Cromford Canal History
A new waterway, the Erewash Canal, opened at Long Eaton near the junction of the River Soar with the River Trent. It ran north alongside the River Erewash, through Sandiacre, past Trowell and Ilkeston to a point near Langley Mill – now better known as Great Northern Basin. The Erewash Canal was soon very successful and this led businessmen further north to look into ways of extending the line.
An extension to the Erewash Canal was being called for by many people. In particular mine owners around Pinxton were eager to have a navigable waterway as they claimed there were numerous unworked seams which were being left untouched due to lack of suitable transport. Eventually it was agreed to extend the Erewash Canal as far as Pinxton. However, before any work could be done, other businessmen further to the north of the Erewash Canal also began to show interest in a waterway which could serve their towns and villages. These included iron furnaces at Butterley and Somercotes, limestone quarries at Crich, lead-works at Alderwasley and cotton mills at Cromford.
At a meeting in Matlock a canal was proposed to link the southern side of the Peak District to the Erewash Canal. William Jessop, a local businessman himself, volunteered to do a survey.
The canal was supported by numerous local businessmen but the strongest voice by far was Sir Richard Arkwright who owned the cotton mills at Cromford. He was the pioneer of the factory system and his Cromford mill was the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning works.
Being situated well away from the machine breakers who had wrecked many businesses elsewhere, Arkwright was finding Cromford a very difficult place to get his goods in and out of.
It was a very slow and costly process to send packhorses across the Peak District or to places like Derby and Nottingham so Arkwright desperately needed a reliable and cheap transport system which he hoped a canal could provide.
A further meeting was held in Alfreton during December and Jessop reported his survey. He proposed a line from the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill to Arkwright’s mill at Cromford with a branch line to Pinxton Mill. Interest was so great that half of the estimated cost was raised there and then with the other half being raised during the following two weeks.
In July the Cromford Canal’s authorisation went through Parliament. Strangely, the company who had most to gain from the new canal, the Erewash Canal Company, was the only one that contested the Cromford Canal Act. The Erewash Canal Company feared water supply problems because up till then it had enjoyed exclusive rights to the River Erewash. Despite this objection the Cromford Canal was authorised and work began.
The new canal was to be engineered by William Jessop with Benjamin Outram (who was Jessop’s partner in the nearby Butterley Ironworks) and Thomas Dadford employed as assistant engineers.
The line was to be 14½ miles long and would serve several mines, quarries, lead-works, the ironworks at Butterley and Somercotes and Arkwright’s cotton mills at Cromford. It was to have 3 aqueducts and 4 tunnels of which one, Butterley, would be 2 miles long. There would also be 14 locks, all on the section south of Butterley Tunnel. Soon after work began it was realised that the estimated cost was going to be a long way short of the actual amount needed. Matters were made worse when the contractors, Kearsley and Roundford, resigned forcing Jessop and Outram to have to take full control over all work.
In September all the money ran out and the company were forced to take out loans and make calls on shareholders to raise more cash. Better news came for the canal when the decision (by a separate company) was made to build the Nottingham Canal to Langley Mill where it would join the Erewash and Cromford canals.
This would give the Cromford Canal a second outlet to the Trent as well as an important link with Nottingham. Agreements had to be set up between the Cromford and Nottingham canals because the Cromford company feared that the Nottingham Canal would use up all of its water supply.
The Nottingham company agreed to build extra reservoirs to serve both canals while Jessop built the Cromford Canal summit level much deeper than normal to act as an “on site” reservoir, holding the water which came from Cromford Sough. Jessop was also to be engineer in the Nottingham Canal.
Richard Arkwright died at the age of 60. He had done more than any other individual to get the Cromford Canal started. He’d wanted a canal specifically to carry his cotton and finished goods though he never got to see the route in operation. In the end, the route mainly carried coal, iron and quarried stone rather than cotton but despite this, the waterway was always thought of as “Arkwright’s canal”.
In February the Cromford Canal was opened to the southern portal of Butterley Tunnel. However, Ambergate Aqueduct to the west of Butterley was already in need of repair. Jessop took full responsibility and paid for the £650 rebuild out of his own pocket. Jessop seems to have had an Achilles’ heel when it came to masonry as later in the year the same problem occurred at Wigwell Aqueduct over the River Derwent just south of Cromford. Again Jessop accepted responsibility and repaired the structure personally.
