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The village of Cromford is built snugly amongst fine rock scenery and sits astride the main A6 Derby road at the southern end of Matlock Dale deep in the Derwent Valley.
The village owes its historical significance entirely to the River Derwent, for it takes its name from a bend in the river where the water was shallow enough to be forded by the old Derby to Chesterfield road, the original old English `Crune-ford` meaning `crooked-ford`. Two thousand years ago the Romans knew the crossing and shipped pigs of lead mined in the local hills down-river to the Trent from here.
Cromford is also known as the `cradle` or `birthplace` of the Industrial Revolution for this was where Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), perhaps Britain’s first ever `industrial tycoon` and known as `The Father of the Factory System` chose to build the world’s first water-powered cotton mill in 1771.
The character of the village was completely transformed in the early years of the 19th century when Scarthin Nick was blasted through with dynamite to make way for what later became the A6, thus annexing the Arkwright industrial mill complex on the east side of the main Derby road and the Market Place and village at the bottom of the hill which climbs steeply westward towards Wirksworth, on the other.
The present-day village owes its existence to Richard Arkwright who was responsible for most of its construction; not only did he build an entire industrial complex of mills and workshops, but he also built houses for his workers, a school, a chapel, and an inn in the Market Place. He went on to become High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787, the same year that he had received his Knighthood and in 1790 he secured the right to hold a market on Saturdays in the village.
Sir Richard Arkwright lived at Rock House, opposite his original mill, but in 1788 he purchased an estate from Florence Nightingale’s father, William for £20,000 and set about building Willersley Castle for himself and his family. Alas, just as the building was completed it was destroyed by fire, and Arkwright was forced to wait a further two years whilst it was rebuilt. But he died, aged 60, and never lived in the castle which was only completed after his death.
At the beginning of the 20th century Cromford was described as `A misty blue little village of stone amongst the rocks and hills, with a Squire, a Parson, and one long road...` - by children’s writer and novelist Alison Uttley who was born at Castle Top Farm in 1884. Today the `misty blue` aura has vanished along with the coal fires - and the squire and parson are gone too - but Cromford still retains its picturesque qualities and its rural charm and proudly displays its industrial heritage to an increasing number of visitors each year.
The Greyhound Hotel Built in 1788, with its magnificent original Georgian frontage dominates the Market Place. At the rear of the hotel, flanked on one side by Scarthin and on the other by Water Lane, is the village’s most pleasing and attractive feature, the large Mill Pond. At its head is the constantly turning water-wheel from where Arkwright channelled water to power his first mill. He built several pools or collecting points along the course of a stream which tumbles down in a series of waterfalls beside the Via Gellia road from Bonsall, the Mill Pond being the final collecting point. From here the water was channelled to the mill by a series of chutes and carried over the road by a cast-iron launder (dated 1821 & which superseded the original wooden one of 1776) and into the mill.
Perhaps the most prominent of Arkwright’s constructions is Masson Mill built alongside the Derwent in 1784 and still in use today as a heritage site museum and retailer outlet. This massive red brick mill with its unusual convex weir spanning the river still bears the legend `Sir Richard Arkwright Co.` high on its frontage which faces the A6 between Cromford crossroads and Matlock Bath.
North Street is a long row of three-storey houses in Cromford built of local gritstone which Arkwright had constructed for his factory workers in 1777. It is perhaps the finest example of 18th century workers housing in England and stands on the left side of Cromford Hill a little way up from the Market Place.
Modern day Cromford is a place of poets and artists attracted by the idyllic romanticised rural setting of the picturesque mill-pond with its resident pair of swans, and the nostalgic atmosphere of the raised promenade walk along Scarthin with its high terracing, wonderful sloping gardens and fine views of the rolling green landscape which rises amongst the towering limestone rocks all around the village.
Scarthin rises from a corner of the Market Place with its hotel, restaurant and shops, narrowing as it reaches the Boat Inn (1772) which stands virtually opposite the post-office, and then broadens into a very attractive iron-railed promenade with its War Memorial displaying the names of the valiant men of Scarthin who fell in the First World War.
Scarthin Books has a central location along the promenade in a three-storey building literally packed from floor to ceiling with the largest selection of modern and antiquarian books in the County. The book shop also boasts a cafe with splendid views across the mill pond.
At the western end of Scarthin stands the Primitive Methodist Chapel of 1853, and across the Mill Pond on Water Lane is the well supported Methodist Church.
Below the Market Place and in the shadow of the limestone cliff stands the Community Centre and a small garden of remembrance with a Memorial dedicated to the men of Cromford who fell in the 2nd World War.
On the opposite side of the main A6 at Cromford Crossroads stands the tiny wooden structure of the Tor Cafe which opened in 1949.
From the crossroads Mill Lane runs eastward towards Lea Bridge and Holloway, passing Rock House on the right, which stands opposite Arkwright’s original Mill complex, much restored and with a new Visitor Centre which is open to the public throughout the year.
A little further along the winding road is the Canal Wharf and the start of the Cromford Canal being another of Arkwright`s projects, although it was opened in 1793 after his death. The canal was 14 miles long and joined the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill. It enjoyed many years of use until the coming of the railways in the 1860`s. Lovingly restored by the Cromford Canal Society and the Derbyshire County Council, this section of the canal hosts a large car park, picnic area and visitor centre.
On the opposite side of the road and set in the magnificent sylvan surroundings of a fine lawned drive beside the Derwent stands the Parish Church of St. Mary’s, originally intended as a private chapel for Willersley Castle and now administered by the Diocese of Derby.
Sir Richard Arkwright died on 3rd August 1792 and was buried at Matlock Church, but his remains were later removed to St. Mary’s when it was completed in 1797, and today the gravestones of the Arkwright family still stand in the shade of the churchyard trees at the rear of the little church by the river. St. Mary’s Church was re-built in 1839 and contains memorials to the Arkwright family.
Just beyond the church stands the fine 15th century bridge across the Derwent and adjacent an unusual tiny fishing temple with the dedication `Piscatoribus Sacrum` carved into the ancient stonework. Close by the southern end of the bridge stand the ruins of a small 15th century chapel and on the bridge parapet carved into the stone is the legend, `The leap of Mr. B. H. Mare. June 1697`, marking the exact spot where both horse and rider plunged over the parapet into the river below, and survived unhurt some 300 years ago.
The wide open spaces of Cromford Meadows to the south are where cricket has been played for at least two centuries. It is still home to the Cromford Cricket Club, and the Meadows complex also caters for the sports of rugby and football.
Just beyond Cromford Bridge is the site of the original ford over the Derwent from which the village takes its name, and on the left, the entrance to the rich pasture land of Willersley Castle, now a Methodist Guest House and Conference Centre.
The old road to Starkholmes climbs the eastern slope of the valley, with Cromford Railway Station, designed by Joseph Paxton’s son-in-law and a veritable gem of early railway architecture nestling at its foot.
In 1790 John Byng, the fifth Viscount Torrington wrote of Cromford, -
`The rural cot has given place to the lofty red mill and the grand houses of overseers; the stream perverted from its courses by sluices and aqueducts will no longer ripple and cascade. Every rural sound is sunk in the clamours of cotton works.’
Today, more than two hundred years later, the lofty red mills are silent and the clamour of the cotton works no longer resounds in Cromford Dale; all is sunk into the past, but Arkwright`s industrial heritage remains in testimony to Cromford’s illustrious history set amidst the fine rock scenery beside the River Derwent deep in the heart of Derbyshire’s limestone countryside.
This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writer Tom Bates