Scenically Matlock, or ‘The Matlocks’ as they should more correctly be called, is the most attractive town in Derbyshire. Much of it lies in a deep gorge with dramatic scenery in all directions, along which rushes the busy A6 with the River Derwent never far away. The railway is left to tunnel through the sheer limestone cliffs.
Originally a string of small settlements, it was not until the discovery of medicinal springs in Matlock Bath at the end of the 17th century that much attention was paid to the area. Matlock Bath gradually became fashionable with the wealthy in the 18th century, but its development was limited by its somewhat inaccessible location.
The arrival of the railway in 1849 with cheap fares changed its character, putting it within easy affordable reach for day-trippers who flocked there from Nottingham and Derby. The large crowds attracted touts, who hung about the streets trying to persuade customers to see the sights and it was not long before the wealthy moved on in search of a more peaceful setting. Many of them only went the short distance to Matlock Bank, where John Smedley was just setting up his hydropathy.
John Smedley has been described as the man who made Matlock. He left school at the age of 14 and took a keen interest in his father’s cotton mill at Lea, which was in serious financial trouble at the time. For 15 years he worked day and night until financial worries were a thing of the past. Having established himself, he married Caroline Harward, only to be struck down with a fever while on honeymoon in Switzerland. He recovered from the fever, but it left him feeling severely depressed and listless; all the usual medicinal treatments were tried but to no avail.
At last in desperation he turned to Dr McLeod, of whom he had heard good reports and went to his hydropathic clinic at Ben Rhydding, near Ilkley in Yorkshire. He came back home revitalised and determined to share his good fortune with others. All his employees were forced to undergo the water treatment, whether they were ill or not! Nor did he stop there, but started to offer the treatment to outsiders at his own house. When in 1851 Ralph Davis opened a small hydropathy on Matlock Bank, Smedley acted as his medical adviser.
In 1853 he bought the business from Davis and immediately started to expand. He built the Hydro, commonly known as Smedley’s Hydro, to his own design, which soon catered for more than 2000 patrons per year. Victorian times were full of rich people prepared to pay two guineas a week to live austerely in gracious surroundings.
The treatment prescribed consisted of regular applications of water, by wet sheets, sponges, bath or douches. Diet was carefully controlled and alcohol and tobacco were forbidden. Exercise was carefully monitored to ensure over fatigue was not caused on long walks and other strenuous exercises. Guests began their day at six in the morning and ended it at ten at night. Fines were imposed if rules were broken. Far from being put off by this kind of treatment guests loved it and kept coming back for more.
Smedley died in 1874, but the business continued to prosper, as did a number of other similar establishments on Matlock Bank. A guidebook published in 1898 lists more than thirty hydropathic establishments in Matlock.
As the number of visitors increased so did the demand for shops and services and Matlock Bridge became quite a lively shopping centre. Hydropathy continued to flourish and the town to grow until the First World War, but after that the number of hydropathic establishments began to dwindle. The empty buildings being converted into hotels, guesthouses, schools and training establishments. Only Smedley’s and Lilybank re-opened after the Second World War and struggled on for a while before both of them closed. Smedley’s Hydro is now the home of Derbyshire County Council.
The development of Matlock owed much to the fact that it was on the main railway line between London and Manchester. This came to an end in 1967, when the line north of the town was closed - although there are now plans afoot to re-open it. Now Peak Rail provide scenic rail trips, mainly steam-hauled, to a new station at Rowsley South, a round trip of eight miles. At Matlock station, the stationmaster’s house is attributed to Sir Joseph Paxton who landscaped the gardens at Chatsworth and was the creator of Crystal Palace.
Matlock though is famous for another line - a cable tramway line claimed to have the steepest gradient in the world for a public road at one in five and a half. It opened in 1893 and ran for nearly a mile from Crown Square up Bank Street to the top of Rutland Street. Job Smith, who was the owner of Malvern House Hydro on Smedley Street, was instrumental in bringing the tramway to Matlock. He had seen the steep tramway in San Francisco in operation and thought something similar would be ideal for Matlock, conveying visitors back and forth from the town centre.
Finance was raised principally through Sir George Newnes who, when the company ran into financial difficulties, bought it and gave it to the town. It continued to carry passengers uphill for two pence, and down for one penny until mounting costs caused it to close in 1927. The tram shelter from Crown Square has been re-located into Hall Leys Park, and the tram house still stands at the top of Rutland Street. Many must be the time in recent years, when toiling up Bank Street, people have wished the tramway still operated.
