The view from Monsal Head or Headstone Head as it was previously known is one of the most noted in Derbyshire, looking down into the depths of Monsal Dale with the famous viaduct in the foreground and the little village of Cressbrook in the distance.
Swiss style cottage cluster together on the steep wooded hillside, steeped in sylvan beauty. Years ago the woods were harvested for their crop of lilies of the valley which were transported and sold at Manchester market.
In recent years Cressbrook Mill has been virtually rebuilt from a derelict state and has risen once more like a phoenix from the ashes. However now it serves as an exclusive residential development with modern apartment that command high prices.
Across the road from the modern complex is the site of the original Cressbrook Mill where there is a pond which once fed its waterwheel. John Baker, a hosier and entrepreneur developed this site in the 18th century. He constructed a distillery for peppermint, lavender and other aromatic herbs which he grew or found locally. He erected the first Cressbrook Mill building about 1785 but this was to be destroyed by fire. A new mill was then built and taken over by Sir Richard Arkwright. Arkwright died in 1792 and Cressbrook Mill changed hands yet again. In 1815 the impressive 12-bay Georgian building was erected by William Newton who was a self-educated poet. He later befriended Anna Seward of Eyam fame who gave him the title of ‘Minstrel of the Peak’.
Newton was unusually kind and considerate towards his workers and apprentices. A narrative written by a Mrs Sterndale who visited Cressbrook Mill in 1824 described the conditions there as exceptional. “The children’s’ hours of work and their necessary relaxation are kindly and judiciously arranged, the former never exceeding that which ought to be exacted from those in their station of life and of their tender age. Their food is of the best quality and amply dispensed and they have eight hours uninterrupted sleep in comfortable beds and airy rooms.”
In 1835 Cressbrook Mill was bought by Messrs. McConnel, and at that time it is recorded that 167 girls were serving apprentices there. An inventory taken at valuation showed 135 new bonnets at £14 14s 4d (or 2s 3d each) and 167 partly worn outfits each consisting of a bonnet, a stuff dress, a stuff petticoat and a blue and white slip. These were valued at £87 13s 6d (half a guinea an outfit).
The later Cressbrook Mill had two waterwheels using water from the Wye which was especially damned. In 1890 water turbines were installed. Cotton doubling was still in operation until 1965 but after that Cressbrook Mill was used for a time by a firm manufacturing nylon yarns.
Behind Cressbrook Mill a concessionary footpath leads to a section of the River Wye known as Water-Cum-Jolly which is a scenic beauty spot. Here you may well see human flies defying gravity in their endeavour to climb the grey weatherworn limestone overhanging cliffs. There are also interesting bird and wildfowl to observe including little grebe or dab chick.
Monsal Dale which is downstream of Cressbrook Mill is an area of natural and man-made beauty which has inspired many writers. In the 19th century James Croston wrote the following:
‘A calm and beauteous spot
A glorious Vale far down beneath the rocks
Where peace and bliss might, undisturbed repose
And man forget the names of sin and hate’
Whilst Eliza Cook wrote the following:
‘And Monsal, thou mine of Arcadian treasure
Need we seek for Greek Islands and spice-laden gales;
While a temple like thine of enchantment and pleasure
Can be found in our own native Derbyshire Dales’