Derwent Valley Heritage Way Walk: Walk 12 - Heage Windmill

Musing on mills, moles and legendary breakfasts, Ashley Franklin continues his exploration of the Derwent Valley Heritage Way, walking from Ambergate via Heage to Belper

I didn’t have any trouble spotting Mike as he stood waiting for me in Ambergate Station car park: he had decided to come dressed like one of my highlighter pens. I asked him if we would be walking through Stygian canopies of trees so I would be able to follow the glow of his jumper. He simply remarked he’d bought the thing in a mountain shop so poorly lit that he didn’t realise how bright it was until he got home. I didn’t look much better in my shabby anorak but then I wasn’t being photographed.

Leaving the car park, we headed for the A6, turning right at The Hurt Arms and then right again up a minor road to reach Cromford Canal. The canal at the Ambergate end is beautifully overgrown and probably a good spot to spy a water vole. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust tell me that although declining in numbers countrywide, they are bountiful here. However, you need time and luck to see these creatures and if you’ve got 8� miles to walk you can’t stand around waiting. Derbyshire Life’s wildlife expert Paul Hobson tells me he has often come from his north Derbyshire home to photograph the voles here but has sometimes spent all day with hardly a sniff, let alone a sighting and a snap. As it was, I think Mike’s day-glo jumper had frightened off every living creature within half a mile.

We followed the canal for about a quarter mile until its truncated end at an old lock, bearing left to follow the public footpath signposted Bullbridge and Fritchley. From here we proceeded across rough country to pick up the canal again at Bullbridge after spilling out onto the A610.

Never mind voles, I would love to see a mole but despite a veritable mountain of molehills by our path I was not in luck. If you have them in your garden, there is an upside: it means you have healthy soil and a plentiful supply of worms and bugs. Molehills remind me of the Jasper Carrot story. Plagued by them, he tried a trap, garlic and mothballs, fireworks and then windmills – place the stick in the ground and the vibration makes a noise that scares moley away. All failed, leaving him finally – and desperately – sitting in the garden at night with a torch taped to a 12-bore shot gun. That didn’t work either.

Leaving the molehills behind we began the steady climb through undulating fields. Even though our walks have now moved south of the picturesque Peak, there is still the pleasure of beholding, as Roy Christian observed, ‘a spectacularly rumpled, folded green countryside of sharp edges and deep valleys’. Also, as Mike remarked, this is a favourite walk of his because ‘you hardly meet a soul and there is something different around every corner’. He believes that rambling in even a relatively unromantic spot is still a far richer experience than a sightseeing drive. ‘Walking is a four dimensional experience where you can smell, feel and be part of the landscape.’ Thus speaks a man who, since our last published walk, has completed all 214 hills/mountains in the Lake District, known affectionately as ‘Wainwrights’. Mike now has his name in the prestigious Hill Walkers Register compiled by the Long Distance Walkers Association, along with other like-minded folk who ‘collect’ Munros (anything over 3,000 feet in Scotland) and Nuttalls (anything over 2,000 feet in England). ‘I’m sure it would be simpler to collect stamps,’ smiles Mike, ‘but then I’d miss the exhilaration of emerging from a covered path into rolling hills under big skies and suddenly beholding this’ – he points to Heage Windmill.

‘Collecting’ windmills might be another pleasant challenge. There are 13 surviving windmills in Derbyshire, although all but two (Heage, restored by volunteers in 2002, and Dale Abbey) are either derelict or converted. Mike told me he has devised a 24 mile walk between the two – The Windmill Wander. There is something about a windmill that makes it one of the most prepossessing sights on earth. The windmill at Heage (which means ‘high, lofty and sublime’), is in view for long spells on this walk and a prodigious amount of work has been put in by volunteers to make it what it is. For instance, all 126 canvas shutters on the nine-metre long sails have been hand-sewn and prior to its re-opening last month, �20,000 had to be raised to replace two sails. The mill now looks as good as it did when it was built 213 years ago.

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The windmill stays in sight as we walk through Nether Heage and up the hill past the Spanker public house. Apparently horses who stopped at the inn after the long haul uphill had to be given a spank to force them the few extra yards. I know the feeling.

