The town of Matlock, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 16:21 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 14:33 20 February 2013
'If Matlock was a seaside resort, then Matlock Bath would be the sea front.' So remarked Matlock Town and District Councillor Geoff Stevens when I called in on his clothes shop in Crown Square.
Ironically, Matlock couldn't be much further from the sea yet as I walked into Hall Leys Park just behind Geoff's outfitters, Matlock certainly felt like a seaside town. On a sunny Saturday, it was refreshing to see so many families enjoying the facilities of this regenerated six acre park rather than adding to the throng along the 'seafront' down the road. Kids were whizzing round the new skateboard park, families indulged in less frenetic play on the tennis courts, bowling green, mini golf links and boating lake, while other folk simply walked the riverside or sat admiring the flower beds and pondering on the positives of climate change.
I hope global warming doesn't produce another flood like the one here in 1965. A signpost on the bridge by the park shows the level the floodwaters reached that year. I discovered that had I stood on the bridge on 9th December, the deluge would have given my ears a thoroughly good wash.
As a tiny toy train chugged along its miniature rail beside the river, I recalled Alan Jacques at the Tourist Information Centre telling me that, refreshingly, increasing numbers take a day trip to Matlock by train. You can spend that day enjoying the railway itself: Peak Rail operates heritage steam trains between Matlock and Rowsley and holds many special events including a 1940s weekend on 4th and 5th August when Rowsley Station will be transformed into a French station under German occupation with a battle re-enactment in the nearby woods.
A famous battle in French Canada is the reason the equally famous Heights of Abraham is so-called: it celebrates General Wolfe's victory over the French army occupying the Heights of Abraham in Quebec. However, it's not Canada that comes to mind when one encounters this spectacular part of the Derwent Valley. Lord Byron, who came to stay at the Temple Hotel, gazed admiringly at the limestone cliffs and steep wooded slopes and named Matlock Bath 'Little Switzerland'. Apparently, so moved was Byron by the scenery that he etched a poem on a window pane of the hotel, although his curious, unfinished seven-line verse opening with: 'Where so ever is Folly Court / Mortal unthinking will resort' doesn't appear to allude to the landscape!
This window pane, on proud display at the Temple, was later signed by Queen Victoria who also came to the Temple Hotel. It's not known if she came to take in the famous spa waters but it IS recorded that she sat on a donkey to take her up the 'beetling Heights of Abraham' as noted by Sir John Betjeman in his own poetic paean to the place 'Matlock Bath'.
Nowadays you need neither donkey nor shanks' pony to climb the Heights: since 1984, the cable cars that were installed reinforce Matlock Bath's alpine appellation. Visiting the Heights years ago, my acrophobia was soon assuaged by my daughters' gleeful delight at the sensation of riding the sky. Recently, the very latest in cable cars have been installed offering greater comfort and a better view through the larger windows. The air ascent is just the start of the Heights of Abraham experience: once you reach the clifftop, you can soak up the scenery - 'pleasant beyond expression' wrote John Wesley in his journals - wander the woodland or descend into the caves dug by 17th century lead miners. It's no surprise to hear that the Heights of Abraham's exit surveys reveal 97 per cent visitor satisfaction.
The cable car station nestles at the foot of High Tor which can be reached by any able-bodied walker. It used to have a visitor's fee, which even applied to any climbers who had scaled the sheer face of the crag to get there! There's an impressive view atop this lofty rock but there's an unnerving cliff edge drop, and a winding walkway hereabouts called Giddy Edge is aptly named.
For more sedate walkers, Matlock Bath at ground level offers one of the oldest riverside parks in England. Here you can discover, as Betjeman did, the 'pleasant acres' of Lovers' Walks beside a Derwent river dotted with pleasure boaters. On a sunny Sunday morning, it was a pleasant and welcomingly quiet idyll away from the North and South Parade where most visitors were promenading. As it was a Sunday, the smell of chips was mixed with that of biker leather. I recall my unease at the phalanx of bikes massed along South Parade when I first drove through Matlock Bath years ago. However, the truth is: these bikers aren't ferocious young Hells Angel's with beards, bandanas and chain whips. Most of them are like my motorcycling next door neighbour: friendly, courteous and over 50.
Another truth is that the bikers congregate in numbers only on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Peter Hague, who runs a Victorian tea shop also housing a photography museum, is behind a hard-hitting Matlock Bath Report published last August where he states that if the myth about Matlock Bath being 'primarily' a mecca for bikers could be demolished, the place might attract more visitors during the weekdays. Furthermore, if those visitors came throughout the year, more diverse retail outlets might spring up. Concomitantly, Matlock Bath would lose its overtly seasonal seaside image and have less of a slightly tatty feel. 'Many visitors to Matlock Bath get totally the wrong impression,' says Peter. 'So many miss the setting and the wonderful architecture.'
There is certainly more to Matlock Bath than cafs, take-away food and slot machines. Peter's photo museum, Life in a Lens, is a superbly researched and resourced history of photography with a fascinating array of cameras. There's also the Peak District Mining Museum and Temple Mine, Matlock Bath Aquarium - 'from Piranhas to Terrapins' - and, for the very young, Gulliver's Kingdom theme park. Eyes young and old will surely light up at the sight of the annual Illuminations and Venetian nights throughout September and October when Little Switzerland becomes more like Blackpool, although Matlock's illuminations, first held to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee, pre-date the Lancashire resort's lights. However, returning to the Matlock Bath Report, the Illuminations are noted as being in need of 'enhancing and promoting.'
Further south on the A6, the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site begins to snake its 15 miles towards Derby. Masson and Cromford Mills are a lasting legacy to Sir Richard Arkwright, the 'father of the factory system' who made this valley the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. You're invited to sample 'the sights, sounds and smells' of that age through the working textile museum at Masson Mill. If lucky, you'll glimpse a kingfisher on the riverbank. Further on, there is bountiful wildlife to behold along the pleasant banks of another great industrial relic: the Cromford Canal.
A short drive uphill from Cromford there is another imposing mill, which is still working and offers a 'must visit' factory shop. John Smedley has been making knitwear in Derbyshire since 1784 and, when so many manufacturing companies have de-camped abroad, it's a business to be proud of. Quality has become a much-abused word but in the case of a 'Smedley' it definitely applies.
There are other attractions hereabouts: at this time, the four acres of Lea Gardens should be a vivid riot of rhododendrons and azaleas with alpines, acers and abundant birdlife. A 'quiet weekday visit' is recommended. To the north sits Rowsley and Caudwell's unique flour mill, to the east is the National Stone Centre in Wirksworth whilst further south, Crich Tramway Museum is an exemplary tourist attraction, a lovingly restored period village where on 10th June, a Tramathon provides a rare opportunity to see all their working trams running. It's no surprise to learn that the Museum won BBC East Midlands Today's 'Best Day Out' award in 2005.
We return, finally, to Matlock Bath where you can find another BBC award winner: ice cream parlour and caf Hall's, run by Claire Hall, won Radio Derby's award last year for Best Ice Cream Shop in Derbyshire. Nineteen truly scrumptious flavours are on offer ... for those who do like to be beside the seaside in arguably Britain's best landlocked resort.