Another new line, the Derby Canal was begun, engineered by Benjamin Outram. This, like the Nottingham Canal, would provide some competition for the Cromford Canal but more importantly both waterways would also provide better routes for Cromford Canal traffic, allowing shorter, quicker and cheaper access to certain areas.
In August the Cromford Canal – aqueducts, tunnels and all – was fully opened and became a success right from the start despite having cost twice the estimated cost to build it.
The Derby Canal opened linking the Erewash Canal (and therefore the Cromford Canal) to Derby. It carried on past Derby to Swarkestone where it met the Trent & Mersey Canal and then the River Trent.
Also during this year, the Nottingham Canal opened providing a much shorter route to that city and beyond. The Nottingham Canal made a junction onto the Cromford Canal at Langley Mill Basin next to the point where the Cromford and Erewash canals met each other head on. The Cromford and Nottingham canals were very helpful towards each other, realising from the start that good relations would yield better results than competing and squabbling over tolls and water.
The first passenger (or “fly”) boat service began operating from Cromford Basin. It was run by Nathaniel Wheatcroft who made twice weekly trips to Nottingham, a distance of 38 miles, costing 5s first class and 3s second class.
The over-expenditure in building the Cromford Canal was soon forgotten by the company. The canal became more successful every year with most of the cargo being coal, coke and a good proportion of limestone.
During 1800 the Peak Forest Canal opened on the far side of the Peak District, to the north west of Cromford, near Manchester. Although this was a long way from Cromford it was soon to have a lasting link with the Cromford Canal. As soon as the Peak Forest Canal was up and running, businessmen began talking about a canal that would cross the Peak District joining the Cromford Canal to the Peak Forest Canal.
The Grand Junction Canal Company were strong supporters of this idea as it would greatly reduce the time and distance between Manchester and London. On the other hand, the Trent and Mersey Canal Company, who stood to suffer the biggest losses, were equally strong in their opposition.
John Rennie was asked to survey a line across this most southerly part of the Pennines. He reported (not surprisingly) that the route would need dozens of locks and would be very heavy on water usage. His estimated cost was £650,000, much more than had been hoped, thus the plan was dropped – but not forgotten.
A privately owned canal, named the Lea Wood (or Leawood) Branch, was opened just south of Wigwell Aqueduct. According to numerous books the owner of this branch, Peter Nightingale, was the father of Florence Nightingale. (However, Stewart Flint, a Nightingale family descendant told that this is not true and Peter was, in fact, a Great Uncle of the famous nurse).
The canal branch, built jointly by Nightingale and the Cromford Canal Company, was just ½ a mile long but it provided access to a number of quarries, two lead-works, cotton mills and a hat factory.
The extra traffic caused by the new branch and the growing prosperity of the whole canal in general led the company to open Butterley Tunnel 24 hours a day to alleviate congestion. Another branch line was talked about during this year which would have connected the main line to Bakewell though in the end nothing was ever done.
However, the line would have been more of an extension than a branch as Bakewell is over 10 miles north of the terminus in Cromford. As well as canal branches, over the following years, numerous connections were made to the canal from quarries and mines but most of these were not water routes.
Derbyshire, and this area in particular, became famous for its tramways and a number of them connected to the Cromford Canal at various points. One of the main engineers in the area was Benjamin Outram who appears to have had the perfect name for the job! Most tramways were less than 2 miles long but could reach high into the hills, usually drawn by horses or pulled up the inclines via a balance and gravity system.
At Crich, for instance, the limestone quarries situated high above the canal were connected to the water at Bullbridge via a tramway, at Riddings a donkey-drawn tramway was built while at Swanwick and Birchwood a steam-driven tramway was in operation. At the ironworks in Butterley there was an even more ingenious transportation method. Cargo from the works was sent straight down shafts onto boats inside Butterley Tunnel. Most of this cargo was ammunition such as cannons, cannon balls and shot bound for Woolwich arsenal.
Such was the success of the canal that dividends to shareholders reached 10%.
Twenty five years after the idea was first looked into, a new proposal was made to link the Cromford Canal to the Peak Forest Canal on the far side of the Peak District. This time the proposal was to link the two waterways by rail rather than by a canal. In May, an Act of Parliament was granted and the Cromford & High Peak Railway Company was born with William Jessop’s son, Josias, appointed as engineer on the building of the line.
The increasing success of the canal continued to bring steady increases in dividends which were now just under 20%.
