Forever my ‘home town’

I was born in Congleton, but my family moved to Leek in North Staffordshire when I was seven, in 1956. I haven’t lived in Leek for more than 50 years since I moved away to university in 1967, and afterwards to distant parts across the globe. Despite not being a native-born Leekensian, I always consider Leek, the Queen of the Moorlands, as my ‘home town’. My deep memories of Congleton are really few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had tickets to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and rather than try and make it to the show in one day from our home in north Worcestershire (a round trip of almost 200 miles by the ‘fastest’ route) we decided to spend a couple of nights in Leek, and take in other visits to Biddulph Grange Garden on the way north, and return home via Lyme Park which is southeast of Stockport.

Leek was an excellent base for these excursions. And it was a great opportunity to see how the town had changed since we were last there in September 2011. 

Leek (from Ladderedge in the west) in the 1960s, with The Roaches and Staffordshire Moorlands beyond.

Many of the mill chimneys have disappeared from the Leek skyline, but four (maybe five) buildings still stand out: the tower of the Church of St Edward the Confessor on the left, the green ‘dome’ (now grey) of the Nicholson Institute (centre), and to the right the spire of the Catholic church, St Mary’s, the Monument, and the tower of St Luke’s. What a magnificent panorama! No wonder Leek keeps drawing me back, even if it is only once in a while.

I have included here just a small sample of the photos I took during this visit. There’s a larger collection in this album for you to enjoy.


One thing that struck immediately me on this visit: just how much traffic and congestion there is in the town now. We had traveled into Leek along the Macclesfield Road and Mill St en route to our hotel, the Premier Inn next to the Monument. We followed a long line of cars and trucks (some of them behemoths).

The roundabout was removed after 2013.

The roundabout at the junction of Derby St (Leek’s main shopping thoroughfare), Haywood St and Ashbourne Road has now been replaced by traffic lights. I couldn’t fathom how this change had improved traffic flow, except that it must be easier for large commercial vehicles making their way through the town, rather than having to navigate a rather tight roundabout. Through traffic is routed this way to and from Stoke-on-Trent. 

Removal of the roundabout was a cause célèbre among Leekensians at the time. I don’t know whether that has now died down. There does seem to be some nostalgia for it on a couple of Leek Facebook groups that I joined. Personally, I quite like the ‘new’ look around the Monument and the end of Derby Street, with the development of Sparrow Park and its seating areas. But we did find one aspect very confusing. Given the layout there and along sections of Derby Street, and the types of paving used, we often did not realize which parts were traffic free or not. Or maybe I was just having a senior moment.


Leek is about half the size of where I live now, Bromsgrove. But Leek seems to be thriving better than Bromsgrove. Maybe it’s the proximity of Bromsgrove to Birmingham. But the shopping in our High St is rather run down compared to Leek.

In another blog post I commented on the high number of pubs in Leek compared to Bromsgrove. It never ceases to amaze me when wandering around the town just how many there are. However, it seems some are not doing so well, like The Quiet Woman at the bottom of St Edward St, where there was a notice stating that the pub was closed until further notice.


I was interested to see renovation in some parts of the town, such as the opening of Getliffe’s Yard, off Derby Street. I had no idea it was there, and it’s now a haven for a number of upmarket boutiques and a very decent restaurant, Leek Café Bar & Grill, with a Mediterranean (Turkish) flavour. We had an excellent meal there on our first night, washed down with a couple pints of Efes lager.

It’s good to see how a number of mills, like the one on the corner of Shoobridge Street and Haywood Street are occupied once again. But it’s also disappointing that too many are empty, particularly the one that dominates Mill Street that is now in a bad state of repair. Is conversion to apartments not feasible? After all, these mills are a solid part of Leek’s industrial heritage.


