Millennium Walkway - 1999
The Torrs Riverside Park, deep below the town was until the opening of the aerial walkway divided by an impasse between the historic Torr Vale Mill and the equally imposing railway retaining wall. Dramatically described by The Guardian as the last inaccessible place in England. The aerial Walkway provided an innovative and futuristic solution to this age old problem of access. Described as a steel spiders web,' the walkway clings to the vertical gritstone rock face and spans the enormous railway retaining wall, cantilevered out over the River Goyt.
Completed in 1999, the walkway provides a link in Europe's premier walking route, E2 which passes through New Mills on its way from Stranraer in Scotland, via Dover, to Nice in France.
The story of how New Mills came to be the home of such an innovative structure is best told in the words of the man who conceived it, the late Martin Doughty, at the time both a town and county councillor:
"As the end of the century approached, my thoughts returned to the same question which had been in my mind on and off for over 20 years. How to access the Goyt's riverside path network going west from the Torrs gorge without climbing out of the valley onto the towns roads. The Millward Memorial Bridge and the Town Council's purchase of the Goytside land from the British Railways Board had solved the problem going south on the upstream Goyt in 1984 but the challenge to find a western link down river remained.
“Back in the late 80s, we had looked at bringing a path round Torr Vale Mill on the inside of the bend in the river. Although, on the face of it, the more obvious route through, there were severe difficulties in trying to create a wheelchair friendly path by the mill. Additionally unless a path could be squeezed between the Rock Tavern Garage and the steep cliff face down to the river the route would still bring users back onto the same roads they then had to use. Oh, and the mill owner on whose land the path would lie was not at all keen.
"So, in 1996 I started to think the unthinkable. Could we bridge the gap by a route on the outside of the river bend, perhaps attached to the giant Victorian railway retaining wall below central station for part of its length? Did the forthcoming millennium offer the opportunity to match the vision with an opportunity? Certainly, the possibility of up to 50% grant aid from the Millennium Commission for projects of a unique nature was a significant opportunity. The County Council got to work.
"The local authorities, Derbyshire County Council, High Peak Borough Council and New Mills Town Council together pledged a total of £80,000 toward the then estimated £450,000 costs. We asked the Millennium Commission for £215,000 and sought the rest mainly from the private sector. Then we needed planning permission and listed building consent because one of the columns is within the weir, which is part of the grade two star listed Torr Vale Mill.
"Trials needed to be done, particularly on the railway retaining wall and the cliff face below the Heritage Centre. It was impossible to do those on the retaining wall from below so engineers had to abseil down from the railway line when it was closed to trains for repair work. The cliff face proved too unstable to use, hence the decision to have pillars located on the river bed. The retaining wall proved to be just as solid as it looks. Its then owner, Railtrack, proved even harder to move, however, insisting, despite all the experience and knowledge of Derbyshire's engineers, that a simple cantilever design could destabilise the wall. We did point out that 400 tonne trains transverse the top of the wall daily. After over 2 years of negotiation, we finally got Railtrack consent to attach the walkway to the retaining wall.
"The design of the Walkway was, of course, critical. It had to be completely accessible to wheelchair users. It had to fit into a very sensitive Conservation Area in the middle of Victorian and earlier structures. It had to be a bold statement because Millennium projects were not intended to be hidden away. And the construction would be extremely difficult because of the inaccessibility of the site.
"Within Derbyshire County Council's Environmental Services department are both civil engineers and conservation architects and planners. By working closely together, the in-house team designed the walkway and project managed its construction. At one point early on I was asked if we should bring in bridge design experts Ove Arup. I said there was no need. They later became closely associated with the Thames millennium footbridge in London which closed down shortly after its initial opening because of excessive bounce.
"With all the permissions in place, the County Council went out to tender for the contract to construct the walkway. Unfortunately, the lowest price was around £80,000 higher than we expected, at £525,000. I rang around potential backers and, in a couple of hours, had secured enough promises to cover the extra. I remain extremely grateful to everyone who so generously backed the project. Besides the Millennium Commission and the local authorities, funding came from Global Environmental Community Trust, WREN, Tilcon South, Haul Waste, Bowmer and Kirkland and the Environmental Agency.
"The contractors, Thyssen, planned to complete the work in 6 months starting in June, 1999. They laid a temporary track in the river bed and scaffolded up the retaining wall. Only once did the river rise sufficiently to wash away the track. The job was completed on time and the walkway opened to users just before Christmas, 1999. In retrospect, we were extremely lucky with the weather. Imagine if the contract had covered the same 6 months in the year 2000 when September to November was the wettest since records began.
"Shortly after it opened in January 2000, the Royal Mail featured the walkway on the 44p stamp of its first Millennium series. About the same time, a colour picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper. The next day the Granada TV weatherman gave his forecast from the walkway. Then the Times newspaper ran another photograph. Then BBC North West ran a piece. Then the Daily Telegraph included, with another photograph and story, the Heritage Centre telephone number and gave the Centre's volunteers an even more busy few days.
"Then the big one. The walkway was chosen to be featured on the Carol Smilie's network BBC TV Lottery show as an example of the good things the lottery was helping to fund. And at the end of the year, it appeared on Radio 4's 'You and Yours' programme as an example of a successful millennium project.
"All this positive publicity bought thousands of visitors to the town and they were rarely disappointed. Shops reported increasing numbers of customers. The Heritage Centre volunteers were becoming exhausted with the sheer number in the centre, particularly at weekends. Over the year visitor numbers more than doubled and we estimated that nearly 200,000 people used the walkway in the year 2000.
"Local people seemed to like it too. The 2000 New Mills Festival finished with a wonderful torchlight procession with huge illuminated fish being carried across the walkway following a salsa band.
"In July 2000 a helicopter landed at Newtown recreation ground and its passengers paid a brief visit to the walkway. They were judges in the British Construction Industries Awards Scheme, the most prestigious awards in the country. In October it was announced that against very stiff competition in the Millennium year, the walkway had taken the top prize in the small projects (below two million pounds) category. The Millennium Dome had won the large project category. The team who designed and built the walkway had a wonderful night at the award ceremony in London. They deserved it. Altogether, the walkway chalked up six awards from various competitions.'