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.

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

Rise and fall, and rise again: Chesterfield Canal

Exploring places within a reasonable driving distance of home has become the norm in the year of Covid, so a few weeks ago we decided to take a walk along part of the Chesterfield Canal. It delivered exactly what we were looking for: a gentle, peaceful stroll in the countryside, with minimal risk of encountering someone bent on sharing their viral load with us

There was almost nobody else out of the towpath that morning and it was difficult to imagine that this waterway was once a bustling hive of activity, a superhighway of barges and narrowboats hauled by long-suffering workhorses.

Oneslide lock

Designed by the so-called “father of English canals” James Brindley, the canal was built in the 1770s between Chesterfield and the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, a distance of around 74 km (46 miles). The aim was to link the Derbyshire town and its hinterland with a growing network of canals and navigable rivers that criss-crossed a country in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The Chesterfield Canal was an ambitious project. It had 65 locks, including some of the earliest staircase locks ever built, and two tunnels. The canal was a lifeline for the coal and steel industry in North Derbyshire, but also carried ale, pottery, lime and timber.

However the most impressive cargo carried on the the Chesterfield Canal was stone for the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. Between 1841-44 an average of 4,877 tonnes (4,800 tons) or 5,663 cubic metres (200,000 cubic feet) per annum made the journey.

Thorpe Low treble lock

Quarried at North Anston in Yorkshire, the stone was dragged overland two miles to Dog Kennels wharf, where it was loaded onto narrowboats for a journey along the canal to the River Trent. From here it was taken downriver to the sea, then south along the English coast before being moved up the River Thames. The average time from the stone leaving the quarry in Yorkshire to reaching the London building site was two weeks.

Coincidentally, we ended our walk along the canal at Dog Kennels, so named because the grand old Duke of Leeds once kept his hunting hounds there. Today, it’s difficult to imagine the connection between this unremarkable part of Nottinghamshire and the Houses of Parliament, one of the UK’s most iconic and instantly recognisable buildings.

Turnerwood, a “picture-perfect hamlet” on the canalside

In fact, at the time of the Houses of Parliament project the UK’s Canal Age was already drawing to a close. By the 1850s the country was in the grip of a railway fever. Canal transport was inevitably slow, constrained by the speed at which horses could haul their loads. Moreover canals were prone to freeze in winter and dry out in summer. Railways did not suffer these problems, and canal transport declined steadily in the face of their upstart competitor.

By the early 1900s the Chesterfield Canal had lost most trade in manufactured goods and sundries, and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates, timber and grain. In 1908 the Norwood tunnel collapsed, preventing traffic between Chesterfield and Shireoaks. After World War 1 other stretches became increasingly overgrown and neglected, and all traffic on the canal finally ceased in 1955.

Brown’s Lock, with Thorpe Low treble locks beyond

This might have been the end of the Chesterfield Canal, but times were changing. Post-war Britain could see the attraction of a revitalised canal network that offered opportunities for leisure and acted as a haven for beleaguered wildlife. Reflecting this new attitude, in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration.

After several decades of fund raising and countless thousand hours of back-breaking work, many miles of the canal have been reinstated. Today there are less than nine miles left to restore. The Chesterfield Canal Trust (successor to the Chesterfield Canal Society) has set itself a target 2027 for the completion of the restoration, as this would be a fitting way to mark the 250th Anniversary of the opening of the canal.

PHOTO CREDIT: Chesterfield Canal Trust website

Meanwhile, all 46 miles of the towpath are accessible to walkers on what is known as the Cuckoo Way. Although that’s good news for the fit and healthy it sounds a bit too much like hard work to me, so it’s encouraging to know that recreational cruises can be taken on several sections of the canal. Maybe, when things have settled down after Covid, we’ll give it a try!

Ironbridge: an industrial icon in rural Shropshire

History is made in the most unlikely places. Shropshire, for example. The Shropshire Tourism website describes it as “the nicest of England’s quiet counties”, which sounds a bit lukewarm if you ask me. The website goes on to add that it’s “ideal for a short break away from the stresses of modern life, or indeed perfect for a day’s escape into the countryside”. All of which makes it very difficult to believe that Ironbridge Gorge, which lies on the River Severn close to the heart of rural Shropshire, is widely described as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”.

