Category Archives: The Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Derby Silk Mill Museum

Derby Silk Mill Museum

After five years of work, Derby’s industrial museum, rich in exhibits that commemorate the huge and varied heritage of the city, is now open to the public, with free entry, as the Museum of Making.

It occupies the much-altered Silk Mill building, on the site of an early mill dating from 1704.  What survived of Thomas Lombe’s 1722 building was destroyed in a fire in 1910, and the rebuilding carefully replicated the five-storey original as a three-storey building attached to the surviving distinctive tower.

Using the best of modern display techniques in a variety of ways, the Museum draws together the varied contributions Derby has brought to the world.

Visitors walk into a new atrium beneath a suspended exploded Toyota Corolla Hybrid car, manufactured south of Derby at Burnaston, and look towards a seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 aero engine, also suspended above the staircase.

There are close-up views of the Trent 1000 upstairs, with an opportunity to compare it with the earliest Rolls-Royce Eagle engine that began production in 1915, one of the type which powered Allcock and Brown’s pioneering non-stop Atlantic crossing in 1919.

There’s a bewildering array of objects and images relating to Derby’s involvement in iron-founding, railways, engineering and textiles, and its association with such diverse figures as the physician-inventor Erasmus Darwin, the painter Joseph Wright and the clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst.

The pinnacle of this cornucopia of Derby memorabilia is the ‘Railways Revealed’ exhibit, which includes the latest version of the Midland Railway model layout, the grandchild of an original which has delighted Derby children and enthusiasts since 1951.

The Museum is an appropriate gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site which stretches northwards as far as Cromford, which ties together an astonishing variety of historic monuments of the early Industrial Revolution.

In view of the quality and significance of the Museum’s collection, it’s odd that it’s been given the vapid branding ‘Museum of Making’.

It could be anywhere.

I choose to call it the Derby Silk Mill Museum, so that people know where it is.

Derby Silk Mill

Silk Mill, Derby

Though Sir Richard Arkwright is rightly credited with establishing the first successful water-powered cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1771, his was not the first industrial innovation in the Derbyshire Derwent Valley.

On an island on the Derwent in the centre of Derby, Thomas Cotchett had commissioned the engineer George Sorocold (c 1668-c1738)  to build a three-story water-powered silk-mill, using inefficient Dutch machinery, in 1704.

Cotchett’s business failed, and the site was taken over by Thomas Lombe (1685-1739), a Norwich-born London silk-merchant who had had the foresight to send his half-brother John (1693?-1722) to work for Cotchett as an apprentice. 

Thomas then travelled in Italy, where he is said to have worked incognito in a throwing-mill and covertly sketched the machinery.

Lombe took out a British patent for the Italian-designed silk-throwing machinery in 1718, and Sorocold built the Italian Works, on twenty-six arches oversailing the waters of the Derwent, to accommodate the machinery.

The main building contained the twelve circular throwing-machines, eight 12ft 7in-diameter Torcitoii and twelve 12ft 11in-diameter Filatoii, both types 19ft 8in high, on the lower two storeys and 26 winding-machines on its upper three floors.

George Sorocold’s previous experience of water-supply machinery can scarcely have prepared him for the mechanical complexity of the 4,793 star-wheels, 10,000 spindles, 25,000 spinning-reel bobbins, 9,050 twist bobbins and 45,363 winding bobbins of Lombe’s patent-design.

The Mill was completed in 1722, and immediately became an object of exceptional interest to visitors, including Daniel Defoe, James Boswell and John Byng, 5th Viscount Torrington.

After the patent expired in 1732, other silk mills were built in Macclesfield, Stockport and Congleton, and though the trade experienced periodic periods of depression, by 1830 Macclesfield had seventy silk-factories employing 10,000 people.  There were seventeen silk-factories of one kind or another in Derby in 1840.   

Though the silk-trade continued to flourish into the nineteenth century to the north-west, in Derbyshire it declined in the face of the profitable growth of cotton-spinning and the difficulty of importing raw materials during the French wars, and tended to diversify into the specialised manufacture of ribbon and tape.

The Derby Silk Mill operated,  with one short break at the end of  the  eighteenth century, until 1890, when it suffered a partial collapse, then in 1910 the whole of the Italian Works was destroyed by fire and shortly afterwards the adjacent Doublers’ Shop was demolished. 

