Matlock is 'On the Up'
PUBLISHED: 10:26 17 October 2013 | UPDATED: 10:44 18 November 2013
Mike Smith visits the county town to discover if reports of its resurgence are true...
Back in 1960, before the UK habitually lost out in the annual Eurovision Song Contest to geographical block voting, Bryan Johnson secured second place in the competition with his song ‘Looking High, High, High’. Johnson’s ‘Song for Europe’ would have made a wonderful ‘Song for Matlock’, a town where looking high, high, high from the town centre provides dramatic views of the castellated silhouette of Riber Castle, commanding an 853 feet-high summit to the south, and the vast buildings of County Hall, dominating the steep slopes of Matlock Bank to the north.
Both of these crowning structures were commissioned by John Smedley, a Victorian industrialist who had turned to hydropathic treatment after becoming seriously ill during his honeymoon in Switzerland. Smedley was so convinced that he owed his life to the curative power of the waters that he introduced hydrotherapy to his mill workers, before setting up his own hydropathic establishment. Smedley’s Hydro became immensely popular in the ensuing years and attracted many famous visitors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivor Novello and Sir Thomas Beecham.
The hydro continued to operate until the early 1950s. Its buildings were then purchased by Derbyshire County Council for use as their new headquarters. The scale of the local authority’s acquisition was enormous, because Smedley’s original castellated building had been extended in the heyday of the hydro by the addition of a second long terrace, fashioned in a very different style, which was described as ‘Italo-Frenchy’ by Nikolaus Pevsner.
Despite this odd juxtaposition of styles, the main range of buildings is certainly impressive in its bulk, and no one could dispute the architectural quality of two other structures in the former hydro complex. One is the Winter Gardens, constructed entirely in glass and iron; the other is the boiler-house chimney, which stands at the head of Bank Road like an Italian campanile. From here, there is a view to the south of Riber Castle, now being converted into apartments but originally built as a home by Smedley, who had been inspired by hill-top castles he had seen on his European travels.
The second line of Bryan Johnson’s song is ‘Looking low, low, low’, an apt description for the spectacular view down Bank Road towards Crown Square, at the centre of Matlock, and Hall Leys Park, which has glorious floral displays, tennis courts, mini-golf, a bowling green, a skatepark, a miniature train, a café, riverside walks and even a little architectural gem of its own in the form of a shelter, which is surmounted by a clock tower and was built for Matlock’s former cable railway.
The up-and-down geography of Matlock is unchanging, but the geography of the road system on the valley floor has been subject to drastic alteration since the building of Sainsbury’s supermarket on the edge of the town in 2007. A relief road now takes the A6 away from the centre, allowing through traffic to avoid the major crossroads in Crown Square and the old bridge over the River Derwent.
Some of Matlock’s shopkeepers feared that the construction of the by-pass would mean that their shops would be by-passed too, but Esther Fox, who works at Bow Boutique, believes that the initial negative impact on the town centre has now been reversed. She says, ‘Improvements made to the pavements and the street furniture in and around Crown Square have actually brought more shoppers into the centre of the town, rather than less. In any case, I think there is an increasing tendency for people to patronise independent shops, where the service is more personal. Shoppers are also being drawn to the good quality shops which have opened in Matlock in the last few years.’
Susannah Ash, the founder of Bow Boutique, certainly had sufficient confidence in the town’s retail prospects when she decided in 2011 to move her fledgling business to Matlock from Cromford. With its wide range of gifts and home accessories, many hand-crafted by local artisans and all chosen for their unique style and quality, the shop has proved to be very popular. A few months ago, Susannah took the extra step of converting the space at the back of the boutique into the Cosy Cup, a café where customers can relax with coffee and cakes, whilst enjoying a stunning view of Hall Leys Park.
Eileen O’Donnell is another successful businesswoman with premises in the heart of Matlock. In 2003, she established Silvarious, an outlet for hand-crafted jewellery, in Bakewell. Since then, she has opened further branches in Ashbourne, Matlock and Derby. Thanks to the careful selection of the pieces on sale, attractive presentation of her goods and the clean-cut interior décor of her shops, she has managed to achieve this remarkable expansion in a time of recession.
Roger Browne was serving in the Matlock branch of Silvarious at the time of my visit. When I asked him about the effects of the by-pass, his response echoed the views expressed by Esther Fox. He said, ‘Initially, there was a drop in footfall, but the shoppers have returned since the pavements around Crown Square were widened and made far more pedestrian-friendly.’
The centrepiece of the improvements made to Crown Square is a stainless-steel crown, which sits on a stone replica of a royal cushion in the traffic island at the hub of the square. One spoke from this hub climbs up the steep slopes of Matlock Bank; two other spokes lead into shopping streets where things are looking up from a commercial point of view; and a third spoke runs across the bridge over the Derwent to Matlock Station and to another shopping area on Dale Road.
Platform 1 of Matlock Station is the boarding point for East Midlands trains, but Platform 2 is the terminus of a four-mile line from Rowsley South, which uses locomotives restored and operated by the volunteers of Peak Rail. Their shop, close by Platform 1, not only has information about Peak Rail and a stock of railway prints and model trains, but also serves as the Visitor Information Point for Matlock. When shop manager Steve Slinn is not dispensing information about sites of historical interest, he is re-enacting historical events as an enthusiastic member of a ‘living history’ group.
The other half of the shop is a bookshop run by Bill Hudson, a living legend for railway enthusiasts because he is the author of the classic book ‘Through Limestone Hills’, which was the result of 17 years of dedicated research. His shop contains 4,500 volumes of transport books, both old and new.
Dale Road, which runs from Matlock Station to Matlock Bath through the spectacular Derwent Gorge, forms another spur of the town’s shopping area. Most of the shopkeepers are members of the ‘Totally Locally’ movement and it is not surprising that people are heeding the call to shop locally, because this is another Matlock street that is ‘on the up’, with its growing reputation for antique shops, eating places and independent shops that offer something a little out of the ordinary.
One of Dale Road’s most successful businesses is Indigo, situated in premises that once housed the country’s first branch of Boots. Sales manager Clair Ashmore told me that their wooden furniture, superbly crafted at their own workshops from solid plank and oak timber, is sold worldwide. Pointing to the company’s website on a computer screen housed in a salvaged telephone box, she said, ‘Many of our overseas customers place orders after seeing our products on the internet, but we always invite more local customers to come in the showroom to see the furniture at first hand.’
Just as famous people sought the cure at Smedley’s Hydro, many of today’s celebrities are buying their furniture from Indigo. Customers include Jessica Ennis, Charlie Dimmock, Darren Gough, Kate Humble and opera singer Alfie Boe, who sat on an Indigo sofa during a recent stage performance. Matlock has always been a great place for looking up to the hills, but with quality shops like Indigo, Silvarious and Bow Boutique, to name but three, its commercial vitality is also on the up.
Matlock Bath Illuminations from 31st August to 26th October with clifftop firework displays on 5th,12th,19th and 26th October.