DERWENT VALLEY HERITAGE WAY - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


Derbyshire, England

Distance: 88 km

Grade: Easy

Time: 6-9 days

In 1951 the Peak District - that lovely swathe of hinterland that provides a rural sanctuary for the people of neighbouring Manchester and Sheffield - became the UK’s first national park after years of lobbying led to the passing of legislation in 1949 to set aside and begin to preserve the UK’s areas of great natural beauty. A transitional zone with furrowed pastures, forests and limestone in the south, and crag-topped dales, coarse-grit sandstone - what climbers like to call ‘God’s own rock’ - and the emergent slopes of the Pennine chain in the north, you might think it, then, an irony, that such a landscape could be a backdrop for a walk that has substantial leftovers of the early Industrial Age as one of its prime attractions. But the Derwent Valley has a deserved reputation for rule-breaking. It was here where large-scale industrial production was transplanted into a rural landscape for the very first time, where an employer showed that caring for the welfare of your workers is good business, and it was here where it was decided a trail that combined the best of this beautiful river valley with buildings that speak of England’s grand era of industrial innovation could be combined to showcase the beauty of nature and the ingenuity of man.

The trail, which was officially opened in 2003, begins on the shoreline of Ladybower Reservoir, the dam wall of which you cross before taking the dam’s old construction rail line, crossing a bridge over the River Noe and making your way to the Derwent’s riverbank at Shatton which then follows the river to Leadmill Bridge. The trail passes under a lovely green canopy of overhanging trees at Coppice Wood, continues through Chatsworth and then straightens on the approach to Rowsley to compensate for the river’s meandering course. Leaving Rowsley on the A6 and crossing the river over Darley Bridge we come to Matlock, a former spa town which tumbles down its hillside like a medieval Italian village, its high point of Wellington Street an impressive 110 m above Causeway Lane. Leaving Matlock you have a choice: take a footbridge over the Derwent and follow the A6 to Matlock Bath, or for breathtaking views over Derwent Gorge take the path under the bridge and an iron arch and ascend the ridge to High Tor summit then down to Matlock Bath via the cable car station.

Leaving Matlock Bath on the River Derwent you now enter the area of the Derwent Valley Mills, a glorious mix of 18th- and 19th-century cotton mills, factories and workers’ settlements that provided a template for future worker communities throughout Britain for decades to come (even a Sunday School was built for the workers’ children). Stretching along the river and throughout the surrounding valley for 24 km from Matlock Bath to Derby, these mills are considered to be the birthplace of the modern factory, where water power was first used to power complex mechanised processes, and have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, as examples of ‘industrial archaeology’. A silk mill was built in Derby at the southern end of the valley in 1721, but it wouldn’t be until the 1770s and the growth in importance of cotton that the ground-breaking inventions of Richard Arkwright transformed this sleepy corner of Derbyshire into the epicentre of Britain’s new Industrial Age, aided by his invention of a new water frame for spinning cotton, and a carding engine able to turn raw cotton into cotton lap.



Photo: Steve Lewis 76

The series of mills that were built to house these machines were impressive in themselves. The Cromford Mill (1771), now a Grade I listed building, was the first to be built, a five-storey building for 200 workers. A second mill followed at Belper, south of Cromford (which burned down in 1890), and then a third - Masson Mill (1783) - was designed with centrally located staircases so the production floor could be freed up to take more of Arkwright’s machines. Many of these buildings survived the decline of the cotton industry - including the terraced housing on North Street at Cromford (1776), the Cromford marketplace (1790), and its Greyhound Hotel (1778) - and have been sensitively repurposed. Masson Mill is now a textile museum housing the world’s largest collection of bobbins, while the buildings at Belper have been converted to various business uses.

Leaving the mills the trail continues from Belper via Little Eaton and into Derby where it follows the River Derwent and becomes the ‘Riverside Path’ before leading on to a bridleway to Elvaston Castle, a beautiful Gothic Revival manor house surrounded by 200 acres of woodlands and formal gardens. The path, now on the south bank of the river, passes through Borrowash and the time-capsule town of Shardlow, probably the best surviving example of a British ‘canal town’ with over 50 Grade II listed buildings. The trail now follows the Trent and Mersey Canal along its towpath to Derwent Mouth, where the River Derwent merges with the River Trent, and where your walk through the valley - which did more than any other to give shape to our modern industrial world - comes to an end.