Stage Ten - Derby to Cromford

For some reason involving stupidity the alarm goes off a t five past five. I could have had another 25 minutes of sleep. The day is trying to dawn but seems to be having trouble because of the cloud of volcanic ash that has grounded all the planes in the UK for 24 hours or so.  Yesterday it was invisible in London but this morning the dawn is shrouded in a Cormac McCarthyite emulsion of grey. It isn't thick. Already dead above the sky is an only slightly smudged blue, but the rising sun on the horizon is almost smothered.

This ought to be me last day on the Midlands line. I pass the old friends once more but I am too tired to tick them all off. But I try to get a photo of the Leagrave, Lee source sentinels as we whistle by. I miss the chance to get one of the Sharpenhoe Clappers enveloped in grey dust. Perhaps I should stop using punctuation and adopt some pseudo-Biblical prose style.

I have been feeling shitty with a virus all week. I am getting better but can tell that I am still weak from it and I have some crotch chafing from the last leg that is a bit worrying. 

Out at Derby station and it is still very early. I cut into town, past the Cathedral before picking up the Derwent path again. People keep saying hello to me which seems a bit strange as we are in a city centre. Either it is the time of day or Derby is a very friendly City. 

By an old silk mill - the first fabric mill I have passed and a marker for the Derwent Valley Heritage Trail, I soon leave the city. Here the Derwent Valley makes a wedge almost as far into the city as Harpendon Common does into that town. There is open park land on my side of the river and country park like landscape on the other. It great contrast to my way into the City which was through about as many suburbs as I could find, this route soon becomes country.

I pass a merganser on the river but don't get a decent picture. Disturb some canada geese and see my first oystercatcher of the walk so far. 

To Little Eaton. I am getting hungry and am pleased to see a tea van in a lay bye. I stop for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. The guy is most astonished that I am walking to Cromford. More so when I tell him about my ultimate destination. As I set off again I see a bus that is on its way to Mansfield. I was born outside of Mansfield and it gives me a real start to think that I have walked so near to it.

A footpath leaves the road. It is getting hilly here and my bag, packed with four days of clothes and some provisions is feeling much too heavy. It is getting hot too. No sign of grey ash in the sky now, just sun in blue.

The footpath is different. It is an upland sort of path with stone walls and stone stiles. I think I have left the Midland Plain at last. My knee hurts more that is good as the path snakes down again. A bit of road and then by some converted mills back to the river and a pleasant kilometre through meadows for a while. But when I join the road again it is a steep climb. Steep enough for me to feel weak and to hurt  my knees.

At Makeney I take a side turn and pass the most fascinating pub I have seen yet; The Holly Bush.  I have encountered many old and interesting looking pubs but most have a certain coffee table book look about them. This one looks not only old but somehow less prettified. You could imagine people in this village going into something that looked more or less identical three hundred years or more ago.  Mind you, a google shows it to be an ex farmhouse so they would not have done so. 

The path is hard to find but a woman in a car points me in the right direction. I have to cross some enhorsed fields but they take no notice of me. These are tiny fields of grass on steep slopes, some with horses grazing. I stop on a stile for a cup of tea and bite to keep me going.

It is footpaths like this all the way into Belper. The final one that takes me into the town is very steep and my knees are in agony.  I hope the exercise improves them or the hill country is going to be a sore trial. 

Belper is an ancestral town for me. a great great great or so Grandparent called Vickers lived in a place called The Bent which I have seen from a car with my sister, in between Belper and the neighbouring village of Heage. but I have never been to Belper itself.  There is a little market square on a steep hill. A couple of lads go by arguing about ten pounds. One furiously. I mean, sub-violently furiously. 

I am ready for a break and find a little coffee place called Fresh Ground on the main street. It has an alcove for push chairs where I dump my bag. It has a feminine feel to the décor and the clientèle are mostly young mums from the look of it. But it also has slightly disturbing large pictures which clash with the mimsy décor in a way that I find very enjoyable. The coffee is very good and I almost wish I could stay and try the food but time to be on my way.

I have to cross the railway line and find an odd feature of Belper. It is in a cutting and crossed time and time again by little bridges. Every street and some footpaths have their own bridge across the railway.

I pass a fabulous old mill and then a much more mundane building that proves to be the spiritual home of stocking fetishists - A sign announces that Courtold's brands like Aristoc and Pretty Polly are based here. 

