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.

The Widows’ Curse: the murky history of the Magpie Mine

Although famed in the 19th and 20th centuries for its coal industry, Derbyshire’s association with mining goes back much further. Lead has been mined in areas of the county since at least Roman times, and extraction continued until the 1950s. Last to close – in 1954 – was Magpie Mine, located on the edge of the lead-bearing limestone plateau near the Peak District village of Sheldon. Maybe it would still be producing lead today, were it not for the notorious Widows’ Curse!

The Cornish Engine House dates from 1869. Adjacent to it a circular chimney, which was built in 1840 to serve an earlier engine but then re-used

These days it can be difficult to appreciate the importance of lead to our ancestors. By the 17th century it was widely used on the roofs of churches, other public buildings and the grand mansions of the wealthy, to help make them watertight. It was also commonly used for the manufacture of window frames and glazing bars. And, in the days before the risks of lead poisoning had been recognised, this metal was the preferred solution for water storage and piping. Lead mining was therefore big business, and it’s reckoned that between 1750 and 1850 the UK brought more lead ore to the surface than any other nation.

Magpie Mine started up around 1740. Several other lead mines were also working in the same area, and bitter disputes erupted between them over the right to mine particular veins of ore. Shafts belonging to Magpie Mine and the nearby Maypitt Mine intersected in places, tempting miners to light underground fires in order to smoke out their opponents and claim sole ownership of the vein they were working.

The Long Engine House and winding drum

Tragedy struck in 1833, when three Maypitt miners were suffocated by fumes from fires lit by workers from Magpie Mine. No fewer than 24 Magpie miners were put on trial for murder, and could have been hanged if found guilty. However, conflicting evidence, inability to prove fore-knowledge or intent amongst those who lit the fire, and a failure to prove who actually started it, meant that all were ultimately acquitted.

The widows of the Maypitt Three were, inevitably, distraught at the verdict. Their response was to place a curse on Magpie Mine and all who worked there. Magpie Mine closed just two years later, and I guess the widows congratulated themselves on a job well done.

The Agent’s House, and adjoining it the Smithy. On the right is the square chimney. All date from John Taylor’s time in the 1840s.

However, the opportunity to make a profit proved too tempting for Magpie Mine’s owners to resist. So, in 1839, they brought in famous Cornish mining engineer John Taylor to re-open it. Within months Magpie Mine was back in business.

However, despite Taylor’s undoubted expertise, the mine closed again in 1846. From that time onwards production of lead at the site was sporadic, spells of mining activity being interspersed with periods of closure. It never managed to make a sustained profit again, and locals muttered darkly about the Widows’ Curse when confronted with Magpie Mine’s chequered performance and the series of fatal accidents that befell the unfortunate miners.

Spring Sandwort, aka Leadwort

Dwindling reserves of ore, combined with the challenges of keeping a shaft over 680 feet (208 metres) deep free from floodwater, ultimately proved to be Magpie Mine’s undoing. When it closed for the last time in 1954 the Maypitt Three could finally rest in peace, but according to legend the Widows’ Curse remains in place to this day.

Today the site is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings in various states of disrepair. Magpie Mine is now a peaceful spot, disturbed only by the song of skylarks and an occasional click of a camera shutter. It’s difficult to picture this place as a hive of industrial activity, or to imagine the hardships and suffering of those who once toiled – and died – here. Seemingly still more improbable is the notion that aggrieved widows would have felt driven to place a curse on what is now such a tranquil, isolated and inoffensive corner of my home county.

Today the site of Magpie Mine is an atmospheric but confusing and incoherent jumble of 19th century stone buildings, in various states of disrepair, set amidst a vibrant wildflower carpet

Although its industrial archaeology and associated human history is fascinating, today Magpie Mine site is also a notable natural habitat. The landscape is managed to prevent it returning to scrubland. Cattle are used to keep invasive species at bay, allowing a rich variety of wildflowers to flourish on the unimproved grassland. Some of the species (including Spring Sandwort, also known as leadwort) found here are particularly well adapted to the local conditions, being able to tolerate high quantities of lead in the soil.

If truth be told I’d rather remember our visit to Magpie Mine for the glory of its wildflower meadow and the song of the skylark, both so rare in today’s intensively farmed countryside, than for the dubious legend of the Widows’ Curse!

