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

Museums ain’t what they used to be

Museums ain’t what they used to be.  When I was a lad, back in the days when the UK had only had two television channels (both black-and-white) and England were good at soccer, museums were vehicles of the establishment.  They celebrated the political, military, architectural and cultural achievements of the great and the good. The lives of ordinary folk like me and my family never got a look in, but that was OK because we knew our place.

Trams and buses trundle Beamish’s cobbled streets

All that’s changed now.  Society recognises that, regardless of our backgrounds, every one of us has been on a journey and has a story to tell.  Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham reflects this more inclusive approach. It is a “living, working museum that uses its collections to connect with people from all walks of life and tells the story of everyday life in the North East of England.”

Beamish offers snapshots of North-East life in the 1820, 1900s and 1940s, scattered across a 350 acres site.  Its latest project, underway at the time of our visit on our way back from Shetland in late June, is to reconstruct a 1950s town. 

Traditional apothecary / chemist / pharmacy

This is clearly a good thing.  Everything that surrounds us in our lives in 2019 will be history to future generations, and it’s great to see that Beamish Museum is continuing to add to and update its exhibits.  In creating its 1950s exhibit it will reflect a period that, for today’s oldest visitors – including the venerable Platypus Man – is still just within living memory.

Beamish is heavy with the atmosphere of another age.  Electric trams trundle along the cobbled streets of the 1900s exhibit, past historic buildings with period fittings.  Visitors can ride the trams, go into the shops, the dentist’s surgery and the solicitor’s office, and interact with friendly volunteers and staff in period costume. 

You can ride the trams around the Beamish site

There were lots of school groups on site at the time, and Beamish gave them a glimpse of an everyday life they have never experienced.  The sweet shop proved to be particularly popular, with youngsters able to watch confectionery being made the traditional way, and then to buy the resulting produce. 

At the bank they could learn about pounds, shilling and pence, which are part of my DNA but totally alien to today’s young people.  At the Co-Op store they were able to see what shopping was like in the old days of ‘closed access’, when all the goods were kept behind the counter under the custodianship of the eagle-eyed shopkeeper.

Traditional grocery shop

Beamish offers a brilliant, immersive exploration of living history.  Even though some of the youngsters were more interested in their mobile phones than the museum, many more were clearly fascinated by this brief insight into the lost world of their grandparents.

As for me, I had a grand day out and loved every minute of it.  In the immortal words of Arnie ‘Terminator’ Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.” 

The tram shed

Reminiscence is good therapy for old fogeys, so long as we keep a sense of proportion and remember that life back then was, in most ways, much tougher than ours today. 

Bring back the shilling, the sixpence and the threepenny bit, that’s what I say!