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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Posted Saturday, May 12, 2007

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This is yet another of Derbyshire’s delightfully located villages, perched on a series of ledges on a steeply wooded hillside above the River Wye, about a mile upstream from the spectacular tourist haven of Monsal Dale, and so far off the beaten track as to be rightly termed another of the county’s`hidden gems’.

In fact the best approach to Cressbrook is on foot, for this part of the Wye Valley is a veritable paradise for walkers, with a wonderfully scenic riverside walk from Monsal Dale upstream through Upperdale to Cressbrook Dale.

The path beside the Wye between Cressbrook Mill and Litton Mill, via Water-Cum-Jolly and the towering limestone cliffs of Chee Dale, exhibits all the natural beauty and wonders of this most tranquil of all the county’s well documented riverside walks.

From the magnificently curved and concave limestone cliffs which tower above the 300feet wide expanse of the Wye at Water-Cum-Jolly, to the water fowl and shoals of rainbow trout in the clear sparkling waters of Chee Dale with the fabulous Chee Tor, a solid pillar of limestone rock towering two hundred feet high above the placid river, this section of the Monsal Trail is two miles of sheer natural pleasure - and comes well recommended!

Cressbrook is part of Litton Parish and lies about a mile and a half south of Litton, near Tideswell in the heart of the White Peak. The name lends itself to a dale, a famous mill, a stream – and one of Derbyshire’s youngest and most picturesque villages.

The original village was entirely a product of the Industrial Revolution and was built beside the Wye for the management and workforce of William Newton’s Cressbrook Mill which began production in 1783.

In Victorian times the Cressbrook estate was owned by Henry McConnel who built a new road into the dale, and according to White’s Directory of 1857 also built a “model village of neat Elizebethan and Swiss Cottages for the work-people”. A church and a school followed towards the end of the nineteenth century, with more dwellings built in neighbouring Ravensdale, and Cressbrook became a prosperous `private village’ – visitors even had to pay a toll to enter!

There were perhaps four lead-miners cottages in nearby Ravensdale when John Baker, a prosperous hosier with a stocking factory in Litton was granted the stretch of land known as `Litton Frith’ following the Parliamentary Enclosures Act in 1763. The act created two large estates bordering the River Wye; Lord Scarsdale was granted the more northerly estate from Water-Cum-Jolly to Millers Dale, whilst John Baker’s Litton Frith covered the area from Water-Cum-Jolly downstream to the confluence of the Wye with another stream, in an area then known as `Grassbrook’.

The enterprising Baker then set about the remarkable task of transforming the overgrown natural valley of Grassbrook into his own personal Paradise, planting watercress beds in the brook, lavender and peppermint beds and a herb garden on the lower valley slopes, and apple, pear, plum and damson trees and fruiting bushes amongst the rocks on the higher slopes of the steep hillside. It took Baker twenty years and a considerable fortune to tame this natural wilderness, but by 1786 he had completed the task and had also built himself a house in what by then was being called `Cressbrook Dale’.

Three years earlier, in order to finance his project, Baker had leased land in the dale to Sir Richard Arkwright, who in turn employed local craftsman William Newton to build and manage a cotton mill. This first Mill was a three-storeyed wooden construction which began production in 1783.

Two rows of four `apprentice lodging-houses’ were built near the mill to house the workforce, who were mainly children, but the mill was completely destroyed by fire two years later. In 1787 after purchasing the estate following John Baker’s death, Arkwright built a new mill on the same site.

After Arkwright’s death in 1792 the mill and the freehold of Litton Frith changed hands, but high inflation in the early years of the 19th century forced bankruptcy on the new owner and the closure of the mill in 1808. Salvation came two years later when Francis Philips, a prosperous cotton merchant from Manchester, bought the mill and estate and Cressbrook Mill opened again in 1810 under the management of William Newton and his three sons.

The industrious Newton’s were so successful that a large new mill was built in 1815, known as `Wye Mill’ – because it was powered not by the brook, as the previous mills had been, but by the river Wye.

A third mill was built in 1825 and a row of `apprentices’ cottages was built alongside to house the workforce, thus a small village gradually grew up around the mill complex.

William Newton, who also found fame as the `Minstrel of the Peak’ died in 1830 and in 1835 his son sold the estate to Henry McConnel who lived at the many-chimneyed mansion of the early 19th century Cressbrook Hall above Water-Cum-Jolly, with spectacular views over the Wye Valley.

McConnel was responsible for the steep winding switch-back road which winds up from the mill, and for the village built alongside it on the higher slopes of the dale.

The Gothicised and picturesque limestone houses are built in two terraced rows, one above the other at either side of the road.

All are now privately owned, and in the summer months the long, steeply terraced gardens are full of colour and a pleasure to behold.

The Methodist Chapel was built in 1931, but closed in 1973 and converted into a private dwelling. It was gutted by fire in the late 1970’s and rebuilt in the guise of `Trinity House’ by its new owner, and now stands resplendent in it’s own grounds on a knoll directly opposite the village green.

At the highest point of the village stands the Anglican church of St.John the Evangelist (1903), whilst lower down the lane and almost opposite the war memorial is the Cressbrook Inn, built as a village institute in 1898.

From here Riber Castle can be seen fifteen miles away to the south-east.

The magnificent `Wye Mill’, now known as Cressbrook Mill - served the cotton industry for a hundred and fifty years until it’s eventual closure in 1965, with the loss of three hundred jobs.

The following year, the railway station and signal box situated in nearby Monsal Dale burned down, two years ahead of the final closure of the main line between Derby and Manchester, and with the loss of both mill and railway, Cressbrook’s character was completely changed. All industry ceased, and many people left as house prices soared out of their reach. Thankfully the primary school, built on a rocky ledge behind the mill, has survived the changes after a long fight by residents to keep it open, despite, in some years having only a dozen children on the register.

According to lifelong resident Mr. Gordon Sharpley, “Most dwellings are now owned by incomers, and many are holiday homes”.

He estimates that out of a population of 150, only 10 or 11 are natives of Cressbrook.

“There’s a friendly atmosphere here, said Mr.Sharpley, “and it’s a wonderful place to live, but very expensive”. He pointed out a small, two-bedroomed cottage beside the tiny sloping village green which had recently sold for almost a quarter of a million pounds!

The magnificent Cressbrook Mill which stood derelict for almost two decades, has recently been completely restored and very tastefully converted into highly desirable and much sought after luxurious apartments – with surely one of the finest residential aspect of any in the whole of Derbyshire!

The old mill dam is now part of a Nature Reserve managed by English Nature, and though Cressbrook’s outward appearance has changed little over the last century, it’s character has been completely transformed – from that of an impoversished industrial village to that of an extremely affluent and very desirable residential one!

Cressbrook Hall is open to vistors during the summer months between 11am and 3pm, and tea-rooms at the turreted folly at the end of the original `Apprentice Row’, which was once the home of William Newton, are open to the public from 10am until 4pm at weekends.

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