Betty, Johnson & Nephew

With the Summer, and the children’s summer holidays, coming to a close, I couldn’t resist sharing one final Derbyshire walk, through Shining Cliff Woods.

Pioneers, red wheelbarrows, blackberries, wellies, muggy – coats tied around waists, a dog’s loping company and enthusiasm. And, Shining Cliff is rich in stories:


On a commanding eminence within Shining Cliff Woods stood a famous yew tree called Betty Kenney’s tree. Luke and Betty Kenny lived in the woods as charcoal burners during the 17th and 18th centuries.They brought up a family of eight children without having entered a home except for the purchase of necessities.

Luke Kenny and his Wife Kate by James Ward exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 (no.57), commissioned by Francis Hurt (1781-1854) of Alderwasley Hall, Belper, Derbyshire.
Portraits of Luke Kenny, aged ninety-six, and Kate, his wife, aged eighty-eight

Their habitation was a movable hut in the form of a cone or sugar loaf, one side of which was furnished with a bed upon turf, the opening was covered by a large board laid upon the outside which was covered with the turf they used in making charcoal. On cold nights they often took a portion of their wood fire into the hut.Their favourite spot in the woods was the shade of the immense yew tree under which one of their children is buried. Betty’s real name was Kate Keynon and initially she travelled annually from Papplewick, Nottingham to these woods. The lullaby Rock-a -Bye baby is alleged to originate from Betty rocking one of her children to sleep on one of the hollowed-out stems of the yew tree. In 1909 the tree was said to be 2,000 years old. Thanks to some local boys it was severely damaged by fire in about1930. www.crichparish.co.uk

From “DRAWINGS BY JAMES WARD”: [46] A Charcoal Burner’s Hut Pencil and black chalk 13 x 20 15/16 inches • 33 x 53.1 cm Signed ‘JWD.RA’ and inscribed with short­hand notes; inscribed on the old backing sheet ‘Charcoal B. Hut’ Provenance: Summerhayes

Luke and Kate (Betty) Kenny joined our walk. We marvelled at the harshness of their life and living, the austerity and simplicity, their affinity with these woodlands, the sounds and sights. They must have known every tree, every inch of the place. It’s a place of profound wild beauty. Fast flowing streams and clear ponds. Fish jumped then, and now. Our Boys paddled. Wet socks but who cares when there’s stories to tell and sticks to throw for the dog…

By huge contrast the second half of the walk, once we’d dropped below the woods was in the valley of the Derwent, was through the derelict Richard Johnson & Nephew wireworks.

In 1867 Richard Johnson and his nephew opened a wireworks spanning the river Derwent near to Ambergate, (it seems they also had a factory in Manchester). Products from the Johnson factory were once household names, and their company lorries carried the slogan “A wise buyer buys Johnsons wire”. During its heyday it employed over 500 people and the business specialised in telegraph wire and suspension cables. The company produced the telegraph wires used under the English channel during WW2. In 1990 the Bridon company took over production which lasted until 1996 when all wire production ceased, it was latterly used as a storage and distrubution centre and some parts are still live.

Today the abandoned site is a graffiti-scarred derelict haunt of urbex hackers that tells it’s own stories – with hallucinogenic and expletive-ridden intensity. The dereliction has a singular beauty, an urban poetry ‘KAPOW!’ and ‘I’m a magic chicken!’ against ancient woodland. Charcoal burners and hackers, elephants’ rears and ‘Snake Or Die’ their contexts are poles apart yet here, somehow they rub shoulder-to-shoulder with each informing and enriching the other.

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