Unlike the majority of Derbyshire villages featured in this series Ambergate – which clusters together around a major road junction on the A6 between Cromford and Belper -is almost entirely a product of the Great Railway Age of nineteenth century England.In fact the village of Ambergate did not exist until the first railway station called Amber Gate was built there in 1840.
Fifty years later, following the formation of the County Council in 1888 and the building of St.Anne’s mission church opposite the railway station in 1892, Ambergate was created a separate and independent ecclesiastic parish by the carving of a large chunk of land in the lower Derwent Valley out of the vast parish of Heage, and in 1899 St.Anne’s became the parish church.
Prior to this the small rural settlement of Toadmoor, first recorded in 1397, had provided the chrysalis from which emerged the burgeoning growth of the fully fledged twentieth century butterfly of Ambergate.
In little over a hundred years Ambergate has expanded rapidly and has swallowed both Toadmoor, and further north along the A6, Crich Chase, a tiny hamlet consisting of three farmsteads first mentioned in 1555. So for the history of Ambergate we have to start with Toadmoor, which was originally in the parish of Duffield. The first tiny settlement there was probably built to accommodate forestry workers who looked after the northern section of the Royal Hunting Forest known as Duffield Frith.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century the forest was gone but Toadmoor remained, though no more than a small cluster of ramshackle dwellings beside a rough track which ran along the east bank of the river Derwent between the hamlet of Cromford and the larger village of Belper.
This beautiful stretch of the lower Derwent Valley near the confluence of the rivers Derwent and Amber remained an idyllic natural landscape until later in the same century when it was transformed forever by the coming of the Industrial Revolution.
Sir Richard Arkwright built his mills, hotel, school, and housing for his workforce at Cromford, whilst fellow philanthropic industrialist and one-time partner Jedediah Strutt did the same at Belper. Suddenly newer and faster routes were needed for the transportation of goods and raw materials, and within the space of just seventy years transportation systems had transformed the tranquil valley with a new canal, a turnpike road, and a railway line – all vying for space alongside the river Derwent.
First in the 1790’s came the Cromford Canal, followed a few years later in 1820 by the new turnpike roads, and in 1840 by the Midland Railway.When the turnpike road between Cromford and Belper was opened in 1820, Amber Gate was the name of a toll-gate – one of three which stood at what is now the junction of the A6 and the A610 Nottingham Road. A toll-house stood in the middle of the junction with toll-gates on three sides, but the gates were removed and the old toll-house was demolished when the County Council took over the upkeep of the roads in 1888.
The cylindrical stone gateposts which formed the original Amber-gate toll, and thus gave the village it’s name, were preserved and re-erected half a mile south at the entrance to Devonshire Street, which runs off Toadmoor Lane beside the White House Inn on the A6, where they still stand today. Here too, the locally famous Ambergate Chippy purveys it’s fabulous fries, and roughly marks the centre of the old settlement of Toadmoor.
The quaintly named Halfpenny Bridge which crosses the Derwent along Holly Lane was built to carry the Wirksworth road across the river in 1792.On the east bank of the river stood the seventeenth century Ferry House, probably Ambergate’s earliest dwelling, where people paid their halfpennies to cross the bridge. The Ferry House was demolished in 1964.
Another long-demolished building was the Thatched House Tavern which stood close by the toll-house and was built originally to cater for the Canal construction teams working on the Bullbridge aquaduct – which itself was demolished in 1969. Pigott’s Directory describes the Tavern in 1857 as a first-rate commercial posthouse and boarding-house with every convenience post-horses, flys, etc. are in readyness at five minutes notice.The Tavern catered first for canal boatmen, then travellers on the new turnpike road and latterly for railway workers. The railway company demolished it around 1870 to make way for a new triangular station which served the Nottingham to Manchester line and the Derby to Rowsley line.
By 1874 the Tavern had been replaced by the Hurt Arms Hotel, built directly opposite the station and the junction with the Bullbridge turnpike. Today the stone-built hotel, whose sign shows the coat-of-arms of the Hurt Family, has a fine reputation for it’s hospitality and excellent food, and also has a well equipped children’s play area at the rear.
The stations were demolished along with the Bullbridge aquaduct when road-widening took place in the sixties, and all that remains is a single platform on the Derby – Matlock line.
Railway pioneer George Stephenson also built twenty large lime-kilns alongside the railway and canal in the 1840’s. A tramway was built from Crich Cliff to carry the limestone to the kilns, from where the lime was shipped nationwide by canal and railway. At the height of production the kilns produced sixty thousand tons of lime annually and provided work for a hundred and twenty men. They were finally closed and demolished in 1965.
The Hurt’s also had an iron works with foundry and rolling mills down by the Derwent on the site of the large factory complex now occupied by the Litchfield Group of Companies, and next to the Ambergate Sports and Social Club, whose lush sports ground lies between road and river.
In recent years the area has attracted a number of new industries, especially along the Nottingam road which is industrialised most of the way to Sawmills and Bullbridge.Modern Ambergate certainly caters well for the traveller with the Corner Cafe standing opposite the Hurt Arms, whilst a hundred yards away, beyond St.Anne’s Church, whose construction was paid for in 1892 by local businessman and benefactor Joseph Glossop, stands a large Esso petrol station. In between is Ambergate Post Office, which is also a general store, off-license and newsagent – and has a pleasant tea-room and cafe at the rear.
Opposite the church, Newbridge Road climbs steeply past the school built in 1898 and up to the main hillside residential area where dwellings spread across the east bank of the Derwent, all the way to the top of the hill where Toadmoor Lane meets the old high road to Belper and Ripley.
Directly opposite on the west bank of the river and stretching to the skyline is Shining Cliff Wood with the well known and popular Youth Hostel. The wood is managed by the Woodland Trust for the Forestry Commission and the footpaths through it provide splendid scenic walks with fabulous glimpses of the Derwent Valley and views of Crich Stand away to the north.
The pace of change and development from canal, to road, to railway, followed by mass demolition of the Victorian infrastructure has been so rapid that Ambergate has a kind of transitory atmosphere, always busy, always changing, always on the move. But it’s beauty and charm lies in it’s permanent and natural features, in the quieter, peaceful places where anglers and herons alike haunt the river bank in search of the abundance of fish which lure them here beside the eternal flow of the tranquil Derwent.