Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

South Yorkshire’s transport museum

South Yorkshire Transport Museum, Aldwarke, Rotherham

South Yorkshire Transport Museum, Aldwarke, Rotherham

South Yorkshire has two transport museums which grew independently out of an early project to turn the former Sheffield Tramways Company’s Tinsley Tram Sheds into a museum on a nationally significant transport-history site.

At the present time the oldest purpose-built tram depot in the UK is a tile-warehouse, and there are two separate collections of buses and other transport memorabilia within a couple of miles of each other in the suburbs of Rotherham.

The South Yorkshire Transport Museum at Aldwarke is family friendly.  There’s plenty for children to do, and much to entertain kids of all ages.

If you’ve lived in South Yorkshire and are over forty this place provides the disconcerting experience of finding once-familiar objects preserved in a museum.

It has a rich collection of buses, most of them well preserved and the rest under restoration, from across South Yorkshire, as well as tower wagons, towing trucks and other vehicles including two milk floats.

Some of the buses are available for hire, and do a roaring trade in weddings and birthdays.

There’s even a matchstick model of a railway locomotive.

Tucked away in a corner is the lower saloon of a Sheffield tram, no 460 built in 1926.  It’s a rare survivor, sold rather than scrapped in 1951, and now repainted in an approximation of the authentic livery.  Step inside to look at the models and memorabilia and hear an evocative sound-recording of trams in motion that makes up for its incomplete state.

There’s also a café, serving hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and snacks, and a shop full of souvenirs and arcana to satisfy the most deep-dyed transport enthusiast.

Visitor information is at https://sytm.co.uk/visit/opening.html.

Tinsley Tramsheds

Former Tinsley Tramsheds, Sheffield

Former Tinsley Tramsheds, Sheffield

The most substantial remnant of Sheffield’s first-generation tram system is the original depot at Weedon Street, Tinsley, built in 1873 for the Sheffield Tramways Company when it opened its first horse-drawn line.

This very early tramway was founded by the railway contractor Thomas Lightfoot, who also built the Douglas horse-tramway that opened in 1876 and still operates in the Isle of Man.

When the Sheffield Corporation took over the horse-tram company, its first electric trams, inaugurated in 1899, ran between Weedon Street and Nether Edge, with a depot at each end, and for the first few years vehicles were maintained and eventually built at the two depots – mechanical parts at Tinsley, bodywork at Nether Edge – until a purpose-built works at Queen’s Road opened in 1905.

The National Tramway Museum’s photographic library shows the atmosphere of Tinsley Tramsheds up to the end of the 1950s:  http://ntm.adlibhosting.com/detail.aspx?parentpriref [insert ‘Tinsley Depot’ in search box].

A well-made film of a tram-journey from Beauchief to Weedon Street in 1960 ends with Roberts car 523 disappearing into the tramsheds:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0a28Q_78eM  [at 16:45 minutes].

Almost all Sheffield’s trams, including the very last in service and those in the final closing procession in October 1960, ended up at Weedon Street, from where they were towed across the road to Thomas W Ward’s scrapyard.

Sheffield people customarily referred to “tramsheds”, though all of them across the city were substantial brick buildings.  Apart from Tinsley, they have either disappeared or survive only as sad facades.

At one time Tinsley Tramsheds was home to Sheffield’s bus museum, until a schism led to one collection moving out to Aldwarke near Rotherham to become the South Yorkshire Bus Museum [http://sytm.co.uk/visit/opening.html] and the other, the South Yorkshire Transport Trust, eventually moving to Eastwood in a nearby part of Rotherham:  http://www.sytt.org.uk.

Little remains of the tram-depot interior:  the tracks, inspection pits and overhead gantries that gave exterior access to trams at upper-deck level have long gone.  Urban explorer reports show empty graffiti-covered spaces [https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/industrial-sites/32188-attercliffe-tram-sheds-sheffield-december-2015-a.html#.WPS3tYWcGUk], and the tile-depot that occupies the first two bays looks like, well, a tile-depot:  http://www.tiledepot.com/pages.php?pageid=3.

A glass-half-empty report from the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society suggests that the building is deteriorating:  http://hhbs.org.uk/2017/07/01/trams-to-tiles.

Nevertheless, this Grade II-listed relic of transport history, located between the Meadowhall shopping centre and Sheffield’s new Ikea store, close to a retail park and the Sheffield Arena, could be smartened up by a savvy developer.

Cracks in the tarmac of the forecourt show that the track-fan and stone setts survive, at least in part, waiting to be exposed.

