Friday, 14 August 2015


Just outside the village of Elston there is a rather attractive building.  I loved the look of the place from the moment I set eyes on it.  Pevsner (in The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire) describes it as "one huge folly".  I see what he means but it makes me think of a doll's house for some reason.  Anyway, I have always thought of it as wonderful but now I have read about it I think it is marvelous!

Eden Spa or Elston Towers
It stands quite alone next to the Fosse Way.  This particular part of the road is no longer the main route between Nottingham and Newark so there's hardly any traffic.  It is beautiful, peaceful and quiet ... the perfect place for a Spa ... Eden Spa to be exact.  Every time we pass the car park is always full, the terraces are filled with happy customers and the reviews are glowing.

It was built between 1872 and 1875 for Robert Middleton of Newark.  His family had made their money from malting but Robert felt his true calling was the Baptist ministry so at the centre of his new house he incorporated a chapel. Just inside the main door was a pulpit and an automatic pipe organ which could play up to 30 different hymns all on its own. Two hundred seats were arranged on the main floor and on the galleried landing above (he expected his sermons to be very popular). A metal flight of stairs went down to a baptismal tank where people could be fully immersed.

The rest of the house was furnished at immense cost.  Apparently Middleton spent in excess of £30,000 (a few million by today's standards).  Stone masons decorated the outside of the house with carved heads using people associated with the build ... the architect (Mr Waugh), the builder (Mr Hunter), the plumber (Mr Bousefield) and Mr Middleton himself.  A large raised terrace went around the building, with servants' quarters and stables built underneath it.  A separate stable block at the back had a steam powered clock which chimed the hour and could play up to 28 different tunes - a different one each day of the month (including Home Sweet Home and Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be).  What a brilliant place!  I bet non-religious folk went just to see it!

Eden Hall Spa
The fabulous conservatory is quite new (part of the £3 million renovation before the Spa opened in 2005).  There was a conservatory there before which housed over 2,000 plants but the glass was badly damaged when a Lancaster bomber exploded at Syerston airbase in 1942.

The only reference to a bomber actually exploding there that I have come across involved a colleague of Wing Commander Guy Gibson (of Dam Buster fame).  He was on duty with Group Captain Gus Walker on 8th December 1942.  Walker noticed some incendiaries had fallen out of the bomb bay of a Lancaster which was situated near the main bomb dump.  Walker drove over and tried to move the devices using a rake.  The 4000 lb "cookie" bomb ignited inside the plane's bomb bay and Walker lost an arm in the explosion. I have not found any evidence that this particular explosion caused the damage though.

Over the years Middleton Towers has had a variety of uses .... a chicken farm, Rolls Royce motor agents, a kennels, offices, a race track and a restaurant ... it was even a maggot farm at one time. Blow flies laid eggs in carcasses in the conservatory; once the eggs were collected the well-fed flies were released: it is claimed they were the size of small sparrows! The stinking carcasses were taken out to be burned and a tall chimney was used to prevent the smell reaching the village ... it didn't work!  The Spa has been there ten years now. Middleton envisaged it as a place of worship, where people could find inner peace .... in a strange way he might have got his wish!

Across the road from Eden Spa on the corner of the road into Elston there is a white building.  It is now called Elston Lodge Farm but originally it was just 'Elston Lodge'.  It was built in 1801 by William Brown Darwin.  The Darwin family occupied Elston Hall at this time.  To get to London William had to walk about a mile up the road to catch the London coach ... at 5 o'clock in the morning.  He had Elston Lodge built by the side of the main road so he didn't have to get up so early!  Rather an expensive bus shelter!
Elston Hall

The Hall came to belong to the Darwin family when William Darwin of Cleatham  married Anne Waring in 1680 .... that same year her step father, George Lascelles of Elston Hall died.  The Hall and estate passed to George's 11 year old son, John.  William and Anne Darwin had two children (William and Robert) before William died in 1682.  Anne and her children returned to live at the Hall with her mother, Anne Lascelles, and her brother.  John was only 22 years old in 1691 when he too died leaving his mother with a life interest in the property.  Anne Lascelles died in 1708 and Robert Darwin (son of William and Anne Darwin) stepped in and bought the estate.