The present Silk Mill building was rebuilt on the original stone river-arches to a different design, but with a similar belfry, as a chemical manufactory. 

A coal-fired electricity power-station, notorious for its filth, was built on the landward side of the site and the mill building was occupied by the borough electricity department. 

When the power-station was replaced by a more discreet sub-station for the National Grid the Silk Mill building became the Derby Museum of Industry and Technology, opened in 1974, and Robert Bakewell’s Silk Mill gates were returned from the Museum & Art Gallery at the Wardwick, to stand near to their original site.

The Industrial Museum closed in 2016 for a major refurbishment, and reopened, in spite of the pandemic, in May 2021 as the Museum of Making.

The Wright stuff

St Pancras Station, London

An embarrassingly long time ago, one of my school contemporaries gave me a book that had belonged to his late father – Roy Christian’s Butterley Brick:  200 years in the making (Henry Melland 1990).  The title misled me.  It sat for far too long on my pile of unread books because I’m not particularly interested in brickworks.

Roy Christian was one of the most lucid and knowledgeable Derbyshire local historians of his generation, and he named his book after only one of the three divisions into which the old Butterley Company had been divided in 1968 – Butterley Brick, Butterley Engineering and Butterley Aggregates.

Brickmaking only emerges in Roy Christian’s book at chapter ten, and much of his text is a masterly account of a now-vanished major industrial complex, based on a 1950 company history aptly entitled Through Five Generations and subsequent researches by Jean Lindsay and Philip Riden.

Bricks had been made around Butterley since William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805) engineered the Butterley Tunnel on the Cromford Canal in the early 1790s, and the two canal engineers founded Benjamin Outram & Co, in conjunction with a lawyer, Francis Beresford (1737-1801), and a banker, John Wright (1758-1840), to mine coal and iron and to manufacture iron goods.

The company was renamed the Butterley Company sometime earlier than 1809.

Of the descendants of these four founders, William Jessop’s son, also called William (1784-1852), led the company for forty-six years, and then its long-term success was directed by five generations of the Wright family, who owned 100% of the company’s shares from 1888 and remained in control until 1966. 

They established an ironworks literally above the canal tunnel at Butterley and a forge further along the canal at Codnor Park, and purchased limestone quarries at Crich and elsewhere, so that they were fully in command of the necessary raw materials and the means of transporting them cheaply.

The district was not populous so the company built housing at locations along the canal – Ironville, Golden Valley and Hammersmith.

The most prominent memento of the company’s engineering prowess is the magnificent trainshed at St Pancras Station (1867), which bears the name “Butterley Company, Derbyshire” repeatedly cast into the ironwork.

But their handiwork is evident in so many other places, from the elegant Hospital Lane Bridge, Boston, Lincolnshire (1811), the surviving winding-engine on the Cromford & High Peak Railway at Middleton Top (1829) in Derbyshire and London’s Vauxhall Bridge (1906) to the Falkirk Wheel (2000) and the Spinnaker Tower, Portsmorth (2005).

In contrast, Roy Christian explains the Butterley habit of espousing unlikely, ill-starred inventions, ranging from William Brunton’s Steam Horse (1813) [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jffVbuUhblc] to the Simm-Wulpa vertical car park (1962) [https://www.rdht.org.uk/all-things-local-august-2017].

There was a time in the early 1970s when Butterley could have become a tourist asset comparable with the Beamish Open Air Museum in co Durham and Blists Hill at Ironbridge, Shropshire. 

Derby Corporation acquired the Britain Pit site, midway between Butterley and Golden Valley, to establish an open-air museum around the railway line from Pye Bridge to Butterley:  https://www.midlandrailway-butterley.co.uk/history-of-the-midland-railway-butterley.  Though the local authority stepped back quickly, the rail museum developed into the ambitious Midland Railway Butterley, but much of the industrial archaeology associated with Butterley Ironworks and Codnor Park Forge has been lost.

The Butterley Company was sold to the Hanson Group in 1968 and split up.  The engineering works closed in 2009 and the ironworks site was sold in 2015.

To ensure that the memory of this once mighty enterprise isn’t completely lost, the Butterley Ironworks Trust has been formed, led by former company employees, with ambitious plans to make the most of what’s left:  https://www.rdht.org.uk/butterley-ironworks-the-future.

