Saturday, September 24, 2022

High Peak Junction, Derbyshire

Modest monument

A highlight of our recent visit to Cromford was a stroll along the Cromford Canal, taking in canalside views of nature and architecture, listening to (but failing to identify) birdsong, passing the pump house in my previous post, and ending up at High Peak Junction, about a mile from the wharf at Cromford where we started. High Peak Junction provided tea in the shadow of a modest but fascinating building, one of the earliest railway workshops in the world. It’s not much to look at from outside – a small cluster of stone sheds with pitched roofs, festooned with signage that ranges from notices with historical and visitor information to some authentic-looking painted wooden railway signs.

Inside, things get more interesting, with the original inspection pit, engineers’ tools in abundance, a still-working forge, and side rooms for the engineers and railway clerks. Online descriptions of an untouched ‘time capsule’, coupled with period photographs, are a little misleading – there’s a health and safety fence around the inspection pit and a number of large information banners hang from the iron and timber roof trusses. But the place is still packed with interest and objects to linger over, from the files, hammers and anvils of the blacksmith, to metalworkers’ drills, oil tanks, and the London Midland Scottish railwayana in the side rooms. There’s much here to delight the railway specialist and to intrigue the visitor with a more casual interest.

This workshop dates back to 1825–30, which is very early indeed in the history of railways. So early indeed that the first railway items to be looked after here were wagons and rails – there were no locomotives here then, and trains were pulled by horses. Later, when steam engines arrived here in 1833, the entrance to the workshop had to be modified to accommodate their tall funnels. The ’shop was still in use in 1967, when the line closed, and it’s said* that many of the tools that still remain were made in the forge in this very building. So in this sense, the term ‘time capsule’ is spot on.

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* I’ve drawn in this post on the account of the workshops here.
Workshop interior: original inspection pit (and forge with tools in the background); modern heath and safety fence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lea Bridge, Derbyshire

Keeping the water flowing

The Cromford Canal was begun in the 1790s with the ultimate aim of linking Cromford with Manchester, giving a route to a market for the area’s mineral resources. Limestone and the lime produced from it were lucrative potential exports from the area. In addition, Richard Arkwright saw that he might use water transport to service his mills and backed the project, helping the progress of the necessary bill through Parliament and selling part of his garden at Cromford to allow a wharf to be constructed.

In the 1840s, the canal hit a problem. It had filled with water removed from lead mines in the area, but as the miners continued to remove the lead, they dug deeper and opened new underground channels to drain away the water, which no longer flowed into the canal, leaving boats stranded. The answer was a pump to remove water from the River Derwent to keep the canal topped up. But the river provided only a finite amount of water, some of which was itself used by the area’s industry. To stop the river too becoming dry, restrictions were imposed on taking water from the Derwent: water could only be pumped out for the canal between 8 pm on Saturdays and the same time on Sundays, when the local factories were not working. So they needed a pump with an unusually high capacity, to make best use of the time allowed.

Leawood Pump House, which they built to house the pump, is visually impressive. It is constructed of well worked gritstone, with chamfered ashlar quoins, classical windows, and pediment. The chimney is 95 feet high and also of stone, with a cap of cast iron. Inside is the original steam engine, built by Graham and Company of Elsecar, near Rotherham. It’s a big, single-action beam engine, still in working order, and can run at 7 strokes per minute, lifting about 4 tons of water at each stroke. This means it can shift a huge volume of water very quickly, so that the canal company could take the water they needed during the time they were given to do so. The pump house was successful, and the engine ran regularly for almost a century, until 1944 when the canal closed. It is still run occasionally, when visitors can experience the sheer power of steam. When I passed by, all was quiet, but the power of the architecture was clear to see.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Matlock Bath, Derbyshire


Postcard from Switzerland

Arriving at Matlock Bath, I parked in the ‘overspill’ area of the full station car park and waded through mud in this summer of drought, to get out of it.* This found us almost on the doorstep of the railway station, set, like the rest of the place, amongst the wooded slopes of the River Derwent’s gorge. Scenery, fresh air, and healing water brought people here in increasing numbers form the 1770s onwards, and the numbers grew yet again when the railway arrived in 1849. Today, after a period of closure (1967 to 1972), the railway is back, and seems to bring many people in, to add to the crowds coming, like us, in cars and clogging up the car park.

When they expanded the station in the 1870s, the railway company built a Swiss-cottage style station to go with the setting, known to some as ‘Little Switzerland’. For the Victorians of Matlock Bath, the term ‘Swiss cottage’ meant a timber-framed building with patterned brick infill between the timbers, eaves with a big overhang, and wooden brackets. An added touch is a Midland Railway speciality: iron framed windows with striking lozenge-shaped panes. The result is an eye-catcher, to traveller and platform-gazer alike.†

Inside, the station was quiet, but was serving tea and cakes, giving us further excuses to linger. In between sips of my tea, I looked up and took the photograph of the roof, below. A very satisfying start to a short visit that produced still more interest.

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*It was only muddy in the overspill area; the rest of the car park is tarmac-covered and civilised.

† Timber-framed stations in a cottage-orné manner, similar to this but in a different, more ‘old-English’ style, are also to be seen at places such as Woburn Sands and Fenny Stratford on the Marston Vale line in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire

A bit of a shambles

To begin with, I hardly glanced at the small low terrace of tiny shops, most of them seemingly unoccupied, that runs along the northern side of the market place in Cromford. Big stone blocks filling in the gaps between low doors and rather small windows, plus a space above that seemed rather too large for a shop sign, all below a hipped roof of slate. Even so, the design of this unregarded building seemed un usual, and I wondered… Then I saw a brief account of these buildings and gave them another glance, because I learned that they’re actually – in origin at least – Georgian. This is a tiny Georgian shambles, in other words a row of small shops running near or along the edge of a market place, usually originally occupied by people such as butchers.* They came about when market traders, needing more permanent premises than a temporary stall, built shops either on the site of their old pitch or nearby.

