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Liam Barker

Now Then pays a visit to New Mills—a town with plenty of old mills.

Sometimes, with a breeze in your face, you smell it before you see it―the big mill on Albion Road. It smells of sweets. That’s because long after the cotton and calico left for good, Swizzels’ famous confectionery moved in.

From New Mills Newtown station, it’s a short walk following the aroma of Parma Violets before this local Victorian landmark is upon you, complete with rows of blank-faced windows and a jutting chimney worthy of L.S. Lowry’s painterly attention. Although its proportions are uncomplicated, the overall effect is one of brooding industrialism against a mountain range of massed clouds.

In fact, Manchester’s former industrial prowess is all over New Mills―a small town in which old cotton mills, Peak District hills, bridges, railways, rivers, and a canal marina cluster less than 10 miles south-east of Stockport.

Image 1 Swizzels Matlow Ltd Albion Road

Swizzels Matlow Ltd, Albion Road

Liam Barker

New Mills has depth, real depth, in the form of the Torrs Gorge. This 100ft earthen slicing exposes jagged sandstone walls, around and above which the town busily congregates, as if to be inexorably drawn to what lies below. I, in any case, feel this as I venture a leaning look over the wall that keeps me from examining the gorge head on. The bustle of buses and bank holiday goes on behind me; dead ahead and straight down is a great meeting of manmade and natural elements.

From this viewpoint, the resplendent Torr Vale Mill (now used as a wedding venue) presides over large trees, the rush of the River Goyt, the elegantly curved Millennium Walkway, and trains passing in and out of New Mills Central. In an offbeat way, I’m reminded of Manchester’s Castlefield with its gathering of bridges, railways lines, and waterways. I can see a similarity, a familial link.

Image 2 Torr Vale Mill the Torrs

Torr Vale Mill, the Torrs

Liam Barker

I walk down a long series of steps leading to the base of the Torrs, and pass parents with pushchairs picking their way up to the town centre. I sink below the trees’ partial canopy. The air freshens, cooling. Reaching the bottom, I join an easy-going confluence of strolling locals and day-tripping families from Manchester and elsewhere.

Limber climbing enthusiasts scale the walls with ropes and carabiners next to Union Road bridge. I don’t fancy joining them. They can conquer the stark dimensions if they want―I’m fine to just amble. And whilst they take the gorge on vertically, I admire how the bridge has long since overcome it lengthways. Its stone-built arches appear to effortlessly connect the two sides of town, as if they were tracing the trajectory of a giant, bouncing kangaroo.

Just past Union Road bridge, the community-owned hydroelectric corkscrew never seems to stop turning its hypnotic spirals of kilowatt power. That’s because the rivers Goyt and Sett converge here like two interlocking cogs, and the flowing water is apparently endless.

In my estimation, the Torrs best captures the essence of New Mills. Bordered by railways and crossed by bridges, this gorge is a deep pocket in which Manchester’s palpable, historical influence on the town manages a peaceful co-existence with the Peak District.

Image 3 Union Road Bridge

Union Road Bridge

Liam Barker

It’s pleasant by New Mills canal marina. The smell of molten Drumsticks wafts out of a Swizzels vent onto the towpath, and afternoon clouds glide by at the pace of a barge.

On the way here, I made a quick detour up the high street, glancing through the windows of curious, independent shops as a continuous stream of traffic filtered by. Whilst walking along the car-filled main roads in New Mills, it’s easy to accept that the suburban heat of Hazel Grove and Stockport is only a short distance away.

Now, however, as I stroll along a section of the Peak Forest Canal between New Mills and Marple―surrounded by fields and trees―I might be forgiven for doubting that Greater Manchester is so close by. Eventually, though, the canal in this direction will indisputably end in Dukinfield. It’s enough to make me turn on my heel.

Later, I learn I turned too soon. The towpath scenery doesn’t in fact worsen that much and certainly not in the clichéd ways I imagined it might―bland buildings, dumped trolleys, the mangled remains of those short-lived Mancunian Mobikes. Even so, I’m happy to be back in New Mills―the breeze has picked up a bit now and Swizzels’ chimney appears to touch hurrying clouds as if it’s a finger running across braille. I wish I could paint like Lowry, or at all.

Image 4 Peak Forest Canal at New Mills

Peak Forest Canal at New Mills

Liam Barker
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