What lies beneath
Derbyshire Life|November 2020
Exploring the hidden depths of Ladybower Reservoir, which conceals secrets of a fascinating past
Nathan Fearn

As Charles Balguy took his last breaths in 1767, he could barely have conceived that 178 years later his place of birth would sit marooned, isolated and largely forgotten in the dark depths; consumed by water.

Born in the grandeur of Derwent Hall in 1708, Balguy was a physician and translator of some repute and would go on to translate Giovanni Boccaccio’s famed Decameron, a collection of 14th-century novellas by the Italian author. It was considered at the time the best English translation and resulted in numerous reprints. While his work would stand the test of time, his birthplace would not.

As with most Derbyshire villages, Derwent had a proud history. It was a physical place where people stood, where people lived their lives, every nook, and cranny as familiar to locals as our villages are to us now. Indeed, in an age where travel was limited and work aspirations were largely confined to the village and local areas, Derwent was all many residents had ever known.

However, by 1945, as the country began the road to recovery following the end of a long, traumatic war, the village was gone - as if it had never existed.

Residents were relocated and left with memories of a different time, Derwent’s architecture – the quaint gritstone cottages, corner shop, the village church, local school, cobbled streets, and much more either demolished or hidden deep beneath the waters of the newly established Ladybower Reservoir.

War had delayed the process but Derwent’s fate had been sealed long before King George VI had personally visited the area to declare the reservoir open on September 25, 1945 – its future (or lack of) decided back in the 1930s. As Britain, and many parts of Derbyshire, picked up the pieces of relentless bombing raids from the German Luftwaffe, Derwent lay deliberately ruinous. There would be no rebuilding here.

It wasn’t without reason. Urban Derbyshire, and the Midlands as a whole, was growing. A relative exodus of those living a traditional rural life had been evident for a long time as people headed to the densely populated cities in search of work and greater opportunities.

As such, the need to cater to an ever-growing urban population was evident and the notion of constructing a large reservoir that could service the region’s cities - specifically in this instance Derby, Sheffield, Leicester, and Nottingham – was passed.

In order to construct such a vast man-made structure, many boxes inevitably had to be ticked. It just so happened that the rural Derbyshire village of Derwent ticked them all.

The decision, predictably, wasn’t without its critics. The lives of the people of Derwent were invariably underpinned by the community in which they had mostly immersed themselves all their lives.

What perhaps additionally irked residents was the fact that the flooding of Derwent and the nearby village of Ashopton was not always a foregone conclusion, despite the clear need for a reservoir in the area.

The Water Board had initially earmarked an isolated area higher up the valley to create two dams the Howden and Upper Derwent reservoirs – with just a small number of residents required to uproot their lives; moved down the valley, ironically, to Derwent and Ashopton.

The shock must have been palpable when news arrived the ambitious plans would need to be upscaled and these two proud Derbyshire villages would also have to be sacrificed in their entirety.

‘The shock must have been palpable when news arrived that the ambitious plans would need to be upscaled and that these two proud Derbyshire villages would also have to be sacrificed in their entirety. ’

Derwent was essentially the ‘village of the damned’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) - albeit for a greater purpose which continues to be essential to this day. Neighboring Ashopton, with fewer than 100 inhabitants, would literally sink into even greater obscurity – it is now forever buried under the silt of Ladybower ensuring, unlike neighboring Derwent, it will never again be uncovered.

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