This is a tale of an extraordinary rescue. It’s the story of how a pretty lock-keeper’s cottage on the Cromford Canal fell into ruin, how a group of villagers raised enough money to outbid the developers who wanted to buy it, and how a small team of volunteers turned out every week for more than 3 years, working in all weathers, to bring this historic building out of the woods and back into the sunshine where it belongs. It’s also the story of how anyone can save something they value if they have the determination … and if they make a promise that they want to keep.
Out of the Dark Woods
The quiet towpath of the Cromford Canal is a peaceful place. Beside it the calm waters flow gently through the Derbyshire countryside, carrying along the little grebes and moorhens as they dive for food, and robins sing in the willows that arch overhead.
If you have walked south beyond High Peak Junction at any point in the last few years, however, the chances are that that stillness and tranquility will have ended momentarily at a small, pretty, stone cottage. There you may have seen a veritable flurry of activity, with groups of people digging, chopping, stone-walling, hammering, sawing, plastering and painting.
This busy, happy crew are all volunteers for the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust who have been working tirelessly since October 2019 to restore Aqueduct Cottage, a unique 19th Century lock keeper’s cottage positioned where the Lea Wood Arm meets the Cromford Canal.
Five years ago you could barely see the derelict remains of Aqueduct Cottage for the trees which had grown around and weaved within it. They grew through the missing roof and through the dark spaces at the empty window and door frames. The stone walls were crumbling, metres of rubble and debris had piled up on the floors inside, and more than 40 years of abandonment were about to finally claim this once much-loved family home and historically significant part of Derbyshire’s canal heritage.
But in just over three years more than 50 volunteers of all ages have utterly transformed Aqueduct Cottage, working together and breathing new life back into its old walls.
Now there stands a beautiful cottage surrounded by flowers, with meticulously repaired walls, an entirely rebuilt stone roof, new windows chosen precisely to replicate the originals, chimneys ready to smoke with warmth again, and a front door in place to welcome in new generations of visitors.
This is the story not just of one little cottage with a fascinating history, but of the people who turned up every single week, unpaid and often unsung, who worked through cold winters and hot summers, to coax this historic building out of the dark woods and back into the sunshine where it belongs, its walls reflected in the still waters of the Cromford Canal.
Bound for Fairy Tale
Aqueduct Cottage was built in 1802 by Peter Nightingale, great uncle to Florence, who grew up in nearby Lea Hurst. Nightingale was the main financier for the famous industrialist Richard Arkwright, and the landlord of his developing mill complex at Cromford.
The cottage was constructed to house the Lock Keepers, or Lengthsmen, who maintained the Lea Wood Arm, a short, narrow branch canal that led off the main Cromford Canal and was used to service Nightingale’s factories in Lea and Lea Bridge.
The cottage was occupied by a succession of families for the next 150 years, generations growing up in its small rooms, the children playing among the ancient trees of Lea Wood behind.
The famous children’s author Alison Uttley, who was born at nearby Castle Top Farm in 1884, described it beautifully:
“We passed the canal cottage, a Hans Anderson dwelling, whose little walls were reflected in the water, whose garden ran parallel to the canal. A small swing-bridge crossed the canal at this point, where the waters divided, part of the stream going to the lead wharf in the village. The cottage was the dividing place between work and play, between fairy tale and reality, and we were bound for fairy tale”.
For all its idyllic charm and picturesque setting, however, life in Aqueduct Cottage was not easy. Mains services were never connected; the light came from paraffin lamps and candles, the heat was from wood and coal fires, and fresh water had to be collected each day in pails from a spring in the hillside. There was an outside privy above the pig sty. The cottage was small with only two bedrooms, yet one inhabitant, Ann Eaton, brought up 8 children there.
The decline of the Cromford Canal began in the mid 19th Century, when the advent of the Midland Railway reduced it to use for little more than local boats only. As the number of water-powered mills on the Derwent began to decline in the late 19th Century, the traffic on the water dropped even further.
In 1906 the main factory on the Lea Wood Arm shut down, and the stop lock that Aqueduct Cottage had been built to watch over went out of use. The proverbial writing was on the tunnel wall, and in 1936 the Lea Wood Arm was closed. Very soon after, in 1938, the last commercial traffic passed along the upper section of the Cromford Canal, and by 1944 the canal had been abandoned.
