A day trip to the Heights of Abraham at Matlock Bath
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 March 2017
Andrew Griffiths goes on a day trip from his home in the north of the county to scale the Heights of Abraham
Matlock Bath looks like a town where the sea went out and never came back in again. Stroll along the main street past the chip shops and the amusement arcades and you can all but taste the salt on a breeze that has blown in straight from the 1950s. It feels as if at any moment you might bump into the fat lady wearing a ‘kiss me quick’ hat dragging along a weedy little bloke in a string vest with a knotted hanky on his head.
Matlock Bath first began to make its wealth out of minerals in Roman times – galena, with its easily accessible lead in this case. Then in the 1700s came a burgeoning interest in science and the savage beauty of nature. The alleged healing properties of spring waters became all the rage and proved to be an easy sell to the adventurous middle classes who were following in the footsteps of English writer Daniel Defoe. Matlock joined the ranks of fashionable spa towns alongside the likes of Buxton, Harrogate and Bath.
Then came the railways, bringing people from the surrounding cities fresh from powering the industrial revolution and looking for fun. In the latter decades of the 1800s these workers were starting to get a bit of money in their pockets and time on their hands, and would head for seaside resorts for their holidays. When on a tighter budget or with less time to spare, they could board the new trains and make for the fresh pastures of Derbyshire, where the good folk of Matlock Bath spotted a business opportunity and decided to give them everything the seaside could offer – except for the sea itself, of course. But they did have the River Derwent, so they put some boats on that instead.
So in the 19th century, visitors began to arrive en masse and a cheerful working class culture began to replace the more rarified visitors fond of ‘taking the waters’. And they came in some numbers, too – 5,000 at a time on occasion, causing all manner of rowdiness and bawdy behaviour. It must have been like The X Factor invading the Covent Garden Opera. Today, Matlock still has a reputation as a stopping off point for the swarms of bikers in the summer months, who are amply catered for by the plethora of fish-and-chip shops that grace the town front. It is rumoured that if you stand in one precise spot on the A6 at Matlock Bath, at a certain time of the year when the sun is at a particular angle, and crouch down just a little, you can actually see eight fish and chip shops all at the same time. It is like a convergence of ley lines. Though this may be just local superstition.
Purely in the interests of research you understand, I did sample some of their wares and I must report that the fish tasted so fresh I think cod must have joined the salmon in a run up the River Derwent.
I was here to take the cable car up to the Heights of Abraham, a visitor attraction which looms large over Matlock Bath like a beacon to the cultural changes and fortunes of the town. Lead was first mined on the hill by the Romans, and continued to be so with increasing intensity until the well began to run dry, to mix a metaphor, early in the 19th century. The owners of the Heights of Abraham (so named after the 18th century battle in Quebec when the British led by General James Wolfe defeated the French), saw which way the wind was blowing and this forest-clad hill complete with mine workings claims to be the Peak District’s first official tourist attraction, opening as the ‘Savage Gardens’ in 1790.
The redundant miners were quick to exploit the grandeur of the underground caverns and tunnels they and their forefathers had dug, and they were soon charging wealthy visitors a small fee to guide them down into the labyrinthine cave system, and then, as my young guide on the day informed us with relish – charging them rather more to bring them back out again. It is said that you can get all the way from Matlock Bath to Matlock via the tunnels, so there was plenty of scope to become lost and then found again.
A visit to the Heights of Abraham begins with the cable car, the first alpine cable car to be built in the UK way back in 1984. This would probably be enough for some people as the view down the Derwent Valley on the ride is superb. But the adventure is only just beginning, as the blurb in the brochure might say.
There is a lot to do and see once you’re at the top, both for adults and children. There are two mines which offer tours lasting half an hour or so. The Great Masson Cavern takes you down steps and narrow passages which open out into a spectacular space where the tour guide can operate a lighting rig to pick out the key geological features in the rock. That is pretty colours to you and me.
The other is the Great Rutland Cavern, which recreates a day in the life of a 17th century lead miner. It was a hard life, the only consolation for them being it was easier than the alternatives at the time, which doesn’t say a great deal for those alternatives. It doesn’t do any harm to be reminded that the past could be a tough place to live.
The site makes good use of interpretation boards and audio visual throughout, telling the story from how the geology was formed to the human history of its development and exploitation. For those unable or undesirous of negotiating the twisting passages and steps when touring the mines, there is a filmed tour of the cavern in the Masson Pavilion, which is an intimate screening space in what looks like a big Norwegian shed.
Another building, the Long View, offers an audio-visual interpretation of the site, with a fossil exhibition upstairs, where children can make ‘fossil rubbings’, which is a nice touch. Perhaps adults could do this too, it did look good fun, I didn’t ask.
There is a great adventure playground for the kids, and if all this has built up an appetite, then the ‘Vista’ restaurant and café will sort you out. You walk in the Vista and you are immediately struck by the light and the space of it – it is nearly all window. For a moment I thought I was back in the cable car, but it wasn’t swaying and making me feel slightly nauseous.
The Vista has the most fantastic views of the Derwent Valley, and a covered balcony where you can sit outside as weather permits. The restaurant has items on the menu such as ‘warm goat’s cheese and fig filo parcels’ which sound splendid, but at its simplest it is as spectacular a place as you could wish for to sit and eat cake.
You can easily spend a good three hours up here. At the end of it, it feels like time well spent – you’ve learned something, had fun, and, if you are anything like me, frightened yourself half to death on the cable car. A quick word about that. On my way up, I was offered the chance to have a car all to myself, which I accepted. Half way up it stopped. Hundreds of feet up. And everything went very quiet. And it swayed. And I was on my own. Now apparently, this is scheduled and offers a chance to take photographs and generally gasp at the view. Asking around since, I seem to be the only person in the Peak District who didn’t know this. But at the time I didn’t, and I would have liked to have done. But hey – it was nothing.
Coming back I sat with a family and a small child spoke to me all the way down so I wouldn’t be frightened, which was very sweet, and I would like to thank her parents for encouraging her to do so. For the record, her favourite bit was the tour of the mine, closely followed by the gift shop. Kids today, huh? All in all it is a good day out.
Tickets cost £15 for a single and £46 for a family of 4, which includes the cable car ride and all attractions. There is a 20% discount offered on production of a public transport ticket, and both the train station and the Transpeak bus stop are only a few minutes’ walk away. There is wheelchair access on the cable cars and to some parts of the heights once there, though due to the steep gradients and steps this is restricted. More details on their website www.heightsofabraham.com