In 1899, the Derwent Valley Water Board was set up to supply water to Derby City, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, and the two Gothic-style dams were built across the River Derwent to create Howden Reservoir (1912) and Derwent Reservoir (1916).
West of the Derwent, a large village known as 'Tintown' was created for the 'navvies' - the workers who built the dams, and their families, many of whom came from the Elan Valley Reservoirs in Wales. For a detailed description and photos, see: Birchinlee.
Over the decades, demand increased to the point where another reservoir was required. The larger Ladybower Reservoir necessitated the flooding of the villages of Derwent and Ashopton, with the occupants being relocated. A packhorse bridge with a preservation order on it also had to be moved, and was rebuilt at Slippery Stones, north of Howden Reservoir. The bodies in the churchyard were exhumed and reburied at Bamford. The reservoir was completed in 1945.
The topographical similarity between the Upper Derwent Valley and the Ruhr Valley of Germany led to the Dams being used as a practice environment for the Lancaster bombers of the 617 Dam Busters Squadron in 1943 prior to their attack on the Ruhr dams. The Dam Busters film was subsequently filmed at the Derwent Dams, and the area sees occasional commemorative fly-pasts by Lancasters.
The highest peak in the area is Back Tor, at 538 metres.