Derwent Valley reservoirs

Year:1912, 1914 & 1943

Duration:11, 12 & 8 years


Country: Derbyshire, England

What did this project achieve?

Create dams and reservoirs that can provide water to key East Midlands conurbations

The Derwent Valley dams and reservoirs provide water for the UK cities of Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.

Victorian engineers identified the valley as being ideal for the needs of the local population and growing industries as it was deep and long with narrow points for dam building.

It also had a high rainfall and was surrounded by gritstone – useful for construction work.

The first 2 dams – Howden and Derwent – were built between 1901 and 1916. Work started on the third dam – Ladybower – in 1935. Construction continued throughout World War 2 despite the difficulty in finding materials and labour.

Building the Ladybower dam meant flooding the villages of Derwent and Ashopton despite much local opposition. Graves in Derwent churchyard had to be exhumed and reburied in the nearby village of Bamford as part of the project. The reservoir was completed in 1943.

The 3 reservoirs form the largest area of open water in Derbyshire and the Peak District. They have a combined capacity of nearly 464bn litres.

Difference the reservoirs have made

The Derwent Valley reservoirs have supplied water to large areas of Derbyshire and other parts of the East Midlands for over 75 years.

They’re also a major recreational venue. People come to the area for everything from kayaking and fishing to hiking and cycling.

The reservoirs attract 2 million visitors a year who bring income to the region and help boost the local economy.

How the work was done

The isolated construction sites were major challenges for engineers building the Howden and Derwent reservoirs.

Initial preparations saw project workers build a 7 mile (11km) railway link from nearby Bamford to bring men, machinery and materials to the site. The materials included Derbyshire gritstone quarried near the village of Grindleford.

Workers were housed in the purpose-built village of Birchinlee – known locally as Tin Town after its rows of corrugated iron huts put up as temporary homes. The village also had shops, a school and piped water.

Engineers used rough-hewn stone blocks weighing around 5 tonnes each for the core of both Howden and Derwent dams. Above ground, engineers clad the core in shaped blocks of stone sealed with cement.

Both dams have towers built in the Victorian gothic style. The towers contain pipework and machinery to regulate water levels in the reservoirs.

Work on the Ladybower reservoir started in 1935. It was designed with a clay-cored embankment, in contrast to the solid masonry of the other 2 dams.

Engineers gave Ladybower a 180ft (55m) deep by 6ft (1.8m) wide cut-off trench. The concrete-filled trench stretched 500ft (150m) into the hills on each side and was put in to stop water leaking round the dam.

The reservoir was finished in 1943. It took 2 years to fill and was officially opened by King George VI in September 1945.


People come up to me and say isn't it beautiful around here. But it's nothing to what it was. It's all man made now.

Morris Cottrill

whose family lived in the village of Derwent, flooded in 1943

Fascinating facts

The similarity between the Upper Derwent Valley and the Ruhr Valley in Germany led to the Derwent dams being used for target practice by Lancaster bombers of 617 squadron - better known as the Dam Busters.

Derwent church tower was left intact when the Ladybower reservoir was flooded in 1943. The tower eerily reappeared in 1947 when water levels were lower than usual. Seen as being a hazard, it was blown up in December that year.

The Packhorse Bridge at Derwent was luckier than the church tower. As the 17th century bridge was a designated ancient monument it was moved stone by stone and rebuilt over the river Derwent at the head of Howden reservoir

People who made it happen

  • Chief engineer, Howden and Derwent dams: Edward Sandeman
  • Architect, Howden and Derwent dams: William Flockhart
  • Ladybower reservoir built by Richard Baillie and Sons

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