In north-east Derbyshire, at the edge of the Peak District, a series of three reservoirs in the Upper Derwent Valley provide not only water for much of the county but also a wonderful place to enjoy walking or cycling in a beautiful natural environment.
The Howden, Derwent and Ladybower reservoirs were formed by a mammoth project to dam the River Derwent at the beginning of the 20th century. The impressive neo-gothic towers of the Howden and Derwent dams look like castles among the gentle woodland and rolling hill pastures of Derbyshire.
Drowned villages in Derwent
The construction of the reservoirs meant the end of things for two villages in the Upper Derwent Valley – Ashopton and Derwent.
Walking along the shore of Derwent Water you can see moss-covered masonry and upright pillars that are all that is left of the medieval village of Derwent, which is now covered by water and woodland. Apparently if the water level gets low in the summer you can see the remains of the church, houses, mill and shops.
Industrial revolution construction project
Another long-abandoned settlement near Derwent Water – but one that was always meant to be temporary – was Birchinlee, affectionately known as Tin Town because of the corrugated iron used for the buildings.
This was constructed as a home for the army of navvies who built the Derwent and Howden dams over a ten year period. The workers were joined by their families, a school teacher, doctor and policeman, as well as shopkeepers and other services – it was a real village. They even had a library and a recreation hall for dances and concerts.
You can still see traces of Birchinlee, slowly covered with earth and vegetation – the above photo shows the remains of the beer cellar of the Derwent Canteen, which was built to control the drinking of alcohol by the workers.
However, the landlords installed by The People’s Refreshment House Association were physically thrown out of the canteen by the navvies because they tried to limit drinks. The Canteen was such a popular institution it was extended twice to cope with demand. It must have been hard, dirty work building those dams and a drink at the end of the day would have been very welcome.
Derwent water and the Dam Busters
Derwent Water is also famous for the role it played in a significant Second World War campaign. You may have heard of the ‘Dam Busters’ – or seen the 1954 film.
RAF 617 squadron used the reservoir to practise low-level, overwater flying for Operation Chastise. Thanks to the development by Sir Barnes Wallis of ‘bouncing bombs’ and the daring raids by RAF Lancaster bomber crews, industrial production in Germany’s Ruhr Valley was damaged.
By Natasha von Geldern