“ Walk into these narrow streets off Market Place and picture Chesterfield as it was in the middle ages. „
Chesterfield is a very historic town and everywhere that you look there are black and white timber framed medieval buildings. One of the most historic parts of the town centre is an area called the Shambles. This part of town is characterised by narrow cobbled streets and right in the heart of these tiny lanes is where Chesterfield's oldest public house, Ye Royal Oak can be found.
Even from the outside this place oozes nostalgia. It is a typical Tudor style building with a black and white timber frame but closer inspection soon reveals that this is actually two very different buildings that have been joined together. Despite this amalgamation of premises, which effectively doubled the size of the place, this is still one of the smallest pubs that I have ever encountered.
The story of this place probably begins in the latter half of the 12th century. It is said that this building was a meeting place for the Knights Templars during the times of the Crusades in the days of King Richard the first, whom would later come to be known as Richard the Lionheart. There is a sign on the wall of this pub that tells us of the link between this place and the Knights Templars but since there is no documentary evidence that survives to confirm this, this statement has been dismissed by many historians. It is however quite a plausible story since the Templars did have a base at nearby South Normanton and they were also regular visitors to nearby Bolsover Castle from their stronghold at Nottingham Castle. It would be nice to think that this place may even be connected to the events of Friday 13th October 1307 which gave rise to the modern day suspicions that surround Friday 13th . I for one would like to believe this to be true.
The more recent Tudor style part of the pub dates from the 16th century and the earliest recorded reference of this is from 1684, when it was being used as a Butcher's Shop. It is not certain whether this refers to the same structure that we see today or if there was another building on the same spot but it is probably the same structure. The Shambles was the area of the town where all of the butchers shops were to be found. It is adjacent to the main market square and on these narrow lanes the various butchers shops would display their meat outside. Originally this area was known as the flesh shambles, which is the name given to the stone slabs on which the meat was displayed. This is from the old English word Fleshamols.
The first reference to this building being used as an ale house is not until 1772 when a surviving document states that this place was now occupied by Francis Inman, an "inn holder". A further document in 1873 mentions that this building, now an ale house had previously been used as a dwelling and a butchers shop. It seems that the other older building was also used at some point as a butchers shop, and it was being used as such in 1815 when it came into the ownership of a man called William Cuff, who was another local innkeeper. At some point shortly after this date the two buildings were merged and came under the single ownership of one innkeeper. At this time the lower older building also comprised a stable and a brewhouse and had a clubroom above it.
In 1884 another bar was added to the top Tudor part of the building and by this date both former buildings had been joined into one. It is of course very obvious even from a quick visual glance of this place from the outside that these are two very different buildings but when you step inside this becomes even more apparent.
This building now has two different bars, which are effectively one single bar that occupies the middle of the room, it is positioned between the two original buildings but there is no physical way of walking between the two. This therefore means that if you wish to be served at the side of the bar in the top part of the building then you have to enter the building through a door at that end. Likewise a different door leads to the lower half of the building.
The top bar is incredibly tiny. In fact it is only large enough for about a dozen people and there is just one row of seats. The ceilings in this side are very high and the whitewashed walls look old and cold, even on the hottest Summer evenings. One downside of this room is that there are no toilets. These are positioned in the lower room which means that you have to go outside and walk a few metres down the street and through the other door. This is quite an interesting experience the first time around but by the end of the night it is a little bit tedious. If any of your drinking party have a weak bladder then I would recommend that you choose the lower room.
The lower room is considerably larger than the other one, but in comparison to most other places it is still quite small. This room has a more modern feel about it and there are at least toilets here and upholstery on the seats. I have spent many evenings in both of the rooms here but because there are usually around eight people in my crowd we tend to opt for the larger room.
Food is available here daily from 11am until 4pm Mondays through to Wednesdays and from 11am until 5pm on Thursdays through to Saturday. The pub used to be closed all day on Sundays and as far I know it still is. I haven't actually eaten here so I can't really comment on the food other than to say that it looks nice and it smells lovely. The menu is described as traditional and there are often special offers available.
There always seems to be a good range of different beers available behind the bar and these always include a few Real Ales. I tend to stick with the standard stuff so again I can't really comment on the other ales but they do look to be quite reasonably priced.
Overall I think that this is a super place that is packed full of charm and history. Well worthy of a visit, even if it is just for the curiosity factor.
Chesterfield in Derbyshire is a very historic town on the edge of the Peak District. Part of the reason it built up into a town was its position as a market centre in the middle of a largely rural part of the country. There has been a market held in Chesterfield since the Saxon age and documentary evidence shows that there was an open air market from 1165 onwards, but it is not until King John granted the town a Market Charter in 1204 that the regular markets started (they are now held on Monday, Friday and Saturday, with a Flea Market on Thursday).
The market moved to its present site in the 1220s (up until then it was located in a small area near the church) and now the Market is divided into two Market Places separated by the impressive Market Hall.
Connecting to the larger Market Place is a small shopping area called The Shambles. Originally this part of town was part of the market and was made up of the same temporary stalls that you associate with open air markets.
This was back in the 12th Century. Gradually this area of stalls was replaced by more permanent buildings and this section of town became home to the butchers of Chesterfield. The name Shambles refers to Flesh-shambles the original name for this area, which probably comes from the Anglo Saxon words Fleshammels translated as Flesh shelves. Shambles is an ancient term for a Meat Market, or an area where butchery took place. Thus the little narrow cobbled streets, surrounded by old buildings got its name!
There are now no more butchers in The Shambles, but there is still a reason for the tourist to (and indeed the resident of) Chesterfield to visit and have a look. Just recently the area has been sympathetically restored the cobbles have been re-laid, there are signs relating the history of the area and they have planted some really attractive flower containers.
Strictly speaking this is going against all that the Flesh-shambles would have been like poor sanitation and hygiene in the Middle Ages, combined with the blood and associated icky processes involved in preparing meat for sale, would have made wandering through the Shambles of the past a rather unpleasant experience! That is not the case today. The narrow streets are on a slight incline, this would have been essential for the blood and stuff to run away down a channel in the cobbles, but now these cobbles are clean.
A visit to the Shambles now is purely a pleasurable experience! Lining the cobbles are a variety of shops, pavement cafes and a pub. Where meat was once on display you can buy gifts, ladies undergarments, health food, alcohol and sit outside with a meal or snack. The pub on Irongate though is by far the biggest draw for the visitor.
The Royal Oak is one of the oldest pubs in the country. The pub is made up of two distinct buildings and the pub is divided into two separate rooms, both served by a central bar. Each room has a separate entrance and are not connected. The top (smaller) bar is the most interesting from a historic perspective. It is a very narrow room which has a very high timbered ceiling. The larger room (at present this is the smoking room) is also where the toilets are. This is still obviously an old room, but it doesnt have the same wow factor as the upper room!
As you leave the Royal Oak, take a look at the sign outside. This claims that the pub has been an Inn since 1722 and before that it was a resting place for the Knights Templar, a band of Crusaders.
A walk through the Shambles is best enjoyed on a sunny (or at least not rainy) day. If it's raining you risk being dripped on and also have the added danger of slipping on the stone cobbles! The streets are also quite rough and uneven, so be careful if you have heels, but it is well worth the effort of navigating the narrow cobbled alleys. As you pass through, picture the scene in the Middle Ages bustle, noise, smells and the shouting of market traders. The Shambles is much calmer, quieter and a lot cleaner now!
For a few minutes though you will have been walking through history!
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