Change at Matlock

Matlock Railway Station, Derbyshire

One of my very first adult-education lecturing jobs was at Tawney House Adult Education Centre, Matlock, in 1972.

At the time I was teaching in a Nottingham grammar school, so my weekly trips after a day in school began with a diesel railcar journey to Matlock station, by then the stub end of a singled branch line that had once been the Midland Railway main line from Derby to Manchester.

A persistent local rumour said that the town wouldn’t have retained this vestigial rail link had not Alderman Charles White secured the former Smedley’s Hydro as a county hall for Derbyshire in 1955.

In the mid-1970s Peak Rail [https://www.peakrail.co.uk] began to implement a scheme to restore the entire missing railway between Matlock and Buxton as a heritage line with scope to carry heavy freight through and out of the Peak District National Park.

In the years since, that scheme has been repeatedly revised.  The current railway runs from Matlock to just south of Rowsley, and its next development phase envisages extending north to Bakewell.

When in 1991 the Peak Rail services reached Matlock, they were obliged to terminate at the boundary with Network Rail, and a temporary station was constructed, a quarter of a mile north of the historic station, and named Matlock Riverside.

Eventually, in 2008, following completion of the Matlock A6 road bypass and the construction of a Sainsbury’s store in the former Cawdor Quarry, Peak Rail negotiated a fifty-year lease into platform 2, the former down platform of Matlock Station, so that it’s now possible to travel by National Rail to Matlock from afar, cross the footbridge and continue with Peak Rail north to Rowsley South.

The route along the wide Derwent valley is attractive, but nowhere near as spectacular as the old main line further north and west which is now the Monsal Trail. Peak Rail specialises in on-train catering [https://www.peakrail.co.uk/fooddrink], and the extensive former marshalling yard at Rowsley contains a number of interesting preservation projects, including the Heritage Shunters Trust – an entertaining memorial to one of the cheerfully loopy episodes in the history of British Railways.

North Street

North Street, Cromford, Derbyshire (1977)
North Street, Cromford, Derbyshire (1977)

Richard (later Sir Richard) Arkwright came to Cromford in Derbyshire seeking water to power his cotton-spinning factory despite the sparse population of lead-miners and agricultural labourers.

Not only did he need to import labour to keep his spinning machines turning day and night, but he and his partners had difficulty initially in persuading weavers to accept the relatively coarse thread that the water frame produced.

Ideally, he needed to employ his own weavers, preferably with large families, so that the men could weave at home in what was still a domestic trade, while their wives and children could with their delicate fingers tend the spinning machines in the mill.

Accordingly, Arkwright advertised in the Derby Mercury in December 1771 for “Weavers residing in this Neighbourhood” as well as offering “Employment…for Women, Children, &c and good Wages”.

This practice is reflected in the architecture of North Street (1776), one of the very first examples of planned industrial housing in England, sixteen plus eleven three-storey gritstone houses with distinctive loom-windows on the top floor of each house. Evidence of further weaving-facilities exists at the Mill, where a three-storey loom shop still survives. 

Each of the North Street houses had a designated garden.  When the loom shops were no longer needed, the long top-floor windows were reduced in size:  the uninsulated rooms must have been extremely cold in winter.

The design of the North Street terraces has survived intact, though in the late 1960s Matlock Rural District Council intended to demolish the houses until dissuaded by a campaign led by Professor J D Chambers of Nottingham University.

The historic significance of Cromford as a whole was first recognised by the Arkwright Festival of 1971, a celebration of the bicentenary of the founding of the mills. 

During the 1970s North Street was rescued by the Ancient Monuments Society and one of the houses, no 10, was restored by the Landmark Trust and is now available as a self-catering holiday let.

The Festival committee became the Arkwright Society, which has spearheaded the growth of academic and tourist interest in what became the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site in 2001.

The two books to consult about this fascinating area are The Derwent Valley Mills and their Communities (Derwent Valley Mills Partnership 2001) and Doreen Buxton & Chris Charlton, Cromford Revisited (Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, 2015).

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The Bear Pit

The Bear Pit: tail of Cromford Moor Sough, Derbyshire

When I first started teaching in a Nottingham grammar school in 1970, I was allocated a General Studies class and I chose to offer Local History as a mind-broadening experience. 

One of the students wanted to know about the “ruin that looks like Chatsworth” that he’d spotted driving south down the M1 near Chesterfield.  This was Sutton Scarsdale Hall, last inhabited by descendants of Sir Richard Arkwright, the cotton-spinning inventor.

