The river Derwent begins its 50-mile journey to the river Trent on the bleak, rain-sodden eastern flank of Bleaklow Hill, an upland area described by Walt Unsworth, in his book Portrait of the River Derwent, as ‘a place of very few landmarks, just an endless wasteland of peat and cotton grass’.

Fuelled by up to 60 inches of rain per year, the infant stream evolves into a river which indents the moors and changes them into a series of long, steep-sided valleys.

When the population of settlements located in the East Midlands mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution, the need to find new sources of drinking water became an urgent priority.

Fortunately, the ravines carved out of the Derbyshire hills by the river Derwent offered the perfect solution to this pressing problem.

Great British Life: One of the keep-like towers of Howden Reservoir (c) Mike SmithOne of the keep-like towers of Howden Reservoir (c) Mike Smith

As Unsworth observed, it is as if these valleys were ‘designed by the Almighty to be converted into reservoirs’.

In 1899, hoping to avoid rivalry by sharing the liquid spoils of the Derwent, the Sheffield Water Board joined forces with the corporations of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, together with several smaller authorities, to form the Derwent Valley Water Board, which later became the Seven Trent Water Authority.

Two reservoirs were planned by the board for the Upper Derwent Valley, with the construction of the first one, called Howden, beginning in July 1901, followed one year later with the start of excavation work required for the Derwent Reservoir, situated slightly lower down the valley.

With each of the reservoirs being designed to be over 100ft in height from the valley floor and more than 1,000 ft in length, their construction would take 15 years to complete.

Tin Town

Great British Life: The last remaining building from the Tin Town (c) Mike SmithThe last remaining building from the Tin Town (c) Mike Smith

The workers engaged on this huge project were housed, together with their families, in a temporary village called Birchinlee, popularly known as ‘Tin Town’.

Although this remote moorland settlement, comprising neat, dog-legged rows of corrugated-iron huts, was serviced by a school, a mission room, a recreation room, a hospital and several shops, life for the inhabitants was hard, particularly during the severe winter months, and the construction work was hazardous. Eighteen workers were killed during the building of the reservoirs.

Great British Life: One of the towers of Derwent Reservoir (c) Mike SmithOne of the towers of Derwent Reservoir (c) Mike Smith

Gothic Towers

Engineered by Edward Sandeman, who had made his reputation at the Burrator Reservoir, near Plymouth, the dams were planned as massive masonry structures, with retaining walls 194 ft thick at the base and 10ft wide at the overflow.

Although the gritstone required for their construction was available locally, members of the water board decided that the Derwent Valley would be disturbed more than enough by flooding without suffering further disruption due to quarrying.

For this reason, Bole Hill Quarry at Grindleford, seven miles away, was chosen as the source of the stone, which was transported to the building site along a temporary railway line.

The gritstone was used to construct the massive dam walls of the two reservoirs, which are flanked by huge gritstone towers of immense strength, containing pipework and machinery to regulate water levels.

Topped by Gothic-style battlements and crenelations, the towers protrude well above the water level of the lakes, where they take on the appearance of impregnable castle-keeps.

They are an awesome presence, particularly when seen silhouetted against the surrounding moorland, which they transform into a scene of high drama.

Great British Life: Memorial to the Dambusters (c) Mike SmithMemorial to the Dambusters (c) Mike Smith

The Dambusters

The drama became even more pronounced one night in 1943, when local residents were awoken by the thunderous sound of Lancaster bombers from 617 Squadron flying low overhead and shining spotlights onto the two reservoirs.

The crews of the aircraft were engaged on a practice run before setting off to Germany, to drop Barnes Wallis’ ‘bouncing bombs’ on reservoirs in the Ruhr Valley, which closely resemble those in the Derwent Valley.

Thirst unquenched

To satisfy the increasing need for water, the capacity of the Derwent reservoir was boosted in the 1920s by diverting the rivers Ashop and Alport into it, before a third, even larger reservoir was constructed further downstream, between 1935 and 1943. Known as Ladybower, it covers 520 acres.

Eighty years on, further plans are being considered to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of the ever-expanding towns and cities of the East Midlands.

They include raising the dam levels of one or more of the existing reservoirs or building a fourth reservoir, possibly upstream of the Howden Reservoir.

Whilst lovers of the great outdoors have grown to love the artificial lakeland of the Upper Derwent, many of them see these new possibilities as a step too far.


The Upper Derwent Valley offers wonderful opportunities for walking and cycling, especially during weekends and bank holidays, when motor vehicles are denied access to the road that follows the perimeter of the two reservoirs beyond the National Park Visitor Centre at Fairholmes.


Fairholmes Visitor Centre contains a cycle-hire facility and lots of information about the various walking and cycling trails in the area. The centre also has a refreshment kiosk.

Great British Life: The re-erected packhorse bridge at Slippery Stones (c) Mike SmithThe re-erected packhorse bridge at Slippery Stones (c) Mike Smith

Slippery Stones

One of the most popular walking trails leads to Slippery Stones, one mile beyond the head of the Howden Reservoir, where a packhorse bridge was re-erected, stone by stone, after it had been dismantled to make way for the building of the Ladybower Reservoir. It is now the centre piece of this well-known beauty spot.

Great British Life: Memorial to Tip, the faithful sheepdog (c) Mike SmithMemorial to Tip, the faithful sheepdog (c) Mike Smith

Memorial to a loyal sheepdog

Near to the dam wall of Derwent Reservoir, there is a touching memorial to a sheepdog called Tip, who stayed for 15 weeks close to the dead body of her master, Joseph Tagg, a victim of severe weather in the winter of 1953/1954.

Memorial to the Dambusters

Another memorial located a few feet away from the one to Tip commemorates the practice run made over the reservoirs in 1943 by the bombers of 617 Squadron in preparation for their raid on the dams in the Ruhr Valley. The quotation on the installation reads: ‘Twisting and turning, we came screaming down at the right air speed.’

The last tin hut

The only surviving building from the ‘Tin Town’ that was built to house construction workers and their families during the erection of the Howden and Derwent Reservoirs was re-installed in the village of Hope, seven miles away. It is now in use as a beauty salon.