The town of New Mills, Peak District, Derbyshire

Behind the industrial 19th-century shop fronts and façades, Mike Smith <br/><br/>discovers a fascinating past and a lively present

There is a theatricality about New Mills, a town of the Industrial Revolution that sprawls across the slopes of the range of dull-green hills at the western extremity of the Dark Park. The skyline is pierced by the black, needle-like spires of two large churches, one Anglican and the other Roman Catholic, and the hillsides are covered by row upon row of nineteenth-century terraces, which run across the gradients like contour lines on a relief map. But the real drama of this fascinating place is to be found by looking behind the town’s stone fa�ades and by exploring below street-level.

Although the settlement of New Mills was originally founded around a corn mill, it developed into a coal-mining community and then into a centre for cotton spinning and calico printing, which took place in a series of gigantic riverside mills in the Torrs Gorge, a deep ravine that cannot be seen from street-level, even though it is located at the heart of the town. As Pigot’s Directory of 1835 explained, ‘The factories are in great measure hid from public view, being built at the foot of the stream, under high towering rocks.’

The story of the town’s industrial past is told in the New Mills Heritage and Information Centre, which is staffed by a team of 30 volunteers and stands on the lip of the gorge. Curator John Humphreys showed me the exhibits, which include a mock-up of a coal-mine tunnel, through which children can crawl, and a reconstruction of a calico printer’s workshop, complete with a life-size figure operating a printing drum. There is also a very large three-dimensional model of New Mills as it looked in 1884, when a high-level bridge was built over the Torrs Gorge to carry Union Road into the centre of the town.

John is rightly proud of the centre’s library of books about the textile industry and its collection of record books containing small samples of the many designs that the calico printers transferred onto textiles over the years. The curator is equally delighted with a recent addition to the centre’s resources, which has resulted from a Heritage Lottery grant that enabled the local history society’s archive of almost 6,000 old photographs of the town to be digitalized. Visitors can view images of their choice on a computer screen and even obtain prints at just 25p each.

Richard Body, secretary of Torrs Hydro New Mills Ltd, a provident society set up to raise funds for Britain’s first community-owned hydro-electric scheme, showed me a second computer screen, which has a continuous read-out of the power generated by the hydro plant, which draws its energy from a small weir in the Torrs Gorge, 70 feet below the information centre. Known as ‘Archie’, because it uses a device known as a ‘Reverse Archimedes Screw’, the plant is designed to produce sufficient electricity to power the local Co-op supermarket and feed some surplus into the National Grid. Completed last year, the innovative scheme is now on the short-list for the 2010 Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy.

As a condition of the planning consent for the hydro scheme, an archaeological dig was carried out on the plot. This uncovered some of the original window openings of Rock Mill, which was built on this site in the 1790s, the entry-point of water into the mill, the path of the tail-race, the waterwheel pit and fragments of the waterwheel itself. As well as being excited by these finds, local historian Derek Brumhead is delighted that the same weir that was used to drive an eighteenth-century mill is being employed to create electrical power in the twenty-first century.

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As Derek points out, the gorge has examples of brilliant engineering spanning four centuries. In the millennium year, the ravine was made passable by the construction of a spectacular walkway, suspended on stilts above the river and partly cantilevered from an enormous stone embankment, reputed to be ‘the finest retaining wall in the country’s rail network’. On the opposite bank, there is a factory known as Torr Vale Mill. Founded in 1788, it operated as a cotton mill until 2000, making it the longest continuously operating cotton mill in the country. Although the factory is Grade II* listed, it has been stripped of its machinery and stands as a gaunt shell. Derek would love to see the building restored and put to good use, possibly as a combination of apartments, heritage centre and riverside caf�. Unfortunately, difficult access and stalled negotiations are making this unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Much of the dramatic Torrs Gorge has been developed as a riverside park known as ‘The Park under the Town’, but New Mills also has a public park above the town, which has its own community project in the form of an orchard maintained by the townspeople. The park occupies the lofty estate of High Lee Hall, once the grand home of a local mill owner and now the unlikely headquarters of High Peak Community Arts, where three project managers, Alison Bowry, Jill Turner and Sophie Mackreth, work with groups and individuals to generate a plethora of imaginative arts projects across the High Peak.

Alison and Jill told me about a course for gifted and talented pupils, who were invited to animate an imagined future and create fashions from recycled materials. They  showed me painted coasters, produced for local caf�s by care-home residents and people with disabilities, and told me about artist Vaughan Parker, who lost the use of his right hand in an accident and has been helped to be equally creative with his left hand. I admired a felt tapestry made by pupils from a local school, heard about musical projects to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Hope Valley College and learned of weekly singsongs open to anyone who cares to come along. Finally, I was shown a ‘yurt’, a large portable tent used for story-telling and craft sessions.

Although High Lee Hall is possibly the grandest building intown, several other fine edifices are clustered around the junction of Hall Street and Market Street. These include: the library, with its eclectically styled fa�ade; the Town Hall, with a clock tower that is oddly positioned at one corner of the building; the former constabulary, which was used to hold six participants in the 1932 Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout before their trial at Derby; and two former Co-op buildings – the heavily fenestrated Stanley House, now converted to apartments, and the popular showroom of Fountain Kitchens and Bathrooms.