I rang a librarian who told me the person to talk to about the Arkwright family was an adult-education lecturer, Chris Charlton, who explained that Richard Arkwright and his partners chose Cromford for the site of their water-powered factory because of two sources of water – the Bonsall Brook and a lead-mine adit called the Cromford Moor Sough.

Chris persuaded me to bring a minibus-load of sixth-formers to Derbyshire to do voluntary conservation work in preparation for the Arkwright Festival, celebrating the bicentenary of Richard Arkwright’s Cromford cotton mills in 1771.

Our project was to clear out tons of accumulated mud from what was then known as the Bear Pit, which has no connection whatsoever with bears.

This hole in the ground, hidden behind the shops at the bottom of Cromford Hill, is the junction between three watercourses which connected the brook and the sough with the mill-site downstream.

Soughs are tunnels, built at a shallow downward gradient to drain lead-mining areas, prodigious engineering feats in their day, and this one was distinguished by its thermal water, which remained constantly at 52°F throughout the year.

A complex system of watercourses enabled the mills to take supply from either the Bonsall Brook or – especially in times of drought or frost – from the Cromford Moor Sough, or to use either to act as a reservoir to the other.

Much of the water which drained from the Cromford Moor Sough was lost in 1837 when a consortium of lead-miners completed the Meerbrook Sough, which drains lower down the Derwent Valley at Whatstandwell:  after litigation concluded unsuccessfully in 1846 the Cromford Mills diversified away from cotton-manufacture, which finally ceased in 1891.

We laboured with buckets and ladders for several Sundays, aided on at least one occasion by the fire brigade, who were equipped to get water from where it is to where it’s wanted.

By the time of the festival in midsummer the Bear Pit looked respectable.

Several years later, when I was teaching in Sheffield, Chris persuaded me to bring a group of Yorkshire kids to clear out the Bear Pit a second time.  One of the Nottingham group, then his twenties, turned up and roared with laughter at the sight of us shifting another few tons of mud.  He said it was a site for sore eyes.

Meanwhile, Chris Charlton changed my life, recruiting me to teach extramural classes in Matlock and elsewhere.  My part-time career in architectural and social history became Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times, which still provides me with occupation and enjoyment fifty years after the Arkwright Festival.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Start of the Pennine Way

Edale, Derbyshire

Even though it’s popular with visitors, the Derbyshire village of Edale, tucked high in the valley of the River Noe, feels a long way out of the way.

It is referred to as “Aidale” in Domesday Book and under the Norman kings it became part of the Royal Forest of the Peak.  From the reign of King John the Noe Valley comprised five Royal Farms, or “booths”, based on settlements at Upper Booth, Barber Booth, Ollerbrook Booth, Nether Booth and Grindsbrook Booth.

After royal control gave place in Tudor times to individual tenements, Grindsbrook Booth became the location of an inn dating back to the seventeenth century and the site of the parish church of Holy Trinity. 

The first parish church here dated from 1633, but the present, third building was built in 1885-6, with a spire added four years later. 

Cattle farming gave place to sheep, and in the late eighteenth century the valley was enclosed with the gritstone dry stone walls that are characteristic of the Dark Peak.

The village itself is 820 feet above sea level, and the hills round about rise to over 2,000 feet.

Nevertheless, though transport in any direction was arduous, a cotton mill was built on the site of a corn mill and tannery half a mile from the village in 1795. 

Workers lived in a dormitory, on a site still known as Skinners Hall [https://www.cottageguide.co.uk/taylorscroft], and women workers came from Castleton, commuting on foot along the old coffin-trail over Hollins Cross. 

The mill operated until 1934, and the Landmark Trust restored and converted it to apartments in the 1970s.

The railway eventually made the place accessible in 1894, and houses for prosperous Victorian incomers stand among older vernacular cottages.

The Nag’s Head pub, a former barn, is the formal southern beginning of the Pennine Way.

There was a possibility, shortly after the Second World War, that all this would be swept away, when in 1949 the Derwent Valley Water Board proposed to flood the Noe Valley to make a reservoir the same size of Ladybower (completed in 1945) with a dam 127 feet high and 1,750 feet long.  The scheme would have involved burying the Dore-Chinley railway in a lengthy tunnel.

