal I can choose to turn right and walk towards High Peak Junction or left towards Whatstandwell. On this occasion I turned left and this is a record of some of the flowers seen at the beginning of August 2020 along this stretch of canal.

Hemp Agrimony

All along the canal there is plenty of Meadowsweet, which is edible and can be used in similar ways to elderflowers. Once valued for its lasting fragrance; the dried flowers were strewn across floors to perfume the home, and was said to be Queen Elizabeth 1’s favourite scent, ‘for the smell thereof maketh the hart merrie’. It was also used in Anglo-Saxon times to flavour mead, and has had many medicinal uses. In the 1890s it was used to make acetylsalicylic acid later known as aspirin but unlike todays aspirin it is kinder on the stomach.

Along this stretch of canal there are several Guelder Rose and Bramble bushes, this year both have plenty of ripe juicy fruit.

The flowers and berries this year have been beautiful and seem more rampant than usual, maybe due to weather or less pollution because of lockdown.

Wildlife Gardening

There are definite advantages to gardening for wildlife. When I decided I no longer wanted an immaculate garden but a garden that would attract as much wildlife as possible the first thing I did was stop the war on weeds. 

I used to start my gardening year by spending a couple of weeks crawling under bushes trying to dig up weeds. I now leave most of them and although many of the flowers are small they are still beautiful. One of the first weeds/flowers I noticed was Hairy Bittercress. This plant has tiny white flowers and is edible, tasting like cress it works well as part of a salad or in a sandwich.  http://thegoodliferevival.com/blog/hairy-bittercress

Hairy Bittercress tastes good in a sandwich.

The second plant/weed that I have plenty of is Wood Avens. These like damp shady conditions and there are many areas in my garden that it loves. The flowers are small and yellow, the seed heads are attractive and can stick to your clothes. It is another edible plant. https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/wood-avens/ 

Wood Avens also known as Herb Bennet

Both of the previous plants have added themselves to my garden and so has this next beautiful yellow flower. I still do not know what it is but it grows happily in the garden and I like the look of it.

Unknown yellow flower, seeds itself all over the garden.

In the last two years I have been adding wildflowers to the borders, some grow well while others seem to disappear without a trace. Rose Campions and Betony were the first to give plenty of flowers.

This year 2020, I have added Cowslips, Oxeye Daisies, Comfrey and Borage. A large clump of Common Ragwort has also appeared.

We have allowed our small amount of lawn to grow for several weeks and by mid July only cut it twice. This has allowed clover, buttercups and some meadow grasses to appear. The bees and hover flies have been very happy.

I wanted to add a pond to the garden. Our garden is heavy clay, difficult to dig in the winter because of its stickiness and in Summer like concrete.  I started digging in March and then lockdown happened. Having no pond liner I used an old washing up bowl, surrounded it with rocks and added a couple of water plants. I placed rocks inside the bowl to enable birds to drink safely and was very pleased to notice blackbirds and robins using it regularly . Early in June I noticed a frog had moved in and now in July I have seen two frogs and several froglets.

We have a bird table, bird feeders, piles of rocks and logs and some messy corners. All Winter we were visited each day by a pair of Bullfinches and now have regular visits from families of Long Tailed Tits and Blue Tits. A Wood pigeon has nested in a hawthorn tree just beside the patio in what looks like a very precarious structure.  Our favourite resident however has to be the one legged Robin. 

Here is a list of other birds seen, Nuthatches, Jay, House Sparrows, Long Tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Hedge Sparrows, Starlings, Blackbirds, Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Wren, Song Thrushes and Wood Pigeons. Other garden visitors include a hedgehog, a family of squirrels and several frogs. Butterflies include Speckled Wood, Large White, Gatekeeper, Orange-tip, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell  and Common Blue. Last summer we also saw Peacocks and Painted Ladies. I have noticed the caterpillars of Mullein moths on the Buddleia and a Dragonfly in the front garden. A useful site for identifying butterflies  https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/identify-a-butterfly

Having spent more time than usual pottering around the garden I have become aware of different bee species.  Firstly I noticed Tree Bumblebees which were first seen in the UK in 2001. I have also observed something that I have never seen before, Bumblebee’s mating. The action was happening on a gravel area. Then to my surprise the queen starting to try to fly off, she bumped up and down along a path and then managed to get airborne with the male still attached to her.  

I have grown Nasturtiums in pots and found them a most interesting addition to the garden. We have eaten their leaves and flowers in salads, the bees have enjoyed their nectar and I am saving the seeds to pickle when I have enough of them to fill a jar.

Lastly here are some books I have read and recommend.

Homemade Beauty Products.

I have been interested in making my own beauty products for a number of years. It is one way of knowing exactly what you are putting on to your skin and is definitely cheaper than shop bought items. This period of lockdown has given me the time and opportunity to have a go.

I have been using shampoo bars to wash my hair for over a year and several weeks into lockdown I was nearly at the end of my last bar. I have never made soap before and had no idea how difficult it would be, so searched the internet for the simplest recipe I could find. This is the recipe for the one I chose to make. Check this hair shampoo link for information. I had to buy a couple of items and alter the recipe a little but it made 2 large bars and I really like the way my hair feels.