A few breathless trudges later, we left the steep incline to turn left along a public footpath leading to Heage Common Farm. This track crosses a succession of fields for just over a mile before you step into Crich Lane and get a valley view of another iconic sight: Belper Mill.

Our walk then takes us past the imposing edifice of St Peter’s Church.Our walk down the ancient thoroughfare of Long Row with its dinky three-storeyed terraced houses is a reminder of the Strutt family who built eight mills in the town and created the Belper we see today. I took Mike slightly off our path to show him the only survivor of Belper’s pre-mill days. As a footballing man, Mike knew Belper Town FC are called the Nailers but didn’t know why. As a Belper man, I was able to tell him that the town was initially forged by its nails and show him the sole surviving nailer’s workshop, a rather anonymous building tucked away in The Clusters.

Resuming our path, we came to Belper’s imposing redbrick mill buildings and were reunited with our old friend the Derwent – always a welcome sight as it signifies a pleasant, flat, final stretch of our walk. The Derwent was described as ‘Britain’s hardest working river’ at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It will soon be ten years since its rich industrial heritage, scenic beauty, walks, woodland and wildlife, qualified the Derwent Valley for World Heritage status. Local pride led me to point out to Mike that this places it on the same footing as the Pyramids, the Grand Canyon and the Taj Mahal. Mike wondered if locals from Cairo, Agra and Arizona similarly bragged about sharing status with the Derwent Valley. Maybe they would if they visited us, I suggested.

Mike and I enjoyed our packed lunch on the north side of the bridge in the delightful cottage hospital garden restored by Peter Davies, local recipient of an MBE for his services to the community’. Having chanced upon a sepia photograph of an Edwardian man in a wicker bath chair with his nurse, Peter spearheaded the move to return this neglected overgrown site to its former glory. Appropriately, it’s called Beaurepaire which is not only the French for ‘beautiful retreat’ but also the old name for Belper.

Leaving our beautiful retreat, we crossed the road, turning right down Wyver Lane just beyond the Talbot Hotel at the bottom of Belper Lane End. Although the river gradually wends away from our path, it’s supplanted by fine views of Wyver Lane Nature Reserve. It was a gorgeous sight on the day we walked, with cotton cumulus clouds floating low across an azure sky. It felt as if we were on the plains of North America, even more so when I spied a skein of Canadian Geese alighting in the middle of the Wyver Lane pool. This wetland reserve is regarded as one of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s most important and is a birdwatcher’s delight. Tufted ducks and little grebes are year-round visitors, while during late summer/early autumn you can see large numbers of lapwing and teal, then wigeon in a cold winter. Other birds to spot along the lane include long-tailed tit, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch and, should you look up, you might catch a hovering buzzard, sparrowhawk or kestrel. To protect the birds there is no access onto the reserve but if you have a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust permit you can visit the hide. Alternatively, bring binoculars.

Eventually, we reached a wooden signpost indicating the way to Whitewells Road. If you get to walk here around dusk, you might spot a little owl perching on a tree branch or telegraph pole. When alarmed, it bobs its head up and down. Mike performed a similar action when we reached Halfpenny Bridge at Ambergate and I suggested a cuppa at the Corner Caf�, run by Norma Ryde and Ian Parry, whose breakfasts are legendary. On my last visit there, Norma revealed that she met partner Ian when he started frequenting the caf� as a cyclist. ‘He kept coming in so I decided to keep him,’ she smilingly told me.

Then I remembered that the caf� is only open at weekends and Bank Holidays, so we finished our bottled water and gazed at the running water beneath us – the point where the Derwent and Amber rivers converge. A look at the Ambergate cricket ground next to the river, reminded me of the serious floods when the river burst its banks in 2000 and an intrepid local was applauded for wading out thigh high to make a piggy-back rescue of a couple of stranded backpackers. During a similar flood 40 years earlier a local wag had gazed at the lake that was once a cricket square and said: ‘I don’t think that’ll take any spin today. Maybe a bouncing bomb, though.’

At this point we crossed the road and returned to our cars, ready for Walk 13 of 20 which will take us over the Chevin. This time I’ll suggest a cuppa at my house – it’s on the way.

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