The Iron Bridge crosses the River Severn

It’s a big claim, particularly as England led the rest of the world into the Industrial Revolution. According to this reading of history, Ironbridge Gorge was the birthplace not just of a local or national revolution, but of a global transformation which made possible our comfortable, technology-driven 21st century existence. How come? I hear you asking.

The bridge was opened to traffic on New Year’s Day 1781

The deep gorge carved out by glacial outflow at the end of the last Ice Age exposed readily accessible deposits of raw materials – including iron, coal, limestone and fireclay – that helped kick-start the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The key development was in 1709 when the Quaker Abraham Darby I launched his innovative technique for smelting local iron ore, using coke made from coal mined at the Shropshire village of Coalbrookdale. Through its use of coke rather than charcoal, Darby’s discovery made the mass production of cast iron economically viable.

The span is 30.63 metres (100 feet 6 inches).

Darby’s revolutionary technique resulted in the availability of large quantities of relatively cheap iron, which in turn led to this area of Shropshire becoming – by the standards of the time – highly industrialised. The River Severn was a key trading route along which products could be transported, but it was also an obstacle to the cross-country movement of people and goods

Calls grew ever louder for a bridge across the Severn and, inspired by the local iron industry, a proposal was made for the world’s first iron bridge. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard drew up the designs, which were approved by Act of Parliament. Construction began in 1777 but Pritchard died within weeks, and subsequently most of the project was overseen by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of iron smelting pioneer Abraham Darby I.

The bridge was completed in 1781, and remains today an iconic piece of industrial design. Inevitably given its ground-breaking design the project had its problems, and it set an unwelcome trend that HS2 seems likely to emulate by coming in way over budget.

In total the 378 tons of iron used in the bridge’s construction cost £6,000, against an initial estimate of £3,200. However, by the mid-1790s the bridge was highly profitable and the shareholders were receiving a substantial annual dividend of 8 per cent. By way of contrast, BP currently (as of 6 January 2020) pays a dividend yield of 6.28%.

File:William Williams The Iron Bridge.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: William Williams [Public domain]. Abraham Derby III commissioned Williams to make this picture in October 1780, and paid him 10 guineas for it

Although its use of iron was a radical departure from previous practice many of the techniques employed were surprisingly traditional:

Research also revealed that 70% of the components of the bridge – including all the large castings – were made individually to fit, and all differ slightly from one another as a result. Darby’s workers employed joining techniques used in carpentry, such as dovetail and shouldered joints, adapting them for cast iron.

SOURCE: English Heritage website, retrieved 7 January 2020

View west to east across the bridge. The toll house is on the left

The bridge remained in full use for over 150 years, but in 1934 it was finally closed to vehicles and designated an Ancient Monument. Remarkably, pedestrians continued to pay tolls to cross it until 1950. It is, however, reassuring to note that the owners of the bridge had an egalitarian view of who should pay the tolls: quite simply, absolutely everyone had to cough up:

‘Every officer or soldier whether on duty or not, is liable to pay toll for passing over as well as any baggage wagon, mail coach or the Royal Family.’

SOURCE: Taken from the Table of Tolls (see photograph of the sign)

Even members of the Royal Family were expected to pay if they wanted to cross!

Ironbridge Gorge Museums comprises no fewer than 10 separate museums on sites scattered throughout the area, including Blists Hill Victorian Town, Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalport China Museum and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Anyone with an interest in industrial history can easily spend two or three days here – as we have done, spread across a couple of visits – and still feel that there’s more to explore.

But without doubt the jewel in Ironbridge’s crown is the iconic bridge itself. Shockingly, in the 1960s there was a serious possibility that it would be taken down and sold for scrap. Fortunately for scholars, tourists and local businesses alike, wiser heads prevailed and the bridge was saved for the nation by English Heritage. It remains the most potent and memorable symbol of an age when this relatively remote and rural corner of rural England led the international community into a brave new industrialised world.