Derwent walk by Roly Smith

Cromford

ROLY SMITH takes a stroll along the Derwent Valley Heritage Way, passing a birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and through a canal-side nature reserve
River through time

The mighty River Derwent could be described as the main artery and lifeblood of Derbyshire, flowing as it does for 66 miles through the heart of the county. From the boggy heights of Bleaklow, this “fury of a river”, as Daniel Defoe described it, eventually reaches the Trent at Shardlow, on the border with Leicestershire.

But the six-mile stretch between Matlock and Whatstandwell is arguably the most interesting, for its spectacular rock architecture at places like High Tor and Pic Tor; for its place as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; and for the glorious Derbyshire WT Derwentside Nature Reserve on the 18th century Cromford Canal.

Our walk follows the way-marked Derwent Valley Heritage Way, opened in 2003 as a 55-mile walk through the length of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site, designated by UNESCO in 2001.

The walk starts in Hall Leys Park, Matlock, following the river into Old Matlock and past the ivy-encrusted reef limestone outcrop of Pic Tor, which is crowned by a war memorial.

A paved path signposted “To The High Tor Grounds” (a reference to the 19th century pleasure gardens constructed by Frederick Arkwright of Willersley Castle, grandson of Richard Arkwright of Cromford Mills, leads steadily uphill to the airy and exposed summit of High Tor.

The crag of High Tor is the abode of serious climbers, who can sometimes be seen clinging like human spiders to the sheer rockface. The massive shield of reef limestone towers over the River Derwent and the A6, which wind through the narrow gorge a giddying 350 feet below.

Descending through woodland you reach the terminus of the cable cars which ascend to the Heights of Abraham, named after General James Wolfe’s 1759 victory over the French in Quebec. Close by is Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Whistlestop Centre, in the cottage orné former Matlock Bath station.

Whistlestop by Jacky Swift

Whistlestop by Jacky Swift

Turning left along North Parade in Matlock Bath, passing the recently-restored Jubilee Footbridge and The Pavilion, which houses the Peak District Mining Museum, on your left. Still alongside the busy A6, you’ll soon see the red-brick chimney of Masson Mills, now home to a shopping centre and the Masson Mills Working Textile Museum, on the ground floor.

Derwent valley

Derwent valley

Just before the traffic lights, turn left at some stone gateposts to Church Walk between limestone crags and the river. On the opposite bank is Willersley Castle, the would-be home of Richard Arkwright, father of the modern industrial factory system and inventor of the water-powered spinning frame. Unfortunately, he died in 1792 before repairs were completed after a fire had partly destroyed the half-completed building.

St Mary’s Church, Cromford by Jacky Swift

St Mary’s Church, Cromford by Jacky Swift

The path leads past St Mary’s Church where Arkwright is buried, and just across the road is Cromford Wharf, the terminus of the Cromford Canal, built in 1794 to link to the Erewash Canal and the Cromford and High Peak Railway, now the High Peak Trail.

Today, the Cromford Canal is a quiet, reedy backwater and home to a thriving population of water voles, little grebes, coots and moorhens. It is probably the best place in Derbyshire to see the nationally-threatened water vole – the lovable “Ratty” of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.

Cromford by Jacky Swift

Cromford by Jacky Swift

At High Peak junction, the routes crosses to the west side of the canal and follows the line of the old railway to the towering brick chimney of the Leawood Pumphouse, which raised water from the Derwent to the canal, and an aqueduct. In the spring, there are beautiful drifts of golden dwarf wild daffodils along this stretch.

You soon reach the Gregory Tunnel and after that, the route passes through coppiced woodland alongside the canal eventually to a footbridge which leads to Whatstandwell and its railway station. 

End