* * * * *

If the story of the Widows’ Curse has caught your imagination you might want to take a look at this video on YouTube, which I came across during research for this post. In a mixture of commentary and verse local poet Simon Unwin tells more about the history and traditions of lead mining in Derbyshire, before launching into the story of the Widows’ Curse. It runs for nearly 40 minutes and so requires some investment in time to see it through to the end. But I enjoyed listening to it, and you might too. So why not give it a try?

The times they are a-changin’: Bugsworth Canal Basin reborn

One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is that it has encouraged us to spend more time exploring our local area, rather than hot-footing it across the rest of the UK and the wider world. Who knew, for example, that the Bugsworth Basin, in our own home county of Derbyshire, was once was the largest and busiest inland port on Britain’s canal system? Not me, and I’ve lived here over 40 years. Nor Mrs P either, and she’s lived in Derbyshire her entire life.

The Bugsworth Basin was the terminus of the 14 mile long Peak Forest Canal. Built between 1794 and 1804, the canal linked Bugsworth Basin with Manchester and the trans-Pennine canal network.

The basin was also the end-point of the Peak Forest Tramway. Completed in 1795, the tramway was used to move stone from some of Derbyshire’s biggest quarries to the canal basin. Together, the tramway and canal made it possible for stone extracted in Derbyshire to be transported throughout the North-West and the Midlands.

Although some gritstone was moved by canal, most of the freight loaded at Bugsworth Basin was limestone. When converted into calcium oxide (otherwise known as burnt lime or quicklime), limestone plays a pivotal role in the manufacture of steel. Demand for steel grew rapidly after the Industrial Revolution took hold in the late 18th century, driving in turn a huge growth in demand for limestone. As a result, the Peak Forest Canal and Bugsworth Basin flourished.

At its height in the 1880s, around 600 tons (544 tonne) of limestone per day was being shipped from Bugsworth Basin. Some calcium oxide was also prepared on-site at the basin, before being shipped out to customers via the canal network. It must have seemed that the good days would last forever. But they didn’t, of course, courtesy of the changing industrial landscape and competition from railways. All traffic ceased in 1921, and by 1923 the basin had closed and was falling into disrepair.

But, as Bob Dylan was so fond of telling us, the times they are a-changing. The basin and canal may have no role to play in modern freight transport, but there are opportunities aplenty in the recreation and leisure industries. Restoration began in the 1960s and took more than 40 years. Bugsworth Basin and the Peak Forest Canal have been reborn.

Although there are a few structures dating from the heyday of the industrial period, including the remains of a lime kiln where limestone was roasted to make calcium oxide, Bugsworth Basin wears its history lightly. Today, as Mrs P and I witnessed when we visited in August, the basin is thronged with colourful barges piloted by recreational waterways enthusiasts.

Meanwhile the towpath echoes to the footsteps of dog walkers and casual visitors keen to soak up the relaxed atmosphere. Cyclists whizz merrily along, grateful for somewhere flat to pursue their hobby in our notoriously hilly county, while birdwatchers keep an eye open for kingfishers.

Bugsworth Basin is now a scheduled Ancient Monument, and before Covid struck was attracting 50,000 visitors a year. It’s a real asset for Derbyshire’s tourist industry, and for ordinary folk like us who just want to escape into a different world for a few hours. What a pity that it took a global pandemic for Mrs P and I to finally discover this hidden gem on our doorstep.

RAM-bling through Derby

Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.

Michael Pegler’s millstone sculpture has been a Derby landmark since 1995

This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.

The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.

How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.

This statue by Tim Roper dates from 2019, and stands at one of the entrances to the main Derby shopping centre (mall)

The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.

The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”

Rameses by Judith Berrill

The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:

Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.

Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.

Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021

For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!

Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.

Royal Ram by Donna Newman

The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.

For Those about to Rock by Sue Hetfield

Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.

In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!

Rambo by Joy Pirkle

Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”

Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.

Derby Industries by Sanita Gnaniah, with the historic Silk Mill behind

The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.

Doodle Derby by Carla Dee

With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.

Memories Fade but Warmth Remains by Lynne Hollingsworth

The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!

Mrs P’s collage of rams!

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Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.

The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.

