When Jacqueline Yallop was 21, she had a summer job showing visitors round an old lead mining site in Nenthead, Cumbria. Nenthead, for the uninitiated, is a confoundingly remote village in the North Pennines. On the map, it appears fairly close both to Penrith in the west, and to Barnard Castle in the east, but try to reach it by car, let alone by foot, and you soon discover that it is in reality within striking distance of nowhere. It is, as Yallop writes, a place that clings on “like a fairground bareback rider, houses cleaving to the difficult topography, buildings out of place in the wilderness of the land”. High in the moors – it stands at 1,450 feet above sea level – it should not really exist at all.
Nenthead was constructed in the 1820s by the London Lead Company, whose leading lights were mostly Quakers. It was, in other words, a village that came into being solely to house the families of its workers, who laboured in the mines; among its hunkered buildings were not only cottages, a public wash house and school – Nenthead, Yallop claims, was the first place in Britain where schooling was obligatory – but also a ready money store, whose function was to defeat the credit traders who advanced goods to miners and their families at such ruinous rates of interest (here, only cash purchases could be made). By Yallop’s day, of course, some of these buildings had gone or fallen into disrepair; the mine finally closed in 1961, and with it Nenthead’s relative prosperity. All the same, the village wormed its way into her affections. Its tenacity and glimpsed idealism led her, some years later, to begin work on Dreamstreets, a study of the “model” villages that sprang up all over Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The result is eclectic but not by any means comprehensive. There were once some 400 planned settlements in Britain, but Yallop, a novelist and academic, gives her attention to only a few. She begins her tour, somewhat predictably, in Cromford, near Matlock in Derbyshire, where in 1771 Richard Arkwright first built his great water-powered mill and then a village to house its workers (“[in Cromford] the simplest peasant is changed into an impudent mechanic”, noted John Byng, the fifth Viscount Torrington, when he visited Cromford, noisy and teeming, after the second mill opened in 1776). […]