There are many stories which can be told about life in a small village. Locate that village in the Derbyshire Peak District and appoint as storyteller, Eric Shimwell, a local “character” who lived for most of his 78 years in Winster, and you have the makings of a really good tale. Eric unfortunately passed away in 1997, but he is fondly remembered by all who knew him - and his stories live on.  These gems were recorded on to tape, and then transcribed by Paul Downing, one time village postmaster and resident.  So relax and enjoy this short selection of stories from the heart of the Peak.

How To Make Life Go With a Bang

One of the tales which Eric told is of the night in the ‘50s when the pub blew up. Seems that, of an evening, after the work of the day was done, the miners would all gather in the pub and usually they would bring with them samples of minerals. These samples would be set on the tables and people tried to guess where the samples had come from. This was particularly interesting for strangers.

Well, one night there a full house and it was getting late. The landlord wanted to clear up and get to bed and was dusting off the tables, throwing the odd pieces of mineral onto the fire. This caused the fire to sparkle and glitter as the different minerals added their character to the flames.

There were two miners sitting at a table and one of them gave the landlord something from his pocket and said, “Here, throw this on the fire.” So the landlord did as had been requested. “You silly bugger, that’s a detonator!” shouted the miner.

Well, you’ve never seen a pub clear so quickly in your life. One chap lived 50 yards away and he was outside his door before he heard the explosion from inside the pub. According to Eric they all sneaked back and discovered everything covered in half an inch of soot, including the landlord, who was as black as a sweep.  The landlord’s wife came in, having heard the commotion and immediately said, “Well you can clean that up before you come to bed!”

Poor old lad, it was 4 ‘o clock before he got to bed that night.

Life Centres Around the Pub

Something which comes out loud and clear in all of Eric’s stories is how the pub was the centre of the life of the village.

“In those days you had your characters that met every night,” says Eric, “and you had a full evenings entertainment by just listening to the things that they’d done in the past”.

Eric remembers one story in particular about the night six Winster men walked over to Bonsall. It was common practice to walk to one of the nearer villages and pick up as much beer as they could carry and then stagger back home afterwards. Sometimes they lay out all night, says Eric, but on this occasion they were returning from Bonsall across the fields when a heavy fog came down.

There was a little chap in the lead when they came to one of the biggest fields in the district, called the “40 Acre”. It wasn’t a 40 acre field apparently, but everyone called it that, and in the middle of the field near the path there was an old mere hole which was used to water the cattle.

Well, the little chap in the front suddenly discovered that he was waist deep in water, but he didn’t stop and instead called out to his mates, “Are y’all right?” “Aye. Coming,” came the answering shout and it was not until they had all waded through the mere that they started to laugh - all the way to Winster.

Eric remembered that the beer was served from the cask into a gallon jug and then poured into pint, quart and gill containers brought by the customers.

Pub life was especially good at weekends, on pay night, when a group of regulars would have a tradition called “Sing, Say or Pay.” Those participating would take turns to either sing a song, say a recitation or buy beer for all those taking part. A gallon of beer in those days would cost about 3/6d. Those who couldn’t sing and who didn’t want to pay might just recite, “The Black Sheep on the Mountain - Baaa,” but for those who stood to sing it was usually possible to predict what they would sing, whether it be The Farmer’s Boy or Burlington Bertie or some other hit of the day.

In those days, everyone had a part to play in village life, and as Eric says, it was a “Wonderful, Wonderful time.”

Fish 'n Chips at Midnight

Another notable feature of Winster village life in those earlier days was the Fish ‘n Chip shop. Open until 1 ‘o clock in the morning, we are told that the “chippie” served just about everything good to eat, even fried eggs. It was quite common to “have a bit of fun” in those days, such as the time when two local lads decided to see who could eat the most boiled eggs. One managed 12 and the other 16, but we aren’t told what happened to either of them afterwards!

Life in the village in the 1920’s was thriving, although there were no buses, you couldn’t just pop into Matlock to do your shopping, unless you had a horse and trap at your disposal. So most people did their shopping in the village.

In those days there were four butchers shops, a bank, three garages (including petrol), two bicycle shops, a Post Office, a Milliners, a Bakehouse and a Drapers. There were also sixteen pubs and ale houses.

The Bakehouse in particular was very popular, baking bread in traditional brick ovens, and people would come to Winster from as far away as Derby, Nottingham and Ripley to buy the bread with a “real” crust, “Not the Chewing Gum stuff you can buy today.” In fact, the Bakehouse only closed about twenty years ago. Eric mourns that we are now down to just a Post Office, two shops and only two pubs.

Back in the ‘20s, Winster was a key village in the local area, serving the hundreds of mines which could be found in the surrounding countryside.

One of the first villages to get gas after Matlock it was a busy market ‘town’ which catered for everything.  In fact, Winster has a tradition of trading and it is reported in the history books that when the Romans reached Matlock Bath they decided to stay there and not to tackle the “wild people” of Winster, preferring instead to trade with them.

Every Saturday night there was a dance in the Burton Institute, followed by a visit to the chip shop and then to find your way home as best you could.

 Wakes Day was a grand time of course, with the pubs open all day and night, bowling for pigs and sheep, drinking contests, toffee apples for the children and games such as apples floating in buckets of water, to be grasped with the teeth. For the children it was then back home to the oil lamp and candle, and for the men it was down to the pub for some evening entertainment - more of which you can read about in the other stories.

Days of Hardship

During the 1930’s times were very hard due to the depression, but thanks to a combination of the friendliness and mutual support of village life and the abundant wild life in the surrounding countryside, the villagers of Winster managed overall quite well.

In Eric’s opinion these were “the best days” and everyone pulled together to help out. If a farmer lost his cow, the villagers would club together to buy him another (at a cost of £3.10s), if a farmer got behind with his harvest then others would mix in and help out. It was a hard life, but a happy one. It was normal to see cows wandering about Main Street because after they had been individually milked they were left to wander. Most farmers had fields which were scattered and in those days it was

common for a farmer to own a farm and a mine. He would work the mine and live off the farm. They didn’t keep many animals on the farm, just a couple of pigs and a few cows, and typically they would pay for feed at the Chandler’s by giving up a pig. In hard times the Chandler would keep the deeds of the cottage or farm until the bill was paid.

The largest mine in the area was Mill Close, and 25% of the village people were employed there. Wages were good at 8/6d for a shift in the 1930’s. They worked seven shifts and it was hard to get a job there. In fact, a job was about the only area where people would fight with each other and you had to wait for someone to leave or get injured so that you could step in to their position.

Those not fortunate enough to have a job had to survive the days of hardship as best they could. Luckily things were easier for country folk than for those working and living in the cities, because a snared rabbit could provide a meal for 6 or 7 people and there were rabbits a-plenty.

As always, people get together and helped each other, those with giving to those without. The Baker kept baking for as long as he had ingredients and the pubs would give dripping from the meat they used to feed their guests. For the children Eric remembers that there were the soup kitchens, supplemented by whatever the poached game could provide.

Fuel was short of course and there was no coal available, so the Duke of Rutland designated a small wood for the villagers to use to provide wood to burn on their fires.

Most people survived OK, but they were tough times indeed.