RETRO: Colin Drury brings history back to life

The Derwent and Howard Dams from Walls Across The Valley: The Building Of The Howden And Derwent Dams by Professor Brian Robinson
The Derwent and Howard Dams from Walls Across The Valley: The Building Of The Howden And Derwent Dams by Professor Brian Robinson
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Walls across the valley, book celebrates one of the most impressive feats of the last century - the Howden and Derwent reservoirs

IT was one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 20th century.

On July 16, 1901, just 10 miles west of Sheffield, there started a project which would not only secure the city’s survival and growth but which would change the surrounding Peak District landscape forever.

This was the building of the Howden and Derwent reservoirs, a pair of huge man-made lakes designed to provide water to the Steel City as well as Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

It was a project so vast, it took 15 years, cost £3.5 million and used almost 2 million tonnes of stone. The two dams alone are feats of architectural magnificence, each more than 1,000 feet long, 110 feet high and capable of holding 4,200 million gallons of water. An entire village – including tavern, school and social hall – was built to house workers. Even a special railway line was laid to bring in materials.

Now, a book has been released charting the mammoth scheme.

Walls Across The Valley by Professor Brian Robinson – grandson of one of the thousands of navvies who worked on the project – includes 200 incredible images and a detailed history of the construction.

“Even today the dam walls are awe-inspiring,” says the 76-year-old. “When the water is cascading over the top and you’re stood underneath, it’s like standing under a man-made Niagara Falls. So, to think how impressive that would have been almost 100 years ago is really something quite again.”

The twin reservoirs are in 2013 integral to the region. They supply 13 million gallons of water everyday, have become a key Peak District attraction, and were famously used to train the Dambusters during World War Two.

But back in the 1890s, the Derwent Valley was actually the source of some dispute.

The growing industrial cities of Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester all wanted to build a reservoir there because of its high rainfall and natural slopes but they were competing against each other to have access rights. Each submitted designs to Parliament and petitioned MPs to be allowed to develop the area. It was only when Parliament told them it would only facilitate the passing of a bill if the cities worked together that things got moving,” explains Professor Robinson, who grew up in nearby Castleton and now lives in Eyam.

As such, the Derwent Valley Water Board was set up n 1899. Construction started some two years later in 1901.

It wasn’t easy, of course.

Before the main work even began, a navvies village, Birchinlee, had to be built and seven-and-half miles of railway line laid. Over the 15 years, meanwhile, 18 workers died. This was before health and safety,” says Professor Robinson, a retired molecular biologist. “One worker died while going to the toilet. He slipped into a stone-crushing machine. It was hard work but it was actually well paid and Birchinlee was not a bad place at all. A lot of the navvies, many of who came from Wales, ended up staying in Derbyshire.”

The first of the two reservoirs Howden was finally opened in 1912. Derwent was completed in 1916.

Within 20 years, both were considered such a success, that plans for a third were initiated. Ladybower would make a trio of these twins when it opened in 1944.

* Walls Across The Valley: The Building Of The Howden And Derwent Dams by Professor Robinson is published by Scarthin Books of Matlock. It is a revised and reprinted version of a sold out 1993 tome. Visit Scarthin Books