I walked with the river in a kind of a dream
hand in hand the all knowing river and me
to the clamour of rushes and deeply bowing trees
and drunk making blossom that blushed to be seen
– Elbow, ‘The River’
Yesterday I returned to the project to walk the Mersey and its main tributaries from source to sea. Last summer I began by locating (approximately) one source – the emergence of the Goyt up on Axe Edge above Buxton in Derbyshire. From there, I followed the river down the valley, past the two reservoirs, as far as Whaley Bridge, exploring the ruins of Errwood Hall on the way.
Now, on a day that was breezy and chill after the recent hot weather, the dog and I walked the section of the Goyt Way from Whaley Bridge to Marple. It’s a stretch that brings home the fact that the Industrial Revolution began along fast-flowing rivers like the Goyt, and ancient footprints of early industrialisation are everywhere.
Before leaving Whaley Bridge, I went along to the Mechanics’ Institute (above), the most prominent building on the main street. The Mechanics’ Institute movement was one of the most remarkable in British educational history, and took root especially in the mill towns of northern England. They were a significant development in a period when educational provision for the working classes was practically non-existent: in 1833 only about 800,000 children were receiving some form of instruction, mostly in very elementary reading and writing.
George Birkbeck, a Glasgow professor, founded the movement in 1800, with the creation of the first Mechanics’ Institute in Glasgow. The movement aimed to create learning opportunities for skilled industrial workers, especially in the scientific and technical principles underpinning the processes they were using in their work. Most of the institutions had their own libraries and workers could follow vocational courses by way of lectures and other programmes of study.
By 1850, there were 660 Mechanics’ Institutes in England and Scotland. They were famous for their libraries but, significantly, also offered newsrooms with newspapers and journals, viewed with suspicion by the upper classes who feared a working class armed with too much knowledge.
The Whaley Bridge Institute is a striking building, still in use as a centre for municipal offices, library and Citizens Advice Bureau. Upstairs is a large meeting hall where, no doubt, the local mill-workers attended scientific and technical lectures and political meetings.
This sign was originally from Goyt Mill, established on this site, just behind the main street, in 1865. It was the largest one-room weaving mill in England and employed over 300 people, adults and children, working day and night. In the 1870s the textile industry employed 28% of the population of Whaley Bridge. Goyt Mill operated until 1970.
Whaley Bridge expanded rapidly in the early 19th century, as cotton mills, initially powered by the fast-flowing Goyt, were established, soon overtaking coal-mining and agriculture as the main sources of employment. The first stretch of the Goyt Way begins at the Canal Basin (below), the terminus of the Peak Forest Canal, built in the 1790s and opened on 1 May 1800 to carry limestone from Derbyshire to the early industrial centres of Lancashire and Cheshire.
The building in the photo above is the Transhipment Shed, built in 1832 and now a grade II listed building. It was the hub of industrial activity in the town, providing a transhipment point for coal (for lime burning) and the resulting limestone between the canal and the High Peak Railway. Cotton came into the shed, on its way to the town’s cotton mills.
It seemed strange at first, setting off along the canal, which the Goyt Way follows for the first few miles: like a return to the Leeds-Liverpool canal trek.
In 1831 the Cromford and High Peak Railway opened for passenger and goods traffic. It was built to provide a shorter route to industrial Lancashire for Derbyshire coal than the Trent and Mersey Canal. The railway linked the wharf at the Whaley Bridge end of the Peak Forest Canal to the Cromford Canal at Cromford wharf. I’d encountered the line of the dismantled railway walking around Fernilee reservoir.
Past the new Tesco superstore, a branch of the canal leads for half a mile to Bugsworth Basin (below), once a busy interchange for the transport of limestone and gritstone from the Derbyshire quarries. The canal linked Bugsworth to Manchester and the trans-Pennine canal network. However, with the decline of the canals and the advance of the railways, Bugsworth Basin fell into disuse. Now it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and considerable restoration work has been completed.
