Secret Chesterfield by Richard Bradley
My first book, Secret Chesterfield, published February through Amberley, was an accidental conception. It was never one of my life's ambitions to write a book about Chesterfield – it just sort of happened. I had been working on an ongoing survey of Derbyshire folklore and calendar customs, past and present, and had made a list of potential publishers who specialised in local history to approach, Amberley being one of the companies was on my hit list. In 2016 I discovered that Amberley in conjunction with the Historical Association had run a national history book competition – but only saw this after the closing date. I saw by chance that in 2017 the competition was being re-run – this time three days before the deadline. I managed to squeak an entry in in time – but didn’t win.
However, the unexpected consolation prize was that shortly after the competition deadline I was contacted by Nick Grant of Amberley and asked if I wanted to write a title for them. Err, OK then. Seemed like too good an offer to refuse! Having been sent a list of the local history strands that Amberley published, the one that appealed to me the most by far was the 'Secret’ series one. Chesterfield was mutually agreed on the area to focus on as I had quite a bit of material from my existing research covering the area. Although I hadn't grown up there myself, most of my family comes from the surrounding towns and villages. I didn’t really possess the requisite time, inclination or discipline required to write a comprehensive history of Chesterfield from the founding of the town to the present day, but the 'Secret' series was just up my street, focussing on the history that had fallen through the cracks in the pavements. The worst indictment for 'Secret Chesterfield' would be for a member of the townsfolk to read it from cover to cover and think, 'Well, I knew all that already!' It was a fun challenge hunting out obscure facts and episodes that it seemed most people wouldn’t know about.
I studied History at A Level, but the exalted activities of Louis XIV lavishing his subjects’ money on extending his vanity project palace at Versailles and the tedious ins and outs of British political history of the 1800s had failed to inspire me, and I subsequently received a ‘D’ (there were six of us in my History class; two of my fellow students got results good enough to net themselves a place at the University of Cambridge). On a personal level, the publication of Secret Chesterfield goes some way towards atonement for my rubbish A Level result.
The visuals were an important part of the project, the 'Secret’ series requiring 100 images to illustrate them. As a non-driver, I passed through Chesterfield on the train most weeks taking my son to visit his grandparents. Throughout the summer and autumn months, as we were picked up at Chesterfield Station I would ask my parents if we could just make a brief detour before driving over to their house in order that I could photograph an ice cream factory/milestone/remains of an oilwell at the back of a garden centre/abandoned churchyard for inclusion in the book. The most surreal moment came when I rang them up en route to meet us and asked if they had a spare cucumber, which I then balanced precariously on the palm of the statue of the town’s illustrious adopted son George Stephenson outside Chesterfield Railway Station, to illustrate his perfectionist zeal for growing immaculately straight cucumbers. This act drew glances from passing commuters which ranged from puzzlement to mild alarm.
I also enjoyed sourcing the archive images for the book. I have collected postcards on and off for years, so added a few new (old) postcards of Chesterfield to my collection for the purposes of illustrating the book, as the author guidance notes I received from Amberley explained that old postcards are generally OK to use from a copyright point of view. I also sweet-talked various local groups including the Dronfield Heritage Trust, the North East Derbyshire Field Club, and the Chesterfield Astronomical Society (who let me use some wonderful images of their observatory, tucked away down a cul-de-sac in Newbold, being built in the 1950s) into kindly allowing me to use old photos from their collections, which really do add a lot to the book.
The thread of part of my narrative for a ‘Secret’ history ended up being spoilt rather unexpectedly (and spectacularly) during the course of the writing process. I was including a chapter on ‘Water’ in the book in which I planned to include the Chesterfield well dressings. This practice, of producing a design using natural materials (flower petals, moss, bark, pine cones wool, etc.) in thanks for the gift of water during the summer months, is a well-known phenomenon largely peculiar to Derbyshire. However, it is much more readily associated with the villages of the limestone White Peak areas of the Peak District such as Tideswell, Youlgrave, Buxton and Wirksworth. The fact that Chesterfield had produced dressings since at least 1864 seemed to me a greatly-overlooked fact. However, one of the teams of dressers in 2017 (when I was writing the book) decided to choose an image of Princess Diana as a subject for their well dressing, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death in a Parish car smash as well as the fact that along with Prince Charles she had opened the towns shopping centre development, The Pavements, in 1981. The end result, whilst entirely heartfelt, turned out a little – shall we say – wonky. It was widely shared on the internet, provoking reactions ranging from sarcasm and hilarity to genuine anger – firstly among locals (several of whom commented they never knew Chesterfield made a well dressing, thus vindicating my original line of approach), and then as the story spread like wildfire from citizens of countries around the world. Although the ‘secret’ of the Chesterfield well dressing was now well and truly out, Diana still had to go in the book, it was too good a story to omit.
How could you earn £10 just from looking in shop windows? Why was the former leader of Chesterfield Council once dressed as a pig and paraded around in a wheelbarrow? Why is a black puddle full of leaves at the back of a garden centre a site of national significance? What was the 19th Century Rector of Staveley’s unusual hobby? How did a troupe of elephants help to bring down an illegal betting ring? Why did the village cross the road? Find out the answers to all these questions, and more, in Secret Chesterfield.
Richard Bradley's book Secret Chesterfield is available for purchase now.