The Cromford & High Peak Railway opened in July from just north of Wigwell Aqueduct to the terminus basin at Whaley Bridge on the Peak Forest Canal. To cross the Peak District, nine inclined planes had been built with stationary engines used to haul wagons up the steep hillsides while a more conventional railway was used across the summit. The railway was very successful from the start and continued to do well even after the arrival of many other railways in the area.
Most of the coal carried on the Cromford Canal was taken south, from local Derbyshire mines, towards Leicester. Staffordshire coal, carried on the Trent and Mersey Canal, had also been competing for this same market and more competition had now arrived with the building of a railway from Burton, through Ashby and Swannington, to Leicester.
As a result of this the Cromford Canal began to carry much less coal and the reduction in traffic was biting into their profits. After a meeting with the other local canals and the local colliery owners the canals reluctantly agreed to lower their tolls on coal carriage to Leicester. However, it soon became evident that the reduced tolls had no effect on the level of traffic on the canal and were only resulting in even less profit for the company so they dropped the toll concession. The colliery owners were very unhappy and began to look into building a railway line to carry the coal themselves and thus avoid the monopolising canals.
Traffic continued to increase at such a steady volume that the canal was carrying double the amount it had done at the turn of the century. The ever increasing success of the route brought dividends up to an all time high of 28% during the early 1840’s. As well as carrying twice as much coal as it did in the early years, the canal now carried substantial quantities of farm produce as well as ironstone, gritstone and limestone.
Iron from the Butterley works had also increased considerably since the canal’s early days. Coal was mainly carried down the Cromford Canal to the Erewash Canal and onto the Soar Navigation and then to Leicester. Limestone was shipped further south to the West Midlands and London.
This was not quite the great news that it initially seems to be however as most of it was to be used for the building of the new railways which were soon to put all canals in jeopardy. The canal quickly realised the threat from railway competition and reduced its tolls in order to keep cargoes on the waterway.
Reducing cargo rates soon took its toll! Revenue went down by 25% in just two years and dividends were cut by half. Also during this period the canal lost its original water supply. Since the canal opened it had taken water from Cromford Sough which ran through Arkwright’s mills and entered the canal at Cromford Basin. This water came from local lead mines but when mining moved to lower levels the water supply dried up. The company were forced into building a pumping station near Cromford to supply the canal’s summit level. Water was drawn from the River Derwent which passed under the canal at Wigwell Aqueduct.
The Cromford Canal Company was one of the first to conclude that it was pointless to try and fight the railways. The Erewash Valley Line was under construction and another line was planned to run from Cheadle to Ambergate. These and competition from other railways already in existence in the area were enough to see the canal company sell out to the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midlands Junction Railway Company. A deal was agreed upon but it was 5 more years before the canal changed hands.
In August, following an Act of Parliament, the MBM&MJR took over the running of the Cromford Canal at a cost of £103,000.This has since said to be much more than the canal was worth and to have been a marvellous piece of salesmanship by the canal committee. Soon after taking control, the MBM&MJR leased out the canal in a joint agreement with the Midland Railway and the London & North Western Railway.
As soon as the railways took control of the waterway it saw an immediate decline in traffic. Midland Railway owned the line which ran parallel to the waterway along the whole of its route and virtually all carrying was moved onto the railway. However, while the canal lost its traditional cargoes it gained some others – though never in such great quantities. These included corn and groceries bound for Manchester.
The Cromford Canal’s near neighbour – and useful ally – the Nottingham Canal also sold out to a local railway, the Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston & Eastern Junction Railway Company, which in turn was bought out by the much larger Great Northern Railway. Being owned by two completely different and very large companies meant the sudden end of good relations between the two waterways.
Midland Railway Company took full control of the Cromford Canal. By this time tonnage had dropped to lower than ½ of what had been carried in the years just before the railway take-over
After 35 years of railway ownership the tonnage carried on the canal had dropped to just 15% of its pre-railway level. Even this was mostly local traffic with very few boats travelling onto the adjoining canals. All long distance cargoes now went by train.
Subsidence caused the canal’s owners to temporarily close Butterley Tunnel. The repairs took four years to complete and cost over £7,000. The money loss was not just the cost of rebuilding but also a loss of income due to boats being unable to pass through the tunnel.
Traffic had been low before the subsidence in Butterley Tunnel but after the tunnel re-opened the trade was very slow to pick-up and never reached even the low pre-subsidence levels. Most of the carriers who had “discovered” the advantages of the railway while the tunnel was blocked never returned to the canal.