Anne Darwin Almshouses
Anne Darwin left money in her will to pay for four almshouses.  They were to be occupied by four widows of the parish who would wear grey coats or gowns with the initials AD in red on the sleeve.  The houses were built in 1744 then rebuilt in 1834.  They are still standing today: occupied by pensioners but not necessarily women ... and the grey coats are nowhere to be seen, 

Darwin monument
Robert Darwin's eldest son (another Robert) inherited Elston in 1754.  When his famous nephew, Charles Darwin, was writing his autobiography years later he wrote,  " Robert also cultivated botany, and, when an oldish man, he published his great Principia Botanica. This book in MS. was beautifully written, and my father [Dr. R.W. Darwin] declared that he believed it was published because his old uncle could not endure that such fine calligraphy should be wasted. But this was hardly just, as the work contains many curious notes on biology — a subject wholly neglected in England in the last century. The public, moreover, appreciated the book, as the copy in my possession is the third edition."

The Robert who inherited the estate in 1754 was a bachelor and died childless at the age of 92.  His younger brother was called Erasmus. He was born at the Hall in 1731.  He trained as a doctor and  moved to Lichfield where his reputation grew.  He was regarded as one of the finest physicians in England.  He was a philanthropist: giving aid to his poorer patients instead of charging them.  He was an inventor, creating designs for a canal lift, a horizontal windmill and a 'speaking machine' (it blew air through organ reeds).  Here he is predicting a future of  steam ships, fast cars and helicopters:

"Soon shall thy arm, Unconquered Steam, afar
Drag the slow barge or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide waving wings extended bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air."   [Botanic Garden]

 He was recognised as a poet (his work was admired by Wordsworth!) and Mary Shelley cited some of "Dr Darwin's experiments" as being part of the inspiration for her novel, "Frankenstein".  He was a philosopher and a founder member of the Lunar Society.  He was a life long friend of Benjamin Franklin, he spoke up against the slave trade and he argued for the education of girls.  His grandson, Charles Darwin, would become famous for "The Origin of the Species" but Erasmus was already forming radical opinions along the lines of  evolution and the survival of the fittest two generations earlier.  In Zoonomia he wrote:

 "Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!"

Monument to Erasmus Darwin

Charles Darwin's cousin was Charles Waring Darwin, known affectionately in the village as The Colonel.   His son was another interesting man:

Charles John Wharton Darwin was born in 1894.  He was educated in Germany, Switzerland and Winchester then joined the army in 1912, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. He took part in the Paris Peace Talks with Churchill and after the war he became one of the first flying instructors at RAF Cranwell.  Between the First and Second World Wars he was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service and in 1939 he helped to set up Bletchley Park, briefed agents and set up a chain of radio transmitters.  In 1940 he rejoined the RAF but became ill in April 1941 and died that year.                                         

His son, Christopher was killed during active service in 1942 at El Alamein where he is buried.

Elston Hall ... additional wing
The family moved out of the Hall in 1934 and sold it in 1954.  It became a Catholic Boarding School and the two wings were added as dormitories. The school closed in 1970 and the building was later converted to apartments.

Old Rectory
 Across the road from the Hall is All Saints Church.  Until 1870 this was not the only place of worship.  Elston Old Chapel is sited at the other end of the village and is thought to have been the medieval leper Hospital of St Leonard’s as well as a place of worship.

 Its round arched south doorway with bold zig-zag moulding dates back to the 12th century, so it predates the present village church. There is a 12th century report of Gabriel d’Eylston (Elston), son of Ralph (a family of knights) being struck by lightning and killed while in the church porch. 

The Old Chapel is also thought to have housed prisoners of war after the Battle of East Stoke in 1487 before King Henry ordered their execution.  Their leader, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was supposedly buried here after his death in the battle. 

The chapel was taken out of commission in the 1870s because it was rarely used.  In the end there was one service a month; the last wedding conducted there was in 1873 and the final baptism was in 1878.

Methodist Chapel
A Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built in 1815, that chapel was closed in 1871 when a new one was built (photpgraphed here).  The 1815 date stone was placed on the new building.
The village church now is the Church of All Saints.  It dates back to the 13th century.

All Saints Church
Inside the church are a number of memorials: the older ones are to the Lascelles family some of whom are buried under the tower.  During the Civil War when nearby Newark was under seige the villages around were quite regularly raided for food and livestock.  In May 1644 two hundred Royalist troops were resting here when Colonel Hutchinson's Parliamentarian troops came from Nottingham and surprised them. The Royalists were defeated in the resulting confrontation.  George Lascelles (mentioned above) at first served the King before changing sides.  In 1651 his attempt to capture King Charles was thwarted by a relative, John Lascelles, and the King escaped.  The Lascelles family was obviously divided over this issue.  As we know, this George Lascelles died in 1680 so it was a different George Lascelles who, as Rector of the church in 1689, took the Oath of Allegiance to the new monarchs William III and Mary II.