The tunnel (below) was built to allow horses that hauled the boats along the canal to walk below the canal and return to the towpath on the other side to be re-hitched to their boats.
For the next couple of miles both canal and railway line steer a relatively straight course along the valley bottom, while the Goyt meanders alongside. Above, strung out along the A6 on the western side of the valley, is Furness Vale.
Finally, at Carr’s Weir, the Goyt Way leaves the canal and rejoins the river, though without the OS map I wouldn’t have known – this must be the worst waymarked long distance path I’ve set foot on. In fact, within minutes I’d lost the path and was wandering aimlessly in Goytside Meadows Nature Reserve.
It wasn’t without its benefits, though. Across the river there were llamas, while in the reserve I found a fine display of marsh marigolds and a Standing Sundial consisting of two stone columns, designed so that at midday the shadow from one falls directly on the other.
I’d lost the Goyt Way, but eventually regained it in New Mills, where the Torrs, a 70 feet deep gorge, cuts through walls of sandstone. Here, where the Goyt is joined by a tributary, the Sett, situated on a rocky outcrop at the bottom of the Torrs gorge is a fine example of a late 18th century cotton mill.
Torr Vale Mill was built in the late 1780s, powered by two waterwheels to spin and weave cotton. It was rebuilt in 1856 when a steam engine was added. It continued to be driven by steam and water till the 1940s when electricity took over. It continued in operation producing towelling products until 2000 – the longest continuous period of cotton production in the UK. Apparently, there have been various plans by the current owner to renovate and develop the grade II building, none of which has come to anything, though when I passed there was some activity in the mill.
The fast-flowing waters of the Sett and Goyt meant that by 1810 New Mills had nine cotton mills, plus three weaving mills. In 1835, Pigot’s Directory gave this description of New Mills:
The factories are in a great measure hid from public view in passing through the village, being built at the foot of the stream, under high towering rocks. Good house coal, as well as other kinds for the purposes of machinery, is obtained near to the village, the top bed strata running from sixteen to twenty inches thick. The village is built chiefly upon a stone quarry, but the soil in many parts is fertile, producing good crops of wheat and potatoes.
The river now enters a very pleasant stretch as it flows through meadows at Mousley Bottom and on to the hamlet of Hague Bar, where the path leaves the river by way of a fairly steep climb up steps to the road and then, still climbing, along a rough lane to Brook Bottom that once was one of the main pack horse routes.
From Brook Bottom there are fine views back across the valley.
But the finest view is of the Fox Inn, the pub at the end of the lane. It feels remarkably isolated for somewhere so close to the incessant traffic of the A6.
The 18th century inn is a grade II listed building, and it was here that the dog and me took a break – she had biscuits, I had the ploughmans and a pint of Robinsons Ginger Tom, a seasonal ale that had a very distinctive taste: it’s brewed using an infusion of Chinese bruised ginger root and botanical extracts.
From the pub, the path drops down into the valley again, eventually arriving at Strines railway station, which feels far from anywhere. In fact, the village of Strines lies about half a mile away, but the lane to the station is cobbled and can’t have changed much since the railway arrived in the 19th century. It’s easier to imagine a horse-drawn carriage arriving at the station, than a car.
Although the setting seems rural, Strines is another settlement that owes its origin to industry – a print works was established here around 1790, and remained in operation until late in the 20th century. Strines was once renowned for its annual Bullshit competition. A farmer would measure out a plot of land in a field, fence it off and then divide it up on paper into 100 squares. Villagers paid money and chose a square. When all the squares had been taken, the farmer would turn his bull out into the fenced of plot of land and everyone would stand around and wait to see whose square the bull would shit in! Apparently it could take some time and villagers would make a day of it, having picnics and listening to a brass band. Glorious English eccentricity!
After the tunnel under the railway line, the Goyt Way passes the impressive Strines Hall with its mullioned windows and mill pond with an ornate dovecote in the centre (above).
