How to spend a weekend in the Derwent Valley Mills, Derbyshire

Discover the UNESCO World Heritage site along Derbyshire’s Derwent Valley. The Industrial Revolution was born in these factories, some of which have now been converted into museums, restaurants and cafes. Here’s how a perfect weekend might unfold.

Published 14 Dec 2021, 18:00 GMT
Cromford Mills — built in 1771 — are home to Sir Richard Arkwright's mill complex and ...

Cromford Mills — built in 1771 — are home to Sir Richard Arkwright's mill complex and the birthplace of the first water-powered cotton spinning mill. 

Photograph by Visit Peak District & Derbyshire

Day one

Start at the newly opened Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill, where the juxtaposition of the 17th-century red brick mill with modern steel and glass extensions reflects the area’s ingenuity. It’s the world’s first fully mechanised factory; galleries document the 300-year-old silk-throwing process, while the hardware of a Rolls-Royce aero engine shows more modern innovation. Then, amble through Darley Park, which hugs the banks of the River Derwent as it winds through the city centre. Fuel up on fine coffee and a hearty bubble and squeak brunch at Bear before exploring the Derby Heritage Walk. Curiosities include St Alkmund’s Well, dedicated to an eighth-century Saxon saint, and St Helen’s House. This Palladian pile, dating back to 1767, was the home of William Strutt, whose invention of metal-framed buildings became a template for skyscraper engineering. Wind on, past handsome houses lining the lawns and flowerbeds of Chester Green, to delve into Derby’s Roman history at the millennia-old site of Derventio. This was once a bustling Roman fort; today, a solitary well and the skeletal remains of timber-framed buildings are a reminder that this area was thriving long before the storied mills of industry flickered into life.

Continue your ambulation through the area’s rich history on one of the five Darley Abbey Heritage Walks, the longest of which is just over half a mile. Keep an eye out for the boar’s head crest, which denotes the mills that were owned by the Evans family, and for the trompe l’oeil windows, painted onto the brick walls of the West Mill. North of the mills is a pocket of pleasant countryside, the Darley and Nutwood Nature Reserve, hemmed in by the serpentine meanderings of the River Derwent. Spot red admiral butterflies and iridescent dragonflies flitting through the orchids, bluebells and Himalayan balsam, and look out for the turquoise flash of a peacock’s tail, the natty fringe of a Highland cow or the furry visage of a Hebridean sheep, crowned with three or more horns. All that walking is thirsty work, so duck back into Darley Abbey Mills, where the Cottonworks offers the rare opportunity to enjoy cocktails in one of the oldest buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Relax into the laid-back, bare-brick surrounds of The Dining Room, a ‘classical contemporary’ restaurant that’s taken the Derby food scene by storm since opening in 2019. The Derbyshire chateaubriand and lobster, paired with a pinot noir, might prove hard to resist; if you’re here on a Sunday, the same could be said of the celebrated roast dinners, served with all the trimmings including pigs in blankets. Feeling brave? Embark on the Derby City Centre Ghost Walk and discover why Derby is known as ‘the dead centre of England’. Derby Gaol is believed to harbour innumerable restless spirits, while the ghost of PC Joseph Moss, murdered in 1879, is said to stalk the city’s fish market. Beloved pub Jorrocks, meanwhile, has an unusual fixture behind the bar: a human skull, dug up by accident in 1994, and said to have caused the pub to be plagued by a poltergeist ever since.

Belper River Gardens, situated by the River Derwent, sit adjacent to Strutt's historic North Mill.

Photograph by Alamy

Day two

The seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown in the village of Cromford, a half-hour drive north of Derby. It was here that Richard Arkwright built the world’s first water-powered cotton mill — and changed the course of history. This story is told today in a visitor centre, housed in the restored mill. The wharf running near the mill complex once enabled coal to be brought to the village and the local limestone to be taken away. Today, it’s a serene place, and for another perspective on the valley, hop onboard Birdswood, a narrow boat that plies the Cromford Canal. Back on terra firma, don’t miss the chance to explore High Peak Junction for a glimpse inside one of the oldest surviving railway workshops in the world.

Back in Cromford, stop for lunch at the Greyhound, a Georgian coaching inn where Arkwright and his associates did business by candlelight. Then, pay a visit to the well-preserved industrial village of Milford, whose brick buildings look much the same as they did when they housed workers during the area’s industrial heyday; magnificent views over the village, and the Derwent Valley beyond, are your reward for a walk up nearby Sunny Hill. From there, trace much more ancient history by walking along the spine of the Chevin, once a Celtic and Saxon ridgeway. Before the evening light dims, descend the hills, through peaceful river meadows and past the cascading horseshoe-shaped weir, to the Belper River Gardens. Here, pretty flowerbeds and an Edwardian bandstand provide a gentle contrast to the austere mills; taking a rowing boat out on the river, or just spotting ducks and swans on a gentle stroll, are lovely ways to see out the afternoon.

Venture towards Belper’s High Street, which, with its abundance of boutiques, pubs, and local businesses, was named the country’s best high street in 2019. Staying in Belper for dinner, choose Arthur’s, a beloved bistro where the seasonal menu includes classic British offerings such as cullen skink (Scottish soup with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) alongside imaginative desserts such as roast chestnut ice cream. Film and history buffs will relish the chance to combine their passions at the Ritz Cinema, housed in a 19th-century building. Once a court, theatre and meeting room, the Ritz has been showing films since 1919, ranking it among the country’s oldest and most atmospheric cinemas. 

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