This old weir, charming though it is, was much taller when it was constructed in the eighteenth century. Now turn to the other side of the path. What was the purpose of the strange iron mechanism with the low arch just behind?
The smooth wide track we walked along just now wasn’t built for the passage of feet, but water. With a weir forming a dam in the river, the flow was diverted along this channel, known as a ‘leat’.
The horizontal shaft there was part of the winding gear for a sluice gate, the remains of which are sticking up from the ground directly below. The sluice gate was an iron barrier that could be cranked up or down to control the amount of water flowing into the diversion.
The power of water had been harnessed along these rivers for centuries, chiefly for milling corn. Water was the obvious choice for driving the machines of the early Industrial Revolution. The name New Mills does not stem, as you might think, from the huge buildings we saw from up top. There is a record of a water-powered corn mill further up the River Sett as far back as 1390.
When a second one was built, nearer to The Torrs, it became known as ‘New Milne’. So, the growing town had already acquired its name when manufacturers eyed-up all this free water power during the 1780s.
The stone for construction, as we have seen, was just to hand and easily worked. Quarrying cleared enough land to provide the first cotton mills with a large enough plot, so it really was a win-win situation.
The only real difficulties they faced were the flammability of their products – cotton, linen, paper – and the very nature of the terrain: a deep gorge. Getting raw materials down and manufactured goods back up took teams of powerful horses. The two arms of the gorge also acted as serious transport barriers around the district.
To solve this, the bridge you see behind the sluice, with its curious double arches, was built in 1835. Before then locals would have taken a winding path, like the one we took today, just to cross town.
Take a brief look upstream to yet another impressive stone viaduct. It carries one of four railway lines which cut through the small town and was built as late as 1902.
The water power present in the heart of New Mills provided the seed for a very long period of industrial growth, well into the age of steam. In the local sandstone, entrepreneurs had found the right material to create a highly complex web of transport links by road, canal and rail.
We are going to walk back along the old leat now, imagining ourselves as water; let’s see where we end up…
Retrace your steps to stand on the wooden footbridge.
This trail was originally developed by Simon Corble for the Royal Geographical Society’s Discovering Britain.
Simon Corble is a theatre director, playwright and actor based in Derbyshire’s Peak District, is passionate about the countryside and discovering the hidden secrets of the natural world.