Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site

North Street, Belper

North Street, Belper

I spent part of my teenage years in the Derbyshire Derwent Valley, at a time when its industrial heritage was largely intact but about to disappear.  On my way to school I watched most of Jedediah Strutt’s late-eighteenth century mills knocked down;  I rode my bike the length of canal from Butterley Tunnel (now buried under the A.38 trunk road), past Bull Bridge Aqueduct (blown up for road-widening) and through Hag Tunnel (vanished between a dyeworks reservoir and a gas-treatment plant) all the way to Cromford;  I climbed George Stephenson’s ‘Steep’ inclined railway (largely destroyed by the same gas plant).  I watched the Blue Pullman go past as I delivered newspapers in the final years that expresses ran between Derby and Manchester via Miller’s Dale and Doveholes.

It was because so much of this internationally significant industrial heritage was disappearing, threatened or simply not understood that from the start of the 1970s local people and academics began campaign after campaign to safeguard the mills and industrial housing of Cromford, Belper, Milford and Darley Abbey.  The local authorities safeguarded the routes of the Cromford Canal and the Cromford & High Peak Railway, and volunteers helped to bring back to life the Leawood Pump and the Middleton Top Winding Engine.  Preserved railways have restored trains to surviving stretches of trackbed.  The National Tramway Museum thrives in a limestone quarry first developed by George Stephenson.  Sir Richard Arkwright’s Masson Mill is now a shopping centre;  his home at Willersley Castle is now a hotel.

This upsurge of interest, energy and enterprise was rooted in a vibrant collaboration between local people, industrial archaeologists and historians, enlightened local politicians, industrial leaders and leading public figures such as the late and present Dukes of Devonshire.  The nomination of the valley as a World Heritage Site in 2001 set the seal on these efforts and promised to attract visitors and relieve pressure on Britain’s first national park, the Peak District.

Yet there is so much yet to develop.  Many of the historic mills and empty or underused.  There is no coherent transport plan to allow tourists to get about the valley without cars.  The area lacks the coherent signage that makes the multiplicity of sites around Ironbridge coherent and navigable.

The language of the World Heritage News bulletin [www.derwentvalleymills.org] makes me wonder, though.  A masterplan is working to “develop the strategic vision” in Derby and Belper, and to define “how specific projects will be delivered”.  A feasibility study looks at “viable usage options” for the Darley Abbey Mills, which involves “access and public realm issues to consider”.  A river bus is proposed, and “completion of the masterplan will play a part in how this project moves forward.”

I wonder, do we actually need this plethora of plans?  Is the slow progress in developing the site the result of a lack of planning since the 1970s?  Or is it because the administrative mills grind slowly?

Web material on the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site can be found at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1030, http://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/environment/conservation/derwentvalley/default.asp, http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/derwentvalleymills.html, and http://www.derbyshiredales.gov.uk/planning_and_building_control/conservation/world_heritage_site/default.asp.

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.

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