Hidden history: the decline and fall of Cromford Canal

History is all around us, but you have to know where to look. Some relics of Derbyshire’s past are easy to spot: the monumental cotton mills, for example, now derelict or re-purposed, are remnants of the time when this area was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. And as you drive around the county you pass countless pit head winding wheels, preserved and brightly painted as proud reminders of a coal mining industry that once dominated the local economy.

Starvehim Valley Bridge, built 1792, a crossing point over the old Cromford Canal

But other aspects of our history are tucked away, hidden from view. Mrs P spent her teenage years in a village close to where we now live, and enjoyed walking along a nearby section of the abandoned Cromford Canal. However, although I’ve lived around here for almost 40 years, I was totally unaware that this relic of Derbyshire’s industrial past was within a short drive of home. So, when lockdown finally eased a few weeks ago, Mrs P suggested we check it out.

Cromford Canal was completed in 1794, built by prominent local industrialists William Jessop and Benjamin Outram to facilitate the easy transportation of coal, limestone, lead, iron ore and spun cotton. It ran for around 14 miles (23 km) from Cromford to Langley Mill, and included the impressive Butterley Tunnel burrowing over 3,000 yards (2,800 metres) through the Derbyshire hills. At Langley Mill it joined up with the Erewash and Nottingham Canals, which provided connectivity with the rest of the national waterways network.

Here the Cromford Canal has become shallow over the centuries (note the recent stepping stones!)

For a few decades Cromford Canal was busy: in 1802 over 150,000 tons (152,000 tonnes) of freight was carried, rising to nearly 300,000 tons (305,000 tonnes) by 1842. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century, competition from railways was taking its toll. This novel way of moving freight around the country was faster, cheaper and more reliable than the waterways network. By 1888 Cromford Canal’s annual trade had fallen to just 45,000 tons (46,000 tonnes).

With canal business in decline, maintenance of the infrastructure was an expense that was increasingly difficult to justify. When subsidence closed the Butterley Tunnel in 1899, Cromford Canal’s days were clearly numbered.

Here the canal is a little wider, but still very shallow. Note the reads and rushes blocking it on the left

On this occasion the Tunnel was repaired, but further subsidence in 1900 led to its permanent closure. Those parts of the canal that remained operable and connected to the national waterways network limped on until 1944, when most of it was abandoned. By 1962, Cromford Canal was dead.

Two hundred years ago Cromford Canal resounded to the cries of men urging on the heavy horses that plodded along the towpath, dragging behind them barges laden with the materials and products that shaped the Industrial Revolution. It was a hive of noisy, boisterous activity. But time has moved on, and tranquillity has descended again on this once frantic corner of Derbyshire. Today the great age of canals is just a distant, faded memory.

Another view of the Starvehim Valley Bridge, which was built by famed local industrialists William Jessop and Benjamin Outram.

In 2021 the line of the old canal is a great place for a walk, but no place to take a boat. Large stretches are now filled in, and where water remains it’s mostly clogged with vegetation, mud and silt. Cromford Canal is a haven for wildlife and a welcome change of scenery for recreational walkers, but serves no other significant purpose.

Perhaps the most surprising part of our walk was the Starvehim Valley Bridge. Built from local stone in 1792 as a crossing point on the new canal, it’s now in the care of Historic England and protected by law (Grade II Listed). Luckily a very short stretch of canal either side of the bridge still contains water, adding to its visual appeal. Hidden and little known, Starvehim Valley Bridge is wonderfully picturesque, and serves as a compelling memorial to the decline and fall of Derbyshire’s Cromford Canal.

Decline and fall: here the Cromford Canal has been entirely swallowed up by mud, silt and vegetation

12 comments

  1. Laurie Graves · May 12

    The canal filling in reminds me of what happens to areas near the woods that have been cut down. The trees come back, filling in the emptiness. Amazing to think about how quickly one system of transport can replace another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 12

      Given a chance, nature fights back very swiftly!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Laurie Graves · May 12

        Yes, yes! Even at a toxic place like Chernobyl.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · May 12

        Yes, wildlife is thriving at Chernobyl these days. So at least some good came out of that terrible accident.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · May 12

        It’s an ill wind that blows no good?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · May 15

        That’s exactly what I thought when I saw the last picture. I’ll bet the local wildlife is making the most of the old canal too!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · May 17

        Yes, it’s like a natural oasis in an agricultural desert, if you see what I mean!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Paddy Tobin · May 12

    These now disused canals can be wonderful places for wildlife and wildflowers – and for pleasant walks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tanjabrittonwriter · May 14

    The canal’s history is interesting. Maybe it could have been preserved and used for recreational boating, like some other canals, but I like the fact that it’s a little wild and provides habitat for animals and tranquility for walkers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · May 15

      There are ambitions to restore it for recreational boating, but I can’t believe it will ever happen…apart from anything else, the restoration of the Butterley Tunnel would be prohibitive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · May 16

        The amount of money needed for such a project would be very difficult to generate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · May 17

        Yes, and there are already a couple more canal restoration projects in Derbyshire that have made a bit more progress. There just isn’t enough funding to support them all, so the Cromford Canal is likely to remain a haven for wildlife and walkers only for the foreseeable future (which is no bad thing in my view!)

        Like

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