In July, a second collapse within Butterley Tunnel caused its closure once again, but this time the closure turned out to be permanent. The owners (Midland Railway) refused to repair the tunnel a second time, claiming (probably correctly) that the amount of traffic using the tunnel did not warrant the cost of repair, especially when there was a very adequate railway line running parallel to the canal.To keep the few existing carriers “sweet” the railway company allowed them to use the railway at no extra charge.
The very few carriers who still wanted to use the tunnel were of course very unhappy about its loss. Their pressure to have the tunnel re-opened was backed by the Erewash Canal Company and eventually a survey was made by Rudolph de Salis and paid for by the government. Unfortunately, Salis reported that the headroom inside the tunnel had become very low in parts and the brickwork lining was in a very dangerous state. He also reported that the canal to the west of the tunnel was in an equally poor state.
To the east of the tunnel traffic had always been fairly good and this continued long after the tunnel’s closure. On the west side, a small amount of local carrying continued for some time. Coal, in particular, was still taken to High Peak Wharf where it was transferred onto rail. Most of this came from near by on the privately owned Lea Wood Branch.
Although pressure remained on the company to re-open Butterley Tunnel, all hopes ended when a third collapse occurred during February.
Butterley Tunnel was finally pronounced beyond economic repair by a Royal Commission.
The great railway amalgamation took place leaving the Cromford Canal in the hands of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company.
The Erewash Canal was taken over by the Grand Union Canal Company. If Butterley Tunnel had been open the Grand Union Canal may well have taken over the Cromford Canal too though of course this did not happen. The take over of the Erewash Canal will have made little difference to the Cromford Canal at this stage as it was now used very little with virtually all trade now being carried on the railway.
The privately owned Lea Wood Branch was closed.
On March 13th the owners of the Cromford Canal announced their intention to close down the whole the canal. This raised a few objections, not enough to change the plans of the owners, but enough to persuade them to offer the line to the Grand Union Canal. However, it would appear that the Grand Union Company were not interested and there was no take-over. The railway company also announced the closure of the Nottingham Canal, this was met with no real resistance and the dirty deed was done!
The whole of the Cromford Canal, except for a ½ mile stretch at the southern end, was officially abandoned. Following this, most of the southern section of the canal was filled in though to the north of Butterley it was mostly left untouched – neither maintained or destroyed. It slowly but surely became weeded over and hidden by undergrowth.
The last remaining ½ mile of the canal, near the junction with the Erewash Canal, was finally closed. The top 4 miles of the Erewash Canal were also closed at the same time.
The last traffic to have any real association with the Cromford Canal ended when the last train crossed the Peak District on the Cromford and High Peak Railway. However, interchanging with the canal had of course ended many years earlier.
Derbyshire County Council bought the northern most 5½ miles of the canal, from Ambergate to Cromford. Since then the towpath has been cleaned up and is open as a designated walk.
Although the towpath near Ambergate on the southern part of the rejuvenated section is now restored, the canal itself is still completely weeded up and very shallow. However, the northern part of this section, near Cromford, has been fully restored and turned into a popular linear country park.
The section includes many of the best sites on the canal including Wigwell Aqueduct, Leawood pumping station, High Peak Junction and Cromford Basin. Although the water is still shallow, it is possible to navigate the canal in this area though full restoration of the whole canal is probably impossible and is not currently part of anybody’s plans.
Cromford Canal Route
The Cromford Canal’s southern end began at Langley Mill Basin, also named Great Northern Basin after its former railway owners. At the basin it met the northern end of the Erewash Canal at a head-on junction.
The Erewash Canal is fully navigable and Great Northern Basin provides a winding point, boat yard and small marina. A few yards north of the Erewash junction, still at the basin, is a second junction.
The Nottingham Canal forks away south eastwards, running parallel with the Erewash for a number of miles. However, the Nottingham Canal is not navigable here and it is thought that it will not be possible to restore it due to land subsidence.
The Cromford Canal headed directly north away from Langley Mill. My road atlas shows a blue line which is probably a stream but it marks the general line of the Cromford Canal as it headed north through Brinsley and Stoneyford.
According to a 1971 reference book all of this section has gone, most of it having been filled in during the 1960’s. The reference book said, for instance, that the only evidence that there had ever been a canal in Stoneyford was the Boat Inn, described as excellent, but the canal was described as completely obliterated with scarcely a trace of the existence of a formerly very busy waterway. However, those in the know may recognise a lock keeper’s cottage.
Two miles further north the route swung westwards towards Ironville.Half way around the long bend the canal is clearly marked on my road atlas. As the canal straightens out to head west the railway from Chesterfield crosses the route and then the canal arrives at Ironville, the canal has water in it here – though not much more than a trickle.
