An afternoon of perfection and reflection? What I found at Belper River Gardens.

There has to be something said about the lure of the water, the sun in the sky and something of a breeze on a Friday afternoon in May. I had found myself in the town of Belper, a quirky town to say the least that on the one hand has “an award winning shopping street” and on the other hand has old industrial ghosts that no matter where you are within the town you can see. From the railway cutting that runs deep and allows trains to pass through Belper without you realising that they are there; to old mills that are as satanic as the ones that you could find in Jerusalem; which now lay quiet yet some of them dominate the skyline with their Accrington red brick construction — it really does go without saying that if you wanted to explore this town then a whole day would simply not be enough. Either way I had arrived in Belper, not to visit the high street, but to visit another unique location that the town is famed for, a place of relaxation, calm, peace and serenity. A place where as you walk around it if you visit for the first time, you never really think of its past until you see clues and words that are dotted around.

Within the carpark, behind me towering over me like some kind of monster, a monster of past was the Accrington red brick structure, some seven stories high, with a frame inside made of iron, a metal that is strong and that in yesteryear would have been something alien almost, especially to see it being constructed; yet here I was with this former Mill, behind me and a sense of eerie calm with only the breeze and the sound of water as it passes over the weir as company, but instead of taking time to observe the weir, I took a short walk along a more modern (if not slightly retro) walkway to eventually reach the River Gardens .And it was here that I looked straight down the small narrow strip of water in front of me at what was an abundance of colour ahead of me, despite it being ever so slightly grey and hazy ahead.

Yes I knew it was going to clear the grey sky and the haze, but for now I had been greeted with some kind of colour, which looked otherworldly and to some degree with the plants; slightly sub-tropical, Japanese almost like who ever had designed these gardens in yesteryear knew that as time progressed that people would want somewhere calm to walk through, explore and de-stress, yet the Japanese water garden concept that is intrinsically interwoven into the River Gardens is just fantastically designed. I continued walking, but this time took a left turn towards the river itself.

It is by the riverside that you experience a sense of calm, despite having to walk in a slightly strange way to avoid all the leftovers from Canada Geese, although the Canada Geese have been there before us Humans decided to build a River Garden; beside the majestic River Derwent; a river that adds a certain charm and serenity to the town of Belper. Digression aside, I had reached the next location for a photographic opportunity, to my left the river and to my right framed by tall trees and the lush green and charming colour, was the bandstand.

Amazed I was by the simplicity and natural framing of the bandstand, with it’s copper green top, and a place that I am sure has provided entertainment to many throughout the years and will continue to do so for many more years to come, but now it was onwards to the new café, called “Park Life Café at the Swiss Tea Room.” A recently opened café in the renovated former Swiss Tea Rooms, it was here that a well deserved rest and refreshment stop was in order. The breeze was something else and by now the sky had begun at long last to get clear, gone was the grey sky that had greeted me. Yet in front of me a Sausage Cob and a Mocha that needed polishing off, along with the ever changing view of the river in front of me, something that was so magical and yet I was here in the moment.

After polishing off a delightful Sausage Cob and drinking a glorious Mocha, it was time to walk down to the water’s edge; the breeze had made the river seem anything but calm, and to the left of me I could see further downstream water being blown upwards from the weir, yet I looked across to the other side of the river, the café behind me and in front of me across the stream, the front gardens of houses split by Wyver lane.

After exploring the riverside, I decided to turn back, when the mill caught my eye, the flowerbeds in front of me providing a leading line towards the mill, and I managed to capture the following photograph. Needless to say you can sense the old ghost or giant, of the old mill watching over and providing an interesting subject.

There has to be something said about old industrial giants and the landscape, ordinarily they might “clash” slightly, yet here they blend into the landscape, again adding to the curious mind, what would life have been like back in yesteryear when the old mill was working? Now though a silence from the mill, yet a joy from those exploring the river gardens could be heard, I walked a little further back around, doubling back from where I had walked and was now walking towards the bandstand, an avenue of trees and subtropical plants for company. Yet a bench to the left of the bandstand is where I chose to sit, and just take everything in — something that before Covid, before Lockdown, I would never have done; yet now, I seem to appreciate the finer things in life, the sounds of the birds, the hum and conversation of people and the ever changing cinema show that is called life.

