Andrew Pugh of Heights of Abraham, Matlock, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 11:01 26 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:14 20 February 2013
Entrepreneur Andrew Pugh talks to Janette Sykes about his high-flying career at a leading Derbyshire visitor attraction, and discusses the importance of tourism to the local and regional economy
When Andrew and Vanessa Pugh first set eyes on the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath, it proved a somewhat inauspicious start to almost four decades of business success at the helm of one of Derbyshires key tourist attractions.
We had been looking for a business opportunity, and had spotted an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for the most unusual business you could ever think of, recalled Andrew, a Bristolian by birth.
It described a place with woods, caves and a house, and was being sold by a commercial agent in my home city, so we quite wrongly assumed that it was in the West Country but it turned out to be in Derbyshire.
Andrew and Vanessa, based in London at the time, found themselves at a loose end one rainy Sunday in February 1974, so decided to investigate.
Wed never been to Derbyshire before, but were intrigued, added Andrew. So we set off, and by the time we got here, the rain had turned to snow. Vanessa was dressed for London, and we had to park at the Lodge and walk up to the house, which was quite a challenge!
We were absolutely speechless by the time we reached Upper Towers, but were both so enthusiastic after wed toured the caverns and climbed the Victoria Prospect Tower and seen the wonderful views, that we made an instant decision to buy it.
Happily, the couples snap judgment proved to be profitable in the long-term, as they invested in and developed the property into what is thought to be the second most visited attraction in Derbyshire after Chatsworth. Even so, the early days entailed plenty of hard work.
The first thing we had to do was restore the fabric of the estate, while keeping the business running as a viable concern, recalled Andrew, who spent his early career working for such blue chip companies as Unilever, BP and British Oxygen.
When we first came here, Vanessas parents moved up from Kent to help us. We only had three members of staff when we started, so we had to turn our hand to all sorts of jobs anything that needed doing, including cleaning, making sandwiches, serving behind the counter and bringing supplies in a Mark"1 Land Rover up steep, unmade tracks.
Between 1974 and 1980, we totally rebuilt Upper Towers and the Victoria Prospect Tower, took power cables out of the trees and put them underground, built and surfaced paths to the summit and began an on-going management plan for the landscape.
The Pughs had to spend so much money on the infrastructure that they were no longer generating enough income to continue to develop the site further or look after what they had restored, so they took the radical decision to install cable cars to improve access and bring in more visitors.
When they submitted an outline planning application to Derbyshire Dales District Council, the initial reaction from the local community was one of shock. You just didnt build cable cars in Derbyshire villages, said Andrew. There were a lot of sceptics who said it couldnt be done, but we believed it could, and fortunately both the District Council and the English Tourist Board were supportive.
The project cost around 1 million, and, as Andrew observed: You dont spend that kind of money unless you are confident you can repay the money and continue to be a profitable enterprise.
Faced with a tight time schedule, the couple set to work. It was just like piecing together a giant jigsaw, added Andrew. We got planning permission in September 1983 and the cable car needed to be installed and ready by the following spring.
Specialist knowledge was needed, and a French company, which had advised during the planning stage, was contracted to build the cable car system. The main building work was awarded to a local construction firm.
Unsurprisingly, media interest was high. Central Television filmed a documentary about the project, and when Andrew and Vanessa held a pre-season press launch they were inundated with film crews, reporters and photographers. Andrew recalled, We had every national newspaper here, plus all the major radio and television stations, and got unprecedented publicity.
As well as bringing in more visitors keen to see breathtaking views of the Derwent Valley, being the first tourist attraction in the UK to install cable cars as a means of transport added a new dimension, which now forms a major part of the business.
The Pughs were asked to project-manage a number of similar schemes, both in the UK and abroad including the National Garden Festival in Stoke-on-Trent and a 5 million cable car system at Alton Towers.
Vanessa and I also went to China to advise on building a cable car to the Great Wall and spent six months living in Cape Town as advisors to local government on building a cable car to Table Mountain, said Andrew. We were then part of the team who helped to build the London Eye, which was probably our most exciting challenge.
Another crucial element in the current commercial mix is Andrew and Vanessas son Rupert (34). As Operations Director, Rupert is responsible for the day-to-day running and performance of the company. Married to Sophie, they now have a baby daughter, Georgie.
As Rupert was growing up, we didnt want him to think it was an automatic option to come into the business, and in fact at first he didnt want to! said Andrew. He had his own life, and the world is a big place, but there was a moment when I needed some help when we were working on the London Eye, and luckily he was available to become involved in a number of projects.