The interior is a flexible space with scope for adaptation, and the exterior is capable of restoration as one of the few historic sites remaining in the Lower Don Valley.

The simple life

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

I’ve known, ever since the days when I ran country-house tours for Nottingham University, that the people who manage National Trust property contribute to its atmosphere.

So, on my first visit to the recently acquired Stoneywell, just outside Leicester, the warmth of the welcome was striking even on a chilly autumn afternoon.

There’s literally nowhere to park at this property, so visitors are greeted with a minibus at the car-park down the lane.  There is a shop in the stables, and a modest café in the old laundry which is warmed by the original copper.

Strolling in the garden, a survival of the ancient Charnwood Forest, it’s difficult to remember that the outer suburbs of Leicester are only a couple of miles away to the east, and the M1 motorway is barely half a mile to the west.

The house itself is an overgrown cottage, hunched into the hillside rather like an upmarket hobbit house.  It’s built of local materials, and grows organically from the hillside on which it stands, so that its three floors in fact have six different levels on a zig-zag ground plan.

It’s a hugely significant building, commissioned by Sydney Gimson (1860-1938), son of the founder of a Leicester engineering company that built steam engines and other machinery.  It was completed in 1899.

Sydney Gimson bought enough land in Charnwood Forest to provide plots for his older half-brother, Mentor, and his younger sister, Margaret.

He commissioned his younger brother Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) to design Stoneywell, and employed the architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939) as clerk of works.

Both Gimson and Blow were devotees of the Arts & Crafts movement:  Detmar Blow believed that architects should get their hands dirty, which slowed things down and caused some irritation;  Ernest Gimson was closely associated with the Birmingham-born brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, with whom he set up a workshop at Sapperton, Gloucestershire.

For two generations, until the 1950s, Stoneywell was a country retreat for the summer and Christmas, a place of adventure for the children of the family and their friends, and an opportunity to live a simpler life far removed from their town house and the engineering factory in nearby Leicester.

This much-loved place was too good to give up, and so passed down the family, on Sidney’s death in 1938 to his son Basil (who taught at Bedales School, where his uncle Ernest designed the library).

A fire destroyed the thatched roof in 1937 but most of the cottage and its contents survived and were restored, with a roof of local Swithland slate, by Basil’s brother Humphrey Gimson (1890-1982).

When Basil died in 1953, the house passed to his son Donald (born 1924) who gently modernised it for year-round living:  he sold it to the National Trust in 2012 and continues to make periodic visits.

Continuity of ownership means that this exquisite dwelling retains most of its original contents, with tables, chairs, beds and fittings designed and made by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers.

It’s a testament to the Arts & Crafts values that William Morris promoted through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Art Workers’ Guild.

The simple life is all well and good.  Janet Ashbee, wife of the architect Charles Robert Ashbee, writes that the artist Roger Fry tried the simple life but found it too complicated and had to give it up.

The Gimsons made it work, shinning up narrow staircases and a ladder to bed well into old age.

And now its beauty is accessible to everyone – provided they book a timed ticket to prevent overcrowding.

Grand Master

Wignacourt Aqueduct, Fleur-de-Lys, Malta

Wignacourt Aqueduct, Fleur-de-Lys, Malta

Alof de Wignacourt (1547-1622) is a towering figure in Malta’s history.  His name is everywhere on the island.

One of the most popular of the Grand Masters of the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the island from 1530, the young Wignacourt first attracted attention at the Siege of Malta in 1565.

After his election as Grand Master in 1601 he undertook an ambitious programme of public works to improve and protect the island and particularly its newly-established capital of Valletta.

Between 1610 and 1620 he constructed, at his own expense, six formidable watchtowers along Malta’s east coast to keep an eye on unfriendly vessels at the crossroads of Mediterranean shipping routes.  Four of these survive – the eponymous Wignacourt Tower at St Paul’s Bay (1610), the St Lucian Tower at Marsaxlokk (1610-11), the St Thomas Tower at Marsaskala (1614) and St Mary’s Tower on the island of Comino (1618).

Further series of watch towers were built by subsequent Grand Masters Giovanni Paolo Lascaris (in office 1636-1657) and Martin de Redin (in office 1657-1660), but they are generally smaller and less elaborate than the Wignacourt Towers.

His other major engineering achievement was to bring fresh drinking water to the rapidly growing city of Valletta by means of the Wignacourt Aqueduct.

