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09-04-2019 / 17:00

Howden, Derwent & Ladybower Reservoir, a walk through history

Written by: Andrew McCloy
Photography by: Jonathan Bean

"There's a village under there," says my companion Don, gesturing towards the middle of the deep, dark reservoir. "A church, school, peoples' homes - all drowned so that Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham didn't go thirsty."

"Beneath the surface ripples is a darker story of loss and destruction."

Given its popularity as one of the recognised beauty spots of the Peak District, the upper reaches of the River Derwent have been fundamentally shaped by human hands. Three massive reservoirs, held in place by equally colossal dams, fill the narrow and part-forested valley that snakes its way into the remote moorland. They wouldn't be out of place in Scotland, or perhaps Scandinavia; but beneath the surface ripples is a darker story of loss and destruction, but also incredible bravery, that reaches far beyond this little valley.

We begin our walk at Fairholmes and are soon standing at the foot of Derwent Dam. After recent heavy rain the reservoir is brimming full and water cascades over the 35m (115ft) high dam wall in a white, fizzing wall of spray and noise. Derwent and Howden dams were built between 1902 and 1916, with Ladybower completed much later, in 1943. We'll visit the two older ones towards the end of our walk, but for now we swing south to follow a quiet lane above the eastern shore of Ladybower Reservoir, passing a few scattered farms and houses, until it peters out by a small bay. Here a simple interpretation board contains a faded sepia photograph from 1912 depicting a rural idyll of families in their Sunday best posing outside a row of pretty cottages. Variously dressed in smart bonnets, waistcoats and caps, they stand stiffly and awkwardly for the camera - frozen in a moment in time, but a moment that would soon end with shattering finality as the entire villages of Derwent and Ashopton were forcibly deserted, dismantled and submerged under billions of litres of water.

"In the most recent dry spell the shattered ruins of the village became visible in the mud once more and thousands of curious visitors gazed at the hitherto underwater village."

"The Peak District is ringed by cities," explains Don, an amateur historian, "and as twentieth century urbanisation took hold they needed a bigger and reliable supply of drinking water. Where better to look than these high, wet and sparsely populated hills?" The upper Derwent Valley was ideal: deep, with narrow points for dams and tough gritstone readily on hand with which to build them. Too bad that some people lived there, for despite protests the two resident communities were compulsorily re-housed at nearby Yorkshire Bridge. Little was spared, including the elegant, oak-panelled Derwent Hall built by Henry Balguy in 1672 and which in 1932 had become a youth hostel. A historic 17th-century packhorse bridge was taken apart stone by stone and rebuilt at the head of the valley at a location known as Slippery Stones. The tower of the parish church of St James and St John was left intact as the new reservoir filled up, although when it reappeared in 1947 as water levels dropped it was deemed a hazard and blown up for good measure. In the most recent dry spell, in 2018, the shattered ruins of the village became visible in the mud once more and thousands of curious visitors gazed at the hitherto underwater village.

We retrace our steps a short distance, past the moss-covered and slightly eerie gateposts of the former vicarage, another period building consigned to a watery grave, then head uphill on a well-used path via Wellhead and Lanehead to reach the open moors. Behind us Ladybower Reservoir stretches out as far as the A57 viaduct, with Win Hill beyond and the Great Ridge and Kinder Scout filing the horizon. We find some shelter from the wind at Millbrook Plantation for a quick butty stop, gazing eastwards in the direction of Sheffield and the long flat outline of Derwent Edge with its assemblage of wacky gritstone outcrops, such as Hurkling Stones, Salt Cellar and Cakes of Bread. Let's save that walk for another day, Don and I agree.

Still on a direct track north westwards, we now begin to drop down via the ruins of Bamford House to Derwent and Howden Reservoirs, slender fingers of still water feeling their way into the heart of the Dark Peak's bleak, bare moors. Howden Dam is in view straight ahead, another robust stone barrier holding back a vast quantity of water. Seventy years ago this dam was also in the sights of other visitors to the valley; but this next and equally remarkable chapter in its history was not about building reservoirs, but destroying them.