Through Ironville a number lock chambers still stand in fairly good condition, these were the top few of a flight of 14. My 1971 reference book described Ironville as an unattractive but interesting relic of Victorian industrial housing – presumably this meant there were lots of terraced streets. The village, of course, got its name from the Butterley Ironworks which were nearby, owned by William Jessop and Benjamin Outram – two men who became very famous in the canal world.
In 1997 I visited Ironville and found it to be a fairly pleasant place, lined with terraced streets with the canal running through the centre of it – all industry wiped without trace. Near the top of the lock flight is the junction where the Pinxton Branch headed north for around 2¼ miles. Its path can be followed as it heads north east near Riddings to Pinxton. Originally this was planned to be the main line of an extension of the Erewash Canal but when the line to Cromford was conceived, the route to Pinxton became a branch.
Most of the branch has been filled in though the junction and first bridge can still be seen. The area around this junction has changed considerably since the canal’s closure. After the top existing lock the canal is now filled in and used as a grassy path. On the south side of the canal bed is an almighty drop into a wide flood channel. This was apparently built in case the nearby reservoir burst its banks.
The filled in portion of the canal had two looks on it but, looking at the area today, it is impossible to envisage the scene in working days. When I was here in 1997 I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with a man aged about 65. He told me he’d worked at the ironworks all his life and remembered the canal in its working days very well although he’d only been a child at the time. During our chat he dashed off to his home and came back with a picture of the Pinxton Branch junction.
He explained how the canal came up through a lock right beside the junction and standing where the flood channel now is there used to be a dry dock and wharf while on the far side there used to be a railway interchange. All of this has completely gone without trace except the bridge over the entrance of the branch. The man pointed out where a canal cottage had stood on the junction, getting quite emotional when he rummaged about and discovered the chopped bottoms of iron railings.Down the lock flight he told me that where there is now grassy slope from the houses down to the canal, there was once a 30 feet high wall with a factory over looking the waterway.
The Pinxton Branch headed north east for just 2¼ miles. It can be traced at the point where the Midland (tourist) Railway crosses its dry bed. At Pinxton it can be found in water with a fair sized basin and a pub at its head. In the middle of the basin is an island now thick with wild life and the area around the basin is used as a picnic site. To find this area you must travel right along to the western end of the long main street in Pinxton, Wharf Road (a dead end) and then turn south at a school into Alexander Terrace. This takes you down and across a level crossing. The canal basin is just past here on the right.
Back on the main line, just west of the Pinxton Branch junction the canal comes to an end. Walkers have to cross a bridge across the flood channel with the fairly large Codnor reservoir on the north side.
After crossing a small car park the dry canal can be rejoined. This heads west for about a mile till it reaches Newlands Road which runs from Codnor to Riddings. The canal’s route can easily be followed as it runs parallel to a minor road which heads west out of Ironville to Newlands Road.
After crossing Newlands Road (near the Newlands Inn) the canal enters an area known as Golden Valley where the canal, although very overgrown, is now a nature reserve. The parallel road becomes a private lane west of Newlands Road though in years gone by this was owned by the iron company and was a toll road which linked Ironville to Butterley. Nowadays it is one of the entrances to the Midland Railway Centre.
In Golden Valley, some 200 yards west of Newlands Road, the canal becomes lower than the surrounding land as it dives into a cutting and arrives at the eastern portal of Butterley Tunnel. In 1971 it was described as no more than an insignificant hole in the hillside. In 1992 the situation had not changed according to Ray Quinlan’s “Canal Walks” book. In fact, finding the portal beneath the undergrowth was something of a challenge though shortly after this the area was cleaned up quite a bit. In 1997 I found it easy enough to see the tunnel entrance but the undergrowth was about to hide it again.
The tunnel is just over 3,000 yards long and is just 9 feet wide. Its approach is now badly silted up but even in its navigable days it was one of the slowest canal tunnels in the country to navigate. Being narrow it caused many delays because boats could only travel in one direction at a time.
The journey through would take several hours as there was no towpath and boats had to be legged. Near the portal, water sometimes cascades down a stepped weir from the top of the canal cutting. This water comes from Butterley reservoir, which is on the B6179 a few miles to the west.
The cascade is necessary because the drop from the reservoir would otherwise be far too severe. From the tunnel it is possible to walk up to the top of the cutting (the former horse path).
