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Alison Uttley’s Cromford – then & now

Alison Uttley’s Cromford – then & now
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In the 1930s, countryside author Alison Uttley wrote a series of short essays based on her childhood experiences in and around Cromford.  These were later produced in book-form by Scarthin Books.  Currently out of print, it is possible to find a much-cherished second hand copy; armed with one of them, Brian Spencer looks for what became of the shops and businesses that once cared for the everyday needs of people living in Cromford over a century ago.

Alison Uttley was born as Alice Taylor, on December 17th, 1884, at Castletop Farm, between Cromford and Lea Mills.  A highly intelligent girl, she began her academic career by winning a scholarship at Lady Manners Grammar School in Bakewell.  From there she went on to study Physics at Manchester University, taking an honours degree, one of the first women to enter the field of science.  Following a teacher training course at Cambridge, she taught Physics and English in Fulham for three years before coming back to the North of England after marrying James Uttley.

Moving to Buckinghamshire where she spent the rest of her life, her writing career began in 1931 when, as a widow she had to support herself and her infant son.  Her first book was ‘The Country Child’, an autobiographical novel based on her early life as the daughter of a farming family.  This was followed by much-loved children’s stories such as ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ and ‘A Traveller in Time’ and many other novels and plays, some of which have found their way on to the small screen.

Although she never returned to Derbyshire, she began to write about her early experiences in and around Cromford.  Here she would go by pony and trap with either her father and mother, or just the one, in order to buy their everyday needs, or have repairs made to the horse’s harness, or maybe watch while the farrier fixed the pony with a new shoe.

The old lock keepers cottage on the canal, currently being restored by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Cromford in her time and well into the twentieth century, was a completely self-supporting village. It really did have the traditional Butcher, Baker and Candlestick maker, along with draper’s shops where Alison and her mother could buy a new bonnet.  Her father could be measured and fitted with a new suit, or buy medicines for a sick cow.  There was even a cobbler and a wheel-wright, in fact everything a busy village attached to Sir Richard Arkwright’s thriving cotton mill would need.

Armed with a copy of the village map (see below), we soon discovered that while none of the businesses Alison or her parents relied on still exist, most of the buildings are still there sheltering other commercial interests, or even converted into private houses. Though the businesses have changed, the village is still laid out as it was in her day, and so our trip round Cromford was easy to follow.  

We started our walk round Alison Uttley’s Cromford with a late breakfast at the quirky wooden café that stands on the corner of Mill Road, above Arkwright’s Mill, where many of Cromford’s inhabitants made their living.  Very little has changed with the café building apart from its use.  In Alison Uttley’s time it was a barber’s shop, a place where the local men could socialise.

Taking our lives into our hands we crossed the A6 and began to follow the left side of Cromford Hill Road.  Beyond the small war memorial garden, the first building on our left is the Community Centre built on the site of the local flour Mill.  A ladies’ hairdressing salon shares one corner, using what was once the village blacksmith’s place of work. Beyond a narrow gap a chip shop and cafe (one of two chippies supplying the village), fills what was once a post office, then comes a private house where there was a pork butcher’s shop, then later a bank.  Beyond it Arkwright’s Store struggles against changing grocery needs, but next to it is probably the only unchanged shop in the village; this is the village newsagents where young Alison bought her penny dolls.  Moving on up Cromford Hill, the next shop of interest comes next to a narrow drive accessing a group of cottages.  This was where Alison and her mother bought ribbons to rejuvenate their hats.  It later became a dress shop, but now looks after the requirements of the areas plumbers.

Stone built houses line the road in a mixed selection of styles, many of them include a stocking frame knitter’s workshop in their upper stories.  These cottages continue up to and beyond North Street, the street and school built by Richard Arkwright Junior to provide accommodation for his workers and stocking frame knitters.  The street is built to give each side a fair share of sunshine, the north in the morning and south in the afternoon. Two commercial buildings stood at the entrance to North Street; on the left is the elegant bow front of what was once a butcher, but is now a private house.  The Bell Inn is opposite, having partly extended into the grocer’s shop, once its next door neighbour.  If anyone who lived lower down the hill wanted a loaf of bread they would have to climb to what is now the next door neighbour to the Bell, for that is where the village baker worked.

Once a water operated stone masons yard, now a basket shop

Returning to the bottom of Cromford Hill, Water Lane carries quarry traffic along the Via Gellia.  At the lane’s junction with the hill road, a general merchant uses part of the old carpenter and wheelwright’s workshop.  An Aladdin’s Cave it fulfils D.I.Y needs and everything from sledges to wrought-iron display stands.  It would have been well known to Alison’s father.

Moving along Water Lane, past the closed Co-op shop that came and went after Alison Uttley’s time, the pond on your right gave power to Arkwright’s early mills.  It also collected water draining from local lead mines:  this was collected via a complicated system of channels behind the houses and shops at the bottom of Cromford Hill.  Known locally as the ‘Bear Pit’, it still governs the flow of water now entering the canal beyond the mill.

A water wheel at the head of the pond no longer powers a stone mason’s yard, but acts as an attraction to the basket ware business now using the site.  Round the corner on Scarthin, the old road out of the village, the first house on your left was used by a cooper who made barrels for local colour works as well as beer.  Further along and attractively sited above a promenade used as an overflow during market days or when the fair came to town is Scarthin Books with its 100,000 books old and new, a perfect place to browse and enjoy together with a cup of fresh coffee.  Rather surprisingly, the shop was never mentioned in any of Alison’s countryside essays.  While the building was there in her time and is on record of housing a furniture shop, then a draper, it never prompted anything in her young mind.

Dragging ourselves away from Scarthin Books, the saddler’s gloomy shop opposite the Boat Inn is now a brightly lit post office, something the village sets great value towards.  There was a boot maker in what is now a private house on a terrace above Scarthin. A chemist, or druggist as it was first called stood on the corner of Scarthin.  This was one of the few premises still operating in its original form in recent times, but it now sells antiques; behind it is a house where the village tailor offered made-to-measure suits for the local gentry.

Arkwright built the Greyhound Hotel to house the visitors who came to marvel at his wonderful invention.  Virtually unchanged, apart from expanding into the next door bank, it still looks down on what was once the market square and fair ground.  Three small shops complete the rest of the square; Crystals in what was once a draper who was well known to Alyson and her mother; next is an antique shop in the cobbler’s and then a small chip shop.

Traffic would still ply the Cromford Canal in Alison Uttley’s childhood, but now only a pleasure craft manages to run as far as High Peak Junction.  She was attracted to one of its features standing at the junction of the main canal and a short arm running to Lea Mills and a lead smelter.  This feature, until recently in danger of collapse, is a small cottage where a canal official lived.  With its decay stopped, the pretty cottage is coming back to life under the care of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. 

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