Days out in the Derwent Valley - World Heritage Site attractions
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Ashley Franklin explores the many attractions of our World Heritage Site
As we spring into summer, you may be planning visits to the tourist honeypots of the Peak District and North Derbyshire, such as the halls of Haddon and Hardwick, the towns of Buxton and Bakewell or the dales around the Dove. However, I can recommend exploring another area of our county whose multifarious attractions abound in just a 15-mile stretch of a mid-Derbyshire valley: the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site (DVMWHS). The bestowal of World Heritage Site status in 2001 was due to the area's role as a hub of the Industrial Revolution and the birthplace of the factory system. This is 'The Valley that Changed the World.'
We need to start where it all began, with the construction of Richard Arkwright's first water-powered cotton spinning mill in Cromford in 1777. Fittingly, it's this superbly restored building that houses The Gateway Visitor Centre where you can learn all about Arkwright's legacy through interactive displays, games and puzzles, including a splendid eight-minute CGI show where, before your disbelieving eyes, Arkwright himself comes to life and explains why he came to Cromford and changed manufacturing forever.
There are also tours almost every day (sorry, but they insist on a break on Christmas Day) and the mills site houses a café, gallery and artisan shops selling gifts, antiques, textiles and cheese, while also hosting special events throughout the summer that include family fun weekends, exhibitions, nature activities and crafts. Look out this summer for a couple of alfresco performances of Shakespeare, and a Steam Weekend, 10th-11th August, themed around hands-on activities through which visitors can learn about how things are powered.
This is a good point to mention the Belper Steam & Vintage Event on 8th and 9th June and Cromford Steam Rally, reckoned to be the largest in the Midlands, on 3rd-4th August. There is also steam of the locomotive kind throughout the summer on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway between Wirksworth and Duffield. In the Steam in the Valley weekend - 15th-16th June - there will be four locomotives in steam.
From the Cromford Mills site, you can go on two very different walks to discover more delights. The first walk is along Cromford Canal. As remarkable as the Arkwright Society's transformation of Cromford Mills - 6,000 tonnes of rubble was removed from a toxic site - is the Cromford Canal Society's restoration of a canal that was, I'm told, 'no more than a linear rubbish tip.' You can take the narrowboat - horse-drawn on special days - or walk the towpath, stopping off at High Peak Junction where the old railway workshops have numerous relics plus a working forge and café, and Leawood Pumphouse which is home to a beast of a steam-powered beam engine that pumps four tons of water into the canal with each piston stroke.
Not far from High Peak Junction is the village of Lea where yet more history awaits: John Smedley's, the world's oldest-surviving factory, has been making high quality knitwear here since 1784. You can book a private factory tour and see the long johns they invented or visit the popular factory shop, selling mainly discontinued stock and slight seconds, though you try finding any flaws - I couldn't.Just up the road from Smedley's is Lea Gardens, whose four acres support over 550 types of rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants and attract over 50 species of bird.
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Alternatively, you can walk from Cromford Mills to Cromford village to behold the earliest planned industrial housing in the world. Cromford itself has plenty of pubs, cafés, art and craft centres and, according to the Guardian, one of the 'ten best bookshops in the world', Scarthin Books, a beautifully organised chaos of over 95,000 titles across 13 rooms. It looks over the most scenic pond in Derbyshire. Saturday, 15th June is Celebrating Cromford day.
Up the hill beyond Cromford lies Middleton Top where you can visit the restored steam engine house built in 1829 by the Butterley Company to haul wagons up the Middleton incline. There is also a cycle hire centre from which you can obtain a bike to pedal the High Peak Trail.
Even closer to Cromford - a walk across the A6 - is Arkwright's Masson Mill which, along with its popular 'shopping village', houses the Textile Museum where 'The Mills are Alive… with the sounds, sights and smells of a working cotton mill from the 18th and 19th centuries.' It's both authentic and evocative and you'll love the room containing a staggering 680,000 bobbins, the largest collection in the world.