At the top you will find the tracks of a light railway. This is just one of many attractions at the Midland Railway Centre. The light railway travels around the wooded nature reserve but it is hoped that someday it will be able to bring passengers to the canal from where a trip boat will run – dream on.
There is a charge to travel on the light railway but it is free to walk through the nature reserve which eventually arrives at the Midland Railway Centre. Also in the area is a free “pets corner” containing rabbits, hens, goats and horses (among other things).
It is also possible to explore the relics of the iron works and a mine as well as the extensive railway sidings nearby on which a tourist steam railway runs. Within the railway area there is also a huge exhibition centre containing dozens of steam engines, carriages and other railway paraphernalia. Entry to all these attractions is free except for the light railway and the steam railway. If you take a train ride you will cross the Pinxton Branch’s dry path to the east and Butterley Reservoir to the west.
The line of the tunnel can be followed by looking out for the remains of shafts running parallel to the south side of the toll road as it heads west towards the village of Butterley. The west portal of Butterley Tunnel is near Hammersmith, a tiny village made up of a row of cottages on the minor road from Ripley to Pentrich. My 1971 reference book described an area of railway dereliction just past Hammersmith near where a lane headed west beside a playground. The lane past beneath 2 railway bridges (one built directly over the other) and then arrived at a sewage plant. A path heads off to the right here and crosses the west portal of the tunnel to drop down to the towpath.
However, the area has almost certainly changed in recent years, the railway is now part of the Midland Railway Centre and the A38 dual-carriageway passes over the canal at a point which must be very close to the portal. Finding it may – or may not – be as easy as it once was. The portal is at the bottom of a huge battered stone wall. This, in fact, is not the original entrance to the tunnel as it was extended by 97 yards to this point when the railway was constructed above.
Past the A38 the canal bends south-west until the A610 crosses its path. The road actually crosses the route a couple of times though the canal has been wiped out along here. This was done when the road was widened.
The canal headed west on the south side of the A610 for nearly a mile before turning sharp right and heading north. The route disappears from the road atlas at the point where the A610 meets the B6013. In 1971, beside a transport cafe near the road junction, the canal had been filled in though a short tunnel could still be seen in the cafe’s car park.
In 1996 the book “Water Ways” names this as Buckland Hollow Tunnel but said it can now be found beside the car park of the Excavator pub. You’d think this would be simple enough to find but when I reached the pub I found it had 3 car parks! After some searching about I found the dry canal’s course coming in from the south at the back of the pub. Its path is then obliterated by the rear car park but it used to curve west under the railway which crosses overhead. If you look carefully at the stonework on the railway embankment’s wall you can see that it was once the side of the canal.
However, don’t look down at car park level, look up the wall at about the 6 feet level, the canal was higher than the car park. Following the curve around to the west, walking up the incline across the car park will bring you to some rough grass and a path. The short Buckland Hollow Tunnel is dead ahead. The tunnel is just 33 yards long and although the canal bed has been filled in, the tunnel still has a towpath. You can walk right through it and continue to follow the canal on the far side.
The canal continued west to the south of the A610 for about another mile. There used to be a fairly substantial aqueduct over the main road, the railway, the River Amber and a minor road at Bullbridge. It was 200 yards long and was approached on a high embankment but it was removed in the late 1960’s to make room for the widening of the road.
Today the site of the aqueduct can be detected near a small chapel and a row of terraced houses on a short stretch of the original main road. To reach the former aqueduct park on this stretch of old road and walk west a few yards to where it meets the new road. Near here, on the south side, are some steps climbing steeply up to an embankment.
Once you reach the top you are standing on the former towpath on the approach to the aqueduct. The fences of gardens have squeezed the canal bed somewhat here but it can be followed east all the way back to Buckland Hollow Tunnel. Back at road level you will notice that when the aqueduct still existed it must have caused chaos for traffic.Not only did its arch allow only single file passage but it was immediately after a blind bend. Directly across the road there is an opening and a path which goes across the railway at track level. From the railway you can see the very bottom of the stone piers of the aqueduct. These are all that remain.
On the far side of the railway is a hill, this is the northern side of the severed embankment making up part of the aqueduct. If you fish about a bit you’ll spot some steps climbing up onto the former canal bed. This side of the aqueduct is much clearer, you can make out the bed and towpath and see the stone walls along either side.
The River Amber is crossed and then a minor road but the footpath becomes narrow because part of the aqueduct is fenced off into a pen for horses. When the path opens out again it is covered by trees and suddenly you see the canal before you – in water! Sadly this last for just 200 yards and ends at the bridge carrying the steep minor road to Crich.
