I’d been to Derby once or twice before and found it rather dull – I was visiting universities and it didn’t have one of those back then, I was also visiting cathedrals on the side and it had one of those but really it’s just an overgrown parish church. Beyond that there didn’t seem to be much to it, but I was recently drawn back by the opening of the Museum of Making. This is in the Derby Silk Mill, which is claimed to be the world’s first fully mechanised factory, and it led me to realise that the way to appreciate Derby’s place in the world is to visit the whole Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. This was certainly the birthplace of modern manufacturing, with factories driven by water power from the early eighteenth century, but it’s hard to pin down the actual starting point – for years we were taught that Richard Arkwright opened the first factory at Cromford in 1771, and that the Arkwright System was the basis for efficient manufacture until the time of Henry Ford. But now it seems that the Derby Silk Mill got there first, in 1721 – what’s more, it was built next to another mill founded in 1704 which did the same thing, using water power to twist silk thread, but this one went bust. I never found an explanation of just what the key innovation was which means that the Derby Silk Mill is now seen as the first factory. Its founder, John Lombe, went to Piedmont in 1717 to undertake some industrial espionage and returned with the details of their silk-throwing machines (used since the fifteenth century, it seems) and with Italian craftsmen to make and install them.
Regardless of this, the Museum of Making is well put together and well worth visiting (and it’s free). There’s a good café in the foyer, along with an ‘exploded’ Toyota car and a Rolls-Royce aero engine (both produced locally, of course), and the main exhibition on the manufacturing history of Derby and the Derwent Valley is up on the first floor. The second floor is a novel collection of manufactured items organised thematically by their principal constituent material (needless to say there’s a lot of metal – the whole building is lined with cast-iron signs warning and prohibiting, which seems to have been a dominant theme of Victorian life). There’s a small shop up on the third floor, and also studios, the Midland Railway archive, and a superb model railway which claims to be Kirtley Junction, a station on the MR between Derby and Chesterfield.
I also visited the Derby Museum and Art Gallery (also free, of course), although I knew that the paintings of Joseph Wright (1734-97, Derby’s most famous artist) had been removed for a few weeks due to roof repairs – instead that gallery was occupied by some posters for 1970s gigs in Derby, including the Sex Pistols (although that one was cancelled due to national outrage after their TV performance), Sham 69 and Amazing Blondel. There’s plenty of archeology, the military history gallery is very detailed, and there’s a recreation (with the original panelling) of the room in which Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Council decided to turn back towards Scotland, much to his disgust. The other Derby City museum is the Pickford House, a fully intact house from the city’s Georgian peak.
One modern oddity in Derby is the Assembly Rooms, on the Market Place, a key piece of brutalism by Casson and Conder (1977) – it’s regarded as ‘the most important postwar building in the country’, but has been shut up since a fire in 2014, after which asbestos was found, so its future is very much up in the air. My take on it is that it may be important, but it’s not particularly attractive, so why not do something really good with this site?
I also noted that Derby City Council is really quite serious about rewilding, with sites ranging from Allestree Park, on the city’s northern edge, where 130 ha (including parts of a former golf course) will become a mosaic of woodland, scrub and meadows, with red kites, dormice and Highland cattle, to the Derwent Meadows and Alvaston, southeast of the centre. This latter is the area I saw most of, notable the riverside route of National Cycle Network route 6 passing Pride Park and Arenaland, with high-tech venues but not much sign of nature away from the riverside strip.
Northwards along the Derwent
The UNESCO World Heritage Site connects Derby with various other mills to the north in the Derwent Valley, notably Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford. There’s a good visitor centre there, and various shops and a café, but really you’re here for the buildings and location – and there’s plenty more industrial heritage around. Opposite the mills is Cromford Wharf, the end of a canal (opened in 1794) that can be followed (on foot or bike) south to Ambergate, which is coincidentally the first railway station on the Matlock branch. Just a mile or so to the south of Cromford is High Peak Junction, where it met the Cromford and High Peak Railway, opened in 1831 to serve mines and quarries to the west – this climbed over 300 metres in its first five miles, only possible by means of rope-hauled inclines. This daunting slope is now the High Peak Trail (National Cycle Network route 54), which links with the Tissington Trail, also a disused railway, to provide a brilliant day out on the White Peak. At High Peak Junction you can also step into what claims to be the world’s oldest surviving railway workshop. I cycled as far south as Belper, which also has some impressive mills, built rather later – unfortunately the museum and visitor centre is currently closed.
