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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The Rivers Bradford & Lathkill

Posted Friday, June 8, 2007

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The Rivers Bradford & Lathkill

`The River Bradford shares its name with the dale whose full length it enhances'

The River Bradford shares its name with the Dale whose full length it enhances and with the tiny hamlet that sits snugly on the northern bank of the dale between Youlgreave and Alport.

`one of the most mysterious rivers in England'

The Bradford is one of the shortest and perhaps one of the most mysterious rivers in England; the same description almost fits the Lathkill which is also one of the most beautiful with Charles Cotton describing it two hundred years ago as: “The most transparent stream I ever saw’…and of course Cotton would know, having shared his passion for angling with Izaak Walton of `The Compleat Angler’ fame.

Together the two of them fished most of Derbyshire’s rivers, the Dove being the most famously recorded, and indeed Cotton’s old fishing lodge still stands today in Beresford Dale beside the river like a ruined temple to this God of Angling.

But Charles Cotton also loved the Rivers Bradford and Lathkill, and waxed lyrical about the latter, stating that :- “it breeds, ‘tis said, the reddest Trouts in England”… and whilst this may no longer be true, the river today retains its status as one of the peak districts purest of crystal streams.

This is especially true in the winter months and during wet summers when the water-table is reasonably high, and this is part of the mystery of both the Bradford and the Lathkill for during dry periods certain stretches of both rivers disappear completely.

Both rivers are prone to dramatic changes along with the seasons and during the wet winter months the Lathkill rises in a cave on the limestone slopes just south east of Monyash, but in the summer months this cave remains dry and the river rises almost two miles to the east near Over Haddon.

The River Bradford

The Bradford rises at Gratton Dale End, beside the lane leading from Elton to Middleton and Youlgreave and at the bottom of the hill about half a mile west of Elton Church. The original source however was probably at the opposite end of Gratton Dale below Mouldridge Grange, but the dale has been dry for many centuries and these days only the constant outflow from an old lead-mining sough half way up the dale causes a small stream to form during wet weather and flow past the old cheese factory at the Gratton end of the dale.

From its infant bubbling out of the ground at Gratton the growing stream becomes a babbling brook as it slides lithely through the marsh-grasses and down the valley towards Fishponds Wood. Here along the bottom of the narrow rocky defile that runs below the former monastic Grange of Smerrill and the site of the deserted medieval Smerrill village are the remains of an ancient fish-farm. The area today is wooded and densely covered by undergrowth and amongst the vines, weeds and limestone rocks the infant river, known hereabouts as the Rowlow Brook, is dammed forming a series of four separate pools at successively lower levels, each thus draining into the next until the flow is finally released to continue its course unhampered below Smerrill Grange Farm and towards Middleton Dale.

In the dry summer months the medieval fishponds below Smerrill are no more than muddy pools, whilst at Gratton Dale End where the stream rises only the damp marsh beds give a clue to its source.

For the first two or three miles of its course the river is no more than a small and almost inconspicuous stream running in a northerly direction across the meadows towards Middleton by Youlgreave. Half a mile to the east of the village the stream passes beneath a low stone footbridge as it enters the steep-sided wooded confines of Middleton Dale.

Here there is a wishing well where a natural spring bubbles from a man-made trough in the cleft of the rock and empties into the burgeoning river.

A footpath follows the meandering stream through a wide basin choked by rushes and reeds and inhabited by a dozen species of water fowl to a fascinating series of dams, mill races, and traces of old ruins which peep through the dense undergrowth and provide physical evidence of a rich industrial and agricultural heritage.

Here an old track comes down the steep rocky defile from Middleton, descending from the village square past Green Farm and twisting beneath a massive limestone outcrop which is known as Fulwoods Rock.

Sir George Fulwood was the owner of the Middleton Estate and in the early 1600’s he built a fortified manor house here, high on the west bank of the river, which was known as Middleton or Fulwood Castle.

This was the scene of a skirmish during the Civil War when the `castle’ was raided by a strong troop of Cromwell’s soldiers. Sir Christopher fled, escaping through the rear of the castle, which stood on the edge of the precipice overlooking the dale, and took refuge inside a shallow cave in a large rock in Middleton Dale below. It was here on November 16th 1643 that he was cornered and fatally wounded by a musket ball and taken to Lichfield where he later died.

Near the bottom of this track are the remains of the old pumping house which used to pump water up to the Fountain conduit in Youlgreave, built in 1829 to hold 5,000 gallons, which in turn provided water for the village. However, I am informed by Mr Roy Shimwell that this information is inaccurate; these are apparently the remains, not of a pumping house, but of a 19th century lacemaking Bobbin Mill, which later served many purposes including use as a Colour Mill and a school! Mr Shimwell also points out that this building `was at one time used as a ram-pump to push water up to the public tap in Middleton Square. It was never used to pump water to Youlgrave'.

