Steam trains, sculpture and street food: fill your Derby and Derwent Valley hiking boots | Holidays in Derbyshire

BNavigating Derby’s new Museum of Making, my guide led me to his favorite object: a copy of John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis, a large catalog of stars, instrumental in fixing longitude. Flamsteed was appointed the first Astronomer Royal in 1675 and began life as an astronomer here in Derby before moving to Greenwich. What if he had kept his old calculations? We could have Derby Mean Time! said the guide.

Although often under the radar, this East Midlands hub has long been a key player in Britain’s technological advancement. The Manufacturing Museum itself is built on the site of what is widely believed to be the world’s first factory (opened in 1721). Inside now lies a treasure trove of eclectic treasures showcasing Derby’s creative heritage, from a seven-tonne Rolls Royce engine to a Midland Railway pen holder – and it’s all very practical. “It’s like an open-air reserve to which you are given the key,” explains my guide.

The Flybrary – at Chatsworth House until 1 October. Photography: Sarah Baxter/The Guardian

The museum was a fitting end to my hike along the Derwent – known locally as ‘the valley that changed the world’. I had hiked the Derwent Valley Heritage Way, an 88km trail along the river from the southern Peak District that combines centuries of groundbreaking development with moorland edges, rolling hills and fine drinking establishments. An industrial pilgrimage with benefits.

My journey began near Hathersage, deep in valleys (with fluffy sheep) and in the shadow of the stunning Stanage Edge sandstone escarpment. This is where I picked up the River Derwent and had my first introduction to innovation, the visitor center and the David Mellor cutlery factory. Even if you’re not familiar with the Sheffield-born designer’s stylish spoons, you know his most influential invention: in the 1960s he redesigned the British traffic light, a design still used today.

A jet engine at the Museum of Making, Derby
A jet engine at the Museum of Making. Photography: Sarah Baxter/The Guardian

But then I was off, following the peat river, mesmerized by its changing moods: quiet and dark, little white rages, gushing over stones polished like blown glass. It was already a beautiful day, all mated mallards and green slopes lined with dry stone walls. Then it went A-list when I walked into the incomparable Chatsworth Estate. The sprawling grounds here currently feature bonkers Burning Man festival sculptures that have been transplanted from the Nevada desert into rural Derbyshire (until October 1, 2022). I took a break to sit by one of the rooms, the 20ft steel head of The Flybrary; it’s quite the contrast to the Duke of Devonshire’s sumptuous pile of stones, with its backdrop of gently rolling hills.

After a night at the Peacock in Rowsley, I took the river back past the Peak Rail steam trains. This heritage line – a fragment of the Midland Railway which once linked Derby and Manchester through the Peak District – runs to Matlock. After walking through pretty fields, the bustling, cliff-hugging town was quite different. I found peace, however, on High Tor – the dizzying Victorian amusement park opened by the grandson of textile industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright and accessed by the cliff path known as Giddy Edge.

Masson mill.
Masson mills. Photography: travelbild/Alamy

On the outskirts of Matlock, I entered Unesco territory: a sign announced the World Heritage Site of Derwent Valley Mills. Subsequently followed a chain of production of pioneering relics. First, Masson Mills, founded by Sir Richard Arkwright in 1783, closed as a mill in 1991 and finally closed, in its reincarnation as a trading village, in 2020. It was sad to see this red-brick behemoth is closing its doors after nearly 250 years in business, although the mill museum is open.

However, Cromford Mills, further afield, still thrives. Here, Arkwright built the world’s first water-powered cotton mill and a village around it. It’s well-maintained, and you can browse the resort’s cheese and antique shops and tour the works, as imposing as they are. When disgruntled workers – working six days a week, 12-hour shifts – attempted to burn down or ransack other factories, no attempt was made on the dreaded Cromford.

The Cromford Canal was once crowded with barges carrying stones and timber.
The Cromford Canal was once crowded with barges carrying stones and timber. Photograph: Daniel Matthams/Alamy

I left through the Cromford Canal. Once crowded with barges moving stone and timber, its waters are now entrusted to a patient instructor who tutors teenagers in canoes. I followed the canal for several miles, past Leawood Pumphouse (sometimes open for steam days) and volunteers restoring Aqueduct Cottage – known to have been visited by Florence Nightingale, who once lived nearby. I also passed a man carrying a very long camera lens. “Water voles,” he said. The quiet, shallow channel, now useless for industry, is apparently a haven for these rare mammals – “but I’ve been up since dawn and haven’t seen any yet”.

From water voles, swans and moorhens to canals, railways and roads, nature and industry intertwine here and lead me to the town of Belper, also a star player in the Industrial Revolution. Strutt North Mill was rebuilt in 1804 using a pioneering fireproof iron frame which became the model for high-rise construction. In essence, the original skyscraper. I was more taken by Long Row, a beautiful terrace built for Strutt workers along a narrow cobbled road.

A street of brick houses in Belper, with iron gates and a sign for
Long Row in Belper, which is full of shops and cafes. Photography: Sarah Baxter/The Guardian

The rest of Belper turned out to be just as appealing, and I’m not the first to notice that. It’s the only place to have twice won the Great British High Street award, its center teeming with independent shops, cafes and pubs. I chose the Angels Micropub, where beer service is taken very seriously and where I was quickly adopted – within minutes I was swept up in conversations about the Derwent Valley microclimate and the best Derby liquor (the Brunswick Inn, I was told).

My trail took me to the town the next day, via the river and, ultimately, Darley Abbey Mills – the most comprehensive 18th century mill complex in the world. The old buildings here have been so cleverly transformed into bars and cafes that I couldn’t resist stopping in for a drink. In fact, my whole experience of Derby – rarely touted as a short-lived destination – has been an eye opener. I walked into the greenery of Darley Park, delved into the Museum of Making, visited the legendary cathedral, admired the world-class Joseph Wright Room at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery and browsed the street food stalls at the monthly Bustler Market.

Brick Frogatt Bridge, with two arches and trees nearby, over the very calm River Derwent
Frogatt Bridge over the River Derwent. Photography: Sarah Baxter/The Guardian

I ended up in the most Derbyish way I could, at Derby Pyclets, the former cafe that now offers delivery and collection for baking enthusiasts. Pyclets have been made here since 1864, owner Katie Gibson told me. “They were originally called poor man’s crumpets – cheaper to make, chewier and a bit bigger too, so there’s more room for toppings.” Amen to that. I chose a delicious rarebit-style Welsh pyclet. Other options – presumably unavailable to die-hard consumers in the 19th century – include goat cheese and chorizo, and vegan stilton. This will be the Derwent getting creative again.

The trip was provided by Visit Derby. Accommodation was provided by the Maynard, Grindleford (doubles from £80, B&B); the peacock at rowsley (doubles from £165, B&B); Grange Farm B&B, near Belper (doubles from £100, B&B); The Coach House, Derby (doubles from £95 B&B). See derwentvalleytrust.org.uk

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