It was this time last year when I first visited the city of Derby, one of Britain’s smaller cities, situated in the English Midlands. It’s also in my opinion the most underrated British city, with many not even considering it a city but rather a large town. As a non-local, you really don’t see or hear much about Derby and the extent of my knowledge of the city before I first visited other than where it is geographically is that it was home to the ceramics company Royal Crown Derby. But that’s it….
Only last year did I discover it’s small but beautiful cathedral; its immense diversity in creativity through the work on display at the city’s art gallery; that it is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the Derwent Valley Mills and gateway to many more; not to mention the wealth of parklands and green landscapes on the doorstep from Darley Park to the North, Elvaston Castle Country Park to the east and Keddleston Hall, a fabulous National Trust property to the west. Oh and perhaps best of all, I discovered a great craft brewery: the Derby Brewing Company with various outlets to sample their ales all over the city…
It all started in 2014 at the Tower of London when the most ambitious public art project took over this huge London visitor attraction, spilling hundreds of thousands ceramic red poppies from a window of the tower into the moat. “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” as the installation was called took the UK by storm and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the most photographed site in Britain in 2014.
Most of the poppies were sold off to raise money, but as part of the continuation of the centenary celebrations of World War I, the UK Arts project ‘14-18 NOW’ took two key aspects of the original installation, a ‘weeping window’ and a ‘wave’ and have re-installed them in various places around the UK. The Weeping Window features several thousand of the poppies cascading from upper windows of prominent buildings to a sea of red on the ground. The Wave is a sweeping arch (making a wave shape) of poppy heads built up on towering stalks and has graced many coastal locations on its tour.
I was so moved by the installation at the Tower of London that the moment I knew the Weeping Window was in Derby, I knew I had to go see it before it moved on and so a spontaneous trip was booked and within the week I was back in Derby.
The Weeping Window was of course my first stop of the day and you’ll find the installation of iconic poppies pouring from one of the high arched windows on the Silk Mill’s tower. The Silk Mill is one of the Derwent Valley Mills that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Derby was lucky to get the Weeping Window as lots of places around the country applied to host the poppies. The applicants had to prove a significant connection with the First World War which the Silk Mill has. During the war the mill served two purposes, that of grinding corn and producing medical supplies, both of which were integral to the British war effort and scarce by 1916. Plus, Derby as a whole is known for the part it played in production during World War I with local company Rolls-Royce developing the Eagle engine in order to power Allied aircraft.
I sat and looked at the installation for ages. It’s just so beautiful, but at the same time the emotions it generated were beyond description and obviously they’ll be unique to each person viewing it. Our connection with the red poppy is huge. Yes, it symbolises the tragedy of lives lost during the war, but rather more positively it celebrates those people who fought for us and enabled us to live on with the hope of a better life. However, seeing so many poppies in one place makes you gulp in sheer amazement and overwhelming awe.
What’s so great about seeing the Weeping Window in Derby (and I’m sure this applies to other locations too) is that you’re not fighting through crowds of people to see it which is what happened at the Tower of London. When I saw them there, I got up at 6.00am to head to the tower just to be able to see them without pushing (sorry, politely coaxing) people out of the way. You can also get so much closer to the poppies, almost in touching distance which allows you to see the detail on the ceramics themselves.
What I didn’t realise until I got to Derby is that the poppies were considered to be ‘coming home’ as the artist who designed them, Paul Cummins is local to Derby and has a studio in the city. Once I learnt this, I thought it particularly suitable that the Weeping Window made it to Derby on its tour.
The Weeping Window will remain in Derby until the 23rd July 2017, and is accessible at all times of day so I hope you get chance to see it. It’s really is worth the trip.
When I finally managed to drag myself away from the Silk Mill, my next stop was to pop in to the cathedral again, something I did on my first trip last year. It’s the most visited attraction in Derby and has such an unusual cathedral interior. It’s rather theatrical in my opinion and provides a lovely light space to sit, relax and reflect in while admiring the beautiful interior.
The current cathedral building dates largely from 1725 when it was rebuilt in the Neo-classical style, leaving just the rather tall Perpendicular Gothic bell tower dating from the 1530’s.
Rather unusual features worth noting are the wrought iron choir screen which actually extends across the full width of the cathedral, the stunning and colourful 20th century stained glass windows by Ceri Richards and the impressive memorial to Bess of Hardwick. Alongside the memorial there is an information board which explains Bess’s story and her links to Derby and the wider county through the well known Derbyshire residences of Hardwick and Chatsworth.
In front of the altar I noticed a few of the ceramic poppies had made their way in to the cathedral, a lovely little touch which I assume will remain in place while the Weeping Window is in situ.
Towards of the rear of the left aisle, I also saw Derby cathedral’s version of the Weeping Window – poppies attached to chicken wire cascade from a window down into the pews amidst two framed embroideries dedicated to ‘The Sherwood Foresters’ Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment from the First World War. It is a touching memorial that brought a tear to my eye.
