The sky is blue, the clouds fluffy and people are fishing – a truly tranquil day. The location? Codnor Park Reservoir, just to the east of Golden Valley, Derbyshire. This was once an important part of the network of canals which facilitated the growth of the coal, iron and steel industries on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border, and helped forge the Industrial Revolution. Coal has been mined in this area from Mediaeval times; indeed, old ‘gob pits’ (a local name for the ‘bell pit’) make walking in the woods a dangerous occupation. There is fragmentary evidence to suggest that coal was mined in Prehistoric times (the presence of a stone axe in one of the shallow coal measures in this region, for example).
All this caused a rush to join the first textile mills of the Derwent Valley to the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill, via Ambergate and Butterley (with its ironworks). So, the Cromford Canal was born. It ran into major difficulties (labour disputes and shareholder friction) and was only completed after some technical ‘wizardry’, including the then longest canal tunnel in Great Britain, Butterley Tunnel, which at the time of its building was 2,966 yards long. Although Butterley Reservoir fed the western end of the canal, the eastern end was fed by a small reservoir behind the former Newlands Inn at Golden Valley (locally called the ‘top reservoir’) and Codnor Park Reservoir. You can still find a way down to the old canal towpath, and view the blocked off eastern end of Butterley Tunnel. The canal (or ‘The Cut’ as it is called in Golden Valley) is heavily weeded, overhung by mature trees, and very shallow. Nothing at all like the later part of the 19th century, when full canal narrow-boats were propelled through the tunnel – not by horses, because there was no towpath inside the tunnel – but by ‘leggers’, men who laid on the top of the narrow-boats and propelled them by ‘walking’ along the curved sides of the tunnel roof - this meant that the boat could take up to 3 hours to travel the nearly 3,000 yards!
The canal is disused now; no cargoes of iron await shipment at the wharf, just over the Nottinghamshire border. No coal - from where the Riddings anticline brings both the Lower and Middle Coal Measures close to the surface and makes them easy to work - is available for loading; the last local 'pit' is long gone, although opencast mining has been undertaken. The tunnel suffered a major roof collapse and was closed in 1900. Both the eastern and western arms of the canal continued to carry cargo, but the Cromford Canal was closed totally in 1944, during the Second World War, when the effort to maintain it could not be sustained.
There is a scheme afoot to restore the canal for leisure purposes. However, current financial circumstances might well scupper this otherwise excellent idea. Until that time, the popularity of Codnor Park Reservoir will continue as a fine coarse fishing venue, with many fishing matches taking place during the season. Most anglers ‘weigh-in’ heavy hauls of roach, bream, and perch. There are, of course, local stories of a monster pike (Esox lucius) in ‘the Reser’, but the ones I caught as a boy were all fairly small ‘jack’ pike! It is also a fine place to just stroll and relax, enjoying the diverse wildlife and the views of the preserved Midland Railway on the opposite bank.
Whatever happens to the 'Cut' and to the 'Reser', they stand as monuments to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the landscape which followed.