The stillness is unnerving in this dark, dank, virile valley. Nature is out of control here: Ivy, moss and lichen are choking stone and tree, swallowing the stream even.
This place was once very different. I catch glimpses of the past through snaking roots and shrubbery: a gable here, an empty window there, a missing door, a roofless ruin, a right angle of walls instead of a rectangle, a pile of rubble. Further up, there’s the curved wall of an empty paint vat, a single surviving flue and a wheel pit with an empty linchpin. In an archway, there is the worn-away convex curve of stone where a millstone once ground.
The Derwent Valley Mills in Derbyshire, England is a World Heritage Site. They are great monuments to the Industrial Revolution, and to one of its founding father, Richard Arkwright. Just off the main Derwent trail is Lumsdale, a forgotten wooded gorge close to the town of Matlock. Few venture here yet it’s a place of strange decaying beauty. The first mill was built here in the 1600s. By the height of the Industrial Revolution, there were at least 7 mills crammed into this narrow dale.
I close my eyes and breathe in the faint smell of water hitting cool air, rock and fern. The rotting vegetation from last winter still pervades the air, mingled with the scent of fresh shoots and buds. I try to imagine what it would have been like here centuries ago when the mills were still operating. And I swear I can smell the pungent aroma of ground minerals, the crunched bone of animal, the chaff of the wheat and the woven cotton. I listen. Through the sound of cascading water, I’m sure I can hear the grating millstone and the voices of mill workers hanging in heavy, dust-filled air. This place is full of ghosts.
I open my eyes again and continue the climb. “Hello.” An elderly lady calls to me. She’s carrying sheets of typed paper. “Would you be interested in my guided tour of the Lumsdale Arkwright Mills?” Her small eyes are bright with excitement. She makes her way over, her feet nimble, her body light. She trips over her words with a distinctive Scottish lilt. I don’t recognise her face but I remember her voice.
“We’ve met before,” I exclaim, “when I came up here last winter in the snow”. She has come to life with the spring and the excitement of her project. Back then, the winter snow had taken its toll as she had walked down the icy lane above the dale, hunched over, frail and vulnerable. Spring has a way of renewing life.
“I promise I will come,” I shout as I leave.
High above the dale, I look down at the waterfall that spills a hundred feet. Transparent pebbles of water bounce into the air. Below, the stream is bracken- brown. At the water’s edge, great green and russet slabs of stone sculpt the valley, like heavy, angular Russian monuments.
At the top, I sit by the last surviving mill pond of three. A black Labrador breaks the glassy surface of the water with his snout. The inverted landscape trembles. Mallards fly out of yellowed reeds. A flock of ravens rise up on the hillside in an echo.
Lumsdale. It’s a place that calls to me over and over.
About the Author: Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. She blogs at: http://moathouse-moathouseblogspotcom.blogspot.co.uk/