Matlock Bath Venetian Boats

PUBLISHED: 13:09 26 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:11 20 February 2013

Matthew Hall’s Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine is a favourite with the youngsters

Matthew Hall’s Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine is a favourite with the youngsters

Andrew Eyley meets members of the Matlock Bath Venetian Boat Builders' Association

Gasps of excitement and applause fill the air as oars hit the water and ten decorated boats glide silently down the river on a warm September evening. All craft are bedecked with intricate coloured lights, which seemingly dance to the contours of the slow flowing Derwent and each is powered by its creator a talented member of the Matlock Bath Venetian Boat Builders Association.

Matlock Bath Illuminations, staged by Derbyshire Dales District Council, celebrated its 114th birthday this year, with the annual event attracting thousands of extra visitors to the region. Spectacular cliff top fireworks, vibrant lighting of the surrounding rock outcrops, trees and thermal springs, plus music and entertainers all play their part. But for many, the central feature is the ten illuminated boats adorned with thousands of pea lights which parade each Saturday and Sunday evening.

Matlock electrician David Gregory has been involved with the models since 1971, including several years of rowing other peoples craft at the illuminations. He says: It was something I always wanted to do, and my first creation was a tugboat which I designed and built completely from scratch. Ill never forget the excitement and real feeling of pride as I paraded it for the first time. When I started there were just five boats, but today each of our 10 members has a craft on the river. And the designs have become more and more complex.

One of the main problems these days is coming up with fresh, original ideas. And we have to agree between ourselves who is building what as it would be ridiculous if we turned up on the opening night with ten Postman Pats. But when we have decided what we are building, then we keep our creations private until the opening evening. It is after all a competition; although we do help each other if there is a problem. One year it was all hands on deck as we painted a hovercraft literally 30 minutes before it was due to hit the water. We still laugh about the number of flies stuck to the fresh paint.

From early June, my car is relegated to the drive as the garage becomes my boatyard. Theres a permanent white paint mark on the floor which is the exact size and shape of the 12ft long boat which will house my creation. I suppose its become my hobby now. After dinner, my wife will switch on the TV and thats a signal for me to retire to the garage. Some members start building as early as May.

Im often asked if I have a favourite, but I just enjoy the challenge of the build. If pushed, its probably my 2009 "Stig" Top Gear racing creation which received much praise. Ive been awarded top prize 11 times, but it must be difficult for the members of the public who are traditionally chosen to judge.

Over the years, the parade of boats has included designs such as fairytale castles, racing cars, carousels, double decker buses, swans, mermaids, wedding cakes, spitfires, Concorde, Mr Blobby, gondolas, Santas grotto, tractors and space shuttles. Each year the boats are judged with the winner being presented with the prestigious Arkwright Cup, which was donated by Sir Richard in 1903. Historically, the parade features one candlelit boat.

This years first prize was won by Ashbournes Michael Hall with his stunning Bobs Back in Town creation. Second prize went to Matlocks Paul Henshall for his Toads Travels and third to Matlocks David Gregory for his Spiderman and Crime Cruiser. Other creations included Robert Eastons Postman Pats Special delivery Service, David Topliss The Tansley Belle and Ian Pages Back to the Future Delorean. The prizes were presented by Derbyshire Dales Chairman Councillor Mrs Judith Twigg.

MBVBBA member David Harrison, from Ashbourne, says: Ive been involved for 16 years and still get a real buzz from the whole event. My first craft was Mr Blobby and to be honest I didnt really know what I was doing then. But luckily everything worked OK and I was voted second at the opening night judging. Ive since realised that there are quite a few technical aspects to the build. Although the electrics are basic, they have obviously got to be watertight and ensuring that your model balances properly on the boat is crucial too.

Actually building the model is a bit like Blue Peter; in the sense that anything goes. I sometimes buy cereal packets just because I like the shape of the box and think it might be useful for next years design. I also look on ebay for any bargains which I could incorporate into a model. Plant pots are particularly useful for chimneys. Inspiration can strike at anytime; with several carrier bags full of goodies being purchased from local charity shops most bits and pieces are still on my workshop shelves. Sometimes you work from a photograph or drawing and sometimes the design is in your head.

Theres always an amazing atmosphere at the illuminations, and knowing that people have travelled from all over the UK to see our boats is brilliant. The moment you start to row, you can feel the excitement from the crowd and even hear their comments. People take photographs and video the boats some even put the images on the internet for the rest of the world to see.

Its not always plain sailing, however, as a full scale salvage operation was required in 1981 when two of the moored boats capsized and were swept away by the unusually fast flowing current. Matlock Sub-Aqua Club members saved the day by rescuing both craft. Another incident, involving the sinking of a boat aptly named Titanic, made the national headlines when she went to a watery grave.

The Matlock Bath Illuminations were first held in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victorias Diamond Jubilee. The village was illuminated with a thousand crystal fairy lamps and Chinese lanterns. Sixty homemade rockets were discharged from Masson Hill, 260 individual fires were lit and a torch light procession paraded through the streets. The rock outcrops were illuminated by fires and 14 illuminated boats made their way down the river.

Today, as crowds line the river banks to marvel at the magnificent illuminated boats parading the length of Matlock Baths picturesque Derwent Gardens, few will realise that the event is down to one of Britains most popular monarchs whose childhood visit to Matlock Bath left such an impression. The memories of a young Princess Victoria whose vivid imagination saw the flickering candlelight dancing to the contours of the Derbyshire Derwent

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