King Cotton’s legacy: Exploring the Torrs Riverside Park in New Mills

My home county of Derbyshire is famed for its catalytic role in the Industrial Revolution. The world’s first factory – Derby’s Silk Mill – was constructed here in 1721, on the banks of the River Derwent. The scale of this enterprise, in terms of its output and the size of the workforce, was unprecedented. But silk was never going to be more than a niche product targeted at the super-rich. The big money was to be made through the mass production of cotton.

The old and the new in Torrs Riverside Park: Torr Vale Mill on the left, Millennium Walkway on the right.

Exactly 50 years later, in 1771, entrepreneur Richard Arkwright constructed a large-scale water-powered spinning mill at Cromford, also on the Derwent, some 16 miles (25km) north of Derby. Starting in 1772 with some 200 workers, Arkwright’s Mills operated 24 hours a day, in two twelve-hour shifts.

Torr Vale Mill. A cotton mill for over 200 years, it has now being re-purposed.

Soon a number of other cotton mills sprang up along the Derwent Valley, and with them the factory age was born. To celebrate these seismic developments the area, including parts of my home town of Belper, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. History is all around us here in the Derwent Valley, but the cotton industry quickly established itself in other areas of Derbyshire too as budding entrepreneurs set out to make their fortunes.

A second part of Derbyshire into which Arkwright’s factory system was to be swiftly introduced was the small town of New Mills, located on the Goyt River around 32 miles (51km) north-west of Cromford. The town takes its name from a corn mill built there in the late 14th century, but 400 years later King Cotton ruled the roost.

Millennium Walkway passing next to one of weirs built to control water that once powered Torr Vale Mill

The climate, local availability of good construction stone and the raw power of the fast-flowing River Goyt made this an ideal spot for large-scale cotton spinning. By 1810, New Mills boasted nine spinning mills, as well as three mills weaving cotton and three factories producing dyed and printed calico.

Two hundred years ago the town was a hub of righteous industrial endeavour, buzzing and throbbing energetically to the relentless clatter of the cotton mills. Those days are now long gone, but it’s still possible to catch glimpses of the past preserved in the Torrs Riverside Park.

Union Bridge, 1884

Looming over the Park is an imposing complex of buildings that once housed Torr Vale Mill. When it closed in 2000, having operated continuously for more than 200 years, it had been in business longer than any other mill in the country. After laying abandoned and falling victim to vandalism for ten years, the site is being re-purposed. Torr Vale Mill’s 21st century offer now includes an exclusive wedding venue, offices, retail spaces, holiday accommodation and a “dog friendly boutique bar.” It remains a hugely impressive structure, dominating the gritstone gorge in which it stands.

The River Goyt was a boon to the mill owners who needed the power of its waters to drive their machinery, but for ordinary folk its gorge – which is seriously deep and steep – was a big inconvenience, impeding the movement of people and goods between the communities living on either side. However, as the local population grew the need for efficient communications between the two sides became more acute. Solutions were demanded, and in due course sturdy bridges were built.

Here the Millennium Walkway clings precariously to a massive railway embankment above the tumbling River Goyt. Torr Vale Mill to the left.

Today Queens Bridge (1835) and the Union Road Bridge (1884) are picturesque reminders of a time when textile industries dominated New Mills, and were at the heart of its development and prosperity. The town was thriving then, and it must have seemed that King Cotton would reign forever.

But all things pass in the fullness of time, and New Mills’ cotton industry is now no more. Were it not for Torr Vale Mill, and the scattered archaeological remains of other mills that perished before it, today it would scarcely be remembered at all.

Queens Bridge (1835)

However, time moves on, and it’s good to see New Mills looking forward as well as back. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Riverside Park is the spectacular Torrs Millennium Walkway, built in 1999. This long, shining sweep of steel stands on stilts high above the River Goyt, in parts cantilevered from a sheer stone railway embankment. It offers great views of Torr Vale Mill, and of a weir built two centuries ago to enable the mill owner to harness the power of the Goyt.

A second unexpected feature of the Riverside Park is Torrs Hydro, the UK’s first community owned and funded hydro-electric scheme. Here some of the water flowing down the River Goyt is directed through a huge Reverse Archimedes Screw, nicknamed Archie by the locals. It drives a turbine generating electricity. It’s not a pretty sight but, peering through the protective wire that encases the mechanism, the giant metal screw – which spins relentlessly, powered by the rushing, roaring water – is strangely hypnotic.

Torrs Hydro in the foreground (Archimedes Screw hidden beneath protective wire screen), with the Queens Bridge behind. Not a pretty sight, but strangely hypnotic!

OK, this tiny initiative isn’t going to end our reliance on fossil fuels, let alone solve the global climate crisis, but what a brilliant way to showcase how communities can respond creatively to the biggest problem the world faces today. And profits from selling the power Torrs Hydro generates are used to fund local projects, thus helping to ensure ongoing community buy-in to this ground-breaking venture

To be honest, before our visit to New Mills last month my expectations were quite limited. New Mills has had its day, I thought, and it wasn’t much of a day even at its best. Give me the world-beating Derwent Valley any day, I said to myself. Which just goes to show how wrong I was! The natural beauty of the gorge and the scattered relics of New Mills’ industrial past, as well as other more recent projects, make Torrs Riverside Park a fascinating place in which to spend a couple of hours. I thoroughly recommend a visit if ever you’re in the area.

10 comments

  1. Laurie Graves · 24 Days Ago

    Impressive! If ever I am in the area…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

      There’s loads of great stuff to see in Derbyshire if you’re ever in this part of the UK (OK, I know I’m biased, but even so, it’s definitely worth a visit. Honest! 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thelongview · 24 Days Ago

    Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. Torrs Hydro looks pretty enough to me, would love to see it, as well as one of of the old type water mills. And the dog friendly boutique bar 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

      Thank you. Sadly on the day we visited the dog friendly boutique bar was dog-less. We’ll have to go back and try again! 🙂

      Like

  3. Yeah, Another Blogger · 24 Days Ago

    Hi. Do you know if historians say that the Industrial Revolution began in 1721?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

      No, generally it’s dated to the second half of the 18th century, when the invention of the “spinning jenny” made it possible to spin multiple balls of yarn at the same time, and James Watt’s steam engine enabled the mass smelting of iron. The developments in Derby in 1721 are a bit of an outlier, fascinating but slightly disconnected from the mainstream of the industrial revolution…although in my part of the world we endow it with greater significance because it makes us feel important!!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. blhphotoblog · 23 Days Ago

    Been past here many times when the sprog was at Uni in Manchester but always stopped at Bakewell, looks like we missed a good spot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 23 Days Ago

      Total surprise to me too. Never knew it existed, one of Derbyshire’s hidden gems. But Bakewell’s pretty smart too, just in a very different way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. tanjabrittonwriter · 23 Days Ago

    I so want to believe that it will still make a difference if more “communities can respond creatively to the biggest problem the world faces today.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 20 Days Ago

      Yes, we all have to own this terrible problem. If we don’t the prospects for planet, and the myriad wonderful species that call this place home, will be grim.

      Liked by 1 person

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