First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A mix of bruise-coloured cloud and patches of wintry blue sky roofed in the High Peak of Derbyshire. Here in the Derwent Valley the A6 road, the Cromford Canal, the Midland Railway and the Cromford & High Peak Railway all crowd together along the shallow-sided gorge cut through the limestone and sandstone by the snaking Derwent.
We crossed the Midland line and the fast-flowing Derwent, and turned east along the old canal. Sir Richard Arkwright built mills and massed workers’ housing in this damp green valley in the 1770s, after his clever invention of the water frame allowed unskilled workers to spin cotton without ceasing. With the canal bringing in raw cotton and taking the textiles away for sale, the Derwent Valley ruled the cotton world for a few decades.
This morning all was quiet along the Cromford Canal, the loudest sounds the musical squeaking of dabchicks as they dived with a neat plop below the scatter of golden oak and birch leaves on the surface.
Beside the canal rose the tall chimney of Leawood pump house, built in 1849. Its severe classical style recalled an era when even a humble shed for a water pumping engine needed to be raised to glory by a dignity of architecture proper to Prosperity and Progress.
We passed through an echoing tunnel and emerged to find a pair of swans posed on the canal like a picture postcard, one daintily selecting specific morsels of greenstuff from the surface, the other preening breast and neck in a cloud of down. Ahead on the skyline a sunlit quarry cliff was topped by a tall obelisk like a lighthouse, the stark Crich Stand memorial to the dead of the First World War.
At Whatstandwell we crossed the Derwent and took to narrow stone-walled lanes that rose up the southern slopes of the valley. From Watergate Farm tucked low in its hollow we climbed past farms and sheep pastures, descending at last through a beechwood carpeted with bronze-coloured leaves to the steep incline of the horse-drawn Cromford & High Peak Railway.
Near the bottom a black cave mouth opened beside the track – a catch pit, into which breakaway wagons could be diverted as they hurtled down the incline at over 100 mph. Peering into the catch pit, we saw the crumpled remains of one such truck, a salutary reminder of how danger once went hand-in-hand with working men’s employment.
How hard is it? 5½ miles; easy; towpath, hill paths, lanes
Start: High Peak Junction car park, near Cromford DE4 5AA (OS ref SK 314560)
Getting there: Bus TP2 from Cromford
Road – car park is off Lea Road, signed off A6 between Cromford and Whatstandwell.
Walk (OS Explorer OL24): Follow ‘High Peak Junction’ across River Derwent and railway. Left along left bank of canal (‘Ambergate’). Pass pumping house; in 150m, right across canal (316556, ‘Ambergate’) and on for 1¾ miles to Whatstandwell (332544). Right on A6 across river; on right bend, across stile ahead (330544, yellow arrow/YA, ‘Derwent Valley Walk’/DVW). Up to cross road and on (squeeze stile). In 150m, left (330545, YA) up steps. Follow DVW and YAs. In ½ mile, at gate (322541), don’t go through; turn right downhill (‘Midshires Way’/MW, ‘Cromford’) to Watergate Farm (322544). Cross drive; follow MW up fields to walled lane (320546); left (MW). At Whatfield Farm (319547) up right side of buildings (MW); on for 500m to cross B5035 (316551). Follow lane (MW) for 1 mile to High Peak Trail incline (304562). Right to car park.
Lunch/Accommodation: Greyhound Hotel, Cromford DE4 3QE (01629-823172, thegreyhoundatcromford.co.uk)