Like I did at the Silk Mill, I sat for a while in quiet contemplation, much like I do whenever I visit a cathedral, though this time I perused a brochure I’d seen at the back of the church called ‘Derby Remembers’ which is the city’s First World War cultural programme of events that extends for the duration of the Weeping Window installation.
The programme is certainly varied including talks, exhibits, workshops, theatrical performances and concerts across various cultural venues in Derby. Highlights for me (which had all happened by the time I wrote this post) included a talk from Paul Cummins himself (the designer of the ceramic poppy), a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the Cathedral and the opening night fire trail which lit a pathway from the cathedral to the Silk Mill, designed to create a unique and reflective way for the public to interact with the Weeping Window. Now that I would have loved to have seen! Based on photos I’d seen, the Weeping Window at night looks hauntingly beautiful and all the more sombre.
I left the cathedral in search of lunch and on my way to Pickford’s House, the last of the Derby museums I hadn’t visited on my first visit, I walked up Friar Gate which seemed to be Derby’s restaurant aisle. The Fat Cat Cafe and Bar took my fancy (mostly the quirky name made me chortle) and I soon learned on entering that Tuesdays is half price day where most of the items on the menu are half price, including the cocktails!
Wicked thoughts of spending the afternoon working my way through the cocktail menu ensued…
…I wanted to get to Pickford’s House and that wasn’t the way to make sure I got there! Instead I settled on making my way through the Mezze platter and loaded potato skins! Yummm…comfort food in droves!
The interior is rather smart and I can certainly recommend the place for food quality, quantity, value for money and service.
A short walk later brought me to Pickford’s House, built by architect Joseph Pickford in 1769 as a family home and workplace. It ceased to be used as a residential property in the 1950’s and opened as a museum by Derby City Council in 1988.
The museum has two main purposes: to show how a house like this was decorated, run and functioned in Georgian times when the Pickford family lived there, and as a showcase for historic costume that is owned by Derby Museums and Art Gallery.
There is a rotating programme of costume exhibits from the permanent collection and some touring exhibitions too. Currently there is an exhibit of Vivienne Westwood Shoes. You have to admit there are some seriously impressive designs in this exhibit… whether you actually like them or not is a different matter. There’s even an example of the famous Super Elevated Gillie shoe that caused Naomi Campbell to fall disastrously during a catwalk show in 1993. I certainly could not walk in any of the shoes on show here. As the accident prone person I am, I would probably end up in Casualty if I attempted to.
There’s much to say about the interior of Pickford’s House, but that’s for another post. I will say however that I went to the toilet twice while I was here… no, don’t worry I’m not going to lapse into a discussion of my bathroom habits, but I just had to try out the Edwardian toilet circa 1900-1910, and the 1930’s one too. Now where can you get to do that these days? In every historic house I’ve visited the loos tend to be off limits. You only get to look at them through a doorway, but not here! The bathrooms are fully functional and are the main visitor toilets; no separate modern loo block here! Not sure I’d want to test out the shower though. Your thoughts….?
I decided to finish off my day in Derby by heading to one of Derby’s best loved parks: Markeaton Park which lies a mile to the west of the city centre. I do love walking through a park, a Country Park or anywhere that gets me out into the countryside taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature and getting a good blast of fresh air. Its tonic for the mind and soul!
Markeaton is a mixture of parkland and woodland with a large tree-lined lake and old hall (ruins) with formal gardens. At the heart of the park next to the old mansion house ruins and part of the old hall and stables site is a restored quadrangle of buildings which now functions as a Craft Village. There are a number of craft outlets and workshops from sewing and painting ceramics to joinery and furniture. The Orangery tearoom occupies the most imposing part of the building overlooking the formal garden and ruins.
Beyond the Craft Village is the Mundy Play Centre which features a huge range of activities that are open on weekends and during school and bank holidays, from crazy golf and canoeing to donkey rides and a car and bike track. In addition a paddling pool is open daily from the 27th May – 4th September (2017 dates) There’s also a large adventure play area which is open every day of the year, some bike and skate ramps and an ‘Adventure Hub’ featuring a high ropes course, zipwires and climbing walls.
Wind your way across to the opposite side of the park, and you’ll find various sports facilities including tennis courts, football and cricket pitches and a Pitch and Putt course and it looks like rowing boats and pedalos are available on the lake during peak times, but as I was there on an average Tuesday during term time they were all tied up.
I just contented myself with wandering around the various lakeside and parkland paths, being at one with nature! It was the perfect end to my day out in Derby.
For more information on Markeaton Park, visit the Derby Parks website.
If you want to see what else there is to do in Derby, keep a look out for my additional blogs, coming soon… I’ll be putting together my full guide on Derby, a tour of Royal Crown Derby, a visit to Keddleston Hall and a guide to Derby’s museums. Watch this space…
Have you seen the Weeping Window in Derby, or anywhere else in the country? What did you think to it? Let me know in the comments…
I confess I’d never done an official walking tour, having shunned them in favour…