Less than half an hour from the eastern Staffordshire border in Derbyshire, nestling almost forgotten in green nowhere, is a curious example of a semi-detached church. The church of All Saints at Dale appears to hide, as if not wanting to be noticed, at the bottom of a lane. This tiny church is adjoined to a stone-built house, with no division between lawn and churchyard so that the two have become one.
The origins of this unusual arrangement have become lost in local mythology. Tradition claims during the 12th century a baker from the city of Derby had a vision in which the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She informed him to abandon his work and to seek the life of a hermit at a place called ‘Depedale.’ He immediately left the city and passing through the village of Stanley he overheard a mother telling her daughter to take their cattle to Depedale. Accompanying the daughter he arrived at the place to find it a desolate and marshy valley. He made his home in a cave which he excavated from the sandstone cliffs and lived a life of solitude and piety.
At some later point the smoke from his fire was seen by the owner of the land Ralph Fitz Geremund. The knight sought out the encroacher with the intent of removing him but on hearing his story he had a change of heart and he was allowed to remain. He also bestowed on the baker the tithes from nearby Borrowash Mill which enabled a small chapel about 1150 to be built where the present church stands.
The religious significance of the story spread and Dale Abbey was founded nearby about 1200. The church built by the baker became the infirmary for the Abbey which continued until being swept away during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538. At this point it appears the building reverted back to its original use as a church.
The tiny church, measuring a mere 26 feet by 25 feet, must be one of the smallest in England. Much of the structure that survives dates from a rebuilding during the 14th century. What is unclear is why the building should have dual uses. Possibly the existing building was too large a church for the tiny hamlet that it served and the other half cordoned off for use as a tithe barn or the incumbent’s lodging. This marriage of ecclesiastical and domestic accommodation has survived to this day.
In the past the attached house was previously the Blue Bell Inn. During this time the officiating minister would dress for service in the bar, which was also used as a vestry, and entered the church through an internal connecting door which no longer exists. It was said that this door could lead from ‘salvation to damnation.’
Today the interior of the church consists of a mixture of box pews and rough hewn benches. Due to the tiny dimensions these are packed like sardines, with some of the seating arranged so that there is no alternative than sitting with your back to the minister during the service. The rickety pulpit leans like the Tower of Pisa. Standing in it makes the occupier think he is about to topple over to join the congregation below. To make the interior even more claustrophobic an upper gallery looms over the downstairs seating held up by various supports which have to be negotiated during a visit.
Services are still conducted at the church every Sunday. However, there is still no positive answer why church and house lie under the same roof. At least during its period as the inn there presumably was no shortage of communion wine.