New Mills is testimony to Napoleon’s claim that we are a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. There are independent outlets of every description in the town’s main streets, but one shop on Market Street particularly caught my eye because it trades under the name of ‘Headmaster’s’. I learned from long-serving assistants Jo Hopkin and Julie Markham-Smith that the shop has an embroidery service and supplies uniforms for no fewer than 15 schools, but I was surprised to find that it is just one shop among many retail outlets in a two-storey indoor market that is hidden behind the building’s fa�ade.

More proof that it pays to explore behind the town’s fa�ades is to be found on Rock Mill Lane, where a former storeroom for Barton’s furniture emporium, is now home to New Mills Original, which is run by a community interest company. Director Angela Fuggle, who also chairs New Mills Traders, told me that the company was formed ‘to help people with an urge to be creative’. The first floor of the warehouse has been converted into a fabulous gallery space for changing exhibitions of fine paintings, photographs, textiles, sculpture and ceramics, which clearly demonstrate that lots of local people have the ability, as well as the urge, to be creative. After being infected by Angela’s enthusiasm, I met Jackie Gadd, town councillor and one of the ‘Friends’ of New Mills Original, potter Andy Phillips, poet Barbara Jagger and Catherine Serjeant, who runs a weekly drop-in workshop.

A building in nearby Union Road is the headquarters of the Plain English Campaign, founded by Chrissie Maher, who has fought a 30-year battle for public information to be written in language ‘which can be understood and acted upon after a single reading’. The group’s annual awards for plain English are much coveted, while those for gobbledygook cause great embarrassment and, hopefully, prompt the recipients to do better in the future. In 2009, a Plain English Communicator Award went to Ashbourne Radio, while a Kick in the Pants Award went to the Metropolitan Police ‘for continuing use of jargon’. The force was singled out for using the term ‘multiple perpetrator rape’, rather than ‘gang rape’, and for naming a department ‘Citizen Focus Command’.

The Kick in the Pants trophy was made by Sam Eyre, who completed his A-levels at New Mills School in 2009. It takes the form of a model of two figures controlled by a mechanism that enables a frustrated teacher to kick the rear of his hapless pupil. Founded as a Grammar School in 1914, New Mills School occupies a listed building designed by George Widdowes, who was responsible for an almost identical school building at Ilkeston. The frontage of the school is quite imposing but, as is so often the case in the town, the real surprise is to be found by looking behind the fa�ade. Beyond the entrance hall, there is a domed, octagonal library with echoes of the Reading Room at the British Museum!

In 2005, the school was designated a Business and Enterprise College. Headteacher Jesse Elms defines ‘enterprise’ as ‘a means of tapping into young people’s natural curiosity and spirit of adventure’. His school has good links with local businesses and is helping other schools to set up Business Studies courses. It also hosts an annual Oscar Evening, when prizes are given to students from schools in the High Peak for the best director, actor, and editor. Media Studies is the fastest-growing subject in New Mills School, but foreign languages also feature strongly in the wide curriculum. Exchange schemes with French and German pupils have recently been supplemented by an exchange with a school in China.

St George’s Primary School stands across the road from the secondary school and, yet again, there is a surprising feature beyond the perimeter. A willow igloo, which metamorphoses from a winter skeleton into a leaf-covered summer play space, has been constructed by Richard Clinton, one of the parents. As headteacher Phil Thomas points out, it nicely complements a new classroom block, which has been constructed from sustainable materials. Phil maintains close links with nearby St George’s Church and he is full of praise for his ‘fantastic staff’, who are committed to the Christian ethos of the school and its aims of ‘valuing all the children and helping them to develop their self-esteem’.

The ground of New Mills FC is located next to the junior school. One of its former players is Stacey Wild, who is the general manager of New Mills Leisure Centre, which he describes as ‘the only wet and dry facility in the High Peak’, because it has a 25-metre swimming pool, as well as squash courts, a multi-gym and a sports hall. As well as offering free swimming sessions for over-sixties and under-17s, the centre puts on a five-session ‘Kinetika Gym’ programme that guarantees your money back if your personal fitness goals are not achieved.

The town’s major cultural facility is the Art Theatre, housed in a building with a bland exterior that masks the most surprising interior space in New Mills. Colin Brown, the long-serving chairman of New Mills Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (NMADOS), told me that the former cinema-cum-playhouse had been refurbished as a superb 500-seater theatre in 1958, when it was acquired by the society, but that its pi�ce de r�sistance, the fabulous barrel roof, was painted in the eighties by Claire Ferriby, who also decorated the interior of Manchester’s Palace Theatre.

Moira Whitford is secretary of the Friends of the Art Theatre. She recalls that the group was formed to raise funds, but now concentrates on putting on an annual pantomime with a large cast, including an impressive number of young people. As for the members of NMADOS, they not only stage two musical productions per year, but also find time to put on plays and act as hosts for performances by the likes of the Kinder Choir and the Royal Northern College of Music, who are only too pleased to perform in this wonderful theatre, which is the most literal proof that there is real drama behind the fa�ades of New Mills.

New Mills Local History Society’s archive of photographs is available for public viewing on

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