On the far side a factory completely blocks the canal bed though a footpath still exists along what was the towpath. Some books say that somewhere nearby was another short tunnel but access in 1971 was said to be difficult due to the development of a gasworks and I saw no sign of it in 1997. At Ambergate the canal is back in water as it swings north west to run parallel with the A6, though the railway is sandwiched between the two and the River Derwent also squeezes into the same valley.
Past the Little Chef (on the right hand side of the A6 as it heads north) there is a bridge over the river Derwent with a good view of a railway viaduct which also crosses the river. Two hundred yards further along the A6 is a right turn onto Chase Road (a narrow and steep lane) which goes under the railway and then climbs up to a tiny canal bridge beside some farm buildings.
The canal is clearly not navigable here and the towpath is a little overgrown though it can be walked along. In fact the walk has been described as “delightful”.
The walk to Whatstandwell is about 2½ miles long. Crich Chase is to the east and Shining Cliff Woods to the west. In the early days of the canal there were big problems with poaching around Crich Chase. Things got so bad that boatmen were forbidden to moor on this stretch at night. At the first bridge west of Chase Road there is a canal cottage which was once the home of a canal lengthsman. Further north is a mile post marking 4½ miles to Cromford. There is another cottage nearby, this one is now used by the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. The canal is quite isolated along this stretch with little or no access to “civilisation” until the it reaches Whatstandwell. However, the A6 can easily be heard down below just a few yards to the west.
Whatstandwell can be seen down a steep bank from bridge 13 which takes the B3035 across the canal. There is a small gravel area used as a car park on the north side of the bridge. When I was here in 1996 I found the canal was very overgrown and incredibly shallow. At the far end of the gravel car park is a low wall which turns out to be the top of a railway tunnel parapet. I was surprised to find that the railway line (from Matlock to Ambergate) is single-tracked.
A little way west of Whatstandwell, on the designated walk along the towpath, is the former bridge of a tramway which crossed the canal on its way down from Crich limestone quarries. The bridge is now just a light footbridge though the original abutments are still in place. The quarries are now part of the Crich National Tramway Museum.
Over the next 1½ miles the weedy canal becomes very narrow, it passes a nice house and then steadily curves left (west). Soon, the waterway widens again and reaches Gregory Dam just before entering the last of the canal’s four tunnels. This one, like two of the others, is very short at just 80 yards in length. It is known as Gregory Tunnel and has a towpath through it. Past the tunnel the canal passes by Derwent Nature Reserve and within a mile it crosses the railway line on an aqueduct.
This is the first of a whole host of interesting canal features which now arrive thick and fast as the route continues north. Just past the railway aqueduct the canal changes direction again and swings steadily to the right (north). As it rounds the hill it reaches the junction with the Lea Wood (or Nightingale) Branch which was privately owned by Peter Nightingale. There is a cottage at the junction which (1992) is derelict and partly buried in the undergrowth. The branch itself is only in water for a few yards though it is possible to walk along its entire length. Within about 200 yards of the junction the branch used to cross the railway on an iron aqueduct but this has sadly been dismantled.
Just a few yards further north on the main line is William Jessop’s Wigwell (or Leawood) Aqueduct, a 200 yard long, 30 feet high structure which crosses the River Derwent. It has 3 arches, the middle one having an 80 feet span. At the southern end is a small foot swing bridge which takes the towpath over to the eastern side. From the aqueduct it is possible to look up stream along the River Derwent to see the wooden bridge which carries the railway over the river.
On the northern side of the aqueduct (and eastern side of the canal) is the Leawood or (High Peak) Pumping Station. Its tall chimney towers above the canal, 95 feet high. The entrance to the station is below the level of the towpath at a height ½ way between the river and the canal. The whole building was built of local gritstone though the very top of the chimney has a strangely shaped parapet made of cast iron. The engine inside the station has a 33 feet beam and the pump can draw up to 30 tons of water per minute. The engine is of Boulton & Watts style though it was actually built by Graham & Co. It was restored by the canal trust and is sometimes open for viewing with full steam demonstrations on certain weekends during summer.
Within about 20 yards or the pumping station is the interchange building of the Cromford & High Peak Railway. Trains could travel right along the canal-side to the interchange where transhipment with boats would take place. The building is on the west bank of the canal which is the opposite side to the towpath. However, the former railway track bed is now used as an access road and can therefore be walked along. In fact, it is possible to walk right along both sides of the waterway from the south end of the aqueduct, for about ½ a mile, to the next bridge.