He did a six-month placement in various departments at Alton Towers while he was at university and has studied at Disneys Management College in the USA. It is ten years since he joined us, and he now leads on all aspects of the business including our latest development, to improve our play and activity areas for younger children, which will open this spring.
Andrews interest and expertise in tourism extends far beyond the boundaries of the Heights of Abraham. For more than a decade, he was Chairman of the East Midlands Tourist Board, and for the past six has been Chairman of the official tourist board Visit Peak District & Derbyshire, a public/private partnership charged with marketing the areas unique appeal to visitors at home and abroad.
The enthusiasm of the local authorities, including the County and Derby City Councils, the Peak District National Park and District Councils meant that we were able to bring together all tourism marketing activities into one organisation, he added.
We have a wonderful product, but what we needed to do was create a professional message, establish a brand name and communicate these both nationally and internationally.
Pooling the resources of both the public and private sector has meant we have a worthwhile budget and a small, but highly effective team of professional marketing and business managers, which is an unbeatable combination.
Under the leadership of David James, Visit Peak District & Derbyshire has become one of the most effective tourist boards in the UK. Its past annual budget of around 1.5 million has helped bring in business worth around 1.4 billion a year and support 25,000 jobs. What we have achieved is amazing.
Tourism is a key component of the countys economy, and small to medium-sized tourism businesses make a major contribution to that. People often say that jobs in tourism arent proper jobs, and I find that very irritating. We have people on our team at the Heights, for example, who are experienced engineers, learned their skills in coal mines or on the railways, and are a tremendous asset to our business. I am sure they appreciate their opportunities in tourism since their original industries have closed. Today we have established an international awareness of the Peak District & Derbyshire that would not have been possible if we hadnt seized the opportunity six years ago to establish our own tourist board whose on-going activities, working with Visit England as a pathfinder Destination of Distinction, will continue to develop our tourist industry.
Andrew is also pleased the areas major selling point the uniqueness of its landscape has been protected and enhanced by the Peak District National Park Authority and surrounding councils; and, closer to home, he is justifiably content with what he and Vanessa have achieved over the past 37 years.
We are proud of the Heights; our visitors come from all over the world, plus many local people have season tickets and enjoy bringing their friends, he reflected. All this has been achieved working with a great team of people, many of whom have been with us for more than 20 years.
When we first came here, the Heights of Abraham was somewhere that visitors wandered up to when they came to Matlock Bath, but now its a destination in its own right that happens to be in Matlock Bath that gives us great satisfaction.
Neither he nor Vanessa have any regrets about making Derbyshire their home and workplace. We are very much part of the Derbyshire community, and work with lots of local people, said Andrew. We have, and do, travel extensively round the world, but when we arrive home, we always stop for a moment and think how lucky we are to be here.
The Heights of Abraham is billed as Derbyshires oldest tourist attraction. The estate dates back to 1780, when 30 acres of Masson Hill were enclosed.
The Great Rutland Cavern, named after the Duke of Rutland, opened to the public in 1810.
In 1844, the Great Masson Cavern opened for public viewing and lead miners found a new role guiding visitors underground by candlelight. Gas lamps were installed later, followed by electricity in 1986.
The Heights of Abraham reputedly holds the oldest beer licence in the Matlock area. Beer was served to lead miners from the original Tower house, then from a small wooden hut, site of todays Tavern.
Installation of Britains first Alpine-style cable car system commenced in September 1983. Access to the tallest tower was very difficult and a helicopter was drafted in to ensure the project would be completed on time.
Delivering tons of steel through an avenue of trees to a 23 metres (77 feet) high tower called for great skill and daring from both the pilot and the rest of the team.
The cable car system opened to the public on 21 April 1984.
Visitors travel 169 metres (554 feet) from the Base Station to the Top Station, passing over four towers.
Todays attractions include exciting underground tours of two spectacular show caverns, with state-of-the-art lighting in the Great Masson Cavern revealing its magnitude as it has never been seen before. Above ground there are play areas, picnic spots, the Fossil Factory, Heath & Heaven and Who-Why-What Exhibitions, shops, caf and summit bar, all with stunning views across the surrounding Peak District.
The Heights of Abraham has featured on numerous television programmes including Blue Peter, Peak Practice, Countryfile and How to Look Good Naked!
The Heights of Abraham is open daily from 26th March to 30th October 2011 for more details, visit www.heightsofabraham.com