Cream Of The Country: Wirksworth

With its thriving arts scene and down-to-earth roots, this town has all-round appeal. By Nick Lloyd Jones
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The little Derbyshire market town of Wirksworth - often referred to as "the gateway to the Peaks" - has been famed for its lead mines since Saxon times, and its history is inextricably bound to the local quarrying industry.

The old town is compact and presents a unique blend of different architectural styles. At its centre lies an ancient church - fragments of which date back to the 8th century - and a central square where open-air markets have been held for more than 700 years. Beneath Market Place lies a subterranean network of railway tunnels that used to ferry workers to nearby pits and quarries. The tunnels are now defunct but still regularly attract visits from potholing enthusiasts.

Most of the town's pubs and shops, including a remarkably good selection of pottery workshops and independent bakers, are to be found in the streets leading off the central square such as Saint John's Street, Cromford Lane and Coldwell Street.

Tucked away behind these is a labyrinthine warren of narrow yards, alleyways, passages and lanes where most of Wirksworth's more interesting residential properties are to be found; a wide selection that ranges from two-up-two-down terrace cottages and quirky conversions, to seriously stately Georgian piles and Jacobean manor houses. Particularly palatial dwellings can be found just to the west of Market Place around Dale and Greenhill - the area where most of Wirksworth's wealthy lead merchants chose to live.

Although mining and quarrying have clearly left their mark on the town and it still very much retains the aura of a no-nonsense working town, the industry today is a shadow of what it was 40 years ago. This decline has resulted in some major changes to the character of Wirksworth. One marked improvement has been the reduction in the amount of dust and grime spewed out by quarry trucks and lorries constantly trundling past.

The town has become a lot more cosmopolitan too. When many of the former pit-workers and quarrymen moved out, a lot of their homes were bought up by newcomers who were attracted to the town by its unique combination of glorious surrounding countryside, fine architecture and low property prices. The town became particularly popular among bohemians - poets, painters, musicians, potters and the like - who went on to establish a flourishing arts and crafts scene there. Local shops and services likewise reflected these demographic changes and became noticeably more sophisticated.

It couldn't last, though, and as word of Wirksworth's many advantages spread, property prices began to spiral. "It happened first in the late 1980s and then again in the late 1990s," says Paul Rogerson of Bishop Estate Agents. "Those were both mini boom periods." During the latter period prices more than doubled within the space of five years. It was the same story in pretty little outlying villages such as Brassington, perched on a high limestone escarpment and at Carsington with its splendid 13th century architecture and giant man-made reservoir devoted to water-sports and sailing.

Price hikes were even more extreme in towns to the north of the county. In nearby Matlock, and Bakewell, a popular residential satellite of Sheffield, houses still typically fetch up to 50 per cent more than they do in Wirksworth.

Then suddenly, about a year ago, prices started levelling out. "It was dead as a dodo for many months," recalls Bishop's Paul Rogerson - who says that he has been handling a record number of properties in recent months that he has been unable to sell.

Other agents in town have experienced similar difficulties. "Local aspirations have been outstripping what properties are worth," says Anthony Taylor, a valuer with rival firm Scargill Mann & Company. "Houses in Wirksworth were simply being overpriced and that's why they weren't selling."

However, local vendors now appear to be becoming more realistic in their expectations and many of them have begun slashing their original asking prices by as much as 15 per cent. This approach seems to be paying off, and the market is rallying. "Wirksworth has always had a great deal to recommend it," says Taylor. "It's in a lovely rural setting and within easy access of Derby. It manages to combine the down-to-earth appeal of an old mining community with a thriving local arts scene and, thanks to recent fluctuations in the market, is now also providing prospective buyers with an incredible selection of interesting period properties at highly competitive prices."

Fact box

Cost of living: one-bedroom cottage from £80,000; two-bedroom terrace house from £115,000; three-bedroom semi-detached house from £160,000; four-bedroom detached from £230,000; five-bedroom from £250,000; six-bedroom period town house from £350,000.

Attractions: thriving arts and crafts scene; good selection of independent shops; twice-weekly outdoor market; beautiful ancient church dating back to 653AD with some Saxon fragments still intact; fishing, yachting and water-sports at nearby Carsington Water; great hiking and climbing opportunities in the Peaks, including the famous High Peak Trail; the Ecclesbourne steam railway line; good selection of traditional real ale pubs.

Downside: the town is a little on the quiet side and still suffers from quite a few local quarry trucks passing through it.

How to get there: there are regular, direct trains from London's Saint Pancras to Derby (12 miles away) which take about two hours.