The Real Crooked Spire

It’s that time of year again. The leaves tumbling down off the tress to form piles you just have to kick and jump in. The first frost. The silent thanks for a working boiler in the morning. And a time to go from my old – and also very new – stamping grounds for a visit to a place I explored a few years ago.

This Saturday (that’s November 23rd, 2013 for those who discover this blog in a time capsule) and on December 9 I’ll be in Chesterfield. It’s all to do with the launch of my new book, The Crooked Spire – which also happens to be the name everyone uses for the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in the town.

 

It’s a beautiful building, which dates from 1360, and part of one of the loveliest market towns I know. Climb up the tower to the base of the spire and Chesterfield is spread out beneath you. But watch because, because the spire, more than 100 feet of it, is only held on to the tower by its own weight. And yes, it’s definitely crooked. There are several theories about that…

The first is that the builders used unseasoned wood for the spire. Given that the Black Death had wiped out many craftsmen, it’s possible that the builders didn’t know that the oak needed to be left for three years before use. After it was covered, the word dried and began to warp, which resulted in the twist so visible today.

That’s one fairly reasonable explanation. The others are much better. One tale goes that the spire, hearing a wedding in the church, was so amazed that there was a virgin in Chesterfield, craned around to look at the woman and couldn’t fully straighten itself. Should another virgin ever marry in the church, the spire will straighten itself. And in the third story, a blacksmith in Bolsover, a few miles away, was putting a new iron shoe on the Devil. He mishit a nail, which drove deep in the Devil’s hoof, causing him to leap in pain. Hanging on to the spire, he twisted it.

These days, though, there’s belief is that the twisting is related to the lead on the spire, which came a few centuries after it was built; the original covering was oak tiles over the beams. The heating and contraction of the lead caused the warping. There are, however, many who discount that.

Whatever the reason, there’s an odd phenomenon. The first reports of the spire being crooked didn’t come until the 17th century, long, long after it was built. But since then it’s become Chesterfield’s main feature and symbol. And the church, both inside and out, is a place of real wonder.

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