Down in a green and shady bed,A modest violet grew,Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,As if to hide from view.And yet it was a lovely flower,Its colours bright and fair;It might have graced a rosy bower,Instead of hiding there,Yet there it was content to bloom,In modest tints arrayed;And there diffused its sweet perfume,Within the silent shade.Then let me to the valley go,This pretty flower to see;That I may also learn to growIn sweet humility.
The blackthorn, sloe, puts on a fantastic display of brilliant white blossom at this time of year. Back in the 18th century, blackthorn would have been harvested for its autumn fruit for jam and wine, and for firewood, fencing and making walking sticks.
Quite possibly this splendidly-named house – ‘Windy Bottom’ it says over the door – is 18th century, too. Through another tunnel under the railway, it was back to the river.
Half way between Strines and Marple the picturesque Roman Bridge spans the river (below, with dog quenching her thirst). It’s not Roman, though; it’s a packhorse bridge dating back to the 17th century that was given the Roman tag in Victorian times to add a bit of romanticism.
The path from Strines and crossing the river here at Roman Bridge was an ancient way down off the ridge, across the river and up out of the valley. Originally there was a ford here – in the 17th century this must have been a very important route to have warranted the construction of the packhorse bridge.
A bit further on from the Roman Bridge this curious octagonal house stands by a weir under the railway viaduct. It was built as a home for the sluiceman and tollman. It was built in 1804, the same year as the Roman Lakes, Old Hall and Mellor Mill, and the toll road originally went along the other side of the house. After the Lakes and the house were built the road was moved to where it is today. On the front wall of the house is a stone pillar with a gate bracket on which the toll gate hung.
The Roman Lakes (below) were constructed in 1804 by the Stockport mill-owner Samuel Oldknow as reservoirs to supply water to Mellor Mill. By the late 1780s, with the help of a loan from Richard Arkwright (the mill owner and inventor of the Spinning Frame and Carding Frame that revolutionised cotton spinning) Oldknow had established himself as the leading muslin manufacturer in the country. He invested his capital in building Mellor Mill, where yarn was spun on Arkwright’s water-frames or ‘throstles’. This involved purchasing land in Marple and here at Mellor – as well acquiring the water rights to the river Goyt.
In order to utilise the Goyt’s power, Oldknow created a complex system of waterways and millponds, resulting in the diversion of water into the millpond now known as Roman Lakes. Mellor Mill was completed in 1793 – built of brick, and 400 feet long and six stories high. It was powered by three huge water wheels. At its peak, over 500 people were employed in the mill.
Oldknow had big plans for the industrialisation of the valley. He was the driving force behind the Peak Forest Canal, developed lime kilns in Marple, ran a fleet of narrowboats and constructed a warehouse and wharf in Marple. Several roads and housing complexes were constructed at Samuel’s behest, as well as All Saints Church in Marple. However, Oldknow overextended himself financially, continued to borrow heavily from Arkwright, and was hit badly by a lump in the cotton trade. When he died in 1828, the whole Oldknow estate passed to the Arkwright family in payment of his huge debt.
In Victorian times, the millponds and the area alongside the river became known as the Roman Lakes, although there were no links with the Romans. It became a popular leisure resort, with crowds of people arriving at Marple Station by steam train for days out. Now the lake supports fishing and large numbers of water fowl. I stopped at the cafe for a cup of tea, and while I was perusing a display on the history of the site, the dog devoured my ginger nuts.
The final stretch of this section of the Goyt Way crosses meadows, overlooked by 1960s suburban housing on the bluffs above the far side of the river, before crossing the river and making the steep ascent across the railway line and up into suburban Marple.
I only had a short wait at the bus stop before catching the 67 bus that was heading for Tideswell. I got off at Furness Vale and only had to wait a few minutes for the 199 into Whaley Bridge. Driving back down the A6 towards Stockport, the Cheshire lowlands glinted in the late afternoon sun, stretching west to the sea.
And then with the sun in the west
he showed me the sea
– Elbow, ‘The River’