The preceding Grand Master Martin Garze (in office 1595-1601) had planned an aqueduct to run some sixteen miles from inland springs at Dingli and Rabat, but hadn’t made much progress for lack of funds.

Wignacourt took over and largely financed the project, and completed it within five years.  The line runs from Attard, maintaining a constant gradient through underground pipes, and crossing depressions with arcades of limestone arches cemented with pozzolana, a volcanic ash of cement.

It continued to supply water to Valletta and other towns along its route until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Long stretches remain as a monument to Wignacourt’s enterprise, along with other structures, such as the Wignacourt Arch, otherwise known as the Fleur-de-Lys Gate, demolished after an RAF lorry ran into it during the blackout in 1943, and reconstructed in 2012-14.

The community around the Gate takes its name from the three fleur-de-lys that appear on Wignacourt’s coat of arms.

Other surviving structures include inspection towers at St Venera, Ħamrun and Floriana, and a series of fountains including the Wignacourt Fountain in the centre of Valetta.

Alongside these physical achievements, Wignacourt has a claim on posterity as the patron of the artist Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose tempestuous career brought him to Malta in a brief period between 1607 and his expulsion from the Knights’ order at the end of the following year.

During this time, as well as the two great canvases in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta, ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ and ‘Saint Jerome Writing’, Caravaggio painted a striking portrait ‘Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page’, now in the Louvre.

Bognor’s oldest family business

Reynolds & Co Furniture Repository, Bognor Regis

Reynolds & Co Furniture Repository, Bognor Regis

Opposite Bognor Regis railway station stand two proud survivals of the town’s heyday – the Picturedrome Cinema, built as the Assembly Rooms in 1885, converted to full-time cinema operation in 1918 and still showing the latest releases [http://www.picturedromebognor.com/article.php?sec=cineinfo], and Reynolds’ Furniture Repository, dated 1911 on its façade.

When King George V came to convalesce at Craigwell House nearby in 1929, his personal effects were transported by Reynolds, who later duly returned them to Windsor Castle.

By that time the Reynolds’ family business was already in its third generation.

It was founded by nineteen-year-old Samuel Reynolds, who set up shop at 13 West Street in 1867, three years after the railway reached the town, and two years after the Pier opened.

His business grew as “auctioneers, appraisers, house agents, cabinetmakers, upholsterers and undertakers.”  It still survives and thrives to this day.

The cabinet-making business developed directly from coffin-manufacturing into a highly respected funeral-director business, which has continued to expand into branches in Chichester and Littlehampton.  They can still provide the horse-drawn hearse which has been in the family for generations.

Dealing in real estate included expanding the company’s own premises, so that their High Street furniture store became the largest in town, and behind its art deco façade the interior was last refurbished in 2005.

Selling furniture to Bognor people led naturally to a demand for storing furniture and other valuables, for which the 1911 Repository still provides an up-to-date service with its wooden cubicles from 100 cubic feet upwards.

The company celebrated its 150th anniversary in style in 2017:  https://www.bognor.news/news/business/md-dominic-reynolds-pride-150-years-illustrious-history-prestigious-bognor-business.  The patriarch is Norman Reynolds, the founder’s great-grandson;  his four sons are all involved – Dominic (furniture), James and Stephen (funerals) and Matthew (finance and accounting).

Dominic’s daughter Freya, Samuel Reynolds’ great-great-great-granddaughter, has now joined the company.

Norman Reynolds himself has fifteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild, which suggests that the family are likely to serve Bognor for generations to come:  http://www.reynoldsfurniture.co.uk/about-us.

Their biggest advertisement is the grand repository building directly opposite the railway station at the gateway to the town.

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

King George V famously didn’t like Bognor, where he was sent to recuperate after surgery in 1929.  After his stay at Craigwell House in nearby Aldwick, he received a petition to grant the town the suffix “Regis” – literally, “of the King”.  I can’t possibly tell the story better than Wikipedia, citing Antonia Fraser’s The house of Windsor (2000):

The petition was presented to Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, who in turn delivered it to the King.  King George supposedly replied, “Oh, bugger Bognor.”  Lord Stamfordham then went back to the petitioners and told them, “the King has been graciously pleased to grant your request.”

Like many small seaside resorts at the ends of branch lines, Bognor is a rather sad place today, but it has a proud history as a genteel place to relax, founded in the late eighteenth century by the local landowner Sir Richard Hotham, and more energetically developed after the arrival of the branch railway in 1864.

