Strutts North Mill, Belper and George’s Fish & Chips

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On a cold but bright Tuesday we visited two very different factories in the Derwent Valley region, Strutt’s Mill and Smith’s of Derby with Masters and MA Architectural Design Students from Sheffield University. After half the group got stuck behind a broken down train for an hour, we eventually made it from the station to Belper, via the help of a convoy of big yellow taxis.

Our first visit was to a cluster of historic factories, built by the Strutt family, which form a key part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. The first factory was built on the site in the late 1770s, and although destroyed by fire, it was replaced by the current Grade I listed North Mill in 1804. The profits from the first mill enabled the building of the next, each time with their own wheels to harness the power of the River Derwent. This including the building of a large weir, which still remains, rumbling away in the background of all of our conversations during the day.

We were welcomed onto site Strutt’s manager Mary Smedley, who briefly explained the developing ambitions of the volunteer group who currently manage the site, and who have carried out extensive historical research, gathered machinery and artefacts from the textile industry in order to open the site to the public. An absentee landlord, who does few repairs, currently owns Strutt’s, making the upkeep of the extensive site difficult.

We began by hearing about the past present and future of hydropower on site and in the region, from Transition Belper member Ian Jackson. Having set up the Amber and Derwent Valley Community Energy Industrial and Provident Society with architect Richard Keighley, his ambition is to develop hydropower in the region. He stressed the importance of fighting climate change as a motivation for his actions, and cited the invention of the steam engine as a point in time where CO2 levels started to shoot up. The Derwent Valley factories were driven by waterpower for 78 years, and this was in fact a low carbon valley. Ian explained how Strutt had also developed model farms in order to feed the rapidly growing population of the area, which integrated industry and agriculture and made innovations relating to the particular landscape of the region.

Ian went on to emphasise the value of historical research carried out by the volunteers to the development of the future hydro scheme, “I asked a few weeks ago, wouldn’t it be great to know where all the (water)wheels were, and Brian goes down to the record office and finds out… We’ve just got some information this week from Severn Trent, which will inform what we do, and so it goes on…Severn Trent are controlling the river flow far more than the group realised through the Ladybower dam, but apart from that the river is the same catchment and the same flow as it was 200 years ago.” This network of people provides cross-disciplinary research, and a strong basis for their decision-making.

The Environment Agency restricts what it is possible to do with the river, in order to protect fish, and other wildlife, and provide drinking water for the surrounding population. Ian suggested that some of these regulations could be looked at again in relation to the development of hydropower, with a closer understanding of particular sites perhaps enabling more leeway in terms of changes to the river.

Long Row resident Brian Deer and Mary then took us on a tour of the site, and up into Belper village to look at the variety of workers housing developed for his workers, and Brian very kindly welcomed all 25 of us into his cottage, a beautiful three story stone building, where we squeezed in and got warm by the fire. We then walked on to see the nail makers cottages, and non-conformist chapel. As non-conformists were not allowed to attend Oxford or Cambridge, Mary spoke of the networks of societies that the Mill Owners became part of. These included the Lunar Society, which Richard Arkwright was admitted to, with members including James Watt, and Erasmus Darwin and which enabled research and innovation amongst their members through the free sharing of ideas.

We then popped the renowned George’s Fish and Chips for a whistle-stop lunch before returning to see the bowels of the Mill. Walking in to the basement, the striking room bought gasps from us as visitors. Our tour now took an architectural turn with Mary explaining the innovations in structure, heating and wheel development. Mary showed us a scale model of the lightweight ‘flower-pot’ flooring inspired by the dance schools of Paris that enabled long spans.

It was clear that Mary is incredibly knowledgeable about the development of the building, the hydropower and the settlements from technical, social and political perspectives. The day was really inspiring, both in terms of the depth of knowledge and the passion of those we met.

More to follow on our trip to Smiths of Derby kindly hosted by President of the company Nick Smith and Technical Sales Engineer Martin Butchers.

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