The fascinating story of a Derbyshire village which lies at the bottom of one of Derbyshire’s most popular locations

Great British Life: Ashopton Viaduct where, directly below, a village once stoodAshopton Viaduct where, directly below, a village once stood (Image: daverhead)

As Charles Balguy took his last breaths in 1767, he could barely have conceived that 178 years later his place of birth would sit marooned, isolated and largely forgotten in the dark depts; consumed by water.

Born in the grandeur of Derwent Hall in 1708, Balguy was a physician and translator of some repute and would go on to translate Giovanni Boccaccio’s famed Decameron, a collection of 14th century novellas by the Italian author. It was considered at the time the best English translation and resulted in numerous reprints. While his work would stand the test of time, his birthplace would not.

As with most Derbyshire villages, Derwent had a proud history. It was a physical place where people stood, where people lived their lives, every nook and cranny as familiar to locals as our villages are to us now. Indeed, in an age where travel was limited and work aspirations were largely confined to the village and local areas, Derwent was all many residents had ever known.

However, by 1945, as the country began the road to recovery following the end of a long, traumatic war, the village was gone - as if it had never existed.

Residents were relocated and left with memories of a different time, Derwent’s architecture – the quaint gritstone cottages, corner shop, village church, local school, cobbled streets and much more - either demolished or hidden deep beneath the waters of the newly-established Ladybower Reservoir.

War had delayed the process but Derwent’s fate had been sealed long before King George VI had personally visited the area to declare the reservoir open on September 25 1945 – its future (or lack of) decided back in the 1930s. As Britain, and many parts of Derbyshire, picked up the pieces of relentless bombing raids from the German Luftwaffe, Derwent lay deliberately ruinous. There would be no rebuilding here.

It wasn’t without reason. Urban Derbyshire, and the Midlands as a whole, was growing. A relative exodus of those living a traditional rural life had been evident for a long time as people headed to the densely populated cities in search of work and greater opportunities.

Great British Life: The beautiful dry stone walls of Derwent Edge, many more lie undistrubed beneath the water belowThe beautiful dry stone walls of Derwent Edge, many more lie undistrubed beneath the water below (Image: Archant)

As such, the need to cater for an ever-growing urban population was evident and the notion of constructing a large reservoir which could service the region’s cities - specifically in this instance Derby, Sheffield, Leicester and Nottingham – was passed.

In order to construct such a vast man-made structure, many boxes inevitably had to be ticked. It just so happened that the rural Derbyshire village of Derwent ticked them all.

The decision, predictably, wasn’t without its critics. The lives of the people of Derwent were invariably underpinned by the community in which they had mostly immersed themselves all their lives.

What perhaps additionally irked residents was the fact that the flooding of Derwent and the nearby village of Ashopton was not always a foregone conclusion, despite the clear need for a reservoir in the area.

The Water Board had initially earmarked an isolated area higher up the valley to create two dams - the Howden and Upper Derwent reservoirs – with just a small number of residents required to uproot their lives; moved down the valley, ironically, to Derwent and Ashopton.

The shock must have been palpable when news arrived that the ambitious plans would need to be upscaled and that these two proud Derbyshire villages would also have to be sacrificed in their entirety.

Derwent was essentially the ‘village of the damned’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) - albeit for a greater purpose which continues to be essential to this day.

Great British Life: The remains of Derwent appear following a spell of hot weatherThe remains of Derwent appear following a spell of hot weather (Image: Archant)

Neighbouring Ashopton, with fewer than 100 inhabitants, would literally sink into even greater obscurity – it is now forever buried under the silt of Ladybower ensuring, unlike neighbouring Derwent, it will never again be uncovered.

Ashopton’s past location, however, can be fairly easily located when visiting Ladybower, having stood immediately south of the aptly named Ashopton Viaduct – an iconic piece of architecture at the reservoir that is easily identifiable.

Derwent and Ashopton were not the only villages to disappear from trace in the construction of the reservoir. Such was the magnitude and scale of the operation a makeshift village, Birchinlee, was created to house all the workers tasked with building the dam. The village had all the amenities required and was the village equivalent of a portable office – easy and quick to construct, served a purpose while needed and was equally simple to dismantle. Only the eagle-eyed will see any evidence that this short-lived village ever existed; only the odd foundation remains today.

While Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was the demise of Derwent a quick affair - its historic church held its last service on March 17 1943, over two years before the completion of the reservoir.

The last service in Ashopton had occurred four years earlier, the final hymn to be sung in its old church ‘The day’s dying in the west’ - a nod, perhaps, to the fact that its days of seeing both sunrises and sunsets were running out. With the outcome of war on a knife edge and with the imminent flooding of the village, it must have been a sombre and surreal scene.

