The Upper Valley of the Derwent is a deep valley surrounded by gritstone edges and dominated by three great reservoirs, constructed by the Derwent Valley Water Board primarily to provide water for Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.
The upper two dams, Howden and Derwent, were constructed between 1901 and 1916 and they were such a large undertaking that a village called Birchinlee was constructed in the upper valley to house the workers and a narrow-gauge railway was built between Howden Dam and the Midland Railway at Bamford. Traces of both these may still be seen. The dams were opened in 1916.
In 1935 an even larger project began downstream of the two earlier dams – the construction of Ladybower Dam, which flooded the area around the junction of the Derwent with the Ashop. This project, first mooted in the early 1920s, caused considerable controversy because it involved the flooding of two villages; Ashopton – which lay at the junction of the Ashop and the Derwent – and Derwent, which lay upstream on the Derwent river.
Despite protests the dam went ahead and was finished in 1943, and opened by King George VI, though the reservoir took a further two years to fill. At the time this was the largest reservoir in Britain.
Now the only visible reminder of Derwent and Ashopton is the old packhorse bridge from Derwent village, which was dismantled and re-erected at Slippery Stones. Derwent village can still be seen in very dry summers such as 1959, 1976 and 1995, and the spire of the church was left standing until 1959, when it was demolished. The flooding of the two villages was the worst damage inflicted by the water authorities in their many projects around the Peak District, and highlighted the damage which these can do to the environment – though paradoxically Ladybower is now a major tourist attraction.
Another claim to fame for the Derwent reservoirs is their association with the ‘Dambuster’ squadron of the RAF, for they used the Derwent to practise for their famous raid on the Ruhr dams. Since then this event has been regularly commemorated in the Derwent valley with fly-pasts of old bombers and aerial displays. There is a small museum on this theme in the west tower of the Derwent Dam.
In recent years forestry has become an important factor here and much of the sides of the Upper Derwent valley have been clothed in conifers. This has made a considerable change to the look of the valley and altered the ecology. However the Forestry Commission are a relatively benevolent landowner who allow access and provide amenities for visitors.
This is a beautiful and popular area which acts as a magnet for visitors in fine weather, so at weekends the valley is full of walkers, cyclists, fell-runners and just plain tourists. To preserve the peace of the Upper Derwent the Peak National Park have closed the road beyond Fairholmes at weekends and a minibus service operates.