The end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago saw massive floods careering down what became the Sett and Goyt valleys. The power generated by the force of billions of gallons of flood water carved a deep gorge, around which the town of New Mills now stands.
This water was a heaven-sent opportunity for later mill owners at the height of the industrial revolution. King Cotton, the then major industry that allowed Britain to clothe the world, became entrenched in mills lining the 100ft deep gorge winding far beneath the high Union Road Bridge, and almost hidden from the two parts of New Mills it linked.
The cotton mills were not the first mills to use the power of the rivers. Sometime after 1391, a corn mill was built at the bottom of what is now High Street; the tiny hamlet it served became known as newmylne and the name appears to have stuck. By the late sixteenth century this changed slightly to New Mill, but with the appearance of a profusion of cotton mills in the late 1700s, it became New Mills acknowledging the changes overtaking the town that grew on what was once farmland.
While the geography of the site was ideal for siting mills, taking advantage of the free water power, it did have its drawbacks. Access to the mills was up and down steep inclined lanes; housing the mill workers dictated that the houses were built literally clinging to the steep hillsides with the result that most were a pair, not side by side, but one on top of the other – the upper on one street and the lower at another address: the local term for such houses is ‘under-livings’, which aptly describes the way the houses are piled, one on top of the other.
Before Union Road Bridge was erected, traffic between the two parts of the town meant a steep climb down into the Torrs Gorge and a steep climb out, crossing the rivers by low bridges. This unsatisfactory state of affairs came to a head in 1875 when a man was killed trying to cross during a flood. Following stern comments by the coroner about the need for a safer bridge, ratepayer pressure forced the powers-that-be to agree to cross the gorge by a 94ft high bridge. Using stone conveniently to hand in the rocks lining the gorge, by 1884 the town’s folk of New Mills were able to celebrate their bridge with a procession and general rejoicing. Oddly and although the continuation of the newly built Union Road across the bridge ran through what was then farmland, it took several decades before it developed as the present grouping of small independent shops and commercial offices.
To explore New Mills, especially its gorge, the best way to start is from the small but comprehensively displayed Heritage Centre round the corner from the bus lay-by. The centre tells the story of New Mills’ development as a textile town, from cotton spinning to fabric printing, as well as a little of the coal mining activities beneath the surrounding moors. There is an excellent model of the town as it looked during the construction of Union Road Bridge, even showing by visitor operated lights, a disastrous mill fire.
A narrow cobbled track winds down towards the river. It should be possible to follow the River Sett upstream, but when we were last there (March 2016), the path upstream along the Sett was closed due to a rock fall and it didn’t look as though it might be reopening in the near future. Even so we still found an interesting way to enjoy this hidden link with New Mills’ past. To the left at the foot of the track down from the town, a wide path leads towards, then under Union Road Bridge where it is possible to admire the stonework of its soaring pillars and four gracefully curved arches – if you look carefully towards the central pillar you can see the date-stone 1884 when the bridge was completed.
The way onwards beneath the bridge, passes the scant remains of Torr Mill’s old chimney on the left and the foundations of the engine house is to your right. It was a cotton mill, originally powered by the waters of both the Sett and Goyt which joined above the mill. The small mill ran from 1794 until 1912 when it was destroyed by fire, an ever present hazard for cotton mills. If you walk forwards through the picnic area, you will cross the Sett by a wooden bridge erected in memory of the late Dr Leslie Millward, who campaigned to bring the Torrs back to life after years of neglect. Below it is an Archimedes Screw, installed to provide sufficient water-powered electricity for the nearby Co-op Supermarket, but it is fair to say that it appears to be having problems, for despite visiting the Torrs on many occasions, we have yet to see it working.
Upstream from the memorial bridge, the riverside path follows the Goyt, first beneath Church Road Bridge carrying the Hayfield road, and then onwards to Goytside Meadows, an un-improved wild flower meadow lying between the river and Peak Forest Canal. Carefully managed, it never has had chemical fertilisers and is used for grazing followed by haymaking in order to spread wildflower seeds naturally at the end of every summer.
Returning to the confluence of the two rivers, the way is back under the high bridge. Where the river (now solely known as the Goyt), swings right, the curving arch of a weir once diverted water to power Torr Vale Mill. Despite its age (it is over 200 years old), the mill did not stop manufacturing cotton until the 1950s, making it the longest running cotton mill in the world. Originally powered by two giant water wheels, but later by an engine, it is Graded II* by English Heritage, and even now it houses one or two small industrial units.
Forwards on your walk, past the remains of Rock Mill, the path crosses an amazingly strong stone wall. It climbs high above the river in order to carry the railway from Sheffield to Manchester, which has tunnelled beneath the town to reach New Mills station. There was once a junction here with post Beaching abandoned line to Hayfield, which is now used as the Sett Valley Trail.
Crossing the wall is the most dramatic and exciting part of the trip through the Torrs. This is the Millennium Walkway, a cleverly cantilevered bridge linking two sections of riverside path. Opened in December 1999 and costing £500,000, it was designed to be noticed, carrying walkers above the foaming waters of the River Goyt opposite Torr Vale Mill. A triumph of modern engineering and design, it is practical yet at the same time, highly attractive. Not only does it give a spectacular view of the river, upstream and down, but it offers a close view of the massive wall that supports a railway dating back to Victorian times. Part of the Midshires Way, the 225 mile long trail from Stockport to the Ridgeway in Buckinghamshire, helps walkers follow the riverside, without the infuriating need to climb steeply up to then town and then back down, simply to manoeuvre a matter of a hundred yards horizontally. The cost of building this magnificent structure was paid for by grants from the Millennium Commission and a number of local and national businesses. It hardly goes without saying, that the Walkway gained a whole swathe of awards, both for its innovative design and also the fact that in no way does it cause any problems to the environment.
There are several cosy pubs dotted around the town centre, most of which welcome dogs. Rail access to New Mills is either by the Sheffield/Manchester service via Chinley, or from Buxton. Transpeak ‘TP’ Derby/Manchester buses stop on the A6 at Newtown near the railway station.