Two finished bars of soap.

The items I bought online were a glycerin soap base and a pot of shea butter. I already had olive oil and coconut oil in my kitchen cupboard. I left out the orange and seasalt completely as I didn’t have either of them. I used some essential oils I already had first checking that they would be okay for my hair and skin. The oils I had were rose, geranium and bergamot. As I didn’t have any soap moulds I used some old soap dishes which worked really well. 

I started running out of skin moisturiser a few weeks after lockdown started so again looked for the simplest recipe I could find using the shea butter I had bought for the shampoo bars. I found a recipe and then altered it slightly. My final moisturiser was made by melting 40 gms of the shea butter in a pyrex bowl placed on top of a saucepan partially filled with water over a medium heat.

Once the shea butter was melted I took it off the heat and added 25 gms of carrier oil. I used jojoba oil as I already had some of this but you could also use sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, or avocado oil. I had some vitamin E capsuals so split a couple of these and added the contents as well and a few drops of the essential oils I already had. I let the mixture cool and then put into the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it had become thick and creamy I gave a stir and then put into a sterilised tin ready for use. I have read that a calendula infused oil would also be good for this recipe. I am growing calendulas in the garden so this is an idea to try in the future.

Homemade face cream ready for use.
Calendula flower

I also wanted to make a body scrub and the first one I tried was 50 gms coconut oil, mixed with 50 gms brown sugar and a couple of teaspoons of vanilla essence. I found it best to rub over dry skin and then wash off. It smells delicious. A word of warning however, be careful that it doesn’t make a bath or shower slippy. You could also add sea salt instead of sugar. 

Brown sugar and coconut oil body scrub

One item I tried to make but unfortunately it failed was a rosewater skin toner. Mine did not smell very much like a rose. Here is a recipe which looks good to make rosewater. It is not the one I used so I will try again. I love the smell of roses and they are meant to be really good for your skin.

Wildflowers during Lockdown

I have always enjoyed walking in the countryside and over the years have tried to recognise and learn the names of wildflowers. I have four wildflower books at home but even these do not show every flower as there are so many different ones in our lanes and fields. In more recent years there have been concerns about the demise of our native plants and the loss of wildflower meadows. It is thought that we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows since the 1930s. There is a lot of debate over the picking of flowers but it is important that children learn to love them and this could mean picking a few. This is what Plantlife has to say,

‘Contrary to widespread belief, it is not illegal to pick most wildflowers for personal, non-commercial use. In a similar vein, it’s not illegal to forage most leaves and berries for food in the countryside for non-commercial use.’

Path around the field.

During this period of Lockdown in 2020 we have been allowed to go out each day for exercise but asked to keep within walking distance of home. This has been quite an eye opener to discover all the flowers growing in the fields near Belper. I have been walking virtually the same route each day and have really noticed the succession of our beautiful, colourful flowers.

Looking across the fields towards the A6

Lockdown started on March 23rd and during this month I noticed Wood Anemones and Mouse-ears both small white flowers. Wood anemones grow in shady places and droop their heads at evening time or during bad weather. It used to be said that fairies slept in the flowers closing the petals around themselves. Mouse-ears seem to like a bit more sun and are considered to be a weed but I wouldn’t mind some in my garden. In the hedgerows blackthorn flowers open before the bush grows its leaves .

Blackthorn flowers before the leaves come out.

April is the month when Bluebells and Wild Garlic appear and this year the bluebells seemed to be early, probably because of the warm weather. The fields are bright with the yellow flowers of dandelions and bluebells flower around the field edges and in the hedgerows. Hawthorne flowers open in the hedges and the edge of woods look glorious with Wild Cherry blossom. Cow Parsley starts to wave in the field margins and cuckoo flowers appeared wherever the grass was allowed to grow. It was good to have the time to really observe these flowers as so much of my usual rushing around had to stop. 

In May Dandelions gave way to Buttercups, just leaving their whiteish seed heads behind. Cow Parsley continued to open closely followed at the end of the month by the much sturdier Common Hogweed (not to be confused with Giant Hogweed). Also towards the end of the month I noticed large areas of one field turning white with the opening of Oxeye Daisies. Hawthorne flowers faded and the Elderflowers came into bud ready to open towards the end of the month. On the edge of one of the fields was a large patch of Yellow Rattle the first time I have seen this in the countryside. The rest of this field was covered in the yellow and oranges of Bird’s-foot trefoil and the lovely cerise pink of clover.

June so far has seen the Elderflowers open properly in the hedges and some of the fields look red at a distance with the flowering of Sheep’s sorrel. I also notice pink Dog-roses covering the bushes and the small white flowers of Brambles are coming out.

I have really enjoyed walking over the same fields for weeks and noticing how different flowers come into bloom and change the colour of the fields and hedges. I had not really thought about this before and at the moment in June the fabulous Foxgloves are just starting to flower. The fields where the dandelions flowered earlier are now being covered by Rough hawkbit.

I am looking forward to seeing more flowers opening during the month of June and how these alter the colour of the fields.