Category Archives: The Derbyshire Derwent Valley

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 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, appears 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.

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 south 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. 

Pioneer of the Gothic Revival

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Derby

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.

Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.

The site was constricted and funds limited.  Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.

The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built:  its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.

In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.

Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.

Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.

Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman.  The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.

The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.

The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.

In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre.  It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.

Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.

The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.

St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.

A guided tour of St Mary’s Parish Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Bell-mouth spillway

Bell-mouth spillway, Ladybower Reservoir, Derbyshire

Bell-mouth spillway, Ladybower Reservoir, Derbyshire

One of the best free shows in the Peak District National Park, in rainy seasons, is the bell-mouth spillway beside the A6013 road that skirts Ladybower Reservoir, the biggest of the three Derbyshire Derwent valley reservoirs.

The original Derwent Valley water scheme of 1899 envisaged six reservoirs but only two of these, Derwent and Howden, were built.

The engineer, Edward Sandeman, pointed out that repositioning the Derwent Dam slightly further upstream would dispense with the need for the top dam, Ronksley. Geological problems in the tributary Ashop valley led to the abandonment of the other three dams, Hagglee, Ashopton and Bamford, which were superseded by a single huge reservoir, contained by a dam at the next available nick-point, Yorkshire Bridge.

This great dam, named Ladybower after a local farm, was begun in 1935.  It drowned two villages, Derwent and Ashopton, and was so badly needed that construction continued without interruption throughout the Second World War.

It was opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on September 25th 1945. Designed by G H Hill & Sons of Manchester, and constructed of earth around a clay core by Richard Baillie & Sons, East Lothian, the dam is 416 yards across.  Its trench and embankment required 100,000 tons of concrete, 1,000,000 tons of earth and 100,000 tons of puddled clay.

Unlike its predecessors at Derwent and Howden, which spill their excess water over the stone sill of the dam, at Ladybower the dam has a clay core and a grassed slope downstream.

The overflow water is directed into two bell-mouth spillways, which from above look for all the world like plugholes, but are actually shaped like ear-trumpets, 80 feet across at the rim, tapering to a 15-foot pipe that emerges at the foot of the embankment.

This footage brings the still picture to life:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg-mjoLm1Jo.  In-depth explorations can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqXGM_L7Zp0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5BVsk9o9hw.

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.

End of the line: Rowsley

Rowsley Old Station, Derbyshire (1978)

Rowsley Old Station, Derbyshire (1978)

The Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midland Junction Railway, the little railway with the long name, was an ambitious project to connect the East Midlands with Lancashire, starting at a junction with the North Midland Railway at a place called Toadhole which the railway renamed Ambergate.

The MBM&MR opened in 1849 through Cromford and Matlock as far north as Rowsley, where the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate bounds the Duke of Rutland’s Haddon estate.

The intention, had there been sufficient capital, was to continue up the Derwent Valley, tunnelling beneath Chatsworth Park, towards Baslow, Edale or Castleton and Chinley to Cheadle.

The 6th “Bachelor” Duke of Devonshire was in favour of this route.  The company chairman was the Duke’s cousin, Lord George Henry Cavendish, and he was succeeded in 1854 by the Duke’s agent, Sir Joseph Paxton.  (Paxton’s original sketch for the Crystal Palace was in fact drawn on a sheet of MBM&MR blotting paper during a directors’ meeting at Derby.)

The 6th Duke died in 1858, and his successor had no intention of letting a railway through Chatsworth.

As it happened, the 5th Duke of Rutland died in 1857, and his successor was prepared to allow the Midland Railway to build a cut-and-cover tunnel at the back of Haddon Hall which was at the time practically derelict.

The Midland line to Manchester consequently went up the Wye Valley, through Monsal and Miller’s Dales on its way to Chinley.

And the original Rowsley station, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, was left at the dead end of an unbuilt main line, made redundant by a new Rowsley station a few hundred yards away.

The old building survived as the goods office for sidings known as ‘The Old Yard’, and was the very last rail facility to close in Rowsley in July 1968.

After the railway closed the Old Yard was occupied by a construction company, and in 1999 the old station became a feature of the Peak Village shopping outlet:  http://www.peakshoppingvillage.com.

The original MBM&MR track is now operated from Matlock to just short of Rowsley by PeakRail, with the ultimate intention of extending the heritage railway through Haddon to Bakewell and beyond.

Tram for sale – £10

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Southampton 45

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Southampton 45

In the extensive fleet of preserved trams at the National Tramway Museum at Crich, Derbyshire, none is more precious than Southampton 45, a 1903 open-top double-decker which was designed specifically to fit the medieval Bargate in the centre of Southampton.

