A Guide to Matlock
The modern town of Matlock is located at the eastern fringe of the Derbyshire Peak District and at the southern end of the Peak National Park – a place where limestone meets gritstone and where the lush and scenic valley is divided by the River Derwent into a place of many parts!
There are in fact five parts to Matlock – Matlock Town, Matlock Green, Matlock Bank, Matlock Bridge and Matlock Bath.
At the time of the Norman Conquest there were just two settlements here, recorded in the Domesday Book of 1085 as Meslach (Matlock) & Mestesforde, (Matlock Bridge).
Of the other parts, Matlock Bank is mainly a product of expansion and growth during and since the Hydropathic establishments of the mid 19th to mid 20th century; Matlock Bath became a noted water-cure resort two centuries earlier, but really blossomed and expanded into a major tourist attraction with the coming of the railways in 1849.
Matlock Green was once the village green belonging to the hamlet which clustered around the mainly 13th century church of St.Giles, a quarter of a mile up the road towards Starkholmes Village.
Matlock Town is the name now given to the area which runs from Matlock Bridge, through Crown Square and along Causeway Lane to Matlock Green.
Indeed, the coming of the railways transformed Matlock from a small hamlet whose main occupations were farming, quarrying and lead-mining, into a thriving tourist centre, bringing thousands seeking the water cure throughout the Victorian era and the early years of the 20th century.
Matlock Bank is the name given to the steep hillside to the east of the River Derwent, where Bank Road rises steeply from Crown Square in the centre of town and climbs up to Smedley Street, and beyond. This was once the site of the steepest tramway in the world where the famous `Tuppence up, Penny Down’ tram ran from Crown Square to the terminus at the top of Rutland Street from 1893 until 1927. The tramway was financed by locally-born newspaper magnate Sir George Newnes, and the original tram shelter which once stood in Crown Square is now a preserved centrepiece standing at the head of Hall Leys Park.
Hall Leys Park is a showpiece beside the Derwent, with boating lake, tennis courts, bowling greens, skate-board park, cafe, bandstand and ride-on miniature railway – and some fabulous floral displays!
Smedley Street on Matlock Bank is named after John Smedley, owner of the large textile factory at Lea Bridge and founder of Smedley’s Hydro, the largest of the 19th century hydropathic establishments which dominates the hillside.
Smedley founded his original Hydro in 1853, but the present building, which is nowadays the administrative H. Q. of Derbyshire County Council was not completed until 1886. Smedley’s Hydro was world famous, with celebrities, statesmen, and even royalty as guests, including amongst others, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Beecham, Ivor Novello, Jimmy Wilde and Gilbert Jessup. The hydropathic boom era lasted a century, but declined following the foundation of the National Health service and all the hydro’s were closed by the end of the 1950’s.
Smedley was also responsible for the design and construction in 1868 of his home residence, Riber Castle, now a gaunt skeletal ruin with its four square bat-haunted turrets and battlements standing silent and sentinel, 800 feet above the town and high on the crown of Riber Hill, a familiar landmark for miles around.
The original settlement of Meslach or Matlock was built around the area of the parish church high on a rocky promontory on the east bank of the Derwent, about half a mile downstream from Mestesforde or Matlock Bridge.
Matlock Bridge, originally a ford over the Derwent, was built in the 15th century and widened in the 19th. It was a major crossing point and meeting place where three turnpike roads culminated, and was developed as a settlement thoughout the 18th & 19th centuries.
Surely the jewel in the crown of the Matlocks, Matlock Bath is thought to have been discovered by the Romans who reputedly mined lead and used the warm thermal springs, but it was not until the late 17th century that the warm springs became generally known and used for medicinal purposes, and Matlock Bath became popular as a Spa Town.
The modern Matlock Bath straddles the A6 which runs alongside the River Derwent through what used to be known as the Derwent Gorge, a scenic and spectacular two mile-long stretch of the verdant and sylvan Lower Derwent Valley.
Through The Derwent Gorge
From Matlock Bridge, Dale Road runs southwards towards Cromford, passing through one of Englands most picturesque places with High Tor, the highest inland sheer cliff face in Britain rising over four hundred feet above the river, and the massive wooded hillside of Masson towering above the opposite bank of the river. Castellated mansions and Swiss-style chalets deck the wooded hillside, whilst down below along the promenade, a holiday parade of hotels, pubs, cafes, restaurants, eating houses, fish & chip shops, gift shops, arcades and pleasure palaces line the roadside.
The Old Bath Hotel was built in 1698 and during the 18th century the village became very fashionable for the gentry who came for the `water-cure’.
But as the guide book tells, `There can be few rural places in Britain which have so much to offer in such a small area’, and since the railway arrived in 1847and then the main A6 was driven through early in the 20th century, Matlock Bath has blossomed into a favourite inland holiday resort for the masses. The fact that it is within easy distance of cities like Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield, and major towns like Chesterfield, Mansfield and Buxton, with easy access from the M1, has made it even more accessible to the modern day tourist. The many attractions have been upgraded and added to in recent years, with the famous Lovers Walks and High Tor Pleasure Grounds part of a £3m restoration project, and the spectacular Cable Cars which take visitors soaring high above the valley to the Heights of Abraham and Gullivers Kingdom pleasure grounds proving extremely popular since being built in the early eighties. The Grand Pavilion is now the home of the Peak District Mining Museum, and just around the corner is the Fishpond Hotel, one of Derbyshire’s premier live-music venues.
The famous Boxing Day Raft Race takes place annually, starting at Matlock Bridge, and each Autumn the fabulous Matlock Bath Illuminations and Venetian Nights are held. In recent years crowds upwards of thirty thousand have attended the Grand Finale of the Venetian Nights Festival to see the spectacular firework display and the parade of ulluminated boats on the river Derwent. In the summer months you can hire a rowing boat and take to the beautiful River Derwent, which must remain Matlock Bath’s major natural attraction.
Matlock makes an ideal centre or base for visiting neighbouring attractions, such as the nearby Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, including Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, Canal and Wharf, and the massive red brick Masson Mill on the A6 between Matlock Bath and Cromford.
Crich Stand and The National Tramway Museum are only seven miles away, just two miles from Florence Nightingales former home at Lea Hurst, Holloway. Also within a twelve mile radius are the stately homes of Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, both open to the public and well worth a visit.
Of the five parts of Matlock, Matlock Bath especially has just about everything for the visitor, and it’s little wonder that amongst its famous visitors down the years have been Princess, and later Queen Victoria; D H Lawrence enjoyed a year-long sojourn nearby at Mountain Cottage, Middleton, and was a regular weekend visitor to Matlock Bath during his college days; John Ruskin waxed eloquently about the natural pleasures of the Derwent Gorge, and Byron frequently stayed at the Temple Hotel in Matlock Bath, referring to it as `Little Switzerland’.
Indeed, the riverside walks, attractions including show caves, museums, a large aquarium, waxworks, model railway, cable-cars, pleasure grounds and lovers walks on a grand continental scale – and a full range of excellent shopping emporiums – all go together to make Matlock Bath a unique, and very special place in the heart of Englands green & pleasant land!