It’s hardly an accident that Bognor Pier was begun in the same year, designed by Sir Charles Fox and his cousin J W Wilson and opened in 1865.  Originally a thousand feet long, it cost £5,000, but was subsequently bought for £1,200 by the Local Board in 1876.

The Board’s successor, Bognor Urban District Council, were glad to offload it to a private operator, who spent £30,000 dealing with dilapidations and constructing an entertainment complex at the shore end, comprising a theatre with a fly-tower, a picture theatre, an amusement arcade and a roof-garden restaurant, all of which opened in 1912.

During the Second World War, from 1943-45, the pier was HMS St Barbara, a naval observation station armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Its history became vexed from the 1960s onwards:  repeated changes of ownership meant that maintenance failed to keep up with onslaughts of storm damage.

Though it’s listed Grade II and the pier head building remains in part, only 350 feet of the pier itself survives, and repeated attempts to attract lottery funding for a major restoration have fallen apart.

Most recently, the energetic friends’ group, Bognor Pier Trust, learned that the current owners, Bognor Pier Leisure Ltd (BPLL), would not support a £5,000,000 lottery bid but were committed to maintaining the structure:  https://www.bognor.co.uk/news/future-of-bognor-pier-plunged-into-uncertainty-after-owners-withdraw-support-for-5m-funding-bid-1-7653934 and http://www.bognorpiertrust.co.uk/news-articles/no-lottery-bid-bognor-regis-pier.

The Trust has made a dignified decision to concentrate on other conservation projects in the town, and to remain ready to purchase the Pier if the current owners decide to sell.

Where that leaves the long-term future of the Pier itself remains to be seen.

Zion Graveyard 2

Zion Sabbath School, Attercliffe, Sheffield

Zion Sabbath School, Attercliffe, Sheffield

The Friends of Zion Graveyard have made great progress since their inauguration last May:  they have secured funds to buy the land from the United Reformed Church, and have continued to clear the graves which had become buried in undergrowth.

In the course of researching the Zion Congregational Church which stood on the site I’ve become fascinated by the history of the congregation, which stretches back almost continuously to the early history of Dissent in Sheffield.

Attercliffe and Carbrook, two of the three villages in the Lower Don Valley, were centres of Puritan and later Dissenting activity from before the Civil War, when Hill Top Chapel was built as a chapel-of-ease to Sheffield Parish Church (now the Anglican Cathedral).

There was a college for training Dissenting clergy at Attercliffe Old Hall in the late seventeenth-century, and informal congregations worshipped in several locations north of Sheffield during the eighteenth century.

A temporary chapel was built on the site that became the Zion Sabbath School in 1793, and a permanent building was erected on the opposite side of what became Zion Lane in 1805.  The existing Sabbath School building dates from 1854, and a fine Romanesque brick chapel with a tower and spire was opened in 1863.  This building was demolished after a fire in June 1987.

The 1863 chapel was founded on the energetic ministry of Rev John Calvert (1832-1922), who was invited to become minister in 1857.

His leadership made Zion Church prominent, until its attendances exceeded any other place of worship in Attercliffe.  Zion members helped to form branch churches in Brightside and Darnall, and a mission church at Baldwin Street, half a mile away.

When Mr Calvert retired to Southport in 1895 he named his house ‘Attercliffe’.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Zion was the largest Congregational community, measured by membership, in Sheffield:  it had four hundred members when the four city-centre chapels each had around three hundred each.

To accommodate the Sunday School and young people’s activities, in 1911 the congregation opened an extensive Institute next to the chapel, designed by the Sheffield architects Hemsoll & Chapman, whose best surviving building is Cavendish Buildings on West Street.  When first built, the Institute offered football, cricket, tennis, a gymnasium and a literary and debating section to young members of the congregation.

This vigorous Christian community filled its extensive buildings for only twenty years.  By 1930 the Sabbath School was leased as a printing works, and after the Second World War rooms in the Institute were leased to the Ministry of Works for use by civil-service departments.

Gale-damage in 1962 made the church itself unusable, and services moved next door into the Institute.  Zion Congregational Church closed entirely at the end of 1969 when the congregation amalgamated with Darnall Congregational Church.

Photographic evidence shows that the Institute building was completely demolished by July 1977.

The Church continued to be used as a furniture store until a serious fire on June 22nd 1987 led to its subsequent demolition.

Now only the Sabbath School and the graveyard remain – unobtrusive monuments to a long, proud tradition of Nonconformist worship in north Sheffield.