It survived thanks to members of the Light Railway Transport League (now the Light Rail Transit Association).  The League had been founded in 1937 to campaign for the retention of light rail as urban and interurban transport, but witnessed the inexorable decline of street tramways in Britain before their eventual renaissance at the end of the century.

During a farewell tour of Southampton tramways in 1948, a group of League members took the opportunity to buy 45 for £10, despite the lack of anywhere to store, let alone display it.

Through the 1950s, Southampton 45 led a peripatetic existence, first stored in a tram depot in Blackpool and then displayed in the open air at the Montagu Motor Museum in Hampshire.

When the Crich site became available 45 at last had a permanent home, and now forms part of the running fleet of this splendid museum, the very first British tram to be preserved.

Subsequently, three more Southampton trams have been rescued.  Two of them are being restored by the Southampton District Transport Heritage Trust.

Caudwell’s Mill

Caudwell's Mill, Rowsley, Derbyshire

Caudwell’s Mill, Rowsley, Derbyshire

One of the most attractive Derbyshire places to visit for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea is Caudwell’s Mill at Rowsley, a few minutes’ drive from Chatsworth or Haddon Hall:  http://www.caudwellsmill.co.uk.

The mill itself was built to produce flour and animal feed by John Caudwell in 1874, and he and his son Edward modernised it by replacing the original millstones with roller mills to make finer, purer flour for baking, and installing water turbines to power them.  The last phase of this installation, by the manufacturer Amme, Giesecke & Konegen, was in progress in August 1914:  the German labourers were promptly sent home but the engineers, having finished their work, were apparently interned in the Isle of Man until 1919.  Edward Caudwell eventually settled the bill in 1924.

Caudwell’s ran as a going concern until 1977, by which time it was recognised as an intact, complete example of a distinct phase in the development of modern milling technology.

It was listed Grade II* and taken over by a trust with support from the landowner, the Duke of Rutland’s Haddon Estate, the local planning authority, the Peak Park Planning Board, and a small army of local people, industrial archaeologists and millers with financial assistance from, among others, the Architectural Heritage Fund, the Carnegie (UK) Trust, the Countryside Commission, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Science Museum.

The mill itself is open to the public, a fascinating warren of band-driven machines, hoists and Archimedean screws.  One of the turbines generates the electricity for the site.  The mill shop sells flour, oats and yeast – everything you need for quality home baking.  In the surrounding yard are craft-shops, a blacksmith, an upholsterer, a glass-maker and a jewellery maker:  http://www.caudwellsmillcraftcentre.co.uk/Thecraftcentre.htm.

The café is vegetarian and provides the sort of cream cakes that look as if they’d qualify as five-a-day:  http://www.caudwellsmillcraftcentre.co.uk/Thecafe.htm.

All this lies beside the waters of the River Wye, in one of the most beautiful of Derbyshire valleys.

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.

Palace tram

National Tramway Museum, Crich: Derbyshire: London United Tramways 159

National Tramway Museum, Crich: Derbyshire: London United Tramways 159

The National Tramway Museum, like all good tourist sites, needs novelties to encourage visitors to return repeatedly:  http://www.tramway.co.uk/plan-a-visit/opening-times-prices-2013.

This year’s pride and joy is London United Tramways no 159, built in 1902 and now newly restored after twenty-one years of service in London and fifty-five years as part of a residence in Surrey.

It was originally used on the routes out to Twickenham, Hampton and Hampton Court, where expectations were understandably high, so this W-class tram was one of the LUT’s “Palace cars”, its palatial lower deck fully fitted in a manner thought suitable for its upper-class passengers, with an inlaid walnut ceiling, plush carpet, velvet curtains and upholstery and silk tassels instead of leather hanging straps.

It was not, as such, a first-class vehicle, simply what the residents expected.  (Liverpool tramways did have first-class trams in which workmen could not ride so that passengers could travel without fear of dirtying their clothes on their fellow passengers’ overalls.  Presumably the LUT didn’t expect workmen in Twickenham and Hampton:  they are, after all, a long way from the docks.)

The National Tramway Museum, in conjunction with the London County Council Tramways Trust and the Arts Council’s Prism Fund [Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material], has spent £400,000 on bringing 159 back to its glorious original condition.  The original cost in 1902 was £669.

It’s the biggest restoration project the Museum has tackled so far.

The London County Council Tramways Trust’s album of the restoration of 159 shows how much work is needed to turn a recovered tram body back into an operational vehicle:  http://www.lcctt.org.uk/159m.htm.  A smaller but more comprehensive gallery is at http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/transport/trains-and-railways/art392208.