"Hidden gems in the crown of a regal landscape"? is how Victorian travel writer James Croston described the Derbyshire ducal villages of Rowsley, Nether Haddon and Alport in his book, "On Foot through the Peak"?, written over a hundred years ago.
At that time the `hidden gems' were jewels in the sparkling collection of village treasures that belonged to Haddon Hall and were owned almost entirely by the Duke of Rutland. Today Nether Haddon has all but disappeared and Rowsley has expanded beyond its Victorian ducal boundaries, but the delightfully picturesque village of Alport has remained an unchanged `gem' for over a century. Indeed, the pretty hamlet which nestles snugly at the eastern end of the lovely Bradford Dale and just a mile east of Youlgreave in the heart of Derbyshire's White Peak, is still the haunt of painters and poets today - and is still owned mostly by the Duke of Rutland!
Alport is one of three such named places in Derbyshire, the others being Alport Heights between Wirksworth and Ambergate, and Alport Moor in the High Peak - which is also the source of the River Alport.What connects the three Alports and indeed, is responsible for the place name, is the ancient track known as the Portway.This ancient way pre-dates the Roman occupation and runs roughly south-east to north-west through the county.
The Anglo-Saxons called it `Port-weg' - `port' meaning a market town, so the Portway was `the road to the market'. Sections of it were used by pack-horse teams right up to the end of the eighteenth century, and Alport (Auld-Port) was a significant staging post along this ancient trading route.
The main road that runs between the A6 at Picory Corner near Haddon Hall and the A515 at Newhaven is the best approach, for not only does this road wind through an outstandingly scenic and sparsely populated landscape in the very heart of Derbyshire, it also bisects the village of Alport at the bottom of the hill that leads up to Youlgreave.
Here in the valley bottom, the charmingly beautiful dales of Lathkill and Bradford meet at the confluence of the two rivers which bear their respective names, and which have played a major role in the life of Alport down the centuries. Together they empty into a third river, the Wye, which in turn joins the Derwent at nearby Rowsley. Water-power was a pre-requisite of early medieval industries in the peak, and records show that there was a corn mill at Alport as early as 1159.
A fulling mill is also recorded here in the late fourteenth century during the reign of Richard 2nd, and three hundred years ago Alport was an industrial village with lead mines, a lead-smelting mill, a paper mill - and weaving, dyeing and bleaching sheds used in the woollen industry.
It also had its inherent problems, flooding being a major concern until the 1720's, when according to historian Roy Christian "The King's Highway from Manchester & Stockport to Derby & London passed over a ford on the Lathkill 40 or 50 yards wide"?.
Around 1750 a bridge was built and carries traffic across the River Lathkill at a point where the walking trails to both Bradford Dale and Lathkill Dale meet. In the summer months this area around the bridge, near the telephone box, is thronged with walkers and hikers out to enjoy the delights of some of the best riverside walks in the entire county.
From the seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries Alport was not a healthy environment for its seventy or so inhabitants, many of whom bore the scars of smallpox on their faces; the atmosphere was dense with smoke and the fetid air filled with the foul smells of toxic pollution, the lead smelter being the main culprit.
During this period the Alport lead-fields were some of the most intensely worked in Derbyshire, and for much of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries until it closed around 1890, the lead-smelting mill was one of the largest and most important in the Peak District.
According to the definitive `Lead Mining in the Peak District' compiled by the Peak District Mines Historical Society, "Galena from many mines was smelted in two reverberatory and several other types of furnace to produce molten metallic lead cast into pigs"?.The Alport Mining Company finally folded in 1852 and the lead-smelter followed nearly forty years later as the lead-mining era drew to a close, although lead was still mined at the nearby Mawstone Mine until it closed in 1932 following a gas explosion which killed eight miners.
Traces of Alport's heritage remain as testimony to its industrial past; the magnificent 18th century corn mill, which featured in the film version of D.H.Lawrence's `The Virgin & the Gypsy', still stands in its beautiful setting beside the cascading weir on the east bank of the river. Also on this side are `Bank House' and the pretty `Brook Cottage', some examples of many Peak District Cottages. Close by, relics of the lead-smelter still survive, though the crumbling chimneys and half - tumbled flues are festooned with ivy, and after a century of neglect are so overgrown with dense vegetation, that they are only glimpsed as vague dark shapes through the surrounding trees.
At the bottom of the narrow lane that winds steeply down from Harthill Moor between Broadmeadow and Greenfield Farm, and along the route of the old Portway, a picturesque pack-horse bridge crosses the babbling Bradford Brook. This marks the original place where the Portway forded the river. Its route rising steeply and following the line of the old main street past the charming, ivy covered walls and delightful riverside gardens of `Mill Cottage', built around 1700 and contemporary with the corn mill opposite.
In fact, much of Alport is of early 18th century construction. Limestone-rubble cottages in the typical Derbyshire vernacular style cluster together around the triangle of grass which constitutes the tiny village green at the widest part of the main street. Here, just across the bridge on the west bank once stood Alport's only pub, the `Three Rivers Inn', which closed its doors in 1924 and was finally demolished for road widening purposes in 1937.
Today there is no pub, shop, post-office or retail outlet in Alport, just a collection of pretty limestone dwellings, many with gritstone mullions - including the row of what were once lead-miners cottages fronting the main street. `Bridge House' and `Brook View' are fine examples, whilst in the summer months the gritstone mullions of `Rose Cottage' and `Sunny View Cottage' are partially obscured by a colourful display of climbing roses, clematis and wisteria, lending a chocolate-box charm to the street which runs parallel with the river. 'Brookside Cottage' opposite has magnificent riverside gardens, whilst just beyond on a bend in the road stands the village's oldest dwelling, the ancient twin-gabled `Monks Hall', with east and west wings and a central pediment. The west wing has been converted into a separate dwelling, with a rustic sign above the entrance reading `Monks Hall Cottage'.
Just beyond the bridge at the bottom of the hill which leads up to the `mother' village of Youlgreave, the `ivy mantled tower' of the pretty `Rheinstor Cottage' peeps through the tall surrounding trees at the entrance to Bradford Dale.
Known locally as `artist's corner', this is genuinely a`haunt of painters and poets', with artists frequently to be seen at their easels beside the gurgling waters of the Lathkill as it flows down a series of waterfalls to meet the Bradford in the valley bottom below. A seat, kindly provided `In memory of Mrs Phyllis Young - a dear Mum, always remembered' - allows rest for aching legs and tired feet, and a chance perhaps to bide awhile and absorb the tranquil beauty of Alport, which remains today `a hidden gem in the crown of a regal landscape'