At the bridge, which is of the wooden swing variety, is the High Peak Junction Workshops which have been fully restored and are open to the public. By car they can only be accessed by parking by the River Derwent in the car park provided near the gates to a sewage plant. This entrance is on the minor road running along the east side of the canal from Holloway to Cromford. From the car park there is a footpath leading to the canal with some pleasant views of the River Derwent (the path crosses the river on a substantial footbridge).
However, the smell can be far from pleasant if (like when I visited the area) the sewage plant is working up a full head of steam!! The footpath arrives at the canal right beside the High Peak Junction Workshops which are on the opposite side to the towpath with the wooden swing bridge providing a crossing point. There are toilets and a shop as well as picnic tables for days when the wind over the sewage works is blowing in the other direction! Inside the workshops there is an inspection (or maintenance) bay and nearby are a row of cottages said to be charming to look at but probably not so charming to live in.
Behind the workshops are a couple of railway trucks and behind them is a very steep and narrow path leading up the hillside. This runs for a hundred yards up to the A6 and allows access for those on foot or arriving by public transport. The railway itself started at the interchange building along the canal to the south. Just north of the workshops it began to climb the first hill taking it up into the Peak District en route for Whaley Bridge, 33 miles away. There were around 9 inclined planes needed to lift the trucks up to the summit level.
The first two of these were converted into one in 1857 making a 1,320 yard climb on a gradient of 1:8. In the early days trucks were linked together by wire to form a train, those coming down the hill were counter balanced by those going up but “runaways” were fairly common – not to mention very dangerous. Later, a stationary steam engine hauled the trucks up the incline until 1964 when it was replaced by electric.
There is an engine house situated about 3 miles west of the canal at Middleton on the B5023 which is open to the public. Sadly, for the railway, the conversion to electricity in 1964 gave the users of the route time to realise that road traffic was just as easy and cheaper to use. By the time the electric motor was installed, the railway found it had lost the main bulk of its business. The line finally closed in 1967.
Just one mile north of High Peak Junction the Cromford Canal swings slightly west and arrives at its terminus at Cromford Basin. In 1971 the basin was said to form part of Midland Storage Transport Service’s yard and to have a stone warehouse, a covered loading bay, some dirty water and not much else. Since then however Midland Storage Transport Services have gone and the basin now belongs to the local council and the trust who restored it.
The Midland Storage Transport Services yard is now a canal-side car park complete with toilets. Access is gained by taking the minor road at the A6/A5012 junction in Cromford. After passing between the large Arkwright Mills complex on the left and a high cliff on the right the road immediately passes the canal basin which is on the right hand side. In the car park, facing north with the canal behind, there is a pretty canal cottage which is still lived in. To the right of the cottage, along the northern edge of the car park, is the site of a former Blacksmith, stables and a saw pit though the only building standing here now (1996) is the newly erected toilets!
Just to the east of the basin there is a winding point on the canal.The waterway then forks into two wharves. The north fork, which runs along the south edge of the car park, was used for goods coming into Cromford. In the car park, by the side of the towpath, is a cart bay, a simple inlet in the retaining wall which allowed a horse and cart to be backed up to the wharf-side. As the towpath is higher than the car park this made it very easy to unload the carts. Alongside the cart bay is a warehouse which has a canopy covering the wharf.
The warehouse is now a canal gift shop and tea room though on the side of the building, facing the road, is a door which still has its old sign above it advertising the business of “N. Wheatcroft & Son Ltd. Coal & Coke Merchants”. As well as fuel, the family also carried many other things, including passengers. On the south fork of the basin are the oldest buildings on the canal.These are a warehouse and counting house.
Where as the north fork ends at the basin, the water in the south fork continues towards the road and bends around Rock House hill. This is Cromford Sough which was the canal’s feeder stream. Before arriving at the basin it also fed Arkwright’s Mill which can be seen just across the road. The mill complex is currently (1996) being restored though some of it is already open to the public.
On top of the cliff, which rises up above the south side of the basin, is the appropriately named Rock House which was Richard Arkwright’s first home. The basin itself was the site of Arkwright’s garden which he kindly gave up for the route of the canal. This was not a great loss to him as it meant the canal could begin just yards from his mill – and he’d already planned to move into a bigger house anyway!
For up to date information on the Cromford Canal and the plans to fully re-open it, please see the Friends Of The Cromford Canal website.