These must have arrived in Cromford during the heyday of Arkwright’s mill, when the town was growing and there would have been a ready market for food such as meat that could not be grown or raised at home. Sadly, they have now seen better days. Nearly every window is different from its neighbours, suggesting that most are replacements.§ Likewise the doors, some of which are boarded up or even, like the one in the foreground of my photograph, replaced with masonry. My picture is not very good – I had to shoot at a an angle to avoid a row of parked cars and vans that would have virtually hidden the shops from view. But it gives one an idea of what’s here†…and perhaps of the potential that could be unlocked if the building were restored.

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* Usually butchers, although fishing ports sometimes have ‘fish shambles’, and Dublin has a Fishamble Street on the site of a former fish market. 

§ Although the small panes in some of the windows, especially the two on the left, do suggest an early date.  

† There was once another row at the other side of the market place.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire


Mill town, pig town

The idea that a factory town need consist simply of rows of small, unsanitary houses accommodating the workforce of a vast textile mill is belied in Cromford. The attractive workers’ houses in my previous post showed by their upper-floor workshops that not everyone worked in the mill. But structures nearby point in addition to activities still further from the industrial. Pig-keeping was familiar to farm workers in villages, but Cromford too has its share of pigsties, urban porcine dwellings near the backs of workers’ houses very close to the middle of the town. There are allotments and barns not far away, signalling that growing or raising your own food was something available to at least some of Cromford’s population.

Pigsties like this one are almost as substantially built as the nearby houses and have lasted well. They’re not used now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries would have provided a very welcome supplement to the basic working-class diet, especially as the pig will yield products such as bacon that can be cured so that it will keep for some time. When, a young newly married woman in rural Lincolnshire, my mother kept a pig for a few years, she welcomed the rich bounty – not just the various joints of pork, but also bacon, chops, sausages, pork pies, and recherché local delicacies such haslet.

I’m not pretending that life for Richard Arkwright’s employees and their families wasn’t hard. Much of their lives would have been spent in the mill, while other family members might have worked at home at a loom or toiled in garden or smallholding, or in the endless round of ‘women’s work’ that running even a small 18th- or 19th-century home entailed. But it wasn’t all ‘dark satanic mills’ for everyone, as this modest structure confirms.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Cromford, Derbyshire


What about the workers?

A recent visit to Cromford, a place famous for the cotton-spinning mills of Richard Arkwright, the earliest of which many call the first factory, found me drawn to the smaller buildings as well as to Arkwright’s vast premises. Ever since I first heard about Arkwright (probably in school history lessons a very long time ago), I was impressed that he built decent housing for his workers. I’d wondered how true this was, and what the evidence was for the assertion, so here is some evidence, on the ground and still in use. This is part of a row of houses in Cromford’s North Street, among the first houses that Arkwright built in the town.

The row is built of local gritstone, with substantial stone lintels over the doors and windows. The effect is solid and rather plain at first glance. But looking a little closer, it’s possible to make out details that show these dwellings to be a cut above the norm of workers’ housing in 1776, when they were built. The original inhabitants would certainly have appreciated the sturdy construction. But they would also have picked up on subtler things – the fact, for example, that the stones that make up the door jambs are topped and tailed with blocks that give the impression of Classical capitals and bases, the sort of elaboration you might see on a farmhouse or gentry house. The windows are a mix of leaded-light casements and vertical sashes, and those sashes, too, were something of a preserve of the middle classes in the 18th century in Derbyshire.*

Another notable feature of the houses is the top storey, with a row of windows for each house. The upper room behind the windows was a workroom, designed so that some members of the family could work at home (typically as weavers), while others worked at Arkwright’s mill, which was in the business of spinning yarn using machinery powered by large water wheels. As there were not enough local workers to run Arkwright’s mill (later mills), good, practical housing would have helped attract workers from further afield. Today, I’m sure such period houses must similarly be attractive to prospective residents, and pictures of them certainly motivated me to seek them out, down a quiet side street, secluded but not far from the mill or the shops.

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* I’m indebted for these remarks about the social implications of this way of building to the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership’s useful guide, The Derwent Valley Mills and their Communities (2011).

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Sherborne, Dorset

The full nine yards

The interesting variations on Classical capitals in my previous post jogged my memory of something I’d seen last summer in Sherborne, Dorset. It’s a corner building, dating from some time at the end of the 19th century, designed as either s short row of shops or as a single shop. I’m inclined to suspect the latter: one large shop, owned by someone with a penchant for elaborate decoration. It was originally a single-storey structure, but within that limited scope its builder threw the decorative kitchen sink at it. A series of plate-glass windows are framed by pairs of attached shafts, each supporting floral capitals and, above that, a richly moulded entablature with some carving above the capitals. Higher up still are rectangular terminations that would probably have acted as finials before the upper floor was added. The lintels above the windows are carved too.

The capitals are a mass of flowers and fruit – so much of it that the vegetation spills into the middle, completely filling any space between the pair to link the area above the twin columns with leaves and blooms. Most shop owners did not run to anything this lavish carved in stone. Late Victorian shop fronts are more often made of wood, or occasionally cast iron, and these less costly materials can look highly decorative and eye-catching. Whoever built this wanted something a cut – or two – above the average. Later owners preferred a more more modern front on the more prominent end facade of the building, but the long range that faces on to the side street is still there, reminding us of what the Victorians could do when they tried. The full nine yards, as they say – and a little more still.