City 12: Derby


Elton John? The face of Derby?

Elton John? The face of Derby?

The Stan Bowley Trust

Today’s guide for today’s city is Ian Bowley. I know Ian through his work with the Stan Bowley Trust, a charity set up to raise money for a revolutionary cancer treatment called Cyberknife. There are only four CyberKknive robots available in the UK, due to various reasons and at £3,500,000 a pop they ain’t cheap. Neither are they a cure all. But for certain types of cancer, at certain points in a patient’s treatment the CyberKnife, a high energy laser with pin point accuracy and precision can improve your chances of survival. For Ian’s brother treatment in Washington DC meant an extension of his life by at least three years. After his passing, Ian set up the charity to help raise funds and awareness for CyberKnife and whilst it is a serious venture all of the activities and events the trust organises and runs are really fun. In 2020 I shall be undertaking the Freedom Trail Trek to raise funds for the trust. Please help me in this endeavour by donating via Just Giving at:

But To Start At The Beginning

The evidence your honour!

The evidence your honour!

We arrive in Derby a little after 09.00 and park up in the Multi Story Car Park attached to Intu, a modern day Mother Ship of a shopping centre that contains over 200 shops, a supermarket, theatre, cinema and various nosheries. Our first point of call is M and S. We have no need for lingerie but coffee and cake are essential items. I have my customary Victoria Sponge and we map out possible locations for the morning ahead.

 Derby was only granted city status in 1977. This was the same year as the Queen’s Jubilee and marked the date that the Sex Pistol’s released God Save the Queen. Much more significant to my mind. I seem to recall attending a fancy dress competition on this day and that a little kid dressed as a Rubik’s Cube won it. Ian looks nonplussed at this. In 1977? He is rightfully dubious and when I later check my scrap book I discover that the Parade took place in 1981 on the occasion of the Royal Wedding. I went dressed as Prince Charles and wasn’t placed… ahh well.

Arriving in Derby. Yes the sky was really that colour.

Arriving in Derby. Yes the sky was really that colour.

A River Runs Through It

Historically Derby, as you’d expect, goes way back. The Roman’s were here and named the city Derventio, in reference to the River Derwent that flows through it.  Numerous variations of the name exist. There are Viking, Anglo Saxon and Celtic versions, all with slightly different meanings. The Celts replaced the ‘v’ with a ‘b’ and created Derbentio which means ‘valley thick with oaks.’ That has a pleasantly poetic ring but I prefer Derventio, although it sounds more like an Italian football team, than an English City of industrial provenance. With a population of 250,000 it’s neither large nor small but it is compact and perfectly contained by the orbital ring road.

Location 1: Intu and the Bug Trail

After coffee and a comfort break we set off to explore The Intu. Ian informs me that he and his wife Bex like shopping here as everything is contained within a single space and he’s right. Intu has just about everything you’d ever need and most importantly it is heated. Outside the temperature hovers around the six-degree mark and rain threatens. Why would anybody want to go outside, ever? The white walls and polished floors, the skylights, multi-tier platforms, Plexiglas and walkways hint at a futuristic city. It reminds me of Cloud City in the Empire Strikes Back and I half expect to see Lando Calrissian emerging from a nearby lift pod. Part space ship, part temple it keeps you moving, offering an endless array of choices and distractions. It would be the ideal space for art installations I reflect and right on cue I spot something that intrigues me. We go over and take a look. It is a giant wasp situated on a plinth just outside of Debenhams. I shoot some pix and then we begin to search for more. Within minutes we’ve located a large caterpillar and then a weevil. It’s part of a bug trail and is an entomologist’s dream come true.  Suddenly I hear the opening chords of an old song echoing down the years. ‘Your future dream is a shopping scheme’ shrieked latter day prophet Johnny Rotten on his number 1 hit Anarchy in the UK. And he was absolutely right. Art and shopping combined, in a single space. Absolutely! The gallery of the future.

The Cities Premier Performance Space

The Cities Premier Performance Space

Location 2: Derby Theatre

Past chocolate shops and ice cream stands we pad, me snapping away at every turn, Ian watching in a slightly bemused fashion. As I’ve said before, doing Walk and Talk turns every city into a visual feast. It makes you stop and look; it helps you to savour and enjoy. You develop a different vocabulary about cities relating to flow and accessibility, interest and engagement. You compare and contrast the city over multiple visits in multiple points of time, seeing what has changed, what has been improved and what of value has been lost. Near to one of the exits we find an entrance to Derby Theatre. Ingenious to find a corridor out of the labyrinth that is Intu into the cities premier performance space. Clear evidence of joined up thinking. At last! We enter and scan the stands in the atrium lobby for intel. The theatre has a vibrant programme of present and future attractions. I’ve been here a couple of times before, once to see my friend Stephanie Collier, now Bee, as Gertrude in Hamlet. It was an excellent production on an incredible stage and I loved it and felt energised by it. Jungle Book is coming in April as is a one man show by Pariah Khan called ‘An Indian Abroad’. Jungle Book was the first film I every saw, at the Birmingham Odeon circa 1976 and I recently read both Jungle Books on the Stevenson trail in France. I want to go and I want to catch up with Mr Khan too. Suddenly Derby has become a much more attractive prospect.