The people didn’t desert Aqueduct Cottage straightaway. Despite its isolated location and lack of services, the last known resident, Mr Bowler, didn’t move out until around 1968. For a brief period the cottage was adopted as a walkers’ shelter and maintained by volunteers of the Wayfarers walking group, until they too ceased using it in 1974. The wildlife and surrounding trees from Lea Wood then slowly reclaimed the cottage over the next 40 years.
The family home, once crammed to the rafters with life and so important to the industry of the area, fell into ruin.
A Race Against Time
In 1996 a team of developers stepped into the picture, with plans to purchase and develop the ancient Lea Wood and, with it, the crumbling remains of Aqueduct Cottage. Desperate to protect the wildlife and preserve the natural beauty of the area, a group of villagers from Dethick, Lea and Holloway joined forces to create the Leawood Trust. Between them they raised over £115,000 through donations and charity events. They outbid the developer, saving the wood and thus securing the future of the cottage.
In 2012 the Leawood Trust gifted the 74 acres of woodland, including the cottage, to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust to ensure its survival into the future.
Enter Mr Ron Common. In 2016 Ron joined the DerwentWISE team, part of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, to take on the 3-4 month task of assessing various options for the preservation of Aqueduct Cottage. Seven years later, he’s still there.
As he read more about the cottage’s history and spent more time in its presence, Ron became so enchanted with the building and its importance to the Lower Derwent Valley that he went on to lead the campaign to save it.
Ron organised a team of volunteers from the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and together they began the task of starting to restore the derelict cottage. The end goal was to transform it into a heritage and wildlife conservation site for use by the community and visitors, both to teach people about the area’s history and to promote the importance of the area’s wildlife.
Faced with a crumbling mass of overgrown stones, with no connected services and no road access, at times that must have seemed like a very tall order. But Ron is not a man to shy away from a challenge.
The most vital immediate job was to halt any further decline on the cottage. In late 2016 and early 2017 the team set to work with spades, axes and enthusiasm, clearing the trees, undergrowth and debris from the stones. The building was stabilised by builders A Churchman Ltd, who propped up the walls and boarded the empty door and window frames to preserve the integrity of the building as far as possible.
Ron then spent the next year working tirelessly to raise awareness of the cottage’s importance to the history of the area. He created the Friends of Aqueduct Cottage Facebook Group (which now has more than 3,500 members from 40 countries around the world) and held exhibitions to introduce the project to the public.
A defining moment came in March 2018 when the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust came on board and agreed to join forces with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust in the restoration. Their architect and representative, James Boon, produced the planning application and steered the project through the tricky planning stages until, in July 2019, the team received the long-awaited news that consent had been granted for the cottage’s new life.
Using money raised from public donations, including a successful ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign and a large grant from The Pilgrim Trust, they set to work in earnest to bring Aqueduct Cottage back into the light.
The Cottage Re-emerges
Throughout the chilly Autumn and bitter Winter of 2019/2020, with ice freezing the ground solid and snow covering the stones, the team worked tirelessly. They recovered tons of fallen masonry from within and around the cottage, removed enormous tree roots and dug out the thick debris from the floors. As if that work wasn’t demanding enough, all the material then had to be carted away from the site by hand in wheelbarrows to the Wharf Shed some 300 metres away.
With the shell of the cottage now visible, the major structural work began. Part of the building had to be underpinned, after which the long job of repairing and rebuilding the stone walls commenced in earnest. The builder soldiered on alone during the national lockdown in 2020, reconstructing the walls and replacing the window lintels using reclaimed oak. When the volunteers could join in again months later, floor joists were installed, a new floor was laid, and the cottage once again had recognisable rooms.
Slowly, surely, the cottage began to re-emerge.
The complete reconstruction of the roof in January 2021 was an immense task. Due to the remote location of the cottage, every single piece of the roof had to be cut to size by hand and assembled on site. It had to be strong enough to hold the 5 tons of stone roof tiles, reclaimed from a 100 year old Derbyshire barn, that would start to go on only a month later.
