The Lonely Villages of the Derwent Valley

20th Dec 2018

Derwent Hall Rock Pillar

The Derwent Valley is a truly beautiful place and I spend a lot of time there.  It is a stunning deep sided valley with imposing dark brown reservoirs in its base, tree lined sides, rough peaty moorland surroundings and raspy gritstone features which add a brooding intensity.

There are great mountain bike routes that rise out of and drop into the valley, we regularly use the moorland above the valley for navigation courses and the circuit around the reservoirs is a regular route for our summer evening runs. People live at sporadic points throughout the valley and many come to sit and ponder, walk dogs and enjoy the flora and fauna.  It is a valley for everyone.

All this means that, at certain times, it is very busy.  This is inevitable given the easy road access from Sheffield and Glossop combined with nearby public transport.  On some days it is difficult to park and at others trails of cars will be entering or leaving.  This isn’t a problem if you choose your visit times, but certainly something to be aware of.

The Derwent Valley is also steeped in human history.  Before the dams were built there was a community living in the valley base villages of Derwent and Ashopton.  If you search online you’ll see fascinating photos of the vibrant community with a fine 17 century hall, a Victorian steepled church, a toll cottage, Georgian coaching inn and rows of stone cottages.

The decision to flood the valley was very controversial but any objections from locals were ultimately overridden with the argument that more water was needed to serve the Midlands.

The dam was constructed between 1935 and 43 and started at the start of the 19th century and the reservoir waters soon began to rise slowly (it took a further 2 years for the reservoir to fill).  By then the villagers had been relocated, the bodies from the graveyard exhumed and the remains reburied in Bamford and the buildings demolished.  It is hard to imagine the feelings of the villagers as they could see their previous homes and villages gradually succumb to the rising water.

As you explore the valley nowadays there is a tranquil and yet poignant feel to the place.  If you know the history you can’t help but reflect on the lives of the villagers that once lived below the peaty waters.  

The waters have dropped low enough to see the remains of the village on a few rare occasions since and this year was one.  The long dry summer of 2018 drained the reservoirs to the point where many Derwent village remnants were exposed.  In particular, the foundations of the church and hall along with some walls and the remains of some houses.  It could be seen from the reservoir sides and just a short walk across from the shore meant anyone could wander freely in and amongst the debris.

As a regular visitor to the valley I watched as the buildings gradually revealed themselves and, like I imagine many people who care about the valley history felt, I was fascinated and yet saddened by the reappearance.  I have always seen the villages as part of the valley’s history and prefer the mystery of them sitting serenely in the murky waters to them being accessible to anyone with a desire to walk to them.  It seems disrespectful to me.  

I did visit them once during a ride through the valley and immediately felt somehow ashamed of myself.  Although I was careful and walked quietly in between them,  it somehow felt as though I was disturbing the memories of those who had gone before me.  I have felt the same in other historical sites and maybe that is just me, but I want to be honest about the way I feel and so there it is.    

Of course I wasn’t alone in wanting to see the remains and visit the site.  The reappearance was widely reported by both local and national news outlets and the valley has been busier than ever over the summer. I have absolutely nothing against people visiting and anything that draws people to the Peak District is great.  However,  the influx of visitors certainly hasn’t been without its problems.

On several occasions local mountain rescue teams had to assist people stuck in the soft mud that lines the reservoir base and the large numbers of cars parking along the narrow access roads caused traffic jams as the road effectively became singletrack. This wasn’t helped by cars which sometimes parked so far into the road that access for emergency vehicles would have been very difficult (not ideal when the dry moorland had created a significant fire risk).

But larger visitor volume was always going to cause such hiccups and luckily no harm was caused - I was reassured that darkness each evening brought a welcome respite for the village remains.  Unfortunately, there was more sinister signs left by some visitors.  One day I had a rather heated discussion with a family whose children were pulling stones from the walls of the derelict buildings and reports surfaced of graffiti left scratched into the decorative stonework of Derwent Hall (shown in the photo above) while people were also said to be taking stone ‘souvenirs’.  

So, as much as I enjoyed the special summer of 2018, I found myself longing for the waters to submerge the village once more and a respectfulness be returned to the memories of people past.  In the last week we have had intense rain in the Peak District National Park and the reservoirs are refilling.  Peace will soon return to the lost villages of the Derwent Valley.

The 1947 video below gives a fascinating insight into what the village was like.....


Posted by Paul