Location 3: The Indoor Market

Reluctantly we exit Intu and head through sliding doors, past MP Chris Williamson’s high Security Green and White surgery, past a robotic-looking row of Pay Machines into the Indoor Market. Although connected to Intu it is virtually empty. This space is covered, it is a cold and somewhat foreboding area. Although not without curiosity and a hint of nostalgia I want to leave. It reminds me of the covered walkways and rapidly aging monolith that is Tamworth Old Town. Though not as soiled. (Sorry Tamworth, I do love you, but like Graham Norton, you desperately need a face lift.) A second hand book and video store reveals how much I have changed. Once I would have been ‘In like Flynn’ but these days I don’t bother. Perhaps my tastes have changed. Perhaps its just that everything is easier via Amazon. Whatever the reason we walk on by.

Location 4: On The Buses

Emerging into the open air, we reel and squeal a little as the cold bites. Another monolithic building of beige and black and gray rises before us to tower. It’s the Bus Station. A large and busy space abuzz with yellow cabs, single decker buses of magenta and turquoise double deckers; it could so easily be a painting. Although the colour scheme is different, I am reminded of Piet Mondrion’s Abstracts with those flashing lozenges of colour. The electric hues of the transports energise the space and the human onlooker. Colour therapy and neural stimulation combine in the hungry mind. There’s no excuse anymore for cities to be drab and grey. This isn’t the 1920s friend. We’ve entered an age that demands both quality and dynamism. Why can’t a bus station be a work of art, a signature building that eschews the use of beige and black and grey. It’s only a question but I’m asking anyway. Derby is busier than it looks and if the index of a cities health can be measured by its sewers and its transport system then Derby is very much in the pink…

Location 5: East Street

Away from the bus station and onto East Street we peregrinate. Ian is the perfect guide to this city because, as Hamlet was in Elsinore, so he is native and to the manner born. As a younger man he managed various Co-op stores in and around the city. His fifth location is a now closed and shuttered store which bares no logo, only the promise of future development. It’s a memory link for him and he is clearly moved as he is borne back into the past. Just down from the store, at the junction of East and Albion streets is the famous statue of the Derby Ram gifted to the city by property developers Richardson Cordwell at the princely sum of £30,000. It’s a divisive monument, as much loved as loathed but is certainly memorable. Adopted by the Derbyshire Militia in 1855 the ram has become a totem symbol for both the city and the county. Like the people the ram is hardy, brave and driven.

Location 6: Derby Past, Present and Future

As with most English cities Derby is caught between the twin pillars of the past and the future. The future, fight it as we may, is the Intu. Bright, white and boldy lit it, looks great and feels good. Here everything is connected and brought under a single umbrella. It’s so bright in there you gotta wear shades. The past is the streets, roads and buildings around it and this is slightly more problematic. It always demands the question, what do we preserve and what do we knock down? The present is the site of that war and it is a war without end. Too much futurity and you lose the living link and connection to the past. Too much backward-looking traditionalism and you create a moribund culture that does not respond to new developments in culture.

Historically, Derby led the Industrial Revolution. In 1717 the first water-powered silk mill was built on the banks of the Derwent by Lombe and Sorocold after Lombe had pilfered the closely guarded secrets of silk throwing from Piedmont in Italy. This was followed by developments in the field of cotton spinning and engineering, particularly manufacturing, led by James Fox who built and exported machines to Russia in the early 19th century. The emergence of the North Midland railways in the late nineteenth century, with Derby the site of its headquarters brought both kudos and prosperity to the city. The echoes of this past can be located in the signs and foundation stones of many of the buildings. One iconic building situated on the corner of Albert Street is the grizzled and domed Corn Exchange of 1862. Here farmers and corn merchants met to fix the price of wheat, oats and barley for the coming year. After the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 such exchanges were built in every major city, Derby being no exception.


The Tourist Information Centre, just off Corporation Street, does a great job of promoting Derby Past, Present and Future. Maps and leaflets of all the city has to offer are on display here and the Staff are always helpful and polite. I fill my bag with their offerings and then Ian leads me down a scaffold-clad alley into the Derby Market Hall, proudly trading since 1866. This covered market, like much of the city is in a state of regeneration. I suggest they get some heat in there, because like the indoor market it is unheated and despite the eye-catching stores and shops, again the space is largely empty. We move through it and out into the cold air once more, keen to look but eager not to linger. On Full Street we pause to take in the old red brick Police Station whose foundation stone was laid by J.P O. Ling in 1935. The building no longer serves as a Police Station; it has been repurposed and sold on, but again it is another landmark for Ian and a site to pause and reflect before heading off to the river. The Derwent is in spate and the willows that line its banks are leafless. They await the kiss of spring and the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, to quote Dylan Thomas. People like buildings like cities need to attune to that force in order to regenerate and find a life of greater abundance.