In a wonderful nod to the cottage’s past, the enormous size of the roof timbers and the lack of road access meant that the larger sections of wood had to be brought to the cottage by narrowboat, using the restored barge Birdswood, operated by the Friends of Cromford Canal.
Throughout the Spring of 2021 the volunteers carried out major landscaping work to the cottage grounds and garden. 50 steps were dug in by hand behind the cottage to provide safe and easy access up the hill into Lea Wood, requiring not only extensive digging but also the repositioning of an enormous boulder that weighed more than a ton. The soil and debris all had to be bagged and removed, again wheeled by barrow to the Wharf Shed. The land immediately surrounding the cottage was tiered with stone walls, and flowers once more brightened the gardens.
One of the highlights of the project for Ron came in June 2021 when the new windows and doors were fitted to Aqueduct Cottage. Using old photographs as source material, these were designed with central swivels to match the originals as closely as possible. Somehow they gave the cottage its ‘face’ back.
With the exterior of the cottage now closer to resembling the pretty country home it once was, the long, hard work to transform the interior really began. Over the next 6-12 months the volunteers lime mortared and repaired the walls, ready for the final plastering and painting. The job was made much easier in March 2022 when a purpose-built staircase was installed into the cottage, allowing easier and safer access to the first floor than up and down a ladder.
A New Legacy
And now, in the Spring of 2023, the final touches are being made to Aqueduct Cottage to allow this wonderful old building to begin a new chapter in its long history. From September the two ground floor rooms will be open to the public with interpretation boards to tell the history of the cottage and to give visitors an opportunity to learn about the importance of Lea Wood and a more biodiverse Derwent Valley, as part of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s vision of a 30% rewilded Derbyshire. The top floor rooms will become rentable space for community groups and for the Trust.
This transformation has been entirely thanks to the extraordinary dedication and efforts of a small band of people, led by the indefatigable Ron Common, as well as the many skilled tradespeople who have donated their professional services and materials for free or at a reduced cost to help the project. They have all given up their time and energy, day in, day out, to rescue this fairytale cottage.
Special mention must go to three tradespeople in particular: to James Boon, architect, who steered the project expertly through the planning stage for the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust; to Andrew Churchman, builder and stonemason, who painstakingly rebuilt the stonework and tiled the roof, working alone through the lockdown months; and to Phil Twigg, carpenter, who created the awe-inspiring roof structure and installed the staircase and windows.
When I met him, Ron reflected on how the restoration of Aqueduct Cottage had taken on a personal significance for him. One of the previous residents, a woman called Fay Bark who had lived in the cottage as a teenager in the 1950s, was able to visit in 2017 and see the start of the restoration project. It was the first time she had returned in over 60 years.
As she turned to leave, Ron made her a personal promise that the team would restore her childhood home. She took his hand, looked into his eyes, and with a smile she said, “I know you will Ron.” That moment remained a motivation for him throughout the entire project.
In very rare quiet moments, as Ron Common stands back and looks at the cottage that he brought out of the woods, he must know that he has more than kept his promise to Fay.
The achievement of the team has been nothing short of miraculous; a testament to unswerving dedication, community spirit and over 4,000 hours of back-breaking labour. Where once lay a crumbling ruin of old stone, unloved and almost entirely hidden by trees, now stands a beautiful building of character and charm, wearing its history proudly in every stone and beam. Those involved in the long project have created a legacy that will last centuries into the future.
Ron Common was awarded the Conservation Champion Architecture Award for 2021 by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust for his outstanding work on the project to restore Aqueduct Cottage.
How do I reach Aqueduct Cottage?
Aqueduct Cottage is located on the Cromford Canal at its junction with the Lea Wood Arm, between Whatstandwell, 2 miles to the south, and the canal terminus at Cromford Wharf, 2 miles to the north.
The nearest public car park is High Peak Junction Car Park on the road between Cromford and Lea Bridge (DE4 5AE). From the car park, cross the footbridge over the River Derwent. Upon reaching High Peak Junction, turn left and continue along the Cromford Canal towpath. Aqueduct Cottage is a few hundred yards on the left.
Find out more
Aqueduct Cottage will open on 25 March 2023 for visitors to see this magnificent transformation for themselves, and to find out more about the heritage and future of this beautiful area.
Written for Let’s Go Peak District by Peaklass