fill your Derby and Derwent Valley hiking boots

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Robert Harding/Alamy

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

Although often overlooked, 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 considered to be the world’s first factory (opened in 1721). Inside is now a treasure trove of eclectic treasures illustrating Derby’s creative heritage, from a seven-tonne Rolls Royce engine to a Midland Railway pencil holder, and it’s all very practical. “It’s like an open warehouse that we’ve given you the key to,” says my guide.

The museum was a fitting end to my hike up the Derwent, known locally as ‘the valley that changed the world’. He had been walking the Derwent Valley Heritage Way, a 55-mile (88 km) path along the river from the southern Peak District, which combines centuries of innovative development with moorland edges, rolling hills and fine drinking establishments. An industrial pilgrimage with benefits.

My journey began near Hathersage, deep in the valleys (with fluffy sheep) and in the shadow of the impressive Stanage Edge sandstone escarpment. It was here that I picked up the River Derwent and had my first introduction to innovation, at the David Mellor Cutlery Factory and Visitor Center. Even if he’s not familiar with the Sheffield-born designer’s elegant spoons, he’ll know of his most influential invention: in the 1960s he redesigned the British traffic light, a model still in use today.

Belper is attractive. It is the only place to have won the Great British High Street award twice.

But then I walked away, following the murky river, entranced by its changing moods: calm and dark, little white tantrums, gushing over stones as polished as hand-blown glass. It was already a beautiful day, all the mallard ducks were mating and the green slopes adorned with dry stone walls. Then it went on the A-list when I walked into the one-of-a-kind Chatsworth Estate. The sprawling grounds here currently feature wacky Burning Man festival sculptures that have been transplanted from the Nevada desert to rural Derbyshire (until October 1, 2022). I took a break to sit next to one of the pieces, the 20-foot steel head from The Flybrary; it is quite a contrast to the palatial stone font of the Duke of Devonshire, with its backdrop of rolling hills.

After a night at the Peacock in Rowsley, I took the river again, past the Peak Rail steam trains. This historic line, a fragment of the Midland Railway that once linked Derby and Manchester through the Peak District, runs to Matlock. Having been walking in beautiful fields, the bustling city squeezed by cliffs was a great change. However, I found peace again at High Tor, the dizzying Victorian playground opened by the grandson of textile industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright and accessed by the cliff-edge footpath known as Giddy Edge.

Mason Mills. Photograph: travelbild/Alamy

On the outskirts of Matlock, I entered Unesco territory: a sign announced the world heritage site of Derwent Valley Mills. From then on a pioneering heirloom production line followed. 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 town, in 2020. It was sad to see this red-brick behemoth go bankrupt after almost 250 years of trading. , although the mill museum is open.

However, Cromford Mills, a little further on, is still thriving. Here, Arkwright built the world’s first water-powered cotton mill and a town around it. It’s well-maintained, and you can browse the complex’s antique and cheese shops and take a tour of the works, imposing as they are. When disgruntled workers, toiling six days a week, on 12-hour shifts, attempted to burn down or loot other factories, no attempt was made at the formidable Cromford.

The Cromford Canal was once teeming with barges carrying stone and timber.

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

I went out through the Cromford Canal. Once clogged with barges carrying stones and wood, its waters are now given over to a patient instructor who leads teenagers in canoes. I followed the canal for several miles, passing the Leawood Pumphouse (open occasionally for hot days) and the volunteers restoring Aqueduct Cottage, known to have been visited by Florence Nightingale who once lived nearby. I also passed a man who was carrying a very long camera lens. “Fields of water,” he said. The calm, shallow channel, now useless to industry, is a haven for these rare mammals, apparently “but I’ve been up since dawn and haven’t seen any yet.”

The old buildings of Darley Abbey Mills have been cleverly transformed into bars and cafes.

From voles, swans and moorhens to canals, railways and highways, nature and manufacturing intertwine here and take me to the city of Belper, also a protagonist of the industrial revolution. Strutt’s North Mill was rebuilt in 1804 using a pioneering fireproof iron frame that became the template for high-rise construction. In essence, the original skyscraper. I was most intrigued by Long Row, a beautiful terrace built for the Strutt workers along a narrow cobblestone driveway.

The rest of Belper was equally attractive, and I’m not the first to notice. It’s the only place to have twice won the Great British High Street award and its center is packed with independent shops, cafes and pubs. I chose the Angels Micropub, where beer service is taken very seriously and where I was quickly accepted; within minutes I was immersed in conversations about the Derwent Valley’s microclimate and Derby’s best drinkers (the Brunswick Inn, I’m told).

My trail took me into town the next day, across the river, and finally to Darley Abbey Mills, the most complete 18th-century mill complex in the world. Here, the old buildings have been converted into bars and cafes so elegantly that I couldn’t help but stop for a drink. In fact, my entire experience in Derby, rarely touted as a short break destination, was an eye opener. I walked through the greenery of Darley Park, browsed around the Museum of Manufacturing, toured the historic cathedral, admired the world-class Joseph Wright room at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and brushed past street food stalls at the Bustler Monthly Marketplace.

I ended up in the most Derbyish way I could, at Derby Pyclets, the former cafe that now offers delivery and collection for devotees of good baked food. Pyclets have been made here since 1864, owner Katie Gibson told me. “Originally they were called poor man’s buns: cheaper to make, fluffier and a bit bigger too, so there’s more room for toppings.” Amen to that. I chose a delicious Welsh-style rarebit pyclet. Other options, presumably not available to struggling consumers in the 19th century, include goat cheese and chorizo, and vegan stilton. That will be the Derwent getting creative again.

The trip was provided by Visit Derby. Accommodation was provided by Maynard, Grindleford (doubles from £80, B&B); the peacock in rowsley (doubles from £165, B&B); Bed and breakfast Grange Farm, near Belper (doubles from £100pn, B&B); the garage, derby (doubles from £95 B&B). See derwentvalleytrust.org.uk

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