I decided to go and look at the six properties around the town where my family had lived since moving to Leek in 1956:

  • 65 St Edward Street, until 1961/62; we lived above the shop
  • 56 St Edward Street, 1962-1963
  • 26 Market Place (an apartment above the former building society that’s now Costa Coffee), 1962-1963
  • 19 Market Place, 1963-1976; we lived above the shop
  • Greystones, Stockwell Street, in the first floor apartment
  • 13 Clerk Bank – my mother (as a widow) moved here in about 1986, until 1989 when she moved into a care home.

My dad took over a photography business at No 65 when we first moved to Leek, but when the lease came up for renewal (around 1960) he knew he had to find somewhere with better footfall. In the interim we moved across the road to No 56 (taking over from a retailer of fine china) and living part-time in a room behind the shop until we found the apartment at 26 Market Place.

Around 1962/63, my parents purchased and renovated No 19 Market Place, and stayed there until their retirement in the summer of 1976. They then moved into the first floor apartment in Greystones on Stockwell Street. My father passed away in April 1980, and my mother stayed on in Greystones for a few more years before the council found her a terraced bungalow on Clerk Bank. Suffering a stroke in 1989, she moved away to a nursing home in South Wales, and our direct link with link was severed.

Behind No 19 was a ‘court’ with a couple of cottages, that were no longer occupied when we moved there in 1963. After a year or so, the cottages were demolished, and Mum and Dad began to build their urban garden. No-one passing by in the Market Place would have guessed there was such a jewel hiding there. We decided to see how it looks today, and were disappointed that subsequent residents of No 19 had let the garden decline.

Leek town centre is very much lived in. We enjoyed strolling along the streets off Derby Street, like Bath Street or Ford Street. These seem very much like communities, and can be seen radiating out from Leek town center, a legacy, no doubt, of the town’s industrial past in silk weaving.


Another thing we liked were the ‘blue plaques’ placed on various buildings around the town by the Leek and District Civic Society. Two of the properties which we’d occupied have blue plaques: 56 St Edward Street and Greystones. No 56 is now a photography business once again.

At the entrance to Clerk Bank is a small sandstone cottage, with a blue plaque stating the the Leek and Moorlands Cooperative Society (LMCS) had been founded there in 1859.

By the end of the 1890s, the LMCS had moved to a new premises on Ashbourne Road, next door to the White Lion and across the road from the Talbot Hotel, now Leek’s Premier Inn. This building was being refurbished, and the plaster reliefs depicting some of the town’s trades then were looking splendid. In style and colour they closely resembled the reliefs that adorn one of the original buildings at the Leek School of Art, now the Buxton & Leek College on Stockwell Street. I have it on good authority that the reliefs are by the same architectural sculptor, Abraham Broadbent.


Before we left Leek to return home, we couldn’t resist one last stop: Leek Oatcake Shop on the corner of Haywood Street and London Street. Delicious!


One thing I’d had forgotten was just how beautiful the Staffordshire Moorlands are. One of the finest landscapes in England. Here are a couple of dashcam videos of part of our journey to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on 6 June, from the Premier Inn to the Longnor turnoff on the A53 (first video), and from there to crossing into Derbyshire at Crowdecote (second video).


 

In the footsteps of Mr Darcy

There are few authors whose works I read, and read again. Jane Austen is one such, and my favorite novel of hers is Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. I’m in good company; millions of Jane Austen fans have the same opinion.

In 1995, the BBC aired a six episode adaptation (by Andrew Davies) of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Who can forget that lake scene filmed in Lyme Park. Lyme was Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s country estate.

Lyme was the home of the Legh family since the late 14th century until it was given to the National Trust in 1946. Over the centuries, numerous additions were made to the original 16th century building.

The south entrance of Lyme seen across the Reflection Lake.

Lyme has a classic Palladian south front, from the early 18th century, best viewed across the Reflection Lake. However, its austere exterior (in this overcast weather) belies an elegant interior.

It was during the Regency Period of the first two decades of the 19th century that the house was extensively remodeled and restored. Thomas Legh commissioned Lewis William Wyatt to undertake that work. The interiors on display today reflect that Regency period. Many of the rooms are open to the public.