While Keith Kendrick et al sing The Derby Ram unaccompanied, most recorded versions feature instruments as well as voices. If a capella and the Derby/Derbyshire accent are not your thing, the following version by Barry Dransfield may suit you better. Dransfield, who hails from Yorkshire, sings somewhat different lyrics, and plays a mean, mean fiddle! Enjoy!

Kedleston Hall – A walk in the park (no peasants allowed!)

Our county of Derbyshire has many exceptional stately homes, where ordinary folk like me can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the English super-rich before inheritance taxes prompted them to modify their extravagant lifestyles. Kedleston Hall, an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical masterpiece now managed on behalf of us all by the National Trust, isn’t the most famous of these, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.

Rear of Kedleston Hall viewed from the Long Walk, with the C12th All Saints Church to the left. Note also the ha-ha, which is invisible from the Hall and stops wandering sheep getting too close.

Of course, when you’re obscenely rich, conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to end with your palatial mansion – when you’ve spent as much as bad taste will allow on alabaster, marble and gold leaf, you can always throw more of your wealth at the rest of the estate. Kedleston is a case in point. As you wander through the magnificent parkland in which the Hall sits, it’s easy to forget that this is an entirely man-made landscape.

Trees have been selected and positioned to add to the visual appeal of the parkland. The sheep help too!

Kedleston is the ancestral home of the Curzon family, who have lived in the area since the 12th century. Between 1759 and 1775, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) commissioned renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design an opulent new mansion, flanked to the south and west by an elegant formal garden of trees and shrubs. Surrounding the Hall and garden, and separated from them by a ha ha – a sunken wall which was invisible from within and intended to keep livestock out – was a landscape comprising some 800 acres (324 hectares) of rolling, naturalised parkland.

Robert Adam’s fine three-arched bridge, one of the highlights of Kedleston’s parkland

Once there was a small village at the centre of the estate, clustered around the C12th All Saints Church. However in 1759, as was the custom of the time, the villagers were all evicted to ensure that Baron Scarsdale could go about his daily business on the estate without any danger of coming into contact with representatives of ‘the great unwashed.’

An idyllic landscape, now managed on behalf of the nation by the National Trust

The peasantry having been removed, it was time to set about taming the landscape. Adam put the stream that traverses the estate to good use, moving mountains of earth to create a series of scenic lakes and cascades. To cross the stream he built a fine three-arched bridge, and this remains one of Kedleston’s most impressive features. Other structures to adorn the parkland include a bath-house and a fishing pavilion, although several temples and follies proposed by Adam were never completed.

One of the civil engineering works required to create and manage Kedleston’s lakes

Robert Adam wanted his creation to be enjoyed from all angles, and to this end he designed the Long Walk, a winding three mile circuit through the estate, with views of the rear of the Hall and across the parkland.  It was this walk that Mrs P and I embarked upon a few weeks ago.

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, lambs frolicked playfully under the watchful eyes of their mothers, and the vistas offered by the Long Walk were uniformly pleasing. After long months confined to our own modest house and garden by the Covid restrictions it was great to escape its confines and to enjoy the wide open spaces that the Kedleston estate offers.

Aaah, cute!

Robert Adam was without doubt a genius: both the Hall (which I shall write about in a future post) and the parkland lift the spirits enormously. But if you ever visit Kedleston do spare a thought for the local peasantry, who lost their homes so that this magical place could be created as an exclusive pleasure ground for Baron Scarsdale and his idle-rich buddies!

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

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

Sutton Scarsdale Hall: a sad monument to extravagance and greed

Set high on a hilltop, the ruins of Sutton Scarsdale Hall loom over the M1 motorway as it carves its way through the broad valley below. Once this was an imposing Georgian mansion, one of the grandest houses in our home county of Derbyshire. It was built between 1724 and 1729 by Nicholas Leke, the 4th Earl of Scarsdale, in an ostentatious statement of his wealth and power. But today it’s a roofless, crumbling shell, a monument to extravagance and greed.

The decrepit state of the Hall today is a sad metaphor for the state of the Earl’s finances at the end of his life. The Sutton Scarsdale project was too ambitious, Leke’s finances simply not up to the job. Building Sutton Scarsdale Hall ruined him.

