New Mills sits astride a magnificent gorge called the Torrs, formed by melting ice at the end of the last Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago. The gorge is 100ft (30m) deep at its lowest point. Two rivers, the Sett and the Goyt, meet here. Starting at the Heritage Centre in Rock Mill Lane you can take a walk down the path (with 51 steps) to discover the many natural and man-made features of the Torrs. Towering rock faces, trees, and birdlife mingle with mill ruins, weirs, bridges, railway, the Millennium Walkway and a community hydro scheme. Wheelchair access to the Torrs is available from the bottom of Station Road and from Wirksmoor Road (opposite the Rock Tavern).
For centuries the steep and rocky descent to the river was a barrier to development and communication. Then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, riverside sites became sought-after locations to power water mills for the expanding cotton industry. By the early 1800s no fewer than five mills had been built, huddled against the cliff faces.
Sandstone was quarried from the gorge to build mills as well as workers’ cottages on the steep terraces. Brake horses were used to steady the descent of wagons carrying supplies. The Torrs bustled with industry.
However, the mills still lacked easy access for goods and vehicles. New Mills Bridge (Salem Bridge) crossed the River Sett at the bottom of High Street but was upstream of the gorge, whilst the two low-level bridges in the Torrs could only be reached after a steep descent.
The building of Church Road Bridge (1835) and the magnificent viaduct of Union Road Bridge (1884) united New Mills and Newtown. Tunnels and bridges enabled two railway lines to cross the Torrs, one to Hayfield (closed in 1970) and one to Derby (now used as a line to Sheffield). Nevertheless, bankruptcy, fire, and continuing poor access contributed to industrial decline from the late 19th century.
Abandoned for over 50 years, its mills in ruins and used as a rubbish dump, the Torrs became an area dangerous to the public. Only in the 1970s was the outstanding recreational value of the gorge recognised. On the initiative of a town council committee led by Dr Leslie Millward, the area was cleaned up and officially ‘re-opened’ in 1974.
Subsequent councils continued making improvements, and the Torrs gorge is now known as ‘The Park under the Town’, open to all. The sandstone cliffs offer a range of routes for rock climbers. A wide variety of birdlife has returned, including dipper, heron, and kingfisher, and the gorge is rich in trees. Ash and sycamore dominate, mixed with oak, alder and willow. Wildlife corridors lead from the gorge into established nature reserves downstream at Mousley Bottom and upstream at Goytside Meadows. Mill sites line the river banks. The Millennium Walkway, curving between railway and river, completes the Midshires Way as one of the country’s central walking routes. At the confluence of the Sett and the Goyt, a reverse Archimedes screw harnesses water power to generate electricity for local use. Walkway and screw continue in the twenty-first century the wonderful industrial heritage of tunnels and bridges left by the nineteenth century engineers.
The trail concentrates on the industrial heritage of the Torrs. But look out also for the birdlife and enjoy the natural woodland and the peaceful atmosphere contrasting with the busy town centre immediately above.
At each location a QR code is provided which gives a link to a webpage containing trail information for those with a smartphone or tablet.
A clickable map is displayed below, together with a list of the locations.