Cromford Mill, gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, was the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill. Today the site is undergoing another transformation, with innovation once again at its heart.
As a member of Marketing Derbyshire & Peak District I was invited to a familiarisation day at Cromford Mills. This was an opportunity not to be missed.
This hugely historic site – the birthplace of the factory system and all that came with it – is a 15 minute journey from my door, yet I realised I still had much to learn about its history.
The aim of the event was to introduce Cromford Mill’s newly unveiled Gateway and ‘Arkwright Experience’. We were welcomed with tea, coffee and cake – big yummy cake direct from their cafe – and a presentation by Chief Executive Sarah Mcleod.
Then it was on to the visitor experience. Cromford Mills is the gateway to the rest of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, a 15-mile stretch of historical mill complexes and industrial landscape that snakes through the stunning Derbyshire countryside to its southern most attractions, the Derby Silk Mill and Joseph Wright Gallery.
The aptly-named Gateway building includes a wooden scale model of the World Heritage Site, with simple interactives around its edges, plus some wonderful imagery around the walls. Brian Blessed provides a (thankfully) toned-down commentary to the short introductory film in the portioned off AV area. The Gateway doesn’t provide too much detail about the site, but we were informed an audio guide will be available from June (shame we didn’t get the opportunity to tender!).
We were then ushered into Mill 1, so named as it was the first of Richard Arkwright’s mills and therefore the world’s first production line. Currently you can only enter into one section of the ground floor, but there you are met by Arkwright, and learn about his journey to fame. The AV show is quite wonderful. As a sufferer of asthma I could almost feel the virtual specks of cotton dust that floated on screen going down my throat, offering a flavour of what it would have been like to work here.
High tech to low tech
For our final part of the event we switched from high tech to low tech. One of the volunteer guides gave a very informative tour. We learnt that wig-maker Arkwright had no formal education, but devised a solution that had become a bottle-neck in the cotton manufacturing process. The result was Arkwright’s Water Frame – a cotton spinning machine that was powered by water.
The Cromford Mill complex grew over time and once Arkwright had employed all the local lead miner’s wives and children he built the village of Cromford to house more workers. This became the world’s first industrial village.
Arkwright only began his cotton mill empire at the age of 39. Twenty years later, Sir Richard had died. His business interests were akin to Apple today and in this short period he had accumulated enough wealth to pay off the national debt (shame he didn’t)! Most of his money was made selling licenses to others using his patented machines.
The Gateway and Arkwright Experience are the first step real steps in this site’s development as a world-class visitor hub. Next comes the commercial components – larger restaurant, conferencing facilities, offices and hostel. Once completed a museum – planned to fill the rest of Mill 1 – will follow. This will hopefully do justice to stories of this incredible site.
So far the signs are promising and the visitor experience will continue to grow over the next decade, just as Arkwright’s burgeoning empire did more than 200 years ago.
Our iOS & Android Discover Derbyshire & Peak District apps contains information about all of the Derwent Valley Mills WHS sites, including walking trails. Download it for free from discover-derbyshire.com and get exploring.
Night at the museum
Read about our last adventure – a sleepover at the Natural History Museum.