Heading north from Cromford Mills, you first have lovely Cromford Village, with the excellent Scarthin Books and the Greyhound Inn, a fine hotel built by Arkwright to accommodate business associates and potential investors. Just north is Masson Mill (opened in 1783), known for the epic poem by Erasmus Darwin describing the manufacturing processes there – it’s now mainly a retail outlet, but there is a small museum. Then you come to Matlock Bath (which has its own station), once a hydropathic spa but now a sort of inland Blackpool that’s popular with motorbikers. Matlock itself, now the terminus of the rail branch, was a slightly classier resort which still looks good but doesn’t offer many real sights of interest. It’s the southern end of Peak Rail, a heritage railway that runs (at 25mph) along about 4 miles of the former Midland Railway line towards Bakewell, Buxton and Manchester; happily for me, there’s also a cycleway (NCN route 680) alongside it. NCN 680 continues as the Monsal Trail on a delightful stretch of the old railway with various tunnels and viaducts – however there’s a gap between the two sections (from Rowsley to near Bakewell) that’s bridged by a perfectly adequate bridleway that Sustrans has for some reason decided not to incorporate in the National Cycle Network. Usually they’re desperate to get cyclists off main roads such as the A6 but not it seems in this case. You can detour via lovely Bakewell, but I chose to stick to the Monsal Trail, which – surprise surprise! – passes some more classic water-powered textile mills at Cressbrook and Litton. The first Cressbrook mill was built in about 1785 but burnt down and was rebuilt by Richard Arkwright; the current fine Georgian building was built by William Newton (another important figure) in 1815, and is now divided into flats, some available for rent. Litton Mill was founded in 1782 and struggled from the start, mainly due to poor access and the lack of workers within easy reach – it became notorious for the terrible working conditions endured by the apprentices sent there from the parish workhouses.
The next day we found ourselves in New Mills, on the west side of the Pennines but to my surprise still just about in Derbyshire (it could have been Cheshire or Greater Manchester) – partly to tackle the metal walkway strung through a gorge (sort of) between the railway and yet another mill, the Torr Vale Mill (built in about 1788 and powered by water until the 1940s, although steam power was also used from 1856 when it was expanded – it remained operational until 2000). In fact the path to the walkway passes through the remains of Rock Mill (built in about 1790 for cotton-spinning, becoming a steam-powered printworks in 1829), and Torr Mill (also c1790, producing cotton until 1890). A more recent innovation here (between various dramatic bridges where the Goyt and Sett valleys meet) is the reverse Archimedes screw installed in 2008 to produce hydroelectric power (for the nearby Co-op shop, among other things).
So I’m happy to have seen the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, or one of them, but it’s not just about the oldest factories – the Smedleys knitwear factory near Matlock has been in operation since 1783, longer than any other in the world. I assume this is the same family as Smedley’s Hydro in Matlock, which was Britain’s largest hydropathic hotel from the 1840s to the 1950s.
Pubs, of course
Derby’s pubs have a good reputation, but I did note that the pubs with good real ale tended not to do decent food – they’re drinking places, which was slightly unexpected in a city with so few students. But the Brunswick Inn, the Old Dolphin, the Smithfield Alehouse and the Derby Brewery Tap House are all good places to stop, loosely along the river from the station to the cathedral. A special shout-out for the Angler’s Rest in Bamford, one of the earliest community pubs (opened in 2013) which now includes a café and the village post office. And I did visit two excellent bookshops in the Peak – Scarvin Books in Cromford (with a nice little café) and Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding in Buxton (which doesn’t have a café but does offer free tea/coffee-making facilities).