Sir George Newnes, born in 1851, in Matlock Bath where his father was vicar, went into publishing as a representative in his early twenties. One day when he was reading aloud bits from the newspaper he hit on the idea of publishing a paper that contained nothing other than ‘tit bits’ as he called them.
He raised the money to get started by buying and selling a restaurant. When ‘Titbits’ was published it was a great success; the inclusion of competitions for prizes a masterstroke. Among the many popular magazines he started were The Strand, Wide World Magazine, Review of Reviews and Country Life. He was a great philanthropist and apart from giving the cable railway to the people of Matlock, he made many other bequests including one to the cliff railway at Lynton in Devon.
Matlock Bridge, is the area where most of the shops are situated. The bridge itself started life as a packhorse crossing to replace the ford. Dale Road was once considered one of the most elegant shopping streets in the East Midlands. To the rear are pleasant riverside walks and Hall Leys Park where excellent recreational facilities for young and old are available.
At the head of the park is the ornate tram shelter that once stood in Crown Square; there is also a refreshment room and bandstand. From here are excellent views of the ruins of Riber Castle, built and lived in by John Smedley until his death. It was bought in 1962, by a group of zoologists who created a sixty-acre fauna reserve and rare breeds centre. Unfortunately, it closed in 2000.
The original settlement of Old Matlock sits on the hillside to the east of the Derwent. There has been a church here since the twelfth century, and a tablet in St Giles Church recalls a remarkable union between Adam and Grace Woolley, whose marriage lasted for nearly 76 years – surely a record for those days. At Matlock Green on the A515, a fortnightly cattle market used to be held dating back to 1880. A public house existed on the site from the 17th century, and May Fairs used to be held there.
Matlock Bath attracts most visitors; a busy little place well stocked with gift shops, cafés and amusements. But its spectacular views are what are most admired, as anyone who has gazed at the view from a good vantage point on either side of the narrow gorge can confirm. It is a popular haunt for serious rock-climbers who test their ability against the sheer rock face of High Tor. A much easier way to climb is to take the cable car up to the Heights of Abraham, named after General Wolfe’s famous assault on Quebec.
The fascinating Peak District Mining Museum is housed in The Pavilion and up on the hillside is the popular Guilliver’s Kingdom, where children and their parents can spend many a happy hour in delightful wooded surroundings. At the Swiss chalet-style station can be found the Whistletop Centre of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. The old Matlock Bath hydro now plays host to an Aquarium.
There are caves to explore and lovely riverside walks to enjoy, but the highlight of the year is the Venetian Nights illuminations, when decorated boats amid a myriad of bright lights ply their way slowly up and down the river.
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PLACES OF SPECIAL INTEREST IN THE LOCALITY
The Heights of Abraham: (Tel. 01629 582365) take a spectacular journey by cable car to explore two show caverns, follow woodland trails and enjoy the magnificent view from the Treetops café and restaurant. Children’s play area. For further information website: www.heights-of-abraham.co.uk
Gulliver’s Kingdom: (Tel. 01925 444888) popular theme park for younger children in a glorious setting. Telephone for further information.
Peak Rail: (Tel. 01629 580381) preserved railway operating steam trips from Matlock Riverside Station to Rowsley South throughout the year. Please ring for details.
Barley Mow, Bonsall (Tel. 01629 825685) this friendly little pub is well worth going out of the way to visit. It is full of interest and provides excellent food at reasonable cost.
Open all day at weekends but only in the evenings during the week. Meals available in the evenings during the week and at lunch time and in the evenings at weekends.
Regent House Tea Rooms (Tel.01629 583660) stock a selection of speciality teas and coffees and provide a good range of hot and cold meals in pleasant surroundings. Open seven days a week.
THE DISCOVER DERBYSHIRE AND THE PEAK DISTRICT GUIDE
Provides a wide range of features with heritage trails and detailed countryside walks, through some of the most scenically attractive countryside in the UK.
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A glorious walk with magnificent views and a possible visit to the Heights of Abraham.
The path goes past the side entrance of the Heights of Abraham, where refreshments may be obtained. If you have time it is well worth paying the entrance fee to enjoy to the full the attractions of this unique site, including a cable car ride.
Climbing up from Matlock the walk soon reaches the unusually designed St John’s Chapel, commissioned as a private chapel by a local landowner after a row with the Rector of Matlock.
After a further climb through woodland and open fields the Victoria Prospect Tower is seen on the left. The hillside hereabouts is riddled with mine shafts, a reminder of the days when lead mining prospered in this area.
After passing through an attractive area of woodland above Matlock Bath the route descends to the ancient lead mining village of Bonsall.
The return journey follows the Limestone Way and after a steady climb provides wonderful views over Matlock as it gradually descends to the start of the walk.
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