“Escapism is what I experienced sitting on this bench, the world blending into one and here I am listening to what the world has to offer, wildlife, nature, the river in the background and the breeze. Was I really sitting here or was I daydreaming, either way whatever it was, it was beautiful to say the least.”

Of course though being in front of a bandstand, a bit of music was needed and the perfect sound for that was the following.

I closed my eyes slightly when I was playing that piece of music and was instantly transported to yesteryear when the river gardens would have been alive and music could be heard all around, instead of music, the sounds and music of the birds which was equally spectacular — yet I had also found another photogenic angle to capture the bandstand from.

After a good while of experiencing the perfect calm, relaxation and serendipity it was time to move on, again more compositions to find, when I noticed a lush green frame, I stopped and this was the result I was left with.

Needless to say that I just loved the way the bandstand was naturally framed; after a short pause it was time to continue, of course with an Ice Cream for company, I mean the sun was out and warmth was creeping in to some extent, then I doubled back on myself yet again, to the stretch of water that greets you as you enter the River Garden. Here it is like walking through a Japanese Water Garden and I just loved the shades of green and the colour; a change of perspective as well looking across towards the bandstand and all whilst experiencing the calm and serene place that I had found myself in. Despite having the busy A6 behind me and a Railway line behind me, everything felt so at peace.

Yet on the way to this spot, I had noticed a mother duck and her ducklings, asleep and sunbathing, I knew when I walked back that I just had to photograph this surreal scene.

And the person who I was with, had managed to capture from above where I was standing, the following photograph of the bandstand. Kudos to you and the picture, it is beautiful.

Either way it was now time to walk back, through the carpark, yet something caught my eye, framed was the view of the Derwent in front of me, and the spray from the weir being blown up was something that I had never seen before on previous trips to the river gardens.

I was now walking back to the direction from where I had set off from, and to the right of me the mighty Derwent, engineered back in yesteryear to hold water for the Mill and for the construction of the River Gardens, yet I looked on at amazement at just how serene the water was, how calming it was and just how beautiful it was; yes the water and river here is natural yet the weir is manmade and yet it is just the most beautiful combination that makes for dramatic photography.

There is just something about the way the weir looks and the way the river looks as well, one minute it is calm, and yet in autumn and winter it can change in a minute, yet the flow of water making for interesting compositions only made me more curious to see about some more compositions, this time of the mill from the other side of the river. Crossing the road opposite the car park, I turned right and walked over the bridge. Before turning left to a photo spot used by many that never ceases to amaze me. The old mill, the river and the bridge in perfect harmony was something else to see.

From the rather well known photographic spot, I walked back up towards the road, crossed the road, and to the left of me noticed a building, I have seen this building before from the mill side of the river, but I had always wanted to find out more, turns out that whilst it is a private residence it used to be a former hospital for mill workers.

But then more compositions, again of the mill with the river garden ahead of me, and I was amazed to have discovered a new location; one of surprise and history, one of calm and one of beauty as I looked back towards the mill; the Accrington red brick shades, and the calm of the late afternoon/early evening sunshine.

By now it was time to walk back over the bridge and too the car park; whilst the river garden and the adjacent viewpoints for the photographer remain in close proximity to each other, I had managed to have an afternoon of sheer perfection, reflection and one that had lead me on a voyage of discovery with a new photographic location in which the mill and river garden can be seen. But at the same time an afternoon of calm and peace, which could have been down to the water as well or being beside the water. Yet I had also found at Belper River Garden, something else, a sense of peace, calm and solitude; a landscape photographer’s haven with history and the chance to take time out from the world and slow down. If only more places had gentle gardens with glorious bandstands that people could wander through, discover things and find new things, then the world would be a better place. And yet that is where Belper excels because it just yells exploration and that is what I did, finding a new viewpoint towards the mill, and finding a sense of peace that came over me; magic to say the least and I will not forget that in a hurry.

Next time you visit Belper, what will you find?

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