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Aqueduct Cottage, a ruin that lives again, wins special mention, MacEwen Award 2024

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Words:
Hugh Pearman

Volunteering, donation and reused materials found a way to help James Boon Architects turn the ruined Aqueduct Cottage into an asset for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

I first encountered the remains of Aqueduct Cottage in 2014. The rocky wooded hillside it stood against was engulfing it. Its roof and gable-end chimneys had long gone, along with its windows and door. Cracks ran across its surviving stonework. Ferns grew in the soil and rubble inside. In summer it was all but invisible among the trees; in winter it appeared like a ghost. And now look at it: authentically restored and open to the public thanks to the efforts of a steadfast group of volunteers trained up in the craft skills needed to bring it back from dereliction, helped along by cash and materials donors. It now serves as a public gateway, information centre and events space for the woodlands stewarded by the local wildlife trust. 

The cottage had been abandoned for 40 years. It stands at a key point in the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, marking a junction on the late 18th century Cromford Canal south of its eponymous aqueduct spanning the River Derwent. It sheds light on the area’s history: vital information supplied just in time by its few surviving last inhabitants helped guide the restoration.

The junction on the Cromford Canal where Aqueduct Cottage stands.
The junction on the Cromford Canal where Aqueduct Cottage stands. Credit: Jim Bell

Close by, an original steam-powered pumping station for the canal is kept in working order. The preserved terminus buildings of the later Cromford and High Peak Railway, from where some of the earliest trains were cable-hauled up steep inclines, sit on the wharfside further north. A mile or so beyond that, at the canal end, you are steps from Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills, birthplace of the cotton-spinning industry. 

Aqueduct Cottage was built around 1802 by industrialist and landowner Peter Nightingale, great-uncle of healthcare pioneer Florence, to guard the entrance to a canal branch to his factory at Lea Bridge. Lock gates separated the waters of the two canals, with people employed to superintend the junction. 

The key player in the restoration was Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT). It had taken on the 30ha Lea Wood in 2012, gifted by locals who had bought it 15 years earlier to protect it from building. The ruined cottage came with the land. Following an options appraisal by Mansel Architects, the DWT formed a steering group and a partnership with the equally active Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT). It took the ambitious decision to go for full restoration despite the lack of significant grant funding, making maximum use of volunteers, recycled building materials and historically appropriate techniques.

  • Historic photograph of Aqueduct Cottage, when it was occupied along a thriving waterway.
    Historic photograph of Aqueduct Cottage, when it was occupied along a thriving waterway. Credit: Hugh Potter
  • Crowds visiting the cottage for its open day in March 2023 – a new life after 40 years of desertion.
    Crowds visiting the cottage for its open day in March 2023 – a new life after 40 years of desertion. Credit: James Boon
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Planning permission came in 2019, and work began on the envelope in time for the Covid pandemic. Conservation builder Andrew Churchman was alone on site for periods, sometimes helped by his young son. Access was tricky – no road leads to this off-grid place – but the canal reprised its historic role, with roof timbers delivered by volunteer-run narrowboat from Cromford Wharf.

Once re-roofed in massive re-used local stone tiles (and re-used Welsh slate to the rear) the cottage was ready for more volunteers, trained by craftspeople including Churchman. Leading the group was DWT’s energetic voluntary project manager Ron Common. Architect James Boon supervised design

And so, complete with its flanking terraced gardens, steps and paths, the thing was done. By now it was followed on social media by supporters worldwide. Aqueduct Cottage opened to the public in March 2023. As an information and activity centre for the DWT, ground floor interpretation relates to local wildlife and history. An open plan activity room upstairs is used for arts and educational events. These help pay for the cottage’s maintenance along with guided tours and exhibits.

The MacEwen Award evaluation panel found it fascinating. ‘Something about this got me from the first page,’ said last year’s MacEwen winner Alex Scott-Whitby. ‘You can tell there is a really strong relationship between all these different groups. It rescues something and there is a generosity in this project that really gives back to its community, which is powerful.'.

The multi-purpose upstairs space can be used for events, exhibitions, training, interpretation and more

  • The multi-purpose upstairs space can be used for events, exhibitions, training, interpretation and more.
    The multi-purpose upstairs space can be used for events, exhibitions, training, interpretation and more. Credit: Ron Common
  • The restored interior after a light-touch restoration on a light budget.
    The restored interior after a light-touch restoration on a light budget. Credit: Ron Common
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Kathy MacEwen said: ‘I fell in love with it, with the story of it. For £90,000 it is amazing, everybody working so hard to make an exquisite building out of a total ruin that has become an asset.’

The other panellists remarked how many people had been committed to the project over a long period to make it work, with BDP architect Stacey Barry – herself a canal restoration volunteer – noting from experience how ‘really passionate people’ are needed to carry such ventures through. 

I can vouch for that. As an irregular external onlooker, it’s been a privilege to see people carefully and lovingly take the building from near-death to new life.

See more MacEwen projects and architecture for the common good 

IN NUMBERS

Contract cost £90,000
Gifa 80m²

Credits

Architect James Boon Architects
Early stage options appraisal Mansel Architects
Structural engineer James Thomson, GCA Consulting
Builder for first phase and skills training Andrew Churchman
Volunteer project champion and works manager Ron Common
Approved inspector Simon Betteridge, Approved Building Control

 

Site plan.
Site plan.

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