Despite its hills, the Peak District is surrounded by a canal network. Those to the east such as the Chesterfield and Trent and Mersey canals are linked to sea ports. But in the west, mainly to connect the east Midlands to the rapidly growing industries of Lancashire and Cheshire, canals were faced with the impossible task of climbing steep hills. The way this was overcome was by linking waterways to waggonways.
Designers William Jessop and Benjamin Outram wanted to run the canal to Whaley Bridge but the limestone plateau of the White Peak stood in the way. Also one essential part of a canal, water, was non-existent for most of its proposed length. Undaunted but still thinking as canal engineers, they built a ‘canal on wheels’.
When the Cromford Canal was first planned, the idea of its designers William Jessop and Benjamin Outram was to run the canal all the way to Whaley Bridge and connect it to the Peak Forest Canal. Unfortunately for them the limestone plateau of the White Peak stood in the way. Not only was it across high ground, but the land was cut by a number of deep valleys. Furthermore, the one essential part of a canal, water, was non-existent for most of its proposed length. Undaunted but still thinking as canal engineers, the way they overcame this problem was to build a canal on wheels. Instead of locks, they used fixed engines to haul trains up and down steep inclines. The first waggons were horse drawn, but as technology developed, steam engines took over.
The present day Cromford Canal ends at Cromford Wharf where coal was offloaded and a small amount of textiles carried away from Arkwright’s Mill. The main canal, the bit that became a railway, is about a mile and a half lower down the canal. This is High Peak Junction where goods were offloaded and stored in the warehouse on the opposite bank close to Leawood Pumping Station. The railway line along which goods were transferred from the canal, ran from what is now the Matlock to Derby line, past the warehouse and after a few yards to the High Peak Junction maintenance sheds (now a visitor centre); the first of the inclines starts at the back of the sheds. It rises in one straight pull for a little under a mile up Sheep Pasture Incline. The remains of the engine house that drove the continuous cable is still there at the top of the slope, but the machinery is long gone. There is a far better preserved section at the top of Middleton Incline a couple of miles further on and over 900 feet higher than the canal. The boiler is ‘steamed’ on advertised days and there is still the horizontal winding wheel and a demonstration waggon to see. There is also a small exhibition of the original stone sleepers which pre-dated wood.
From Middleton Top, the line took a contour-hugging route with just one more incline. Hopton’s engine was abandoned when steam locomotives became powerful enough to do the climb by themselves. The only other winding shed was above the Goyt Valley where the line, now followed by the steep road down to the Erwood Reservoir, dropped into the valley. From here the line ran past Fernilee and down to Whaley Bridge.
The Peak Forest Canal starts inside the rail-fed warehouse at Whaley Bridge. Where once barges queued to load and offload, pleasure craft now use their abandoned moorings, vying for space with boy anglers trying their luck with the local aquatic wildlife. This section of still navigable canal running all the way to the ‘Cheshire Ring’ and Manchester, joins the Macclesfield Canal at Marple, but the part we are interested in starts only half a mile from Whaley Bridge. This is the Bugsworth arm of the Peak Forest and was in fact intended to be a more important canal in its own right, being built before Jessop and Outram’s high level ‘canal on wheels’. Built to make and transport lime together with crushed stone to the industrial heartland of the North West, in its heyday it would have been a hive of activity with dense poisonous fumes pouring from banks of lime kilns. Nowadays and following the restoration of the basin once crowded with horse drawn barges, Bugsworth has become a favourite stopping place for touring boats exploring the western fringes of the North West’s waterways.
The canal was dug as far into the hills as their slopes allowed in order to get as close as possible to the deposits of limestone around Dove Holes. Initially the plan was to take the canal into Chapel Minton, about a mile and three quarters to the east of Bugsworth, this terminus would then be connected to the Dove Holes quarries by a tramway. The plan was dropped once it was found that a reservoir would be necessary in order to provide water for an unavoidable flight of locks at Whitehough. It was also easier to extend the tramway to Bugsworth even though the village was a mile or two to the west of the earlier proposal. Apart from the track bed of the old tramway, clearly defined within the basin complex, it is still possible to trace some of its upper route. Just south of the junction of the A627 Chesterfield/Manchester road with the A6, a deep overgrown cutting marks the route of the line. It ran in a sweeping curve towards Chapel-en-le-Frith and then down to Bugsworth. Waggons full of stone ran down the constant incline, pulled by gravity. Empty, they were hauled back by horsepower. On the downward run the waggons’ not inconsiderable speed was controlled by the application of a simple brake wedging an old clog. An unqualified local tale links this rather crude and dangerous method to the founding of the Ferodo brake lining company still based in Chapel-en-le-Frith.
Nowadays Bugsworth Basin is a popular place not only for pleasure boats to tie up, but for anyone wanting to enjoy a day out in a little known corner of the Peak. Where once men toiled lugging the heavy truckloads of stone, the complex of restored wharfs and channels, especially when aided by the well placed interpretive plaques makes a pleasant way to explore something of our industrial heritage.
The basin is laid out along the sinuous arm of the canal and splits into two soon after the canal reaches the scene of once intense industrial activity. Brought down by the tramway, stone was off loaded directly into barges by an ingenious man-operated tippler wheel; basically this was a huge wheel that wound chains that were tied to the waggon’s rear wheels, tipping it over and allowing the stone to fall down a sloping wall and into the hold of a waiting barge. Other arms of the tramway network took stone to a crusher, or to the smoky poisonous fumes of a series of lime kilns above the bankside of Middle Basin. There was also a line of kilns on the far side of Black Brook, the river which flows down the valley from high above Chapel-en-le-Frith.
Along with the transport of lime and stone, the canal had warehouses where cloth was stored for nearby print works, servicing the local specialities of the rapidly growing textile industry. Ancillary trades such as that of a blacksmith grew in order to support all this activity, and, of course pubs opened to slake the workers’ thirsts.
All the activity going on throughout the basin was controlled by a wharfinger. His house still stands at the entrance to Bugsworth Basin, directly above the Gauging Stop Place where the size of the load being carried would be assessed. This was necessary in order to levy the necessary tolls charged for using the canal network. This simple but ingenious system measured the water level on the side of the boat, when compared between empty and full.
Not all that long ago the site was derelict and due to local sensitivities, the name of the place was changed to Buxworth. Since then and following the still ongoing activities of far sighted individuals, most of the basin has been restored to even better than its former glory. Wildlife has returned with herons and kingfishers making the most of the fishes swimming in the clear water. The village name has reverted to its original Bugsworth and the canal-side Navigation Inn is doing a thriving trade.