At this point the river is dammed and stretching across the floor of the dale are an astounding array of ingeniously designed sheep-washing enclosures with a central bath or `dip’.

The river is wide at this point but has been chanelled into two separate races, the left hand one once drove the wheel of an old mill whose ruins can be seen high amongst the trees beside another path which zig-zags up towards Middleton.

The river tumbles over a weir and flows beneath a quaint stone bridge close by, whilst a sign on a gate along the footpath marks the division between Middleton Dale and Bradford Dale.

Now the real beauty of Bradford Dale becomes apparent, for just downstream and reflecting the mature trees which line the steep-sided limestone dale are several crystal clear pools, each with it’s own weir and sluice-gate for controlling the flow of water to the lower levels. A close inspection of the large metal valves reveals a date of 1898, and a close inspection of the clear depths of these pools reveals an abundance of rainbow trout, which is exactly what this stretch of the river was designed for.

The River Bradford really comes into its own from this point, bending to the east below Moatlow Knob, and broadening out as it runs down the dale with the tower of Youlgreave Parish Church dominating the skyline to the north.

Another track zig-zags down from Youlgreave and a small lane crosses the river by a footbridge, here on the northern bank the walker will find another example of what was once a fishpond enclosure and a little way up the track, welcome refreshment at a small locally run café.

On the opposite bank there is evidence of early lead-mining, whilst on theYoulgreave side can be seen the derelict remains of former gardens, now dense and overgrown with bramble and briar. An ancient clapper bridge crosses the river here, as does the accompanying footpath which is an exceptionally scenic part of the Limestone Way.

Beyond the bridge the riverside path hugs the water’s edge until Mawstone Lane crosses the valley down near the hamlet of Bradford. Here the valley becomes much more open and shallow as the river approaches the dale end.

The river bends to the left at the bottom of the dale where an old pack-horse bridge carries a footpath across the river and up beside the church to Youlgreave, whilst the crystal clear water of the Bradford meanders the last few hundred yards of its course, tumbling over a couple of small weirs on it’s way to join the Lathkill just before Alport bridge.

The River Lathkill

The River Lathkill begins to come into its own at the bottom of Cales Dale and it broadens gradually as it tumbles over several weirs and a waterfall as it bends through Low Wood and past the northern end of Calling Low Dale. The river narrows again mid-way down Lathkill Dale and the section between Palmerston Wood and Meadow Place occasionally disappears completely during dry summers.

In contrast with Bradford Dale, the southern slopes of Lathkill Dale are more densely wooded and from Cales Dale down to Conksbury Bridge the living landscape makes far more demands on the river. There is a ford below Meadow Place Grange and a footpath leads north up the steep valley side to Over Haddon and then as the Lathkill bends gradually to the south east, a series of shallow weirs makes the approach to Conksbury Bridge one of the most picturesque on the river.

Just upstream from the ancient pack-horse bridge at Conksbury is the site of the deserted medieval village which, during the Middle-Ages must have been one of the prettiest in this area of Derbyshire.

Once beneath Conksbury Bridge the Lathkill runs gently down past Raper Lodge and sweeps over the remaining open meadows down to join the Bradford at Alport.

The river flows north and then east and over a weir below Harthill Hall, following the road from Youlgreave and running in a gentle flow of ox-bow loops across the water-meadows below Bowers Hall towards the A6 at Rowsley and it’s eventual confluence with the River Wye at Fillyford Bridge, which carries the lane up to Congreave.

The whole length of the River Lathkill from Cales Dale to Conksbury Bridge is a veritable paradise for those who enjoy exploring caves and old lead mines, for there are numerous caves hidden amongst the wooded slopes of upper Lathkill Dale and further down the dale the old workings of the Mandale Mine can still be seen.

The riverside walks which the footpaths beside both the Lathkill and the Bradford provide are some of the finest scenic riverside walks in Derbyshire, if not the whole of England, and are a must for visitors to the county. The tracks are never too difficult except in exceptionally inclement weather and the walks are therefore gentle and thus capable of being enjoyed by everyone, young and old alike.

The two rivers share many characteristics and the landscapes and topography of both are very similar. The Lathkill is the longer and carries a greater volume of water down to it’s confluence with the Bradford at Alport, but both are equally enchanting, and in an area which is completely devoid of any major river system both are vital in maintaining the levels of a delicately balanced system of local ecology.

*My sincere thanks to Mr Roy Shimwell for information contained in this artice.

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