St. Rapnel is a small town, or large village, about a third of the way up the Rapnel Valley, a secluded cul-de-sac with sheep farms at its upper part, with a great marsh filling up most of the southern part below the river. (A 1940s proposal to turn this into a reservoir by damming up the river at Scrape Farm and turning the town embankment into a huge levee was never eventuated, thank God.) To north and south of the valley are high fells and moorland, mainly given over to raising sheep. There are dolmens and burial mounds on the northern fells, as well as an embanked hill fort, showing occupation from Neolithic times, but no sign of a stone circle or village, unless one considers the unexcavated knoll and castle site as being the location of these people, who seem to have been rather primitive and shy of outsiders. No doubt many of the locals are descended from these folk, as nothing much has ever happened here apart from some harrowing by the Normans and a bit of bother in the Civil War.
St. Rapnel is located in the northern Peak District southeast of Sheffield, near Hathersage and north of the famous plague village of Eyam. It is basically a hidden vale through which runs the Rapnel River, a tributary of the Derwent. The valley is not much more than three and a half miles in length, and is hidden amidst high fells. The nearest town of any size is Laxminster, a suburban outlay of Sheffield. Between Laxminster and St. Rapnel is the forest of Fairwood, an old Norman deer hunting preserve.
The main part of the town is located south and east of the Castle, below the large village green. The population, in 2002, was estimated at some 800 people, if one includes the outlying houses and farms.
The Rapnel Valley, then called Hrofswold, was referred to by the Venerable Bede in Anglo-Saxon times as a refuge against the Vikings, and it was an early Christian site. Who Saint Rapnel was is lost to history, but it is assumed he was an early missionary of the Britons of Iona and Lindisfarne. By the time of the Domesday Book, the valley was rather heavily populated; this soon declined drastically, as the area was subject to the notorious 'harrowing of the north' following the Conquest. It was given over to Ralph de Courtenay, an illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy, and made into a hunting forest for deer and a private preserve, which it remained until the 14th Century when raising sheep became more important. It prospered to the extent that the main part of the Parish Church and its tower were constructed. De Courtenay's original wooden stockade was embanked and provided with a keep and stone curtain walls, to become the now ruinous castle. At the same time, an earthen embankment was built along high ground alongside the great marsh to enclose a small town (originally sited along the river bank on a small gravelly ridge with the Knoll to the west and the castle to the east).
St. Rapnel made its way through the Middle Ages without much ado, being bypassed by the various ducal wars and upheavals and even being spared from the Black Death plague. At the time of the Civil War, however, the Barons de Courtenay chose to support the losing side (Charles I) and suffered consequently the loss of status and position. Their castle was 'slighted' by Cromwell's troops and the family had to flee to France for the duration of the Commonwealth. (The castle had been rendered indefensible prior to this when Sir Charles de Courtenay dismantled most of the buildings in the outer ward to build his almshouse and the de Courtenay chapel in the parish church.) After the Restoration, the male line died out, the estate passing down to the eldest daughter, who married a local army Colonel, one Benjamin Compton. A century later the Ginnetts from Sheffield, famous sword manufacturers, married into the family, which has been hyphenated ever since.
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