diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 09, 2019

Let's go for a three mile walk along the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire. For an unnavigable waterway it sure packs a punch. [7 photos]

I could have started at Ambergate, indeed the canal originally started way back at Langley Mill, but I'm starting at Whatstandwell because I've just been to Crich. Access to the towpath is halfway down the steps between the village and the station. Whatstandwell's most famous daughter is round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur (although looking at the water level in the canal I doubt you could get a canoe down it, let alone a boat).

Well this is very pleasant. A group called the Friends of the Cromford Canal have been working to bring the canal back to life since 2002. Their president is Brian Blessed, which puts your local restoration project to shame. The canal opened in 1794, for reasons we will discover later, and was cunningly designed to follow the 275ft contour for six miles in order to save money by not needing any locks.

The Derwent Valley's quite narrow at this stage, and has to accommodate a main road and a railway as well as the canal and the river. Here at Whatstandwell they're threaded in the order river/road/railway/canal, but very soon that switches to road/river/railway/canal, then to road/railway/river/canal and by the time we've finished it'll be road/canal/river/railway. That road is the A6, the main road from Luton to Carlisle, here in one of its less trunky sections.

Suddenly the canal and towpath vanish into a tiny arched portal and enter the Gregory Tunnel. This is 76 yards long, which is just long enough to be disconcerting, but the other end's always visible so try not to let the central darkness put you off. The big house you can't see on the hilltop is Lea Hurst, childhood home of Florence Nightingale (or would have been if it only it had been less cold, so her family rapidly moved to Hampshire and used Lea Hurst as a summer residence instead).

The canal continues between steep wooded slopes, several feet above the level of the bottom of the valley. A very short aqueduct carries it across the railway, just before that plunges into its own tunnel, whereas the waterway sweeps on round a broad thickly vegetated bend. Amid the ferns and nettles you might spot a bright red cardinal beetle or two, flapping from leaf to leaf amid clouds of yellow buttercups. This is still all very pleasant.

The next aqueduct is more impressive, an 80ft span which carries the canal at an angle across the Derwent. Nip across the swingbridge to be on the right side for the Leawood Pumping House, which is the Victorian building supporting that thin brick chimney looming through the trees. Come on the first weekend of the month or a bank holiday and it'll likely be in steam and you can go inside and ogle the beam engine's 15 ton plunger.

High Peak Junction, below Lea Bridge, is a wilfully unlikely transport interchange. Here the Cromford & High Peak Railway bore off from a wharf by the canalside, its purpose to transport goods across what's now the Peak District as the only alternative to a peripheral navigable detour. It kicks off with a 1 in 8 incline, far too steep for trains so originally hauled by stationary steam engines, and which today forms part of a long distance hiking trail and cycle track.

The railway's astonishing history is told amid a few surviving building at the wharfside - just climb aboard the brake wagon and read the panels or walk around the workshop and peruse the tools. They also sell hot drinks and ice cream. It'd be a nicer spot to linger if only there weren't a sewage works on the other side of the railway, but this doesn't appear to stop the visitors coming.

The last mile of the canal has been restored by the Friends so is now navigable, and a single narrowboat does occasional tours a few days a week. Alternatively it's an easy amble onward to Cromford, past a meadowful of sheep, to the final basin at Cromford Wharf. Today the final warehouse building doubles up as a specialist cheese shop and pizza restaurant, because we've finally walked far enough to interface with car-bound tourists and coach parties.

Here finally is the reason why the canal was built - Richard Arkwright's pioneering Cromford Mill. Opened in the 1770s it was the world's first water-powered cotton spinning mill, a technological breakthrough so profound that dozens of similar mills were set up across the Pennines. Employers also adopted Arkwright's intensive factory procedures, including 13 hour shifts for textile workers, and hey presto the Industrial Revolution was on its way.

The mill complex forms a horseshoe of factory buildings surrounding a cobbled courtyard with a millrace thrashing down the centre. Come for the industrial archaeology if you like, and maybe pay to see The Arkwright Experience, but the site now exists to house artisans and creatives. Arrive too late in the afternoon and the antiques sellers will be locking up, the ceramics studio will be emptying and the cafe will be turfing out.

Another of Arkwright's firsts was housing for employees, and the adjacent town of Cromford retains numerous streets of 18th century workers' cottages. It's particularly picturesque across the market place and around the lake, and would be even more delightful if the A6 didn't crawl through on its way to Matlock Bath, which is next up the gorge. But I did Matlock in 2017, and there isn't time to go again, and anyway the canal's already petered out.

In 2001 the Derwent Valley between Cromford and Derby was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because its mills "were the first of what was to become the model for factories throughout the world in subsequent centuries." That's a pretty amazing claim, but this East Midlands valley is a pretty amazing place, indeed some might say Cromford's where modern Britain began.

» Explore the valley with the splendid 20 page Derwent Valley Line Activity Book (download, or pick one up at Derby station)

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