Among the wealth of industrial archaeology structures at the north end of the Cromford Canal, one of the most photographed is the picturesque little lock-keeper’s cottage at the end of the Wigwell Aqueduct, guarding the junction with the private Lea Wood branch.
This branch canal was constructed in 1802 by Peter Nightingale (great-uncle of Florence) to his mills at Lea Bridge 2½ furlongs away. In 1819, as a result of a dispute over water rights, the branch was reduced to half its length and the wharf resited.
The lock at the junction was required to maintain the water-level in the branch at twelve inches higher than the main line, so that there was no risk of the canal losing water to the branch or vice versa. An 1811 map shows that only half the existing building is original, extended sometime in the nineteenth century to make two dwellings, each with its own front door, and later combined to make a single house with the second doorway converted to a window.
Maintaining a household in this remote spot must always have been arduous. Anne Eaton, who lived with her husband Josiah in the two-bedroomed cottage in the 1890s, raised eight children there. She was on social terms with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), whose family continued to own the surrounding land after selling the mills to the Smedley family in 1893.
The canal branch was last used in 1936, and traffic ceased on the main line from Hartshay to Cromford two years later. The then owner, the London, Midland & Scottish Railway, formally abandoned the canal in 1944.
The local writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976) called Aqueduct Cottage “a Hans Anderson dwelling”, but she didn’t have to live in it.
By the time Lea Wood was sold to a private owner, Mr Bowmer, in 1951 the lack of amenities at the cottage was daunting. The last occupant, Mr Bowler, lived there alone without piped water, sanitation, gas or electricity, until circa 1970.
The Derwent Valley section of the Cromford Canal was taken into guardianship by Derbyshire County Council in 1974 and most of it declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1981, but when Lea Wood was sold to the Leawood Trust for the benefit of the community there seemed no practical way to make the cottage usable, let alone habitable.
After the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site was established in 2001 the County Council produced a Conservation Management Plan which identified Aqueduct Cottage as a significant heritage asset.
In 2012 the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust took over Lea Wood, the canal branch and the cottage, and a volunteer group set about returning Aqueduct Cottage to its nineteenth-century condition as a visitor centre which, despite the interruption of the pandemic, is well on its way to completion [https://www.crichstandard.org/tourism/aqueduct-cottage-restoring-a-local-landmark.php], proving what can be done for a building on the brink with inspiration, energy and the know-how to find funding.