During the Second World War the RAF pilots of 617 Squadron practised here ahead of the so-called Dambusters bombing raids in Germany's Ruhr valley. "The narrow twists and turns of the upper Derwent were like the Ruhr's," explains Don, "and even the dams were very similar in their design and shape to those of the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe." Naturally the training flights were top secret, so local people had no idea why huge Lancaster bombers were thundering low down the valley in the middle of the night. "Apparently there were plenty of complaints about joy-riding bomber boys!" says Don.

The actual raids of what was code-named Operation Chastise took place in May 1943 and two of the three German dams were successfully breached, flooding a large industrial area. But how far it really hampered the overall German war effort has been a matter of debate; and the price it exacted in aircrew (53 out of 133 who took part were lost) and the 1,600 or so civilians killed on the ground is sobering. "However, the propaganda value of this audacious mission for the British Air Ministry was immense," reflects Don, "and of course it's endured with the well-known 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd."

"I stand below it once more and gaze up at the neo-Gothic tower that looms above me like a castle rampart."

I gaze down at Howden Reservoir which forms a sort of 'Y' shape, with the dam itself measuring about 330m (1,082ft) across. I simply can't imagine flying along here in a very large and ungainly plane laden with high explosive, just 60 feet above the water and in the pitch dark - and then releasing a bouncing bomb. Mind you, it was all very carefully worked out. Derbyshire-born inventor Barnes Wallis took inspiration from a pebble skimming across the water and using precise measurements perfected a technique of literally bouncing a spherical bomb along the water. To ensure a correct sequence of bounces before reaching the target the bombs were released with backspin - a technique also used by golfers seeking to control their shots.

We follow the steep path through the heather and down to the wide track along the shore of Derwent Reservoir, turning left for an easy stroll back to the mighty dam - and mighty it certainly is. I stand below it once more and gaze up at the neo-Gothic tower that looms above me like a castle rampart. The dam is 54m (180ft) thick at its base and the enormous blocks of gritstone came from a quarry at Bolehill, further down the valley. They were then 'dressed' (cut and shaped to size) before being transported to the site of the two dams on a specially-built railway. Altogether 1.25 million tons of local gritstone were required at Derwent and Howden to build the enormous, weight-bearing walls.

"The upper Derwent valley might be a beauty spot, but its beauty hides a poignant human story."

In the early 1900s such a construction project required a huge labour force, since pick and shovels were the order of the day, of course. But unlike 40 years later when the Derwent Valley Water Board would evict long standing inhabitants, now they built a brand new settlement for the navvies and their families. It was located on what is now the western shore of Derwent Reservoir at Birchinlee and was popularly known as Tin Town, since most of the buildings - which included a school and mission room, police station, bathhouse and general hospital - were made from corrugated iron sheeting. For its short life this was a real, living community. Over 100 children attended the school when it opened in 1902, and evening classes were held for any adults needing help with reading and writing. Workmen grew prize-winning vegetables on a large communal allotment; and Birchinlee even had its own football team that joined the Sheffield Amateur League (winning two cups and three sets of medals in 1912). At its height the workers' village housed over 900 people; but as soon as the work was done and the dams were completed the migrant workers headed off to the next project and the entire place was taken apart.

We walk quietly along the narrow terraces under the trees by the roadside where the rows of buildings once stood. A granite cross in Bamford churchyard commemorates this unusual settlement, but that's the only tangible remains. First the drowned villages of Derwent and Ashopton and now the tin shacks at Birchinlee - whole communities that have literally disappeared off the map. The upper Derwent valley might be a beauty spot, but its beauty hides a poignant human story.

For this adventure in the Peaks, Andrew wore the Mammut Ducan boots. At Mammut we're proud to say that we support The Royal British Legion, a charity dedicated to providing financial, social and emotional support to members and veterans of the British Armed Forces.

Last year a previous member of The Legion’s Battle Back Centre, a recovery centre for the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans, tested his mettle on an adventure in the Himalayas, read about it here.