After that a broad track takes me along the left bank of the Derwent for a while. More out of control dogs bark at me. A fucking spaniel again. I used to like spaniels. But the worst is a Jack Russell. A couple are sitting in a field and the dog is on the other side of a fence but snarls and yaps at me, looking for a way through to the track I am on while the idiot owners gaze on as complacent as the cattle in the fields.  To my right the land is lower and there is a nature reserve, with a lake as well as the river, but I hurry on. This is a fairly long day and I want to get some miles behind me. 

I have to leave the river and cut up a steep hill. No real path just a right of way and it is slow going with my rucksack slowing me. I really am unfit and still weak from the virus it seems. A road takes me down to Amergate and at Ambergate I stop in a pub for tea and soda water and lime as I am getting dehydrated in this unseasonal heat. 

Ambergate, I have to say, is a slight disappointment. It is such a great name that this is only to be expected of course - conjuring images of giant gates of amber. Here the Cromford Canal used to dog leg round and out of the Derwent Valley. And on that stretch, now sadly filled in, there was a lock where a Vickers ancestor used to live in a little row of houses all of which were occupied by his brothers and their families. It was known officially as something like Number Seven Lock but everyone called it Vickers Lock. And all the brothers worked on the canal as boatmen. 

The houses are gone - knocked down in the 1960s. And that stretch of the Cromford Canal is no more. But the rest of it, from Ambergate to Cromford, is still there. Not navigable but a linear nature reserve. And this part is fascinating to me because it links my own family history intimately with the well spring of the Industrial Revolution. Because Richard Arkwright's Mill in Cromford was the first modern factory and Arkwright got the canal built to transport his raw materials and finished goods to market.

So I am tired and my knees hurt - but I have been looking forward to this stage in the journey for a long time. I have never been here before so it is all new to me despite being so important in my family history. 

And it turns out to be absolutely gorgeous. It is beautifully preserved, not as a working waterway, it is true, but as a nature reserve with stone bridges and the odd cottage along the way. Woodland fringes the far bank with overhanging trees. To my left the land falls steeply to the railway, road and then the River Derwent.

The canal teems with life. The birds go berserk in the trees. Things plop and splash as I walk along. I see a pair of dab chicks. Then a water vole on the bank I am walking beside. I stop. It stops. We look at each other. But when I reach for my camera it dives directly into the water though it seems too choked with reeds to give it any passage. I get the camera set up on my walking pole monopod in case it re-emerges. And elderly couple aproach and tell me they are looking for voles. They also point out a dab chicks nest which I had missed being fixated on the vole. But the little grebes won't come back while I am there and eventually I move off in case I am disturbing incubating eggs. 

And on I go. The railway keeps me company as well as the canal. My great, great grandfather, Robert Woodcock was a plate-layer on the railway around the time that the Vickers were canal boatmen. I guess he helped to put them out of business and I wonder if he worked on this line. It is unlikely, as he moved from Nottingham to Mansfield Woodhouse and there were enough lines round there to keep him busy. Still it seems ironic. One great great grandparent making another one redundant. And the sons of both doing what so many did; going down the pit as colliers. 

Soon I see more little grebes. And more. I see 11 all told. More than I have ever seen in a day before. Most of them in pairs. The canal must provide the perfect habitat for them. This is just wonderful walking. True I can hear the road which is quite busy, but otherwise it is perfection.  Or it would be if I did not need the toilet so badly.

I had planned to cut a corner to the hotel. And this seems like a good idea as there is nowhere to dive into cover for a toilet break round here. But then there is a minor miracle. A little centre, with toilets and a shop and cafe. I don't really need anything but buy some postcards out of sheer gratitude. When I look at the map with my glasses on I realise that the short cut goes over a steep hill. I am only too happy for the excuse to carry on down the canal. And I do, more dabchicks. More woodland fringing the water in the lambent evening sunlight. I have even lost the road and traffic noise for a spell. This is truly magical.

I come into Cromford Wharfe and wander into the mill complex. It is being closed but that is fine. I just wanted to see the buildings really. And then I go and find my hotel. The Alison House. Richard Arwkwrights old family house.

Things are a bit chaotic as the owners are stuck in Paris by the volcanic ash cloud, but the two young women standing in for them do a great job. A bath, a decent meal and a bed in my own room. 

This has to be best day's walking so far.



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