The church at Derwent, in part, survives. Its bell still chimes to this day – re-hung at Chaddesden’s St. Phillip’s Church. The village’s packhorse bridge, which originally stood by the birthplace of Charles Baguley at Derwent Hall, survives also - removed, stone by stone, and relocated nearby. However by the autumn of 1943, the vast majority of Derwent’s buildings had been demolished, an eery, desolate stone-filled landscape taking its place, ready for the flow of water which would soon envelop it and consign the now dismantled village to the depths.

It took a lot of planning. Many had been born, lived, and had died in the village. Those in the graveyard were exhumed and relocated, laid to rest in nearby Bamford – the removal of bricks and mortar intertwined with the more subjective and emotive considerations of respect and decency.

Great British Life: The remains of Derwent appear following a spell of hot weatherThe remains of Derwent appear following a spell of hot weather (Image: Archant)

And then, in 1944, the flooding began. Slowly the water rose, taking the ruins and working its way gradually up the few buildings that defiantly remained. Never again would they see the light of day – or so onlookers must have assumed.

Yet slow as the process was as the water levels rose, rise it did. Villages convened in their droves to look on as the place they and their ancestors had called home gradually disappeared from view.

The result is as we see today, a beautiful reservoir in the most picturesque of settings. The evidence of past lives, of an old community, non-existent to the naked eye.

It wouldn’t be long before the area started creating a new and unique history. The Upper Derwent Valley would be used as a training location for the famous Damn Busters prior to the end of hostilities, chosen due to its similarities to the German dam they would launch their audacious and ultimately successful attempt on.

Subsequently, the area that had once housed Derwent and Ashopton would play its part in a pinnacle moment of the 20th century – Barnes Wallis’ awe-inspiring and daring bouncing bomb mission. Flyovers by Hercules planes commemorating the event continue to pass over the reservoir to this day. For some, Ladybower is home to a hidden world, where children played and people lived. To many, it is merely a scenic reservoir. Both outlooks are absolutely fine, but letting the history in always adds to the intrigue and mystery.

In the years that immediately followed Derwent’s flooding, evidence of its past life could still be seen. Spared as a memorial to the village, the church’s spire initially remained, the steeple appearing above the waves only to be removed later on the grounds of health and safety.

Some also claim that on windy days, as the normally still waters of the reservoir are disturbed, the church bell can still be heard from the depths – a nice thought, although the church bell has long since been removed, rendering this an impossibility.

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Today, Ladybower Reservoir is a picture – finding that perfect balance of servicing Derbyshire residents while providing a focal point for people to walk, take in the fresh air, enjoy the beautiful landscape and create their own memories, just as those who came before.

And the spirit of Derwent has undoubtedly added to its appeal. The village has risen from the depths on numerous occasion since its flooding in the 1940s, most recently in 2018 when visitors descended on the area in great numbers to catch an all too rare glimpse of the past; a severe drought gradually stealing the vast water reserves and revealing this long-gone and rarely-disturbed relic trapped both in time and millions of gallons of water.

Indeed, the popularity of Ladybower at this time was such that one eager visitor even had to be rescued, having been submerged in the muddy reservoir base.

Weather events which facilitate the water at Ladybower receding to the extent that Derwent reveals itself are rare. Prior to 2018, only the years 1976, 1989, 1995 and 2003 have afforded such opportunities.

While it’s hard to envisage the village given the landscape couldn’t be more different these days, it is easy to forget that the flooding of Derwent was only a few generations ago.

In fact Helen Moat, a regular contributor to Derbyshire Life, had the privilege of speaking with a former resident recently, the then 92-year-old Mabel Bamford, who now lives just south of the reservoir.

‘I may be the last person who remembers Ashopton and Derwent,’ she recalled to Helen.

‘I was going to school there (Derwent), even as the construction of Ladybower was underway. We had to walk one-and-a-half miles to Derwent. Sometimes the shooters and beaters in grouse season gave us a lift. But the rides we liked best were offered by the pipeline workers. They’d lift us inside the big black pipes they were constructing at the site of the reservoir.’

The story of Derwent, Ashopton and Ladybower Reservoir is a microcosm of life. It’s a tale of real people, real lives, the unrelenting quest and need for progress and evolution and the stories that occur in between – some remembered and recalled, others lost, gone with those who created them. If Charles Balguy magically returned in a time machine and, out of curiosity, revisited the site of his birth he would no doubt be confused and disorientated by what he would be presented with. Where once stood Derwent Hall, now sit ducks and boats.

Should he have returned in 2018, he would have been able to walk around the ruins of his birthplace where, despite the time that has passed, the stone fireplace remains undisturbed, largely as it was left.

Derwent’s days are long gone but you can’t keep a good village down. Every now and then, if you’re lucky, it will come stubbornly back into focus; visible once more.

And just imagine when the tops of the remaining Derwent buildings appear on those rare occasions from the depts of Ladybower to see the light of day once more, just as the village’s old church bell chimes 42 away in Chaddesden – reunited above the surface and separated only by distance.

Derwent may be gone, but its legacy remains. When will it next reveal itself? Only time will tell.