Lyme Park lies just to the west of the Peak District, in east Cheshire (and south of Manchester). Steph and I enjoyed a visit there a week ago. The mansion lies at the center of a 1400 acre park (map), surrounded by small but impressive formal gardens. It’s quite a drive from the main road (A6) south to the house.

Passing through the North Entrance, access to the house is from steps on the east side of the Courtyard.

The North Entrance.

The Courtyard and entrance to the house.

The National Trust has laid out a route around the house that ensures visitors do not miss any interesting room.

One thing that strikes any visitor on entering Lyme are the impressive tapestries that hang from so many walls. The tapestries in the Entrance Hall are large indeed, and throughout the house they do not fail to impress. Cost must have meant little to past generations of the Legh family, as in at least two rooms, the tapestries have been cut to fit around fireplaces and other features.

The south wall of the Entrance Hall.

The north wall of the Entrance Hall.

Tapestries cut to fit around features in the Ante-Room to the Dining Room, and in the Morning Room (on the north side of the house).

In the Library, the very early and rare Lyme Caxton Missal is on display. The room has a beautiful wood ceiling.

When first added to the building, there was no internal access to the Dining Room. With the early 19th century remodeling that anomaly was rectified. The doors at either end of the dining room have superbly carved wood lintels.

Beyond the Dining Room is a small room known as the Stag Parlour. It was once only accessible from the outside of the house, and was, apparently, where Jacobite sympathizers met. It’s named the Stag Parlour for the series of reliefs high on the walls depicting the life cycle of the stag. Again, there is a wonderful tapestry on one wall.

The main features of the Drawing Room are the floor-to-ceiling fireplace, the stained glass bow window, and reliefs high on the walls.

The Yellow Bedroom was prepared for King James II in the late 17th century. The eiderdown is original. On the wall is a portrait purported to be one of the king’s mistresses.

On the south side, the walls of the Saloon are decorated with the most exquisite wood carving by the celebrated sculptor and wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, d. 1721 (whose work we have seen at Sudbury Hall and Belton House).

On the second floor is the biggest surprise in the whole house: a 130 foot Long Gallery, along the east side of the house, and overlooking the Orangery and formal gardens.

One other room of note on the second floor is the Knight’s Bedroom, with its solid wood bed, carved relief over the fireplace, and ornate ceiling. The bed looks 17th century, but is apparently a 19th century copy.

At the bottom of the Grand Staircase is a huge oil painting of one of the Lyme mastiffs (now extinct). On the staircase wall is a painting of Thomas Legh, who was an adventurer, and responsible for the look of Lyme that we see inside today.

For more photos of these magnificent room, check out this album.


Access to the house also gives access to the gardens, walks, and the Orangery close to the house. A walk around the Reflection Lake, even when the weather was overcast was worthwhile.

The Italian Garden, southwest of the house, is best seen from the West Terrace.


The weather forecast for the day of our visit was not very promising, and it was heavily overcast, as you can see from the photos taken outside, and from the drive from the entrance to the car park. We toured the gardens first. As we left the house after about three hours at Lyme it began to drizzle. By the time we reached the carpark, which was no more than 200 m, the rain was almost torrential. And so it remained the whole way back home to North Worcestershire.

Nevertheless, it was . . .


I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that Lyme was one of the locations used in the filming of Pride and Prejudice in 1995. The National Trust provides a ‘Jane Austen Experience’ at Lyme, and there is a room where visitors can don Regency clothing, should they so wish. In fact, we saw several people touring the house and gardens in costume.

We have visited two other houses that were used as locations in the series. Belton House near Grantham was used at the home, Rosings, of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The interiors of Pemberley were filmed at Sudbury Hall.

On our way to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on the day before we visited Lyme, we passed Ramshaw Rocks, just north of Leek in North Staffordshire, where some scenes were films. And we passed through the village of Longnor, which became Lambton where Elizabeth Bennett spent a holiday with her aunt and uncle. It was from there that they visited Pemberley.

Here is a short video of Ramshaw Rocks and Longnor.