The birthplace of modern industry is a scenic visit and a UNESCO-feted site
Nestled amid the rolling green dales of Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands, is a region that remains relatively off the radar of tourists, despite UNESCO decreeing it on a cultural par with Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Pyramids of Giza.
Strung along a 30km stretch of river north of Derby, the Derwent Valley Mills are regarded as the birthplace of the modern factory system, inspiring the way millions of people around the globe live and work today.
After a scenic drive along winding, undulating country roads off the M1 motorway, we pull in at the centrepiece of this UNESCO-feted area: Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills.
It was here, in 1771, that the world’s first water-powered cotton-spinning mill was cranked into action — one of the major milestones in the Industrial Revolution.
The mill was badly damaged by fire over a century later but it’s still standing (albeit a few storeys shorter than it originally was) and is part of a cluster of old Georgian brick mills and warehouses.
Blessed too with leafy trees and a millpond, the site has a real postcard-pretty quality.
Some of Cromford’s buildings have been converted into a cafe-tearoom and shop.
Others house exhibits detailing the industrial development of the area, the technical intricacies of spinning cotton imported from the Americas, India and Egypt, and how, in Georgian and Victorian times, the textile trades generated immense profits for portly businessmen like Arkwright.
Spread across the original mill and the neighbouring Building 17, Cromford’s visitor centre and The Arkwright Experience boasts a variety of intriguing displays, including an audiovisual presentation with computer-generated imagery featuring an actor dressed up as Arkwright humorously regaling his life story with theatrical vigour.
Born and bred in a modest background in Preston, Lancashire, Arkwright trained as a barber and wigmaker’s apprentice in Bolton before becoming an entrepreneur and the “richest commoner in England”.
The key to his success was harnessing water power to drive mass textile production. Previously, trades such as cotton spinning had been done small scale, in homes or workshops and fuelled by horsepower, but by utilising the streams of the Derwent Valley, Arkwright’s waterwheels and newly patented cotton-spinning frame made everything work far more efficiently.
As well as introducing his mechanised mills to other parts of the country — notably in places such as Manchester, which became known as Cottonopolis — Arkwright became known as “The Father of the Factory System”, promoting elements such as shiftwork (two 12-hour shifts ensured Cromford ran more or less around the clock).
Keen to attract employees to this remote rural area, he also built a village for his workers, many of whom were women and children (initially kids as young as seven were employed, though the minimum age was later raised to 10 with children given six hours of education per week).
Still more or less intact, Cromford Village mushroomed within easy walking distance of the mills and had cottages, a church, a school, an inn, allotments and pigsties, and even a lock-up for those who misbehaved.
Arkwright, meanwhile, had a huge mansion built on a hilltop overlooking the Derwent Valley. Now the Willersley Castle Hotel, it’s an insight into Arkwright’s lavish wealth and a handsome base from which to explore the rest of the area.
There are plenty of other photogenic industrial relics to admire on your Derwent Valley travels, including Arkwright’s superbly preserved Masson Mills (built in 1783 and in continuous use until 1991).
One of the most beguiling local beauty spots is Cromford Canal, which was completed in 1797 and helped link the Derwent mills with the Erewash Canal (and subsequently other waterways that flowed into the major cities in England’s north and Midlands).
The canal was last used as a working waterway in 1944 but it’s been revitalised as a leisure retreat in recent decades.
Enjoy walks and bike rides along the towpaths and from Cromford Wharf, its northern terminus, you can board the Birdswood, a beautiful, restored heritage narrow boat that offers trips both powered by motor or horse-drawn like yesteryear.
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