Derby Market Hall. Trading since 1866. Sweet Heaven.

Derby Market Hall. Trading since 1866. Sweet Heaven.

Location 7: Of Christians And Beggars

This is not the first time I have visited the city. I came before in May 2015. That time it was warmer and greener and people with telescopes watched the cathedral’s resident peregrine falcons up in the tower from the street below. Whenever I walk a city I always promise myself that I will leave out an account of any cathedral visits and I always recant. Anyway this is Ian’s walk so only his choices matter. Once a church, now the Cathedral of All Saints, the original structure dates back to 943 and was built in the reign of Edmund the 1st. Instantly images of the Blackadder come to mind and I grin. Outside a news team from Sky News are setting up their cameras. They have come to Derby to record the views of the cities people, all ardent Brexiteers, in the run up to Brexit. It takes a while to find a door and to get inside. The current façade was completed in 1725 by James Gibbs and has a pleasing Georgian elegance but the interior, by contrast seems grim, and pew-cluttered. It is not a place that draws you to its bosom. If Christianity is a religion of love then why do I feel so little love here? Throughout our walk Ian and I have seen numerous homeless people stretched out in various doorways or begging with bowls on crumbling stones. Their eyes are invariably hopeless and haunted, their hands outstretched. Most people have learned not to see them. They are dismissed as scroungers, thieves, junkies and scum; the authors of their own fates and a just reminder of what awaits all who fail or fall. I can’t help thinking the cathedral would be a far better place if it opened its door to them and lived the message it has preached for two millennia.

Location 8: Panic

As the rain begins to fall we move into the final phase of our journey. I show Ian the statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie who marched on and took Derby in December of 1745 but was forced to give it up two days later and withdraw back to Scotland. He is surprised as he’d never noticed it before. Charlie, like Tam in Robert Burns’ famous poem Tam O Shanter is depicted in his ‘gud blue bonnet’ emblem of all Jacobites and is astride a horse. I try and imagine what it must have been like, knowing your city was about to get invaded; the ensuing panic due to the approach of marching feet and the subsequent relief at Charlies retreat. London, like Derby was mad with fear, as it was there he was headed, and but for the lack of support from the people he believed would rise behind him, and the counsel of his generals, he might have brought a fire storm to the capital.  Retracing our steps to the Intu we pass via the Escape Room on the Upper Floors of 1-5 Iron Gate. A latter day puzzle, challenge and entertainment Ian conceded it was the kids and not that parents who solved the puzzles leading towards escape from that particular labyrinth. Past a mural, with the legend ‘Derby’ daubed across it , we go. Past Elton John’s grinning face painted in reggae colours to arrive in front of the Neptune, a local boozer where Derby Supporters, who count Ian amongst their number, would gather for a few pints prior to the march to match. We salute the fallen at the behest of the poppy primed flag above the Neptune Pub sign and return to the car passing more bugs and bustling people on the way.

Location 9: Class Act

And its done. But although the walk is over the talk is not and we drive the final miles eager for more. There are things I need to see, things Ian wants to show me. The first is the Baseball Ground, site of the Old Derby’s glory days. The stadium is gone and now new houses are there, faceless and non descript. Hell isn’t ugly. It’s bland. It’s sugarless, salt-free porridge for an eternity. There’s a statue which fails to impress, a small park of sorts, but most of all there’s an atmosphere and a ghostly sound of cheering, singing thousands united behind their team. From here we travel to the Old Roll’s Royce plant, opened in 1908. Today it’s a café but it still oozes class. It’s iconic and worthy of preservation. From here we drive to the new Roll’s Royce Plant, now a sprawling multi-million pound centre of research for aviation engines and who knows, maybe even space travel. Next an old house of Ian’s where he lived for a year, then a spider armed bridge and finally, finally the Pride Park Stadium with its 33,597 capacity situated next to a space age velodrome opened in 2015. Astrologically the Ram of Aries represents leadership and authority, ardour, vigour and above all renewal. What better symbol for a city that led the way in the industrial revolution and which is regenerating and renewing itself for the 21st century as it unfolds. The final image, the one that causes the heart to soar is the statue of Old Bighead, the Legend that is Brian Clough clutching the cup he and Taylor brought to the city back in 1972, a year after I was born. Glory then and glory now for a city on the rise.

The 2015 Velodrome. Another signature building. One eye on the eye on the past

The 2015 Velodrome. Another signature building. One eye on the eye on the past

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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