On Thursday May 24th the Friends of Zion Graveyard present Mike Higginbottom’s talk on Victorian Cemeteries at the Upper Wincobank Chapel, Sheffield.  For further details, please click here.

Exploring Australia: XPT trains

NSW TrainLink XPT power car 2000, Sydney Central Station

NSW TrainLink XPT power car 2000, Sydney Central Station

Three times I’ve travelled by train from Melbourne to Sydney – never, as it happens, in the opposite direction.

I wrote up the first journey in a blog article about my introduction to travel in Australia in 2010-11 [http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=851], when I was completely oblivious of the border between the states of Victoria and New South Wales.

The second time, the border was very obvious, because I took the train only as far as Albury, where until 1962 you had to change trains because the two states’ rail systems were built to different gauges:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2245.

By my third trip, early in 2017, I felt I was beginning to find my way around.  I’m used to the fact that the daytime train from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station doesn’t always leave on time.  Indeed, it often doesn’t arrive until after it’s due to depart.

There’s a good reason for this.

The New South Wales’ Railways XPT trains that operate the inter-state TrainLink service are based on the British High Speed Train.  The sound of the power cars’ Paxman engines is immediately recognisable to British ears.

These Australian workhorses have been in use since 1982, whereas the British version began operating in 1976, and with overhauls and modifications both continue to give sterling service.

The Australian-built version was adapted at the outset for the different conditions down under:  the engines are down-rated and the suspension enhanced to cope with inferior track and longer distances;  the Australian power cars have headlights at roof level to cope with the darkness of the empty rural areas at night.  The trailer cars are completely different from the British Mark III carriages, designed instead under licence from the American Budd company by the Australian builder Comeng.

The astonishing thing about these 35-year-old veterans is the intensity of their schedules.

While one unit runs seven days a week between Sydney and Dubbo and back (287 miles each way), the others run an intensive seven-day carousel between Sydney and Melbourne, Grafton (in the north of New South Wales, 432 miles each way), Melbourne again, Casino (north of Grafton, 500 miles from Sydney) and Brisbane (over the border in Queensland, 614 miles each way).

During this weekly routine each unit is serviced at Sydney only three times.

There isn’t a great deal of leeway, which explains why departures from Southern Cross are often delayed.

Until they are replaced sometime in the next few years, these tough trains earn their keep and represent outstanding value for money.

Sheffield’s hidden rivers

River Sheaf culvert and former Alexandra Hotel, Blonk Street, Sheffield

River Sheaf culvert and former Alexandra Hotel, Blonk Street, Sheffield

In the nineteenth century the rivers on which Sheffield is built were polluted, insanitary and smelly.

The River Porter runs south-east to join the River Sheaf at the site of the city’s railway station, and the Sheaf then runs north-east for about a quarter of a mile to join the River Don at the site of the medieval castle.

Both rivers were progressively culverted, tidied away and largely forgotten about.

The original Midland Railway station, platforms 5-8 of the modern station, opened in 1870, and was more or less doubled in size in 1905 when the present concourse and platforms 1-4 were added.

It’s difficult to imagine, while waiting for a train, that beneath the tracks is a spectacular complex of vaults and arches carrying the water from the two rivers northwards under Sheaf Street, where there is a brief open stretch before the watercourse disappears under the Ponds Forge International Sports Centre, next emerging at the confluence of the Sheaf and Don at the end of the oddly-named Blonk Street (named after a scissor-smith, Benjamin Blonk).

This last section was only completed in 1916, after the demolition of the Alexandra Theatre a couple of years earlier.  Part of the theatre building stood on iron columns over the river bed:  http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/SheffieldTheatres.htm#alex.  The now-defunct and possibly haunted Alexandra Hotel stands on an adjacent site:  https://sheffield.camra.org.uk/2013/11/alexandra-hotel.

There are plans to remove the 1916 culvert as part of the forthcoming development of the former Castle Market site, and there are informal campaigns urging the opening of other stretches of Sheffield’s buried rivers.

This recent press article, about a sinkhole revealing the River Sheaf beneath the car-park of the sports-shop Decathlon, includes a spectacular video of waterborne gymnastics beneath the station:  https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/feature-bold-plans-to-uncover-sheffield-s-hidden-rivers-1-8421598.

An artful slide-show that suggests the cavernous extent of the area beneath the station (named for reasons which escape me the Megatron) is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fmsG6svhYo.

And three more pedestrian urban-explorer reports are at https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/river-porter-culverts-sheffield-railway-station-april-2017.108056, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T13hCT2XBn4 and https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/megatron-sheffield-june-and-july-2015.97955.

