Updated: Jul 8
We had a very brief stay in the Derbyshire town of Belper, once a nail making centre in medieval times which then morphed into a cotton mill town and sparked the industrial revolution. We were there to explore, get some perspective outside our four walls and take advantage of the easing of restrictions to see family.
While we had been to Derbyshire and the Peak District many times, we had not been to Belper. Besides being in a beautiful part of England it has another claim to fame – Great British High Street Award 2019. Unfortunately, it was a little early to make much of this as we were still in the April 2021 part of restrictions easing.
We did discover that the town, the Strutt's Belper North Mill and surrounding area is in the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site. This being an interesting part of world history and, definitely, a major claim to fame. It is amazing how much is packed into this island nation.
The history of these mills, the first of their kind, touches both countries where I have lived. The date the mills were established was also around the time of the start of the American Revolution – 1776 and a Belper apprentice, Samuel Slater, became the Father of the American Industrial Revolution.
He was, however, not well loved for taking the engineering discoveries with him to the new world and was referred to as “Slater the Traitor” in some circles here in the UK back in the day. Samuel Slater also has a mill preserved in his name in Rhode Island, USA - Old Slater Mill. The link provides a timeline of the rescue of the mill to the present day.
As you probably will be aware, the raw cotton for the mills did come from the plantations in North America and therefore the cotton was picked by slaves. From what I have read the Strutt family, who built, bought and developed the hydro powered cotton mills of Derbyshire, while not owning slaves, did benefit, like many industries of the time, from enslaved African labor. This is a huge part of the history of many nations and it is always important to ensure it is not overlooked now or ever.
Hydro power at the North Mill in Belper
Interesting times and a circular story here back to our present day, because while this time was heralded as the start of the industrial revolution it was hydro powered! In the year we are hosting COP26, we found ourselves in a town that harnessed the power of the local rivers using green energy and innovative engineering to transform the cotton spinning industry. Where did we go so wrong after that? We did come across wind turbines in our walk along the Tissington Trail.
The hydro power machinery is well preserved at the North Mill in Belper beside the River Derwent still flowing strong. I would have loved to see inside the factory but it was still closed due to Covid rules when we were there. It is open now if you are interested in going. The setting is very beautiful with the river, building and gardens.
Outside of Strutt's North Mill showing some of the equipment by the River Derwent
Photo: C Riney
Photo: C Riney
The town was expanded to house the mill workers and it is also very well preserved, with about a half dozen churches, pubs and the award-winning high street. We did visit the pubs but of course everything was still happening outside. April was definitely very cold but we, like many of us, just piled on the clothes and enjoyed some overdue face to face time.
The Derwent Valley is a beautiful place to go walking in the hills and by the rivers. We did two hikes while we were here. One along the river and one in the Peak District on the Tissington Trail. We have had many cycle rides and hikes along the Tissington Trail, parts of which are on an old train line. So much to recommend in this area!
Walking & Cycling on the Tissington Trail - Photo: C Riney
TIPS: As always, book as much as you can until the social distancing rules are relaxed! We wandered by many pubs that looked inviting but all had “fully booked” signs up. Don’t forget to check the roads near the places you may book to stay as we, in our haste to be out of our four walls, booked beside a major intersection!
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you go or have been.