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A market town with an interesting twist


St. Mary and All Saints Church
Chesterfield Museum
Chesterfield, the biggest town in Derbyshire, was a busy medieval marketplace, trading livestock and woollen products from the Peak District. When the Industrial Revolution happened, the settlement once again took advantage of its natural resources - in this case, coal - and turned itself into a profitable mining town. Its success led to Chesterfield being the first place in all of Britain to have electric street lighting.

Chesterfield market
Photo Philandthehounds
Despite these later advances, the market is still going strong. 250 stalls are set up every weekend, making this one of the UK's largest open-air markets. According to the original charter from 1204, it cannot be closed down unless nothing is bought there for a week. Presently, that seems somewhat unlikely to happen.
There are other shopping opportunities in the Victorian Market Hall, and in the cramped passageways of the Shambles. The latter is a relic of the Medieval era. Brick and half timbered buildings press up hard against each other. One, the Royal Oak Inn, claims to be among the oldest public houses in Britain.

The Shambles
Photo Philandthehounds
East of here is St. Mary and All Saints Church. Its warped, misshapen spire is the defiant, iconic symbol of Chesterfield. It dates from 1362, just a dozen years after an outbreak of plague, when good materials and skilled craftsmen were hard to come by. A heavy lead covering was inadvisably placed over poor-quality timber. It heated up in the sunlight, twisting the wood into its current, peculiar shape. This is the scientific explanation for "the crooked spire", but there are many others. Perhaps it was a lightning strike, or the work of the Devil. Maybe it twisted itself round, to see what was going on inside the church. Whatever the reason, the spire's transformation isn't over. At the moment it leans nearly three metres away from its original centre, and it's still moving. St. Mary's is open most days, and the public are allowed to climb 144 steps, part way up the spire. There are magnificent views of the countryside - as you might expect from Derbyshire's largest church.

St. Mary's spire
Photo Graeme Walker
St Mary's is just one of the topics discussed at Chesterfield Museum, which charts the town's journey right from its beginning as a Roman fort. The star exhibit is the 14th century windlass, a circular, wooden device that was used to winch heavy objects into the air. It's the very same one that was used to build St. Mary's in the first place. There aren't many windlasses left in the country, so this is a rare sight.

Stained glass
Photo Philandthehounds
Another exhibition shows off the modest creations of Chesterfield's own Robinson & Sons company, whose innovations have included the disposable nappy and the Smarties tube.
An engineer with an even bigger legacy was George Stephenson. He was a civil engineer who, in the early 19th century, made such huge advances in the rail industry that he became known as the "father of railways". The legacy of his work can still be seen today, in every corner of the world. In later life he moved to Chesterfield. His home, Tapton House, was where he would eventually die, in August 1848. His statue stands outside the train station, and the museum carries memorabilia relating to his life. Even the museum building itself is called the Stephenson Memorial Hall.

George Stephenson statue
Photo Philandthehounds
Visitor Information
Chesterfield Tourist Information Centre is open daily, 9am to 5pm. Rykneld Square, Chesterfield, S40 1SB. Tel: 01246 345778.
St. Mary and All Saints Church is open Monday to Saturday from 9am. Tower tours are conducted daily, but it's advisable to call ahead. Free entry. Church Way, Chesterfield S40 1XJ. Tel: 0114 2230223.
Chesterfield Museum is open daily, 10am to 4pm (except Wednesdays and Sundays). Free entry. Saint Mary's Gate, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, S41 7TD. Tel: 01246 345 727.

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