Brighton opened its sewers to public tours half a century ago:  https://www.southernwater.co.uk/brighton-sewer-tours.  Perhaps Sheffield should open its subterranean rivers.

Elvaston Castle

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

It’s good to see that the Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent is at last undergoing restoration after decades of neglect.

Derbyshire County Council has at last resolved a seemingly intractable conservation problem, only to face a formidable task rescuing a Grade II*-listed country house in the south of the county:  https://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/countryside/countryside_sites/country_parks/elvaston/elvaston_repairs/default.asp.

Elvaston Castle has a theatrical air.  The architecture of the house is pre-Pugin Gothic, and the garden was once famous for its extravagant, even outlandish design.  The succession of owners, latterly the first eleven Earls of Harrington, have been interestingly varied, attractive characters.

The manor of Elvaston goes back to Domesday, and was purchased in the early sixteenth century by Sir Michael Stanhope of Shelford, Nottinghamshire.  One of his great-grandsons, Philip Stanhope (1584-1656), became First Earl of Chesterfield;  his half-brother John (died 1638) was given the Elvaston estate, and the earliest surviving visible parts of the building, dated 1633, are his.

Lord Chesterfield’s great-grandson, William Stanhope (c1690-1756), created Earl of Harrington and Viscount Petersham, inherited Elvaston, and his grandson Charles, 3rd Earl, (1753-1829) tried to interest Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in landscaping the park, but Brown declined, declaring “the place is so flat and there is such a want of capability in it”.

Instead, the Third Earl significantly altered the character of the house.  He commissioned James Wyatt, who had been working nearby at Bretby, to rebuild the south side of the house in Gothic style.  Wyatt died in September 1813, and the work was actually started in 1815 by the much less well-known Robert Walker.

When the south front was completed in 1819 the Earl purchased the so-called Golden Gates (which have actually been painted blue since at least the late 1840s) to embellish the approach to the southern avenue.

The Fourth Earl (1780-1851) had an affair with a Covent Garden actress, Maria Foote, and married her in 1831.  Both were ostracised by what was described as polite society, and they retired to Elvaston, which they embellished as an idyll in which to spend their days together.

The architect L N Cottingham was commissioned to provide a symmetrical Gothic east front to the house, behind the main entrance of which is the sumptuous vaulted entrance hall, with niches and mirrors and ornate gilding and decoration.

The Fourth Earl’s great contribution Elvaston was commissioning the Edinburgh gardener James Barron, to develop the uninviting prospect that Lancelot Brown – and latterly, apparently, Humphrey Repton – had rejected.  Barron’s initial survey led him to realise that constructing a land-drain at a particular depth would completely alter the potential of the site:  his hunch proved correct, and he was able to claim credit for all that followed.

During the 1830s Barron created a series of ornamental gardens where topiary, some of it preposterous to modern eyes, abounded.  He developed a technique of moving conifers in a vertical position within a matter of days:  his success earned him the sobriquet, “the tree-lifter”, and his services were called on by everyone from Prince Albert downwards.

The Fourth Earl chose to keep his pleasure-grounds from the gaze of strangers, though the Duke of Wellington presumably visited, for he declared that Elvaston possessed “the only natural artificial rockwork I have seen”.  Barron’s instructions were – “If the Queen comes, Barron, show her round, but admit no-one else.”

Of his successors, the most colourful was Charles Augustus, 8th Earl (1844-1917), universally known as “Old Whiskers”, a noted huntsman, Master of the South Notts Hunt, whose kennel huntsman was, apparently in all seriousness, called German Shepherd.

The designer of a steam-powered lawnmower with a coffee-pot boiler, he died in 1917 as a result of burns following an explosion in his workshop at Elvaston.

He instructed that on the first fine day after his funeral his hounds were to go hunting:  his wish was carried out, and as soon as they were released the entire pack went straight for the churchyard where they gathered round their dead Master’s newly-dug grave.

Elvaston was little used after the death of the Tenth Earl in 1929.  It was leased as a teacher-training college from the beginning of the Second World War until 1950 and thereafter was simply neglected.  The 11th Earl took up residence in Ireland, and the estate was finally sold to a property developer in 1963.  It was taken over in 1969 by the Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council jointly and developed as a deservedly popular country park and leisure facility.

Unfortunately, they have made very little of the house.  Its last hurrah was as a location for Ken Russell’s film, Women in Love (1969).

In a county abounding with great country houses, Elvaston Castle has been a Cinderella for far too long.