The 4th Earl of Scarsdale had no legitimate heirs, and following his death in 1736 the Hall was sold. In the decades that followed the building passed through various owners, but they never truly loved it in the way Nicholas Leke would have wished.

The final indignity came in 1919 when the Hall was sold to a company of asset strippers. They quickly reduced the once grand mansion to a dilapidated shell, with many of its finely decorated rooms being sold as architectural salvage by purchasers interested only in making a fast buck. However, some of the rooms still exist, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic. Three original interiors are displayed at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia; click here to see one of them in all its glory on the Museum’s website.

A visit to Sutton Scarsdale Hall today offers tantalising glimpses of Nicholas Leke’s vision. The eastern façade is particularly grand and features at its centre four towering, attached Corinthian columns topped with a triangular central pediment. It’s said that remnants of the fine internal plasterwork are still visible in some of the principal rooms, but when we were there we couldn’t get close enough to see – entry to the ruins is prevented by sturdy Heras fencing, presumably intended to protect visitors from falling masonry.

Adjacent to the Hall, and in much better shape, is the medieval Church of St Mary. Dating from the 14th century it’s still used for Sunday services, although how many worshippers attend them in such an isolated location is unclear. Doubtless the church was much busier during the Hall’s heyday a couple of centuries ago, before the rot set in.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall is now in the ownership of English Heritage, a government conservation agency. The aim is to stabilise the ruins, protecting what remains and render the building safe to visit. Reconstruction, however, is out of the question. For this once grand mansion, the glory days are over and will never return.

Swan Lake lives up to its name

Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.

Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.

There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.

Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.

Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)

In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.

Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks.  Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.

Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.

By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked. 

Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!

Escape to the country

Last week, after three long, weary months, the government lifted its “Stay at Home” Covid instruction. We quickly decided to escape to the country for a few hours. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year and we expected to find the car parks at Carsington Water overflowing with ecstatic visitors making the most of their first day of freedom in 2021. As it happened numbers were modest, ensuring our visit was a good deal more tranquil than we’d feared.

Canada geese grazing next to the reservoir

Carsington Water is the ninth biggest reservoir in England. It was formally opened in 1992 after what can only be described as an eventful construction: in 1983 four workers tragically died, asphyxiated while working in a 16 foot (5 metre) surface drain, and a year later part of the dam wall collapsed. Nearly 30 years on, however, the reservoir has been seamlessly integrated into the Derbyshire landscape and is a popular centre for a range of recreational activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and canoeing. With a good proportion of Carsington Water designated as a nature reserve, it is also a favourite spot to watch birds.

Great tit

In our experience rarities are rare at Carsington! However this isn’t a problem for us: we are not twitchers and have never been motivated by the desire to “tick off” rarities. All birds, whether uncommon or not, are wonderful and worthy of attention. Even Canada geese!

Robin

Inevitably, Canada geese were liberally scattered throughout the reserve last week, some floating serenely on the water, others grazing greedily on the meadows adjoining the reservoir, and a few honking noisily as they flew overhead in search of pastures new. You can be sure of getting your fill of Canada geese on any visit to Carsington. Not to mention mallards, coot and black-headed gulls!

An unexpected nuthatch

Although Carsington Water is an obvious spot for watching water birds, on this occasion some of the best action was on and around one of the feeding stations. Great tits and robins were the most frequent visitors, and a nuthatch the most unexpected.

Primulas prove that spring has sprung

The woodland in which the feeding station is situated was dotted with primulas, evidence that spring has well and truly sprung. And mindful, no doubt, that Easter was fast approaching a rabbit put in a brief appearance, while at one point a vole scurried across our path, way too fast to be photographed. Again, nothing exceptional here, but all such welcome sights after thirteen weeks of lockdown.

One of Carsington Water’s very own Easter bunnies

We’re fortunate that Carsington Water is just a few miles from our home town, and now Covid restrictions are being relaxed we’ll be escaping to this part of the country regularly to sample once again the joys of birding on our local patch. After all, a man just cannot see too many Canada geese!

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POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday 6 April, 2pm. Having written this post over the weekend, this morning we made a return trip to Carsington Water and were thrilled to spot no fewer than 16 swallows, newly returned from Africa, wheeling and whizzing over the water. It’s official then, spring really is here!