Wirksworth nestles in the valley of the Ecclesbourne, a trickle the locals call a river. DH Lawrence, who lived here in 1918, called this town “the navel of England”. We visiting Australians are living at the navel’s very centre, in a couple of houses older than European settlement in our homeland: all locally quarried stone, rickety stairways and small-paned windows overlooking a jumble of slate roofs and chimney pots and, beyond them, a view of dalesides dotted with contented sheep and cows. I’m in White Lion House, a former pub on Coldwell Street opposite the Baptist Church.
From our top-floor bedrooms we can see the medieval belfry and more recent spirelet of St Mary’s, and hear the bells tolling away the hours. Others of our contingent are camped in the Saddlers’ Cottage next door. On the next corner, The Red Lion Coaching Inn with a brick façade and arched coach entrance dating from soon after Captain James Cook claimed New Holland, as Europeans then called continental Australia, for the British Crown in 1770. Opposite the Red Lion, Wirksworth’s Town Hall, its foundation stone laid by one of the descendants of industrial entrepreneur Richard Arkwright. Locals brag about Arkwright establishing the world’s first factory system with his mechanical innovations at his Haarlem and Cromford mills, a claim which is contested, of course. To most of we post-Industrial Aussies, however, the Town Hall’s free wifi hotspot is much more important than Arkwright’s machines, because it enables us to connect with the world beyond this pretty little valley.
My own explorations of Wirksworth began at first light on our first morning. I wandered randomly through streets, lanes and footways harvesting whatever new experiences this town could offer: the stonework of the ancient walls, traces of a tiny cruck beam cottage preserved in a brick facade, an apothecaries shop dating from 1756, a late summer sunflower glowing against a freshly painted blue wall, rows of delphiniums, hanging baskets filled with impossibly bright begonias, alms houses built in 1576, restored silk and cotton mills, and quintessentially English pubs with their evocative names: Wheatsheaf, Lime Kiln, Blacks Head, the Hope and Anchor.
Wirksworth is a flaneur’s dream, but my most memorable experience was a simple one: watching
the first rays of sunlight striking St Mary’s spirelet and bell tower. I’m told that by the weekend, dozens of the old houses, shops, churches and public buildings I admired on my first wander will be transformed into art galleries on a long and winding Arts & Architecture Trail, and that the streets and lanes will be filled arts makers and arts lovers, thousands of people seeking beauty, aesthetic pleasure, innovation, inspiration, joy, wonder, provocation, affirmation, new ways of seeing the world, visions of possible futures and probable pasts, and that sense of community belonging the arts can induce. I expect to be astonished.
Revised 10 September 2013.