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Matlock Bath: the seaside resort miles from the sea

Matlock Bath on the steep banks of the Derwent River Matlock Bath on the steep banks of the Derwent River
06 Nov
For this month’s Discovering Britain trail Rory Walsh dips into a unique Peak District village

A balmy afternoon in late summer. A row of motorcycles lines a sweeping promenade, their chrome and mirrors glinting in the sun. Bleeps and bells ring from a nearby amusement arcade. Bikers in boots and families in flip flops browse postcards and souvenirs. Some hold ice cream cones, others trays of fish and chips. This vibrant weekend scene is typical of many British seaside resorts. Yet instead of golden sand and rolling waves we’re by a busy road, the A6. Across the tarmac, the River Derwent lies hidden below a steep bank of trees. 

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Matlock Bath nestles at the bottom of the Derwent Valley in the Derbyshire Peak District. The village has become a unique anomaly within Britain’s oldest National Park. It’s the seaside resort a hundred miles from the sea. There is even an annual festival that rivals anything at Blackpool. October sees crowds gather to enjoy the Matlock Bath Illuminations. A parade of floats on the river bathe the water in colourful lights. Sadly, current circumstances cancelled the 2020 event. 

My last visit to Matlock Bath was while staying with family in Nottingham, a return journey of 50 miles. Another day-tripper, albeit more local, is Professor Joe Smith, Director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Smith grew up nearby and visited from an early age. ‘I remember going as a child on the bus. Everything you would find at the seaside was there; fish and chips, rock, candyfloss.’ Smith’s family tree has roots in the Derwent Valley spanning at least two centuries. ‘As they say of sheep I feel “heft” to this part of Derbyshire.’

The trail starts at the Grand Pavilion. Its domed roof and baby pink walls suggest Italian and Moghul palaces. The building opened in 1910 as a theatre and entertainment venue. Its vast size suggests how many people enjoyed these facilities. The Pavilion provides other clues to the village’s development. Downstairs is home to the Peak District Mining Museum. ‘The Derwent Valley developed through the management of water,’ says Smith. ‘First came mining, then hydro power and then leisure.’

Peak District lead mining has been traced to the 12th century. Five centuries later, lead was Britain’s most valuable commodity after wool. Lead was used to make roofing, glazing, pipes and ammunition. Water was central to smelting and ‘dressing’ (cleaning) lead ore. To extract the ore, tunnels called ‘soughs’ drained excess water into the River Derwent. Among the beneficiaries were Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford and Masson Mills. Both are just downriver of Matlock Bath and now part of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site. Countless mills harnessed the fast-flowing Derwent’s power, in Arkwright’s case to spin cotton. 

Matlock BathSouth Parade in Matlock Bath

Smith’s family were involved with the industry. His paternal forefathers were clockmakers. By the 1850s they were making clocks and gears for buildings throughout the Derwent Valley, including water mills. ‘At the point of industrialisation, you needed gears,’ Smith explains. ‘Gears unite machines, materials and people.’ And clocks don’t just tell the time; they make and keep time. ‘Clock towers we often think of as public and decorative were industrial tools to discipline a workforce.’ 

Besides industrial fuel, the river provided another quality that benefited the village. Derwent Gardens is a pleasant park scattered with grottos and fountains. At the far end are some shimmering springs. Steam rises from the water, which feels cosily warm to the touch. The village is named after thermal springs discovered in the 1600s. This warming ‘bath’ soon gained a reputation for medicinal qualities. 

The thermal springs were said to cure a variety of ailments and when the Old Bath Hotel opened in 1698 (on the site of what is now the Grand Pavilion’s car park), Matlock Bath became a renowned spa resort. ‘My maternal great grandfather was mad for curative waters,’ Smith says. ‘He was a self-taught chemist and built up a successful paintworks company. Using his paint-gotten gains he invested in a hydro, a spa hotel, in Matlock. My dad remembers swimming there as a boy before the war.’ 

Besides ‘taking the waters’ many visitors took to the scenery. From Derwent Gardens the trail climbs the steep tree-lined valley. Peering down from the summit, the pastel coloured houses and shops line the bottom like sweets in a bag. Ahead is the vast limestone crag of High Tor. At 300 feet, it’s one of England’s tallest inland cliffs. High Tor creates a dramatic, almost alpine setting. Matlock Bath’s Victorian nickname was ‘Little Switzerland’. Today there is even a cable car, which takes visitors to the Heights of Abraham country park. 

Matlock Bath’s sightseers included Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the then Princess Victoria. Another was Mary Shelley. Her 1818 novel Frankenstein includes a comment on the landscape: ‘The country in the neighbourhood of this village resembles Switzerland; but everything is on a lower scale.’ 

Shelley’s reference reflected upon wider events. Frankenstein was published three years after the Napoleonic Wars ended. Following the French Revolution, military conflict raged in Europe for almost 25 years. Visiting the Continent became very dangerous so, instead of taking ‘the Grand Tour’, wealthy British travellers explored their homeland. The Peak District, Lake District and elsewhere became fashionable retreats. The summer of 2020, with its European quarantines and British staycations, offers an intriguing parallel. Constant danger, reduced travel, increased restrictions, a similar rise in local tourism. 

Mass tourism came to Matlock Bath when the railway station opened in 1840. From the view of High Tor, the trail winds downhill past the station car park. Victorian tourists packed into 19 trains per day. Matlock Bath still has one of Derbyshire’s longest station platforms. The small village soon struggled to meet this increased footfall. To relieve congestion riverside paths were expanded, including the romantically named Lovers’ Walks. The Lovers’ Walks were first laid out in the 1740s and are among Britain’s oldest public pleasure gardens. Remarkably, the trees lining the paths are much older and protected as Ancient Woodland. 

The trail concludes with another ‘Source of Curiosity and Amazement’. Matlock Bath Aquarium is home to the village’s only surviving petrifying well. Victorian visitors flooded to see how it mysteriously turned objects into stone. Petrified cups, jugs and even hats were sold as curios. Such wells were often ascribed as works of magic or witchcraft. The actual source is the local Derwent limestone, which makes Matlock Bath’s thermal springs very rich in calcium. When the water evaporates, deposits of calcium carbonate and lime salts coat items left nearby. 

Matlock Bath may seem like a seaside resort without the sea but the petrifying well is a reminder that in fact water is everywhere. In the form of the Derwent, it literally runs through the village. Water created the thermal springs and powered the Victorian industries, and still fuels today’s tourists. From lattes to lollies, there is always a refreshing drop nearby.

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