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St John the Baptist (Ault Hucknall)

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Ault Hucknall / Derbyshire / England

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      22.09.2008 20:31
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      An ancient church in Derbyshire

      Ault Hucknall is a tiny, one street dwelling in north east Derbyshire. It has been described by the local residents "as the smallest village in England" but this is a claim that is disputed as it is generally defined as a hamlet rather than a village. One thing however that is not in dispute about Ault Hucknall is that it is the location of one the finest examples of a Saxon church in England. This church, known as St John the Baptist is a Grade 1 listed building signifying its national historic importance.

      The earliest surviving parts of the church date back to just before the first Millennium and a record from the church archives dating from the year 1000 is one of the oldest known written manuscripts in England. A Yew Tree in the church date is said to be anything between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and is thought to provide evidence of a very early pre-Christian worship place and burial ground.

      The church itself is very picturesque and as the pride and joy of the local community it is very well maintained by a small group of dedicated volunteers. It is also still used as a place of worship for the surrounding villages of Tibshelf, Pilsley and Hardstoft. Services are held here every Sunday at 11am. Visiting the church is normally only possible on a Saturday during the Summer months when it is open from 1pm until 5pm. Admission is free.

      I visited here recently and was eagerly greeted by a very enthusiastic local gentlemen who insisted on taking me on a full tour of the church. The church is noted as the burial place of two well known historical figures. One of these is Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher who was buried at this church in 1679 and the other one is Ann Keighley, the 1st Countess of Devonshire from nearby Hardwick Hall who died in 1628. The Countess's grave is within a huge vault inside the church whilst the tomb of Thomas Hobbes is a lot less grand.

      Inside the church a corner of the church has been set aside as an exhibition about the local community. There are old maps of the area and photographs of former residents that lived in this tight knit farming community. There is also a display about Tibshelf's oil well, the first inland oil well in Britain, which was constructed when rich deposits of crude oil were found in the early part of the 20th century.

      Hardwick Hall, one of the finest country houses in England is located less than a mile from this church. Bess Hardwick, who had the house built as an alternative residence to Chatsworth House, had a chapel built within the grounds of the hall but it is known that she also worshipped at St John the Baptists frequently. It would seem that the history of this church is intricately linked to the Bess Hardwick story, as well as to the Cavendish's and Dukes of Devonshire, whose seat is still at Chatsworth House.

      In 1597 Bess Hardwick had her architect redesign part of the South Transept and at this time some of the original stained glass windows were removed and moved to the chapel at Hardwick Hall.

      It is inevitable that a building of this age has been altered over the years but there are several original features that still exist which include Saxon arches above the doorways. The one above the west doorway (which is now blocked off) has wonderful examples of Saxon carvings. Elsewhere there are two Green Men carved onto the supporting beams of the roof and some of the supporting stone columns are also original. Green Men carvings are believed to have their origins in pre-Christian faith.

      The tower dates from the latter half of the 11th century as does the North Transept, both of which were probably constructed around 1080-1090. There is a small chapel to the side of the altar that is called the Cavendish Chapel, so called due its links to the Dukes of Devonshire and the Cavendish dynasty. This dates from the 16th century and features some furnishings that came from Hardwick Hall and possibly also Chatsworth House.

      I found St John the Baptist church to be a very charming place and I would recommend it to anyone that is interested in churches and old buildings.

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