Matlock Bath - a perfectly romantic place

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 March 2020

Matlock Baths from the Guilderoy Mine at the head of the Vale, watercolour, pen and brown ink, William Day, probably 1789

Matlock Baths from the Guilderoy Mine at the head of the Vale, watercolour, pen and brown ink, William Day, probably 1789

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A definitive guide to the fascinating history of one of the county’s most popular villages – Matlock Bath: A Perfectly Romantic Place – has just been published

Matlock Bath from the Heights of Abraham, lithograph, Newman & Co, published by Bemrose & Son Derby and Matlock Bath, about 1851Matlock Bath from the Heights of Abraham, lithograph, Newman & Co, published by Bemrose & Son Derby and Matlock Bath, about 1851

Matlock Bath's rich history has been carefully researched to produce what can be described as a definitive guide to this picturesque Derbyshire village. Dr Christopher Charlton and Doreen Buxton jointly researched and wrote Matlock Bath: A Perfectly Romantic Place, an illustrated book detailing Matlock Bath's fascinating history. It's a book that brings together Christopher's professional training as a historian and Doreen's enthusiasm for local history.

Doreen arrived in Matlock Bath at the age of two as a wartime evacuee from Manchester with her mother and older sister. Their visit was only intended to be temporary but the family ended up staying. For Doreen it meant a happy childhood spent discovering the local area. She says, 'I'd take the dog with me and we'd go exploring every inch of the place. Back then, no one asked where you were going. You'd just go off in the morning and turn up back at home when you were hungry! I loved the place.'

Her interest in the history of the village, however, began some 40 years later and then it was almost by accident. Following time spent at university and then in America, Doreen moved back to Matlock Bath with her husband and two children. The old house they bought came with what Doreen describes as 'a splendid set of deeds'. She says, 'I wanted some help reading them so went along to the local history group in Matlock.' It was there she met Christopher Charlton, tutor of the group who worked for the University of Nottingham's Department of Adult Education as its mid-Derbyshire resident tutor before later becoming director of the Arkwright Society where he was instrumental in helping to secure World Heritage status for the Derwent Valley.

The class was discussing Matlock Bath and Doreen immediately became fascinated with its history. She says, 'I began to think about why the village looks the way it does. I'd write things down that I learnt, though never with the intention of writing a book.' What began as a few notes turned, in time, into an archive and with it a growing obsession to find out as much as possible about Matlock Bath's past.

Cascades below Matlock Bath - oil on canvas, Thomas Smith of Derby, about 1740 - Derby Museums and Art GalleryCascades below Matlock Bath - oil on canvas, Thomas Smith of Derby, about 1740 - Derby Museums and Art Gallery

Matlock Bath has a fascinating history. It did not exist until the late 17th century when it began as a remote rural spa. Just 100 years later it had become as fashionable a place as Bath, Buxton and Tunbridge Wells. Visitors flocked to take the healing waters from a natural thermal spring that fed a bath cut into the rocky valley, as well as to enjoy the stunning scenery. However, the temperature of the water was just that little bit too cold compared to the other spa towns and its facilities too limited and Matlock Bath lost favour with its fashionable clientele.

Then, in the 1840s, the railway arrived and Matlock Bath reinvented itself to cater for day trippers. Show caverns opened up all over hillsides, becoming as numerous as today's fish and chip shops that line the promenade.

Today this seaside-styled resort continues to attract tourists, including the hundreds of motorcyclists that park along the promenade. The first hotel, the Old Bath Hotel, has not survived but remarkably the second, the New Bath Hotel built in 1745, is still in use and retains its original mineral water bath. Doreen says, 'The hotel is such a central, seminal and important feature of Matlock Bath.'

Recently restored for use is its 20th century lido, long regarded as the largest thermal water pool of its size in the country.

For three centuries, Matlock Bath's visitors have sketched, painted and more recently photographed what they found, creating a unique archive from which the authors of this book have selected just over 150 illustrations. Doreen says, 'Initially people came who were the class of visitor who would be expected to sketch or paint. Then guidebooks took over with their illustrations, and later photographs with stereographs and postcards were produced. There can be quite a lot of inconsequential little details in the pictures that can go unnoticed but have stories attached to them. We hope we have captured such information in the captions to the illustrations we have included in the book.'

A favourite picture, not included in the book, is a postcard of Upperwood in Matlock Bath. At the time it was produced these postcards were sent away to be coloured - in this case in Lancashire. Unfamiliar with the area, High Tor was mistaken for sea cliffs and the horizon for sea. Colouring the postcards in this way turned this landlocked part of the world into Upperwood-on-Sea! Doreen says, 'I love the idiosyncratic nature of how things were done!'

The story the book tells also benefits from the time spent speaking to local residents, two of whom shared their extensive collections of items relating to Matlock Bath. Doreen also recorded memories of a local man who was born in 1911. She says, 'I walked every street with him and recorded what he remembered. We went through the 1901 census together and he knew the families of people from when he was a child.' Doreen also scoured museum collections to find diaries and sketch books, and perused house deeds that homeowners shared with her.

The construction of Masson Mill, 1911 - Glynn Waite collectionThe construction of Masson Mill, 1911 - Glynn Waite collection

It is from these sources and from local and national archives, picture collections and historic newspapers that the Matlock Bath story emerges, and is placed before the reader in words and images. The resort's growth and decline as a spa and rebirth as a popular day out destination is the central theme, but this part of the Derwent gorge is also the home of Masson Mill, architecturally the finest of the surviving Arkwright mills and a jewel of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. The book devotes two chapters to the mill's history and the significant part played by John Edward Lawton in reviving the mill's fortunes in the 1890s, focusing output on sewing threads for domestic sewing machines. It also describes his role in the formation of the English Sewing Cotton Company which ensured that Masson and the mills in Belper and Milford continued working into the 1990s.

Lawton also features as a pivotal figure in local government as this diminutive resort struggled to address the needs of its residents and hordes of visitors for reliable water and gas services, the provision of pavements, well-maintained roads, and a sewerage system. In this role he was followed by Charles Frederick White, who went on twice to win the West Derbyshire Parliamentary constituency, becoming the first to defeat the Devonshires in a seat that they had come to regard as their own.

Despite extensive research there are still some intriguing questions that remain unanswered, such as the identity of the creator of Lover's Walk. Doreen says, 'We take Lover's Walk for granted but it has been in continuous use for almost 300 years and is perhaps the oldest public pleasure ground anywhere in the country. Many landowners were producing parks and landscaped gardens on private estates but that somebody had the vision, at that time and in this place, to provide the means for the public to enjoy the valley's marvellous scenery is extraordinary.'

Matlock Bath is a place that has continued to reinvent itself over the years and Matlock Bath: A Perfectly Romantic Place takes the reader on a journey through time. It's a journey that, ultimately, has been - and continues to be - defined by its visitors.

Matlock Bath: A Perfectly Romantic Place is produced by the Derwent Valley Mills Educational Trust. Copies priced at £18 can be purchased from selected outlets or by calling 07784 875 333 or emailing

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