Chesterfield, by its name, clearly dates back to Roman times, and a short-lived fort is thought to have existed somewhere near the site of the medieval parish church of St Mary, the famous “Crooked Spire”.
The town had a regular market by the year 1156 and gained a charter in 1204. A street grid developed around a huge market place, the eastern part of which was later infilled by alleyways known as the Shambles.
Its mercantile past is marked by street-names that commemorate ancient trades – Packer’s Row, Knifesmithgate, Saltergate and Glumangate (from “gleeman”, a minstrel, indicating the Tin Pan Alley of medieval Chesterfield).
The open market place, with its stately iron pump, was bordered by fine Georgian inns and shops and, in 1857, embellished with a Market Hall that included an assembly room, a post office, a corn exchange and a tall clock tower.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed this pompous pile as “the crudest show of high Victorian prosperity” and by the 1950s it indeed looked past its best – grubby and shorn of the ogee top to the tower.
In 1964 the Borough Council commissioned the Hammerson Group to redevelop the entire area, and they proposed a covered precinct that would have obliterated the market place, the Market Hall and the Low Pavement shops to the south.
After the Council approved this proposal in 1972, uproar followed.
A petition against it attracted 34,000 signatures, and a letter to the Derbyshire Times by a twelve-year-old schoolboy, David Ellis, led to the formation of the Chesterfield Heritage Society which served a High Court writ on the Council, asserting that the Hammerson scheme “would not be in the financial interests of the town’s ratepayers.
Low Pavement already included a number of listed buildings when an arson attack on the derelict, unassuming Peacock Inn revealed that the building was in fact a three-bay timber-framed structure dating from c1500 with an impressive tie-beam roof with curved wind braces, which was hurriedly listed Grade II.
In the face of the crescendo of opposition Hammerson Group chose not to sign the development agreement.
The Council then executed a widely praised policy U-turn and commissioned the distinguished practice Feilden & Mawson to survey the area covered by the Hammerton scheme, while the Department of the Environment listed nearly sixty structures.
This led, with strong public approval, to The Pavements development, which retained the facades of Low Pavement while stripping away the burgage plots behind, building a brick-faced multi-storey car park, turning the Peacock Inn into an information centre and renovating the Market Hall and reinstating its 30ft dome.
The lead architect, Bernard Feilden, commented the Market Hall might be called ugly “but it has been saved because it is so essentially a part of Chesterfield”.
A more hard-headed argument in its favour was that renovation cost an estimated £250,000 less than demolishing it and building a new replacement.
Meanwhile, the Shambles area, itself threatened by a comprehensive redevelopment by Lloyds Bank Property Ltd but championed by the Chesterfield & District Civic Society, was given conservation-area status which protected the sixteenth-century Grade II*-listed Royal Oak pub.
The largely completed scheme was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in November 1981.
Within a period of little more than five years Chesterfield was transformed. Instead of gaining a covered shopping precinct that destroyed the historic core, the town retained its scale and its open spaces, conserved and improved for the future.
And the borough’s politicians, having abandoned what must have looked like a good deal in the 1960s, could pat themselves on the back for being in the forefront of the sensitive environmental thinking that Prince Charles has championed in the years that followed.