As an alternative suggestion, in the early 1950s the Board considered building a dam west of Castleton flooding the valley of the Odin Sitch below Mam Tor.

They then considered a series of schemes to raise the waters of the Upper Derwent Valley by a great dam which would submerge the existing dam at Derwent and leave only the towers of Howden Dam visible above the waters.

These schemes are described and illustrated in Brian Robertson’s book, Walls Across the Valley:  the building of Howden and Derwent Dams (Scarthin Books 1993), pp 194-205.

Instead, in the 1980s, the Board’s successor, Severn-Trent, began Carsington Reservoir, which after some tribulations opened in 1992.

The Derwent High Dam proposal remains on the table.  No-one nowadays seriously suggests flooding Edale.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Trains to Edale

View from Edale Station towards Cowburn Tunnel, Derbyshire

Edale is the last station for stopping westbound trains from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester before the line plunges into Cowburn Tunnel (3,702 yards).

It serves the village of Edale (population 353) and is handy for walkers setting off on the Pennine Way.

The Hope Valley Line is notable, and rare among intercity railways in the North, because all its original stations remain open to passengers, and an hourly stopping service runs in between non-stop trains serving Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool via Sheffield.

Edale station itself offers only basic facilities.  British Rail replaced the original timber buildings with bus shelters, and eventually provided automatic ticket machines and digital information displays.

The Dore & Chinley Railway was opened in 1894 by the Midland Railway, providing a cross-country link between Sheffield and Manchester.  It gained additional traffic when G & T Earle opened their cement works, served by a private branch railway, at Hope in 1929.

The cement works is an ambivalent factor in the economy of the Peak District National Park:  it’s ugly and dirty, yet it provides jobs for the local community, and its rail connection helped to save the line in the 1960s.

Though the Woodhead route between Sheffield and Manchester via Penistone had been modernised and electrified after the Second World War, it had less social value as a passenger route, and after its coal traffic declined it closed in 1981.

The Hope Valley route offers an attractive ride through some of Derbyshire’s finest scenery, even though a quarter of the mileage is in tunnel.

Each of its stations provides access to interesting tourist sites and attractive walking country.

Hope station is isolated, but has bus services to Bradwell and CastletonBamford is within walking distance of Ladybower Reservoir and the Upper Derwent dams;  Hathersage has an open-air swimming pool and the David Mellor Factory, and Grindleford boasts the best fry-up for miles around – as long as you don’t ask for mushrooms.

In the days of steam traction and non-corridor slam-door carriages, the last train back to Sheffield was nicknamed the “Passion Special”, apparently because the length of Totley Tunnel (6,230 yards) provided opportunities not commonly found in the decades before the Swinging Sixties.

In contrast, latter-day Sprinter units are passion killers.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Home of Blue John

Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire

The bleak, remote north-west of Derbyshire was in medieval times the Forest of High Peak, a royal preserve for deer, not much blessed with trees, but valuable for its minerals, particularly lead.

It was guarded by Peveril Castle, established by William the Conqueror’s favourite, William Peveril (c1040-c1115), though the earliest surviving structure is the keep erected in 1176, which dominates the town of Castleton that grew up outside its precinct.

Castleton is a tourist honeypot, rich in opportunities to eat, drink and buy souvenirs.

Apart from the Castle, the most significant historic buildings are the Church of St Edmund, with its box pews and six-hundred-volume library “to be lent out to the parishioners at the discretion of the minister”, the bequest of the bachelor vicar, Rev Frederick Farran (d 1817), and the seventeenth-century Castleton Hall, which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “comically ignorant”.

Castleton is world-famous as the only home of the unique form of fluorspar, Blue John, known for its coloration (bleu-jaune), and now in short supply.  Two of the largest artefacts of Blue John remain in the county at Chatsworth House and Renishaw Hall.  Mrs Malaprop, in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), refers to it as “Derbyshire putrefactions”.

There are four show caves, the result of mining activity going back to prehistoric times.

Peak Cavern, known in impolite times as the Devil’s Arse, is a natural opening fifty feet high and 114 feet wide, with enough space to contain a pub and several cottages (Celia Fiennes’ “poor little houses…thatch’d like little styes”) and, until well into the twentieth century, a ropewalk.  Lord Byron visited it with his cousin, Mary Ann Chaworth, for whom he had feelings:  lying in a boat with her to reach the innermost part of the cave, he wrote “I recollect my sensations but cannot describe them.”  Princess Victoria visited the cave in 1834, and again, as Queen, in 1841.

