If you were to ask what Chesterfield, a market town in the English county of Derbyshire, is famous for, most locals would say the Parish Church of Saint Mary and All Saints. This is the largest church in Derbyshire, almost as big as a cathedral, but that’s not why it’s famous. Its fame stems from its crooked spire, which can be seen for miles around. The spire is not just a little twisted, it’s seriously crooked! Rising to a height of nearly 70 metres, the spire leans 2.6 metres to the south and 1.1 metres to the west.
Legends abound about how the spire came to be crooked and, predictably for a religious building, many hold the Devil responsible. One story tells how a magician persuaded a blacksmith from a nearby town to shoe the Devil. The blacksmith drove a nail into the Devil’s foot by mistake and the Devil flew off howling with rage. As he flew over the church he lashed out in agony and caught the spire, twisting it out of shape. In another tale, the Devil was resting on top of the church spire when a waft of incense irritated his nose and he let out an almighty sneeze that twisted the spire. My favourite legend claims that a virgin once got married in the church and the spire bent over to have a closer look at this rare occurrence. Supposedly, when another virgin gets married in the church the spire will straighten again!
The church was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and the spire added in the latter half of the century. One plausible reason for the crooked spire is that many skilled craftsmen may have died during an outbreak of the Black Death in 1349, leaving the spire to be built by unskilled survivors. If the oak used in its construction wasn’t seasoned properly, the spire may have twisted as the green wood dried out. The inexperienced labour hypothesis appears to be supported by the lack of cross-bracing in the spire – an important omission considering that the spire is covered with 32 tons of lead plates. Another theory is that sunshine may have produced the twisting phenomenon, by causing the lead on the south side of the spire to expand at a greater rate than that of the north side.
Yet another possible reason for the crooked spire is the weight of the church bells. The belfry houses a peal of ten bells, which is unusual; normally there are only six bells in a church and ten to twelve in a cathedral. Altogether the bells weigh 5.5 tons – the tenor bell alone weighs as much as a four wheel drive vehicle. The bells were not rung from 1920 until the end of the Second World War because the platform supporting them was thought to be unsafe.
The bell ringers (who are bound by an old church edict not to wear hats or spurs) ring the scales from high to low. The only time the bells are rung in reverse order is in the event of an invasion or a terrible disaster. The last time this happened was in 1973 when there was a mining disaster at Markham Colliery.
A disaster befell the church itself in December 1961, when a fire swept through the building. Fire engines arrived within minutes, but it took two hours to get the blaze under control. Luckily, the church and its famous spire survived to remain the unmistakable symbol of Chesterfield.