Getting down to the nitty-gritty history
We spent a few days recently in Bugsworth Basin at the end of the Upper Peak Forest canal. It’s one of my favourite mooring spots in the whole system. Here, nestling in the folds of the glorious Peak District hills is a place that seems like the remains of a lost world.
We are surrounded by ruins of stone buildings, by wharves and basins. It’s like living in the centre of an archaeological site. And one with an excellent pub, The Navigation, on hand, I should add.
It is a lost world and yet one only relatively recently lost – the remains of a massive limestone processing and transport hub that 200 years ago was one of the largest inland ports in England, where narrowboats were handling over 600 tons of limestone a day.
Lime was a substance in huge demand in the early 19th Century, used in everything from agricultural fertiliser to mortar for building and textile manufacturing. A prime source of it was the limestone hills of the Peak District. And the only way to transport it from there was by the newly devised canal system.
So Bugsworth came into existence as a basin where limestone was brought down from the surrounding hills by tramway, crushed, or burned in huge kilns to produce quicklime, and then transported away by the newly built Peak Forest Canal. And then, of course, along came the railways. Bugsworth’s importance declined rapidly and it closed in 1927. This vast place with its warehouses, kilns, railway tracks and offices then decayed into an unrecognisable jungle as stones were taken away for other uses, undergrowth claimed the wharves and the canal dried up.
In 1968 volunteers began the monumental job of reclaiming it from dereliction and getting the waterway fit for boats again: it only finally opened in 2005. (The work partly funded by the EU we’ll soon be leaving, incidentally).
It’s wonderful to be in a place that was at the very heart of the canal system. It resonates with history. And yet it’s all too easy to romanticise the past. As period photographs show, in its working days Bugsworth was noisy, smelly, filthy, full of smoking chimneys that polluted the surrounding area and men there worked physically hard in dangerous conditions for poor wages.
During a summer spent on the northern canals we’ve passed any number of old stone mills and warehouses, some converted into offices or flats, others lying derelict.
It’s sad to see – especially as in many towns nothing seems to have replaced the wealth, the civic pride and the work these mills provided. And yet the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia blind us to the smoke and squalor of our industrial past.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to lose touch with the past and I wish we still had manufacturing industries to be proud of as we did then. I think it’s vital that today’s boaters in our shiny, marinaliving boats understand the history and significance of our canals and the part they played in kick-starting the industrial revolution. So I’m full of admiration for the volunteers who spent so many years attempting to resurrect Bugsworth Basin: what an appalling thought that it might perhaps have become a housing estate or a superstore’s carpark.
But let’s not forget the gritty reality of life for the working boatmen and women of the day and the industries they served. I enjoy going to historic boat rallies and seeing enthusiastic owners dressing the part as they parade their spotless craft. And, as I said, Bugsworth is one of my favourite spots.
Yet it’s a spot I would never dream of going near if it was still noisy, smoke-ridden and dangerous. So, as we enjoy our parades, re-enactments and living museums, let’s not forget that for many, the past we feel so sentimental about was in many ways a tough and terrible time.
‘What an appalling thought that Bugsworth Basin might perhaps have become a housing estate or a superstore’s carpark’
The lost world of Bugsworth
KEVIN BLICK From car journalism to the canals was a change of pace, but living on board tug Harry is a constant eye-opener