As well as carved monuments to the Darwin family a number of the stained glass windows are dedicated to their memory.  This one is to Robert Alvey Darwin who inherited the Hall in 1842 but he died just five years later at the age of 21.

This is to the memory of Charlotte Darwin (d 1885).  It was made by Heaton, Butler and Bayne who we have come across before (see .........................).

Heaton, Butler & Baynes window
 They designed windows for Westminster Abbey; Christ's blue loin cloth is an example of the bright colours they favoured and Baynes's trademark was a bearded figure who tended to resemble himself!

Here is a window designed by Herbert Bryans, dedicated to John Lloyd Wharton (The Colonel's father in law) who died in 1913.

Herbert Bryans's window

 There is a small black and white running dog in the top left hand corner of the inscription panel on this window ... this was Bryans' trademark.

These two are also from Bryans's studio.

 Personally I like this modern one the best:

Paul Quail window
Dedicated to "Jack Evans - priest.  1903 - 1971" it was designed by Paul Quail who died in 2010.  It shows St Francis of Assisi.

Here are the rest.

A War Memorial inside the church lists those men who died during the wars.  Sergeant Arthur Spowage was one of them.  When war broke out in 1914 Spowage was a 23 year old police officer.  By 1915 he was a member of the Grenadier Guards.  His commanding officer was killed and Spowage stepped into trhe breach, leding the platoon forward under heavy fire, defeating the enemy and capturing several machine guns.  He "saved a critical situation by his courage and good leadership" for which he was awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal).  He died in action in March 1918 at the age of 27.

Even more impressive is the bravery of Captain Joseph Richard Dench MC of the 5th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters who earned three MCs in a five week period in the last two months of the First World War.  On 29th September 1918 he captured a gun battery and two machine guns. Four days later he and his men were attacked at Montrehain but he managed to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy. Then on 6th November (within a week of the Armistice) he lead his company over difficult and wooded countryside at Priches under continuous hostile machine gun fire. After the war he lived quietly. He never wore the medals.  He died in 1953.

Royal Coat of Arms
The oldest house in the village is Ardmore House on Low Street.  Nearby cottages date back to the early 1700s.  IvyHouse for example has the date 1729 on the side. The initials D T S stand for Thomas and Sarah Derry, the first people to live there.

Street view
Now the village is a mix of old and well designed new properties that blend in nicely.

Street view

Arthur Mee, writing about Elston in 1938 descibed the windmill as a "black giant" that was still grinding the corn then. It stopped working in 1940 when the sails were removed ... it was too obvious a landmark for German planes looking to attack RAF Syerston.  It is now a private residence.

The Black Giant!
William Gash bought the mill in 1919.  He made weekly trips to Newark market and offered lifts to villagers on a casual basis.  His passengers had to wait until he had finished his business before they could get home.  Gash realised the potential and set up a scheduled carrier service charging one shilling and sixpence.  The size of his carriage was holding him back so he bought a motorized truck and a local carpenter built a passenger compartment with 16 seats.  This was removable so he could use the truck for his business when not in use as a bus.  He began a route from Elston to Nottingham for four shillings and sixpence for a return ticket.  The Gash Coach company was born.

The Chequers pub and Funfair Brewery
A much younger company is now being developed in the village.  The Funfair Brewery is based at the back of The Chequers pub on Toad Lane (always loved that name!). David Tizard and Abigail Cutts bought the pub in 2010.  Their beer is sold in cask or bottles for consumption on or off the premises.  The pub opens Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday lunch.  It was busy when we called in one Thursday evening and we enjoyed a pleasant drink outside in the sunshine when we called back on a Saturday.

The pub building is over 250 years old and was a coaching inn.  The earliest reference to the name Chequers actually comes from ancient Pompeii.  Our word 'exchequer' orginally meant a kind of chessboard but moneylenders and accountants began to use checked money tables so very old inns in England may have been using the sign to show they were prepared to act as banks in the days before such establishments were on the high street. 


Map of Elston: click here.

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