Further along the A6 lies Whatstandwell where the road to Crich takes you to the Tramway Museum. The beauty of this attraction is that its fleet of around 20 superbly preserved trams includes electric, horse-drawn and even a steam tram, and several vehicles are the only surviving examples of their type in the world. Better still, it's the ultimate interactive museum - you can get on a tram and ride it. There's even the careful re-creation of a period tram town, making it a perfect setting for the museum's 1940s-themed weekends which draw in hundreds of re-enactors (the next event is 10th-11th August). There are also classic car events, a classic motorcycle day which pulls in over 500 bikes, and a Steampunk weekend. 'Our visitors love the nostalgia and the stepping back in time' says marketing officer Amanda Blair, who adds that if you buy a full-price ticket, you can get in free at any time in the next year. This is a good point to salute the volunteers who keep this and the other aforementioned attractions afloat. The Tramway Museum alone has a roll call of 200.
Just a couple of miles from here, Heage Windmill - the world's only six-sailed stone windmill - sits atop the Derwent Valley, looking as splendid as when it was first built in 1797 - thanks, again, to the volunteers who lovingly restored a relic. They not only take visitors on guided tours but also mill their own flour. Like the Tramway Museum, Heage Windmill stages special events with classic cars, bikes and tractors.
Back down to the A6 and our next stop is Ambergate - you can walk the entire length of Cromford Canal to here. You can also walk in the ancient Shining Cliff Woods where you'll find a more recent attraction: the award-winning White Peak Distillery which crafts whisky, gin, rum and absinthe and hosts tours and tastings.
You could drink as well as dine at the 19th century Hurt Arms which, since its recent refurbishment, is billed as a 'lavish bar/bistro.' Interestingly, on the weekend of 2nd-3rd August, it's hosting an open-air cinema.
The richness of Belper's heritage is such that wherever you walk, it feels as if you're in a living industrial museum. The town was totally transformed by Jedidiah Strutt and his family, who built not only workers' houses but also schools, churches, post offices, a hospital, library and the River and Memorial Gardens. In the last you'll find the floral displays that have seen Belper win Gold in East Midlands in Bloom for nine successive years, and Gold in Britain in Bloom twice.
The Strutt's North Mill Visitors Centre brings alive the stories of cotton-spinning, stocking making, the Strutt family and Belper Mill workers. It also reveals how Belper itself transformed America in terms of manufacturing and skyscraper building. One tourist was moved to write in the Visitors Book: 'To touch a building that was actually in use - far, far better than reading a book.'
The Visitors Centre has organised a series of Heritage Walks this summer, ranging from short tours around the town to longer rambles into the countryside. You can discover the Duffield Frith, the Strutt farms, Wirksworth's alleys and the least-known Derwent Valley mill, at Peckwash, where you will hear why the mill owner hoisted his family to the top of the chimney for a picnic. Yes, really.
Another walk takes in Bridge Hill Ice House at a former Strutt residence, now a luxurious B&B run by Stephen and Caroline Cavers. The couple tell me that they regularly take in trippers intent on visiting the Peak District, 'yet when they gaze on Belper Mill from our verandah and hear about the World Heritage Site, their itineraries are rescheduled with visits to Derwent Valley - and many of them come back for more.'
Belper itself has a host of pubs, cafés, restaurants and independent, niche shops, many of which house Belper Ambassadors, who have all the details of everything Belper has to offer. This includes special events like the arts trail Belper Open Houses (25th-26th May), the eco festival Belper Goes Green (1st-2nd June) and the town's vibrant Food, Real Ale & Craft Festival (7th July) which draws in over 100 stalls and 10,000 visitors.
Moving down the valley, we come to Darley Abbey, which also has a rich history of mill working and is a pleasant place to visit for its picturesque houses beside the river and Darley Park which houses the largest hydrangea collection in the UK - over 400 different types - and the third largest in the world. The 2019 Open Day to see them at their best is Sunday, 4th August.
Finally, owing to a £16.4 million project, Derby's Silk Mill - the southern gateway to the DVMWHS - is undergoing a major redevelopment programme and is set to reopen in 2020 as Derby Silk Mill - Museum of Making. Derwent Valley Mills has also been boosted with £1.2 million under the Great Places Scheme which means that by 2021 - when we celebrate 20 years as a World Heritage Site - the Valley that Changed the World will be an even greater place to visit.
Useful websites: derwentvalleymills.org