Blue John Mine, now celebrated for its displays of stalagmites and stalactites, seems to have been mined since at least Roman times:  two vases excavated at Pompeii appear to be made of Blue John. 

Speedwell Mine is a mining tunnel begun in 1774 to transport lead and never profitable as such.  In 1778, half a mile from the entrance, the miners broke into a natural cavern they named the Bottomless Pit, because all the waste thrown into it, estimated at 40,000 tons, simply disappeared.  The ultimate length of the adit was 2,650ft, built at a cost of around £14,000.  Only £3,000-worth of undressed ore was removed, and mining ceased around 1790, after which the Mine’s interest to tourists ensured its continuing maintenance to the present day.

Visitors reach the Bottomless Pit by boat, until recent years legged by the guide in narrow-boat fashion, the most exciting of the Castleton cave-experiences:  the adit is 840 feet below the surface at the point where it crosses the Bottomless Pit;  the water seventy-feet below the adit is up to thirty feet deep.  The furthest point of exploration in the system, the Cliff Cavern, is over a mile from the entrance and six hundred feet below ground.

The Treak Cliff Cavern, which consists of old mine-workings leading to a series of caves newly-discovered in 1926, was opened to the public in 1935.  It contains the only known workable vein of Blue John, and its stalagmite and stalactite displays are as spectacular as any others in the district.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Soi-disant castle

Willersley Castle, Derbyshire

Maureen, one of my regular Interesting Times tour-guests, has alerted me to the sale of Willersley Castle, which we visited for lunch on our ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour:  https://christianguild.co.uk/willersley.

It operated as a Christian Guild holiday hotel until the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure.  The owners have now decided not to reopen:  https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/stunning-castle-hotel-derbyshire-go-4309370.

Its main claim to fame is that it was to be the residence of the great cotton-spinning inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), whose pioneering mills lie out of sight within fifteen minutes’ walk of the front door.

Mr Arkwright, as he was until he was knighted in 1786, chose Cromford as the site for his first water-powered factory, which he opened in 1771.  He resided at Rock House, tucked on a hill even nearer to the mills but on the other side of the River Derwent.  He sought to balance the practical necessity of keeping an eye on the works and workers with the amenities he considered suited to his increasing wealth.

To call Willersley a castle is stretching the definition.  Designed initially by the little-known William Thomas [https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-thomas-216451], it’s an essentially classical house with battlements and turrets.  John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, famously described it as “an effort of inconvenient ill taste”.

When he visited in 1789 Byng was scathing about the location, screened from sight of the Mill by a high cliff, overlooking a bend in the River Derwent:

…really he has made a happy choice of ground, for by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery.  It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman…But light come, light go, Sir Richard has honourably made his great fortune and so let him still live in a great cotton mill!

The following year Torrington revisited Cromford and inspected the partly-completed interior of Arkwright’s mansion:

…built so high as to overlook every beauty, and to catch every wind;  the approach is dangerous;  the ceilings are of gew-gaw fret work;  the small circular staircase…is so dark and narrow, that people cannot pass each other;  I ask’d a workman if there was a library?– Yes, answer’d he, at the foot of the stairs.  Its dimensions are 15 feet square;  (a small counting house;) and having the perpendicular lime stone rock within 4 yards, it is too dark to read or write in without a candle!  There is likewise a music room;  this is upstairs, is 18 feet square, and will have a large organ in it:  what a scheme!  What confinement!  At Clapham they can produce nothing equal to this, where ground is sold by the yard…

The Castle was damaged by fire in 1791, shortly before Sir Richard Arkwright’s death, and his son, the banker Richard Arkwright II, commissioned Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter to rebuild and improve the house.

The finest feature of the interior is the oval hall, which borrows light from the roof to enhance what William Thomas intended to be the main staircase.  Other elegant rooms with fireplaces remain.

The Arkwright family lived at Willersley until 1922, long after they’d abandoned the mills.

The Methodist Guild opened it as a Christian hotel in 1928, and it has remained a holiday retreat ever since, except during the Second World War when the Salvation Army operated it as a maternity home.

Now its future is uncertain, threatened by the economic impact of the pandemic. 

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.